by Joshua M. Z. Stanton
Evangelical pastor convinces student to become rabbi. It sounds like the start of a bad joke. But while I was an undergraduate, Paul Sorrentino, who is director of religious life at Amherst College and a beloved mentor, convinced me to look for more in life than a career on Wall Street. He gave me faith in my own tradition and set me on course to become a rabbi.
Religious leaders are in a unique position to reach out to individuals of other backgrounds, foster dialogue, and promote broad inter-religious efforts. Yet there has been a systematic underinvestment in future religious leaders as potential purveyors of tolerance. Apart from some notable exceptions … seminaries lack the resources and faculty to lead regular inter-religious educational programs for their students.
The result is a cohort of clergy entering pulpits without a clear understanding of how to interact with peers from other faiths. What will a rabbi trained solely in discerning Talmud and Torah do when she finds herself working in a congregation located down the street from a mosque? If uniquely talented, she may effectively engage with the imam and promote joint programs between their congregations. But good will between congregations of different traditions should not be made contingent upon the exceptional abilities of members of their clergy. Inter-religious education is of fundamental importance to religious leaders in countries as religiously diverse as the United States.
Lack of inter-religious education within seminaries significantly reduces academic cross-pollination. As the Jewish people experienced during two millennia without a homeland, our belief system was enriched where religious interchange was possible.
One of the most significant examples of cross-pollination took place in al-Andalus, the portion of modern Spain and Portugal under Muslim domain from 711 C.E. until the Inquisition. During extended periods of calm, Jews and Muslims lived, worked, and studied together. Jewish scholars began using Arabic philological and exegetical techniques to create sophisticated new commentaries on the Torah and Talmud, and incorporated elements of Greek philosophy (available in Arabic translations) into their works. The result was a veritable “Golden Age” for Judaism. And Muslim scholarship similarly benefited from the activity of Jewish intellectuals. One of Judaism’s greatest scholars from the era, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), wrote such significant philosophical and medical works in Arabic that contemporary Saudi Arabian professor Huseyin Atay once quipped that “if you didn’t know he was Jewish, you might easily make the mistake of saying that a Muslim was writing.”
Given the current intellectual milieu in North America, Europe, and beyond, we may well be able to surpass the inter-religious gains made in al-Andalus. Scholars already study and work together in a number of fields. Yet the greatest progress can be made within the institutions that incubate future religious leaders: seminaries. American religious leaders of different faiths will interact with each other more than ever before in the coming years. It is incumbent upon seminaries to equip their students to harness these interactions for the benefit of their congregations.
(For more on al-Andalus as a case study for tolerance, see J. Stanton, “A Case Study in Inter-Religious Tolerance.” (http://irdialogue.org/articles/ best-practices-non-profit-articles/al-andalus-a-case-study-in-inter-religious-tolerance-by-joshua-stanton/; Joseph Telushkin, “Maimonides/Rambam,” Jewish Literacy. N.Y.: Morrow, 1991, www.jewish virtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Maimonides.html.)
Joshua M. Z. Stanton is a founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, www.irdialogue.org, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. He holds a place with the Fellows Alliance of the Interfaith Youth Core.