Q&A for Dr. Mitch Carnell’s blog – from Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press) ; www.faithedbook.com

Hmer 2

  1. How can those of us in different faith traditions effectively communicate with one another?

Answer: “We can learn from some of the techniques teachers use when giving lessons about the world’s religions. In Modesto, Calif., for example, all high school freshmen take a required course in world religions, and the beginning lessons include instruction on how to speak respectfully when talking about an unfamiliar faith.  Don’t start out by saying, “Gee, what your religion does sounds strange. Why would you do that?” Instead, say something like, “That tradition sounds interesting. Could you tell me more about it?”

Show interest and curiosity, not derision. Some people are brought up in a religion that teaches that their faith and religious path is the only way. It’s fine to believe that, but when meeting a person of another faith, realize they may feel the same about their faith. It can be very offensive to a Jew when a Christian says what I heard throughout childhood: “You don’t believe in Jesus? You’re going to hell then.”

I belong to a multi-faith book club of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each month, we read a book, typically related to one of the three faiths, and discuss it. We have an appointed discussion leader and some ground rules. We always speak with respect about all faiths. We avoid being judgmental. We can express our opinions about the book, but we don’t criticize the traditions of another faith. Our goal is to learn about each other.  The more we can look at people of different faiths as an opportunity for learning, the better. The biggest problems come when we look at different religions as the “other.” There should be no “other.”

  1. As a Christian, what is the most important thing I should know about Judaism?

Answer:  Let me first preface my answer with a caveat. Yes, I am Jewish, but I am not a scholar of Judaism. I’m expressing my personal opinion, which may be different than that of other Jews. I can’t pinpoint one important thing, but it would be good for all Christians to truly understand that Christianity in fact sprung out of Judaism. Jesus Christ was a Jew. Christians and Jews have similarities in some of their beliefs. The Jewish holy book, the Torah, is the Old Testament. Genesis is Genesis, the same book of the Bible, for both of us. Where our religions differ is on the place of Jesus in our faiths. To Jews, Jesus was a minor prophet. He is not a part of our teachings. So know that we have much in common, and yes, we have big differences, too. When it comes to basic values, we share a lot, including, of course, the Ten Commandments.

Hmer 1

  1. As you know my passion is for civility in the Christian community; however, my greatest desire is for a much broader approach to include other faith groups. What suggestions do you have for me in this regard?  Think local would be my biggest suggestion. Judaism has three major branches, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. It’s impossible to find one figure for Judaism. I’d reach out to other houses of worship in your community and connect with the religious leaders there. Many communities I visited have interfaith councils made up of different clergy. That’s always a great place to start to make connections. These councils sometimes sponsor public events, such as interfaith Thanksgiving services; talks on what happens when we die and what different religions believe; and community break fasts after Yom Kippur or community iftars at the end of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims. Book clubs, too, are a great way to bring people of different faiths together. To me, whether the rabbi is current or retired doesn’t matter. Find the person ready and willing to form an interfaith partnership.
  2. In the larger Christian landscape membership is on the decline in the United States in favor of an increasing category called “Nones.” Is this a problem in Judaism and if so what can we do?

Yes, Jewish leaders are just as worried about losing Jews to the “nones” group as leaders of other faiths.  Jewish organizations have been reaching out to the younger generation in a variety of ways, including with social activities and long-established trips to Israel for young Jews. For those interested in this topic, I recommend a new, fascinating book by Katherine Ozment, Grace Without God.

  1. Is, Faith Ed being used as a discussion in other faith groups?                                                                                                                                                     Faith Ed has grabbed the attention of many different faiths. Since it came out in August 2015, I have given talks at churches of many denominations; Jewish temples of different branches; and interfaith groups. Adult education groups at churches have invited me to speak, and I have led discussions with them about the experiences of religious minorities in our country. We also have talked about some Americans’ fear of their children learning about Islam or any other faith that is not their own. It has been heartening, though, to see how many people of different faiths care about improving their own religious literacy and their children’s understanding of different religions in our country and world.

Many church groups I’ve spoken with see this topic as a social justice issue. They are distraught about the growing Islamophobia in our country. They also are upset about the anti-Semitic incidents I describe in my book and the incidents that have happened since then. Jewish and Muslim groups naturally already had those concerns. I have more talks this fall with interfaith groups, so I see these conversations only continuing to grow. At the front of my book, I include a quote from Mahatma Gandhi from his book, All Religions Are True. Where do I see these conversations going? I hope people believe what Gandhi did so fervently: “I hold that it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them to respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.”