Deeper than "Interfaith"? -- Our Personal Voyage

By Rabbis Phyllis Ocean Berman & Arthur Ocean Waskow

This July, the two of us will be leading a class / spiritual exploration at the Ruach Ha’Aretz retreat near Philadelphia. (The Hebrew means "Breathing Spirit of the Earth.")

The theme of the whole retreat will be “deep ecumenism” -- exploring the underlying search for truth and compassion in all religious and spiritual traditions. The theme is an aspiration, an intention, more than a definition.

The sponsorship is Jewish; in keeping with the theme, we seek to involve explorers of all traditions and communities.

The seeds of the class we ourselves are planning were sown in us many years ago, in the airport close to Geneva,  Switzerland, sadly considering the latest "Interfaith" gathering we’d just come from. 

We had met people from all over the world, from many different religious traditions, many of them apparently very bright and interesting, but we had made no emotional connections to any of them and didn’t really care if we never saw them again.

It wasn’t that we or the people we met weren’t emotionally available.  It was, rather, that the structure of the gathering (and not just that one but almost all of the interfaith gatherings we had participated in by that time) was set up for “talking heads” --  people sharing intellectual facts about their own religion or philosophy or practice in overstuffed panels with no time facilitated or available for any other contact.

We thought about the Four Worlds’ Kabbalistic wisdom of our beloved friend, chaver, and teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whose memory is already a blessing,  that infused all of his work – the physical world of Assiya, the emotional world of Yetzira, the intellectual/creative world of Briyya, and the spiritual world of Atzilut, all intertwined – and recognized sadly that three of those worlds had been missing at almost every interfaith gathering we had been to, even in beautiful and exotic settings, regardless of whatever group was the sponsor.

That was the day that the concept of the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah was born inside of us.  Once a year for ten years afterwards, we brought together a small interfaith group of men and women (Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Quakers, and others) over Memorial Day weekend following a structure we modeled on the Four Worlds.

First, in coming together, we each shared some version of our personal spiritual journey that had taken us either deeply into our birth tradition or into one that fit us better than our inherited one. By the end of our first day together, we were no longer strangers: we had cried together, laughed together, and recognized both the uniqueness and the universality of each story. 

We saw one another, and we saw ourselves mirrored in one another’s stories, regardless of our age, our chosen path, our race, our gender, our economic circumstances.

At our first gathering, that powerful emotional connection and trust between us enabled us as a group to deal with several complex issues that arose during that weekend: issues of inequality for women in most of the religious traditions present and issues of power dynamics connected to wealth.  We had the kind of tearful exchanges and understanding that generally take years of honest relationship, if ever, to develop.

Second, we didn’t want to imitate what most interfaith services did, with multiple people offering a prayer or practice from their religion while everyone else politely stood by, waiting for the long inclusive list to end, not understanding or finding meaning or participating in each other’s words or actions. 

Instead, we broke the unofficial but "unbreakable cardinal rule” of interfaith gatherings by deciding that we would pray together as participants, not as onlookers, immersing ourselves in what we knew was both authentic to that religion without being disloyal to one’s own.

 That meant that on Fridays we joined with the Muslims who led us in a Juma’a prayer service, enabling the Muslims to honor their special day, and the rest of us to experience what it’s like to pray as a Muslim.  On Saturday mornings everyone joined with the Jews for a Shabbat service in transliterated and translated Hebrew so that non-Jews could experience what it’s like to pray as a Jew on Shabbat.  On Sunday mornings everyone joined together with the Christians so that non-Christians could experience what it’s like to pray as a Christian on the Sabbath.

From these prayer experiences, there arose many questions about one another’s religions that we wanted to have answered.  The intellectual sharing about one’s religion came out of the desire to know on the part of others, and from participating not observing, and from being able to see and feel the similarities between us and not just the differences. 

To do Torah/Gospel/Koran study with one another opened up each other’s holy books to one another; we weren’t standing outside of someone else’s holy house any longer, but found the doors open to all of us to visit.

On retreat, we ate and slept in the same place for several days.  We assigned room-mates of different religions, different races, different ages to cut through the “otherness” and increase familiarity, the sense of family by choice if not by birth.

When later in the weekend, we spoke together of some of the crises in present-day society – ecological, military, economic, so many of the hurtful -isms –- we were easily able to commit ourselves as a group to take on some shared aspect of needed Tikkun Olam -- the healing of our wounded world -- within our own community on behalf of one another.

Some years later, at another weekend retreat of the Tent, Imam Talib, our beloved Muslim friend, got a disturbing phone call: Two of his congregants had been arrested on charges that they had colluded with terrorists.  Talib didn’t know then whether the charges were trumped up or were true. 

At the time we thought that, had we read the story in the NY Times, we might easily have assumed the charges were true without question. Because of our relationship with Talib and his relationship with these men, we found ourselves questioning the veracity of the charges. Not deciding they were untue, but open to question, to explore, to learn. Replacing certainty with not-knowing and being open to question is one of the gifts of intimate interfaith work.

 We realized then, and many times afterwards, that the unfulfilled opportunities of empty interfaith work in the past had been healed through the practical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connections that developed each year at the gathering of the Tent.  We made intimate friends at the Tent, people whom we would have dearly missed had we not seen them again, beloved people who are in our hearts and our lives to this day,

From whatever spiritual path or religious community is your own, we welcome you to come and share the week with us at our class  / spiritual exploration July 6-12 at Ruach Ha-Aretz at West Chester University near Philadelphia, to feel those connections between us as we model the Four Worlds work that each of us can do in our own faith, multifaith, or interfaith communities back home.

What might "back home" mean? Can we work together to  heal the enmities that some adherents of each tradition harbor for the others? Can we work together to heal the earth that is our shared home, to bring more peace and justice as each of our traditions teaches? Can we simply eat, laugh, sing, breathe together?

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