An Orthodox rabbi, I found myself in Provo, Utah, a few weeks ago, at Brigham Young University’s Religious Freedom Annual Review.
Before dinner, I engaged in conversation with a Muslim public intellectual and two evangelical activists, when along came a leader in the Mormon community to join the discussion. I could not help remarking, “I feel like we should be walking into a bar.”
Surrounded by media, legal, religious, and academic leaders from a wide variety of faith backgrounds, I was deeply moved by the warm enthusiasm I encountered for Jewish perspectives and insight. Although this was by no means the very first gathering of its kind to which Jews have been invited, I was struck by the important change in Jewish and American history that it signaled.
Jews have long had good reason to be wary of encounters with other religious groups. Historically, whether under Christianity or Islam, they have lived as second-class citizens. Persecution often took the form of explicit violence, sometimes accompanied by aggressive attempts at proselytism. In an even broader sense, however, societies have long regarded the Jews as the great other. According to historian of religion Cynthia M. Baker, “for most of two long millennia, the word Jew has been predominantly defined and delimited as a term for not-self.”
Even when other faith groups sought out Jews under more benign circumstances, such interactions frequently have been framed in theological terms, as interfaith dialogue over doctrinal matters. Traditional Jewish thinkers have rejected such endeavors on principle. In a seminal 1964 essay on the topic, leading American Jewish thinker Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote, “the confrontation [between faith communities] should occur not at a theological, but at a mundane human level.”
But in recent years, a historic change seems to be underway. Major religious leaders have begun to view Jews not as sources of anxiety or consternation, but as sources of wisdom and partnership. My visit to BYU was but my latest experience of this shift. Several months earlier, the archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, asked to visit Yeshiva University, the Jewish institution for higher education where I serve as special advisor to the president. Accompanied by a delegation of French bishops and other Catholic leaders, the archbishop came to learn from our rabbis and faculty members, and consider our mutually faced challenge of transmitting faith in an age of radical individualism. In advance of their arrival, the French clergymen asked me if I would prepare a primer introducing them to Judaism’s core values and commitments. It was impossible not to be struck by the contrast with the medieval era. Where medieval Jews were compelled to regard the bishops of Paris with fear, now we could regard them with friendship.
Jews are being welcomed as never before as active participants in the national and global moral discourse. In counterpoint to the challenge of anti-Semitism, which is rearing its ugly head once again, the genuine interest in Judaism’s distinctive ethical voice represents a new opportunity. The American Jewish community in particular should embrace it.
In a practical sense, American Jews will benefit from new friendships among communities of faith. America’s friendship and strategic partnership with Israel is critical priority for American Jews. While Americans in general are pro-Israel, highly religious people are among the most sympathetic to it. Increasingly active and reciprocal friendships with other faith groups will only strengthen this support.
Or consider the realm of religious liberty. American Jews, especially from traditionally observant communities, have long suffered prejudice against the demands of their religious obligations. Whether for wearing peculiar modest garb, or for attempting to garner unobtrusive public accommodations for religious practice, Jews have faced outright cultural and legal discrimination. Other religiously conservative groups, from Muslims to Catholics to the Mormon community, regularly encounter similar outrageous challenges. American faith groups should see themselves as natural allies in a broad coalition defending our country’s historic commitment to religious freedom.
But in an even grander sense, American Jews have important contributions to make to the wider conversation over the role of faith in the national discourse. The American experiment, from its inception down to the present day, has drawn thoroughly upon the stories, institutions, and values of the Jewish Bible. In a just-published volume on the Hebrew Bible in the United States, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land,” leading scholars make the case that “Throughout history, Americans saw their own lives through Hebraic stories and took moral meaning from their reenactment of biblical episodes.” According to Harvard University’s Eric Nelson, the very ideals of republican thought that undergird American democracy developed out of an engagement not only with biblical thought, but with the writings of post-biblical rabbis in the Talmud and beyond. Contemporary Jewish thinkers actively engaged in the public square will be able to shed further light on the classical values that have defined this country. And in so doing, they can demonstrate one of the many ways in which faith groups of all sorts continue to exert a positive impact upon American history and society.
Even as Americans struggle increasingly to find common ground in a polarized society, history has presented American Jewry, alongside religious groups across the country, with an historic opportunity to ally in unprecedented ways. Now is the time to seize the opportunity.
Rabbi Ari Lamm of Teaneck is the special advisor to the president of Yeshiva University.