We live as a tiny group within the context of a very large and highly complex human society. There is much to be said for open and honest conversation with people of other faiths. With our mandate to be a Light to the Nations, we need to share our unique insights and hard-won truths about the inner and the transcendent reality of this world.
Likewise, in our millennia of exile, forcibly separated from the nourishment of our land, separated from one another, forced to exist where our paths and traditions were not only forgotten, but banned and suppressed, is it any surprise that much of our knowledge was lost? There is at least anecdotal evidence that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l, who almost single-handedly (and with the endorsement of major American poskim (halachic authorities)) rekindled interest and participation in our almost-lost meditation tradition, leaned some techniques from an acquaintance who had spent time seeking in India. Likewise, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, a well-known orthodox rabbi in Detroit, has developed expertise in several Asian martial arts traditions with which he helps empower young cancer sufferers in his Kids Kicking Cancer organization. We have nothing to fear from conversation with other spiritual traditions. Over the years, I, myself, have also participated in many of these conversations with Christians, Moslems, Hindus and Buddhists.
We have nothing to fear, that is, as long as we remain firm and confident in our own spiritual tradition. If we are proud, rather than apologetic, of our lessons and our mission in this world, we can be partners in a dialogue of equals.
The danger is when we feel we have to break from our own roots, from our millennia-old truths and customs. If we feel we have to somehow apologize for merely surviving intact, for our age-old beliefs and traditions, for those who have remained more faithful and uncompromising than we, ourselves, might have become, then we cause more damage than we reap benefit. There are many examples, of course, of Jewish leaders who remain steadfast in their observance while establishing incredibly productive dialogues with other faiths. Just a very few who come immediately to mind include Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and the late Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l who built and continue to build many bridges with their Moslem neighbors and colleagues, Rabbi David Rosen and his dialogue with the Catholic Church which resulted in historic diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican, and Rabbi Alan Brill (browse around this webpage and explore his full site–there are many articles on productive relationships with other faiths) with his recent studies in India.
There’s another phenomenon I’ve noticed in my own meetings with other faith leaders. Perhaps it’s because I’m an orthodox rabbi myself that I’m paired with other “orthodox” clergy, but by far the most productive conversations I’ve had have been with leaders who are also faithful to their own traditions. I hosted a US State Department sponsored delegation of clergy and academics from Pakistan and Afghanistan several years ago,. These men neither watered down their practice nor their presentation of their beliefs and they wouldn’t have even bothered to visit me if they suspected that I had mine.
Of course we can almost infinitely expand the “agreement space” if both of us retreat from commitment to our traditional observance, but then each side only shares increasing secularity rather than sharing faiths.
In other words, while I not only support but actively engage in these dialogues, I fail to see the gain of building bridges with others when we burn bridges with our own.