The other day I attended a reception sponsored by Hindu Americans in one of the Congressional office buildings. I went with a colleague who is former evangelical, now a liberal pastor. As I watched a mesmerizing dance by one of the presenters, I thought to myself that I was somewhere that my grandparents never could have imagined: in the legislative headquarters of the country with people they considered exotic pagans with a representative of the tradition they identified with persecution. And then I thought, ain’t that America.
I have spent a pretty good portion of my life venturing into unknown territory. No one will ever confuse me with Lewis and Clark or Buzz Aldrin, but for a Jewish kid from Wilmette, Illinois I have landed in some unlikely places and gotten to know some people who were thoroughly different from me. And now that I spend my working days in the interfaith world, representing (as we like to say) people from 75 or more distinct faith traditions (not to mention those of no particular faith), I am often among people as foreign to me as I am to them.
Some people go into interfaith settings in the hopes of persuading their companions in dialogue to abandon their misguided ways and embrace the true religion. Others enter with the optimistic idea of finding common ground great enough to build consensus. And some believe that these encounters help to sharpen our understanding of each other by bringing differences into focus.
But anytime anyone goes into an interfaith setting, it is unsettling. Language and other symbols become fraught with multiple meanings and the resonance cannot always be anticipated. In the simplest cases, ideas of prayer and scripture and sin and election may be addressed with a similar vocabulary, but with very different understandings. For a Christian, offering words in the name of Jesus is both holy and inclusive. A Jew doesn't hear them that way. In fact, the endeavor of improvised prayer makes Jews who are uninitiated to the practice uncomfortable and so many others feel like poseurs.
But consider what I heard from my Hindu friend: the sacred meaning of the swastika resonates deeply for him. It is a symbol native to Hinduism in India and without any resonance of Jew-hatred. He asked, how can he reclaim what was stolen from his tradition (look it up) by the Nazis without offending Jews?
There is no answer to that question that satisfies anyone, especially (as a very wise rabbi responded) while there are still survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors still alive.
When Moses sent scouts into the Land it was for the purpose of reconnaissance. The Israelites were expecting to march into the land and take it forcibly from the people who were settled there. In that sense, they were like the first example of interfaith participants, with the added intention of killing those who resisted. Twelve scouts entered the land, and ten came back terrified of what they saw, all evidence to the contrary (Numbers 13-14). In spite of returning quite peaceably with luscious products of the land, they dramatically described a nightmare landscape populated by scary giants, antagonistic and intolerant. In other words, exotic pagans ready to persecute them.
That was the majority view. But it was the wrong answer. The ten scouts whose presumptions began with their own inadequacies and a willingness to ignore evidence to the contrary would have led their people – my ancestors – into a self-imposed exile. Because they would have cultivated a fear in everyone's hearts, the genuine blessings of the land and at least some of its inhabitants would never have been realized for the people whose purpose was to live and thrive there.
Only two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, had a different message, and this was it: just don't be afraid.
It is fear, after all, that disables us in confronting the unknown. Our belief systems, religious and otherwise, produce elaborate messaging, overt and subtle, on the dangers of difference. Why it is that Jews presume that the mention of faith in Jesus or the cultural expression of Hinduism or the egalitarianism of American culture represents a threat to our identity? To be sure, people who hate us should be seen as adversaries, not merely as gentle misguided ignoramuses. And, to be sure, the potential of violence changes the equation. But if we are secure in our beliefs and respectful of others, then we have no more to fear from the honest representations of people different from us than they do from the integrity with which we live as Jews.
The conversation about the swastika and its original and imposed meanings is a sojourn into frightening territory, unexplored for most Jews regarding Hindus and for most Hindus regarding Jews. Wouldn't it be easier – and deeply fruitful – if we all took a deep breath and committed to understanding each other instead of seeking surrender?
The ultimate goal of the Biblical scouts was much different than my forays into interfaith space. I have no territorial motive and they never heard of pluralism. Sometimes, though, I feel like Joshua and Caleb in my conversations with fellow Jews who are suspicious of the scary giants, antagonistic and intolerant. I have one reply: just don't be afraid.