Shared experience is the key
I recently attended a Shabbat service at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. For some reason, I laboured under the impression that this beautiful synagogue was always sparsely attended and that those who did attend were primarily gentile tourists attracted by the reputation of the chazan and choir.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The synagogue was packed with several hundred Jews representing the full spectrum of Orthodoxy, from knitted kippah wearers to Chasidim attired in silk kaftans and fur shtreimels. Those at either edge of the Orthodox spectrum have precious little in common on almost every major social, religious or political issue. Yet, for the duration of several hours (for that is how long it takes the chazan and choir to get through a Shabbat morning service) this disparate and ordinarily divided group became one congregation. It occurred to me that this experience could be converted into a useful model for improved intra-faith relations.
One of the great problems with intra-faith (and for that matter, interfaith) work is the notion that the parties must assume a face-to-face posture. This means that we expect the parties to engage directly with each other across the ideological and religious chasm. Such direct dialogue frequently fails because neither side is adequately prepared to listen to the other. As such, the dialogue either breaks down or retains an unhelpful superficiality. Face-to-face honest dialogue can be transformative for both parties as each side gains genuine insight into the other. It is precisely because of its transformative nature that so many are fearful of it.
But what if we substituted this, at least initially, with a triangular model? What if, instead of encouraging the parties to focus on each other, we enabled them to look simultaneously upon a third point?
This is what was happening at the Great Synagogue. The palpable sense of unity in the room was not the result of ironing out, or exploring differences, but rather of a joint transcendent experience in which all parties shared a common interest; the superb chazan and choir. While this transitory “third point” can only hold the parties together for its duration and is no substitute for direct, meaningful interaction, it can nonetheless serve as a starting point on the journey towards greater cohesion. It is easier to begin talking to someone with whom you’ve had shared experiences.
Forcing parties to engage face-to-face when they are not ready to can be counterproductive. The key instead is to find shared third points on which to focus the parties’ attention.
To a certain extent, this is what happened in Britain last spring. Disparate insular communities with little in common began to look with deep interest not at each other but at displays of common national interest such as the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. This led to a greater sense of unity among Britons. The challenge now for government and community leaders is to harness this momentum before it runs out.
Our community suffers from deep communal divisions. Attempts to bridge them through dialogue have occasionally succeeded but often fail. Perhaps we have missed a crucial first step — identifying third points of common interest leading to shared experiences as a Jewish community. These points could be temporal, geographical, emotional or intellectual and the more we identify and create, the better chance we will have of generating shared experiences. We are fortunate to already have some stellar examples such as Limmud, Mitzvah Day, and the new JCC. Yet while these projects and spaces are very successful at drawing the attention of those from the religious left and centre they are less successful in engaging those to the religious right despite (and ironically because of) the organisers’ best efforts to be inclusive.
It is time for leaders across the entire Anglo-Jewish community to sit down and talk to each other, not about resolving or even exploring differences, but about how to create non-threatening points of interest that will capture the attention and stimulate the excitement of all. Perhaps then we can look forward to fruitful dialogue, in which all contribute and receive wisdom, inspiration and blessing.