Three Essentials for Productive Interfaith Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue and cooperation have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

As one of the handful of Jews at Ashland Grammar School in East Orange, NJ, teachers frequently called on me to explain whatever Jewish holiday caused my recent absence from school or were coming up on the calendar. I relished those opportunities though my knowledge, looking back, was limited.

As time has gone by and my knowledge has increased, I have come to see three vital essentials for interfaith dialogue:

I. Diversity is not just something to “tolerate.” Diversity is something to embrace, affirm and respect.

When I was about five, my parents gave me a present that charted the direction of my life. It was a phonograph record called, “Little Songs on Big Subjects,” cute little jingles by Hy Zaret about the importance of mutual respect and understanding. Some of my favorite lyrics that I still recall from memory are:

As the choo choo said to the railroad track, don’t care if the passengers are white or black.

Ho Ho Ho, use your brain; you can learn common sense from a railroad train …

As the peach pit said to the apple core, the color of the skin doesn’t matter no more,

Ho Ho Ho, can’t you see, the color of the skin doesn’t matter to me!


George Washington liked good roast beef; Haym Solomon liked fish.

But when Uncle Sam served liberty, they both enjoyed their dish.

Oh I may not know a lot of things but one thing I can state!

Both native-born and foreign-born have made our country great.


As I began to immerse myself in Jewish learning, I found these wonderful ideals in famous morsels from Midrash (Jewish folklore):

When God fashioned the first human being, the Eternal One used earth from the four corners of the earth, so no one could say, “My country is greater than yours.”

 Why in the beginning did God make only one couple in the Garden of Eden? To teach us that we all have the same ancestors and that no one should say my lineage is greater than yours. (B. Sanhedrin 38B)

In 1927, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister in Boston formed the “Tolerance Trio.” They traveled around the country promoting tolerance of faiths other than our own. It was a great idea, but 90 years later, we should strive for more than tolerance. Ninety years later, our goal should be affirmation for and deep respect for religious traditions and diverse cultures.

At bedrock, I like to teach that God created diversity.

In Genesis (ch.11) we read that once people all spoke the same language and thought the same way.   All this unity displeased God so the Eternal One scattered people and created diversity. Keep that in mind: Diversity is God’s plan. Affirming it should be our ideal.


II. We must learn to listen (and listen to learn).

 It is understandable that we want people to learn about our thoughts and our way of life. But it is our desire and our ability to listen that will make or break dialogue and interfaith cooperation.

It is not an accident that our most important Jewish prayer, which we often call, “The Watchword of our Faith,” is the שמע (Sh’ma), “Hear, (Listen) O, Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Too often we do not really listen to others. We just wait for our chance to have them listen to us.

We would all do well to take seriously the old saying: “God gave us two ears but only one mouth, so that we would listen (at least) twice as much as we speak.”


III. We must learn to disagree without being disagreeable

 Another of my favorite lyrics in, “Little Songs on Big Subjects” is:

I’m proud to be me, but I also see

You’re just as proud to be you!

We might look at things

A bit differently

But lots of good people do …”

 The truth is if we get into serious dialogue, some of my Muslim friends and I might view the issues surrounding the Middle East today very differently. Some of my Catholic friends and I may differ over reproductive rights.

Can we discuss the issues on which we do not see eye to eye without anger? The viability of meaningful dialogue hinges on our answer to that question.

There is so much society might gain from adherents of different faith traditions—along with those of no faith tradition—coming together to act as one on issue of agreement and agreeing to act separately on issues we view differently.

  • If we embrace diversity as a positive good rather than something to merely tolerate —
  • If we really listen to (and engage?) one another –
  • And if we can disagree on issues and still remain friends –

Then dialogue can move us, slowly but meaningfully, closer to the ideal world of which the Prophet Micah (4:4) dreamed, when each of us shall sit under our vines and our fig trees with no one to make us afraid.