Building interfaith bridges. American Jewish Committee spokesman works to span gaps of ignorance in US

Jim Rudin is a builder of bridges. He tries to span the gaps of ignorance nd prejudice among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews, as well as other faiths. As interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Rabbi A. James Rudin devotes most of his time to promoting a keener appreciation of the theology and culture of various religious groups. As might be expected, much of his work focuses on combating anti-Semitism.

For example, the AJC leader has been instrumental in organizing dialogues between Protestant seminarians and Jews training to be rabbis in California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. These meetings have focused on exchanging theological ideas. ``They [denominational institutions] have done a very good job in transmitting their own teaching to their own students.'' But up to now, ``little has been learned about other groups,'' Rabbi Rudin explains.

Catholic-Jewish relations have also been strengthened in an important way since 1965 and the issuance by the Second Vatican Council of the ``nostra aetate'' document deploring anti-Semitism. ``There now are [interfaith] dialogues, consultations, Jews teaching at Catholic schools, Catholics coming to talk in Jewish religious schools,'' Rabbi Rudin points out. Even more important, attitudes that previously smacked of ignorance and prejudice have been altered. And this has been reflected in textbook updates and even alterations in the liturgy, he says.

Ongoing interdenominational workshops focus on human as well as theological issues. For instance, AJC representatives met recently with delegates from the Massachusetts Council of Churches to discuss the question of ``forgiveness.'' And late last year in New York, Christian and Jewish leaders joined with civil-rights, law-enforcement, and farm-advocacy groups to denounce the activities of extremist groups trying to strir up racism and anti-Semitism among financially distressed farmers in the Midwest.

Next November, dialogues between black Christians and Jews are planned for the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta -- the largest black seminary in the United States. Rabbi Rudin points out that this will be a first-of-its kind symposium. Also, an interdenominational conference on religious pluralism is in the works for the bicentennial celebration of the US Constitution in 1987.

Also, the Jewish leader reports that there is evidence of an increasing ``reach-out'' at an individual level between those of various faiths. For example, he cites Jews who now volunteer to take hospital shifts and drive taxicabs for Christians on Christmas, to allow the latter to spend the holiday with their families. ``And there is reciprocity on Yom Kippur and Passover,'' he reports.

Although Rabbi Rudin feels that significant progress has been made in the building of bridges between religious groups in America, he says many problems remain. For example, instances of anti-Semitism, although they have declined in recent years, continue across the US. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith recently reported that 638 anti-Jewish incidents were documented during 1985, ranging from desecration of temples and personal assaults to threats and harassment.

Rabbi Rudin says anti-Semitism has tended to become ``unfashionable'' since the Holocaust and the end of Nazism 40 years ago. ``It went underground for a long time. But unfortunately it breaks out from time to time,'' he adds.

Anti-Semitism often manifests itself as an ``anti-Israel'' feeling, the AJC leader says. ``You can't be anti-Semitic to your neighbor. But you can use a standard of judgment on Israel that you wouldn't use on any other nation of the world. Jews happen to feel that that is a form of anti-Semitism,'' he says.

The rabbi, however, makes a clear distinction between ``criticism of policies of the Israeli government and being opposed to the very existence of that nation.'' The former, he says, doesn't necessarily constitute prejudice toward Jews.

Overall, he insists, the real strength of the United States is in ``religious pluralism.'' Peaceful coexistence of the various faiths and respect for the individual's right to practice religion in his or her own way is ``the greatest achievement of the nation,'' he says.

But Rabbi Rudin stresses that ``every generation has to refight the battle to preserve the independence of religion.'' He says that current attempts to institute prayer in the schools, subsidize religious schools with public funds, and otherwise entangle church and state undermine religious pluralism and the First Amendment.

But he says that religion is rightly becoming ``a major shaper of public policy in this nation.'' And he predicts that it will further grow in importance as a force in intellectual life.

Might increased involvement in public affairs divert religion from its primary pursuit of spiritual values?

The Jewish leader says there is ``no separation between what is called holy and what is called the ordinary.''

He adds that most religious leaders -- both Christians and Jews -- agree that ``spiritual prophetic teachings must be applied to the society in which we live:

``That is the highest goal of religious life.''

Curtis J. Sitomer, the Monitor's ``Justice'' columnist, frequently writes on religious topics.

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