A call for perceptiveness

A rabbi dedicated to interfaith understanding warns against seeing complex issues in simplistic terms.

He was in Beirut when a truck bomb ripped apart the US Marine barracks there on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, claiming 241 lives. A Jewish chaplain for the US Sixth Fleet, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff rushed to the scene with his Catholic colleague, the Rev. George Pucciarelli. For hours, the two men worked to comfort those still alive but buried in the rubble, tearing up their clothes to wipe blood and dirt out of people's eyes and mouths.

Somehow, the rabbi's kippa, or skullcap, was lost, but Father Pucciarelli cut a circle out of his camouflage uniform to make him a head covering.

"He wanted the marines to remember that Christian and Jewish chaplains were working side by side," Resnicoff says. "Somehow we both wanted to shout the message in a land where people were killing each other – at least partly because of differences in religion – that we could be proud of our particular religions and yet work together."

After 28 years in the military – which took him from Vietnam to the top job of Command Chaplain for all US forces in Europe – the retired Navy captain is now working to increase understanding between faiths in the United States.

Rabbi Resnicoff became national director for interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee shortly after Sept. 11. "I spoke at a governor's prayer breakfast on Oct. 30, and if I'd had a plan suggesting what we have to do, everyone would have marched behind me," he says in an interview. "It's a crucial time for interfaith relations."

A recent survey shows that Americans see religious diversity in the US as a strength, not a threat, but that most say they do not personally know people of other faiths or even know much about other religious beliefs. And while Americans are evenly split on their views of Islam, most expect a bigger armed conflict soon between Christian and Islamic countries.

"It's terrific if in America we have come to be comfortable with the presence of other faiths – that keeps us from fighting each other and is a great first step," Resnicoff says. "But we have to begin to talk and to listen."

With religious allegiances figuring more prominently in today's conflicts, it's essential, he believes, to develop genuine skills for relating to one another and to bring more perceptiveness to understanding religious tensions.

"In the chaplaincy, we got along so well because we worked together when people were scared, lonely, in pain, and so we came to know each other as human beings," he adds. "One of my goals is to make sure when Jews and others come together that we are developing relationships, not just dialogue – relationships will ultimately change the world.

"It's extremely important to reach out to moderate voices of Islam and make connections," he adds. The US military now has Muslim chaplains, and he has recently offered to share his experience in support of a new program to train Muslim chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

People of other faiths have touched him deeply at important moments of life. He credits a Protestant chaplain during his stint as a young Navy officer in Vietnam with helping him strengthen his own faith and decide to become a rabbi. When his father died suddenly, it was a Southern Baptist chaplain who comforted him. He has devoted his career to serving people of many faiths.

Certain human instincts often make dialogue between faiths difficult, he says. For instance, people tend to compare the best of their faith to the other group's worst, their ideals to the other group's actions. Whereas "if we compare actions to actions, we all have something to be ashamed of, and if we compare ideals to ideals, we all have something to be proud of.

"There is also the instinct to compare our beautifully nuanced teaching to someone else's teaching yanked out of context," he adds. "As in 'Look what it says in the Kora.n.' Yet I could find Bible verses just as terrifying."

At the same time, he says, people tend to see things too simplistically. After his own experiences in Vietnam and Bosnia, Resnicoff says the world does not need more simplifiers, it needs more "complexifiers," if real solutions are to be found.

Like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of the elephant, he explains, people argue passionately for their own perspective and think those who disagree don't understand, when the reality is that everyone understands, but only a portion of the picture.

He cites Israeli author Amos Oz, who, writing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has said that there is more than one war going on: There is a war based on the dream of Palestinians to have a land of their own, and this war is one any decent person should understand. But there is also a war going on, on the part of militant Islam, that includes the dream of eradicating Israel, and this every decent person should abhor. Policies that fix on one of those wars and ignore the other are likely to fail.

Grasping more of the picture would help avoid serious errors. Thus, the rabbi suggests, it's not right to raise the question of whether there is a Palestinian people: "We Jews should be more sensitive to their dreams [for a state] than any others in the world." And it's wrong to condemn Islam as a whole for the actions of militants.

At the same time, it's not accurate to say, "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," he points out. "A freedom fighter can cross the line and become a terrorist just as a soldier can cross the line and become a murderer."

Rabbi Resnicoff was among the small group who struggled to establish the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which was dedicated in 1982 with the theme: "To heal a nation."

Continuing to work on bringing people together for that purpose, he's proposing that next September, between the 11th and the 21st (the day the UN is designating a "global ceasefire day") that religious groups gather together in some communities across the country to explore common ground through discussions, events, and prayers.

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