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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Worth the trousers...

by Rabbi Natan Levy. 
I’ve learned an important lesson on interfaith at the cost of a pair of trousers.  My five-year-old son and I were waiting for the Hendon train on Sunday when his small hand grabs mine.  “Abba,” he whispers, “I need the toilet, now!”  We race up the stairs, the toilets at the platform are locked, my son is jumping and twisting.  “Abba,  now!”  Down the street we go, an open door at the Baptist Church, voices raised in prayer.  I drag him into the foyer, ask for the toilet, point to my writhing boy. The vicar himself is present and ushers us in.  My son looks at the vicar, peers into the church,  cries out:  “Too scary!” and runs.  The trousers never stood a chance.  

As the son of an Orthodox rabbi, my boy had never been so close to church before,  had never heard Christians in prayer.  His fear was the bitter fruit that I had planted, with some assistance from his teachers and our rather insulated Jewish community.  In teaching him that he was unique, had I forgotten to teach him that others were too?   

It is not just the ultra-Orthodox who find other religions ‘too scary’. I have seen children wearing the uniforms of a pluralistic Jewish school pointing and mocking  Muslim women with headscarves.  I don’t believe the answer is to enroll my child into a non-faith school, nor even to throw open the doors of our Jewish schools as the Rt Rev John Pritchard, chair of the C of E Board of Education, advocates for the  Anglicans.  Back in April he proposed that C of E schools should reserve as few as 10% of their places for churchgoing families to foster more tolerance.  I spent my primary years in  a Californian school  known for the most balanced racial  and religious demographic in the state.  The head teacher was replaced three times in my six year tenure. 

We children quickly discovered who was ‘like’ us,  formed  atomized ethnic posses, and  fought  cruelly during recess.  The midrashic tradition  also warns against enforced interfaith.  Moses falls in love with Tzippora, but Tzippora’s father, Jethro, refuses to let them marry unless Moses swears to expose his first born son, who will be called Gershom, to every other type of religion, in order to choose the Torah path, and its covenant of circumcision entirely of his own volition. (Baal HaTurim on Shemot Raba) The Torah never openly speaks of Gershom the son of Moses ever again, yet secreted away in the book of Judges (18:30), the leading priest of a virulent strain of idol worship, is called by name: Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Manashe.  The Hebrew letter nun (n) in Manashe is written lifted away from the other letters-leaving an alternative name for the grandfather-Moses.   Written into the generations,  lies the consequences of Jethro’s attempt at multifaith.   Perhaps exposing our children to everything, simply leaves them exposed to anything. So, what does allow us to leave the ghetto of the mind? How can we educate our children not to flinch before a church, or point fingers at a burqa?   Working from the offices of the Board of Deputies of British Jews is the League of Jewish Women.  Here, they are doing interfaith , not for press or prestige, but because interfaith works.  In one example amongst many, the League sends its Jewish volunteers into hospital  cancer wards to teach the women patients undergoing chemotherapy beautiful techniques in head covering.
The League recognized that Jewish women had both a wealth of expertise in wearing ‘tichels’, and often plenty of scarves to spare. What transforms this initiative into a special type of interfaith, is that the League invites Muslim women into its training sessions in order to teach the Jewish volunteers other methods in  scarf fitting.  Instead of forcing the various faiths to strip away their unique garb, for the League of Jewish Women,  the most useful elements of the faith encounter  is  not what is most alike, but what is most different.   From many hands of many faiths, new knots in scarves emerge; from many faith-schools, comes a tapestry unknown to the loom of a single-colored thread. 
During this Interfaith Week, I will try to  teach my child a similar lesson.  That  we, Jews, are chosen to offer gifts to this world, and  other religions are equally chosen with their own gifts.  Perhaps, the Baptists sing so clearly, to help a little boy find a friendly open door when he needs one.

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