The Primary school teacher, at the school I visited, said to her pupils, “Just like our guests, we sit in school and it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other faith, everyone is treated the same and with respect.” It was quite inspiring to hear the questions that the children in every class asked the Priest, Imam and Rabbi who were visiting them as part of Interfaith Week. This response by a teacher was just one part of a wide ranging and important dialogue between us.
As a Rabbi working within Liberal Judaism, a progressive Jewish denomination, I take it almost for granted that my work includes building interfaith relationships. Not only that, as a follower of liberal religion, I take the view that no-one and no single faith has sole access to The Truth. In fact, I dare say we are only able to hint towards the truth of the big questions in life, not one of us possesses definitive answers. This was succinctly proven as the children asked us profoundly challenging metaphysical questions; questions which I urged the children to carry on asking throughout their lives – I hope they never give any religious leaders an easy time. It was clear in those moments with the children that, when we build relationships between faiths, we learn that we have difference and commonality; and the greatest commonality lies in our shared humility that we do not have full, or even much, knowledge of the mysteries of the world. Anyone who suggests otherwise is, in my opinion, selling you snake oil.
I think teachers and students alike were surprised that we all shared very similar roles in our respective communities and that we saw our wider purpose to serve our society and make the world a better, more peaceful place. But the teacher who remarked on the fact that in her classroom “everyone is treated the same” regardless of identity, left me feeling that it was not we, the religious leaders, who were there to teach the children, but they who were there to teach us. It seems so tragic that we have to go out to the local community to remind everyone that adults, devoted leaders of different faiths, can sit, learn, talk, laugh, share and build friendships. The portrayal of religion in society at the moment is one of division, conflict and strife; even though the reality is that we can and do live harmoniously, respectfully and bring benefit to our country. The question is not ‘Why would an Imam, Priest and Rabbi sit together?’ but rather ‘Why are we surprised when they do?’ That this question lurks behind our appearance at the school represents, to me, a failure in collective leadership and a failure that is unforgiveable.
This failure is even more profound when we consider the contribution that communal life can offer. If my reading of some of the Jewish thinkers of the last century has taught me anything, it is that we are each completely alone in our experience of the world. No-one can see the world as I see it, no-one can fully understand what the internal life of the mind and the soul means to me. We are, in a sense, completely other from one another. The response to this alterity or aloneness can be despair and loneliness. However, the response may also be to share and grow together, in relationships and in communities. Discovering a different sense of companionship that recognises difference and otherness also offers a path on which we may feel less alone. Community and the rituals of community which give meaning to the course of days are areas in which religions can benefit society. We do not offer panaceas for all ills, but we do believe that in community our troubles may become smaller and our joys may become greater. We are, theoretically, the experts at what it means to live as communities. Yet we have failed to make that life compelling or to learn and develop a fuller sense of what it means for life in the 21st century; a communal life in which we visibly share, learn and teach with people of other faiths and none. It is time that we, religious leaders and members of different religions took note. Instead of a novelty it must be absolutely expected for a Rabbi, Priest and an Imam to sit together in schools.