Jew, Muslim, Christian agree: Religions must heal themselves

“Can We Get Along in Our Own Family?” was the subtitle of an interfaith dialogue held April 6 at the Islamic Society of San Francisco.

It proved to be a difficult question to answer.

The goal of the program, titled “Fractures Within Abrahamic Faiths,” was to examine schisms within a religion — in this case, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — rather than the differences and battles between the religions.

Dialogue between religions is definitely needed before peace can be achieved, said the Rev. Paul Chaffee, the program’s emcee and the executive director of Interfaith Center af the Presidio. But before that can ever happen, dialogues within a religion must occur, he added.

So, just what are these “intrafaith” issues?

Oy vey — Rabbi Marvin Goodman, the executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis and the rabbi-in-residence for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, could have gone on and on: Jewish identity, West Bank settlements, Israeli militarism, the fate of Jerusalem, intermarriage, unaffiliation.

Instead, the former rabbi of Foster City’s Peninsula Sinai Congregation told the audience of more than 100 a story from the Talmud (one of the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai), eventually getting to the point of “eilu va’eilu divrei elokim havim” — “both these and those are the words of the living God.”

Goodman’s point: Sometimes we must accept different positions as legitimate.

To further illustrate, he said, “Believe it or not, there is a debate within the Jewish community about Israel … and this is not a debate of fringe elements.” Across the room, many non-Jews in the audience raised their eyebrows.

“But these debates often lose sight of kindness, modesty and are no longer sacred dialogues — they’re not eilu va’eilu, ‘these and those’ … People lose sight that there is more than one way to look at any particular issue. Passionate people even lose sight of what they’re thinking, what they’re doing and even what they’re saying.”

After the bespectacled man in the purple kippah finished speaking, it was time for the Christian voice, and then the Muslim. That order is usually used at these events, Chaffee half-jokingly explained to the crowd, “simply because it’s chronological.”

The event was the seventh in an occasional series, and it was co-sponsored by several organizations, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, American Jewish Committee and the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

James Donahue, the president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and a professor of ethics, started by saying, “It’s tough to represent all of Christianity.”

He talked of tensions within the Christian family between more open-minded liberalists and more rigid

traditionalists. But forget about arguing the actual issues, such as scripture interpretation, he said.

It’s more important to dissect and deconstruct why people have these beliefs in the first place. “You have to engage them at the point of leverage,” he said.

Professor Mahmous Ayoub, who was born in Lebanon in 1938, used his segment to discuss divisions within the Muslim community, notably Sunni and Shiite.

“Most problematic with the Muslim community is there has, all along, been this group that believes [it is] right and all others are wrong,” said Ayoub, a professor and director of Islamic Studies at Temple University since 1988. “Never has there been a period in Muslim history when one sect wasn’t holding its view to be the right one and all the others wrong.”

But Ayoub added that it’s impossible to define which is this “one sect” or “this group.”

Currently a visiting professor at the Pacific School of Religion, part of the GTU in Berkeley, Ayoub concluded by saying, “Neither of my colleagues really pointed to a success story, because success in this area does not come easily. Success will come as we know one another.

“In the end, no one can decide what is good and what is not good, what is right and what is wrong.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.