In the latest incarnation of interfaith dialogue, a church and a synagogue in Springfield have put together a series of monthly conversations.
Members of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, a Conservative congregation led by Rabbi Mark Mallach, and of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, led by Pastor J. David Knecht, have been discussing the nature of evil, the meaning of the respective winter holidays, and most recently, how to handle acts of racial and ethnic discrimination.
Once a month they gather at Barnes & Noble on Route 22 in Springfield. The clergy open the session with their perspectives on a particular religious theme or principle, and then the conversation takes off. It is very loosely structured, so the discussion can wander widely.
Both sides recall that such discussions would barely have been possible before 1994, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repudiated the anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther in its “Declaration to the Jewish Community.” It published guidelines for dialogue between the two faiths in 1998.
Knecht was the second local clergy member Mallach approached for the program, and the first to be receptive.
“To do this with a synagogue in our own community is healthy,” said Knecht. “It means something to get out in the open and do this publicly. And it’s nice that we can have the opportunity to meet other people and learn from each other.”
Bringing religion into public spaces beyond the walls of houses of worship is a growing phenomenon.
For Mallach, it’s another way to build relationships. “We are living in this town and I just thought we could present different points of view on anything and affect both congregations,” he said.
On Jan. 5, about a dozen people listened as Mallach and Knecht introduced their takes on the Golden Rule. Knecht made reference to the Gospels, and Mallach to Leviticus.
Knecht pointed out that the Golden Rule — love thy neighbor as thyself — is connected to the idea that you must also love your God, and both are the answer to the question of how to inherit eternal life.
Mallach retold the story of the man who went to the talmudic sages Shammai and Hillel asking them to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. While Shammai sent him away, Hillel famously responded with the negative formulation of the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”
Mallach related this to a recent encounter between Gov. Chris Christie and a 12-year-old Hindu boy at a town hall meeting. In his question to Christie, the boy complained of “Jewish” control of Springfield and its school board.
“If you were Christie, what would you do?” asked Mallach in response to the remarks. “If you were in the room, what would you have done?”
Knecht also spoke of the responsibility of the bystander. At a party just after Christmas, a high school buddy who had had too much to drink “went on a diatribe” about the television show All-American Muslim.
“The rhetoric got me uncomfortable,” Knecht said. “The question really was, ‘What should I do?’”
Faith Racusin of Springfield pointed out the danger in these and similar situations, such as hearing racially charged jokes.
“Humor masks a lot of things. But humor can be offensive,” she said. “Usually, we chuckle politely but recently, I asked myself, ‘Why am I so afraid to say something?’ I started not laughing and staring at the person or saying that I don’t find it funny.”
Said another participant: “When you tell ethnic jokes about yourself, you perpetuate stereotypes.”
The conversation moved on to teaching values and whether it is the responsibility of parents or perhaps middle schools, why extremists drown out the voices of moderates, and whether it is fair to judge a group by its extremists.
Although the Jan. 5 meeting attracted mostly members of Mallach’s community, previous evenings had a more balanced attendance. The discussions have also attracted bookstore customers affiliated with neither congregation.
One meeting yielded an impromptu invitation. When Racusin was chatting with some church members at the December meeting, she learned they had never seen Hanukka candles being lit. She invited them to her house to observe the ritual.
“It’s been eye-opening for all of us to realize we share more similarities than differences,” she said of the dialogue.
The next meeting will be held on Monday, March 5, at 8 p.m. at Barnes and Noble on Route 22 in Springfield. The tentative topic is: “Marriage Equality: Is it Time?”