Scholar: Disagreement good for the interfaith soulWritten by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
Arguing has always been an integral part of Jewish tradition, going back to Abraham’s debate with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham didn’t win that one, but his ancestors have carried on his and other Jewish prophets’ knack for argumentation, according to Loyola University professor Devorah Schoenfeld.
“We love to argue,” Schoenfeld said at the 12th Annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue Feb. 10 at the University of Toledo. Her topic was “Disagree: The Power of Sacred Dissent.”
She displayed copies of the Talmud, a Jewish text in which Scriptures are surrounded by commentaries and interpretations by rabbis.
Arguing, challenging, and asking questions are “life-giving” activities, Schoenfeld said, and she encouraged participants in interfaith dialogues to discuss their differences and not be afraid to challenge one another’s beliefs.
“When I have somebody who challenges me, who confuses me, then I have the possibility of growing,” she said. “If I have a partner who just tells me I’m right, then I stagnate; then I die. It’s tragic.”
An assistant professor of theology/Judaism at Loyola University in Chicago, Schoenfeld was the keynote speaker at the dialogue, which alternates among religions in leading the annual dialogue. Peter Feldmeier, professor of Catholic studies, and Ovamir Anjum, professor of Islamic studies, both of the University of Toledo, presented brief responses from their own traditions’ perspectives.
Schoenfeld gave the audience of about 65 people an assignment: to read a selection from the Talmud aloud to a partner, then discuss, interpret and take a stand on the text.
Reading aloud and debating the meaning of a text is taught in yeshiva, or Jewish schools. “In a yeshiva, it’s not quiet; it’s not a library,” Schoenfeld said, adding that reading aloud and listening are important parts of the process of interpretation.
In the Talmud passage, a rabbi and his student both thrive when they debate Scripture. When the student dies, the rabbi’s new student agrees with everything he says and it leads to the rabbi’s frustration and, ultimately, his death.
“When your mind is challenged, you stay alive. For Rabbi Yochanan, when nobody is challenging his mind, it kills him. It’s the worst thing that could happen to him,” Schoenfeld said.
“There’s a danger in disagreement,” she said. “There’s a danger in saying things that are too harsh, hearing things in a way that isn’t receptive. Still, there’s a way in which disagreement is essential. There’s a way in which disagreement can give life. There’s a way that it can be dangerous and there’s a way in which we as Jews, Christians, Muslims in dialogue with one another can’t live without it.”
Feldmeier said the Roman Catholic Church does a good job of discussing differences with other Christian groups, but not within the Catholic Church itself.
“Maybe surprisingly to some of you, I think that we do this well in ecumenical dialogue,” he said. “We know how to find legitimate similarities and also even to sympathize and try to understand legitimate distinctions among Christians and even appreciate alternative ways of thinking about things.”
But within the Catholic Church, “We’ve gone from arguing with each other to … mostly ignoring each other. And the divide between the theological community and the bishops of the church has grown larger in the last 20 years for sure,” Feldmeier said.
He cited an effort by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to encourage discussion of such topics as the role of women in the church, the nature of sexuality, and the inclusion of Latino and Asian cultures. But Bernardin’s “Common Ground” project never got off the ground, with other bishops saying that “error has no room in dialogue.”
Feldmeier also quoted the late Pope John Paul II’s statement that “the unity of the church is not in uniformity but organic blending of legitimate diversities.” He added, however, that despite the pope’s promise of diversity, “in no sense does this model really reflect the actual dynamics of the Catholic Church.”
Anjum said diversity and debate had flourished within Islam for more than 1,200 years, but said there is truth to observations of “a contemporary bankruptcy of Muslim thought.”
He said colonialism and post-colonial modernizing Muslim governments stifled intellectual freedom and diversity within the Islamic world, but he sees signs of change – including events such as Monday night’s dialogue.
“Interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians is one of the places where this tradition is coming back, and coming back with full force,” Anjum said.
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of Toledo Faith & Values (ToledoFAVS.com), a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.
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