I have to be careful about how I teach or explain what Judaism is about to people from other faith traditions.
Luckily my experience has been that most folks are curious and want to know more about Judaism. Maybe it is because more and more Christians are starting to see how much Judaism has influenced the growth of Christianity over the course of history. So the fact is that I end up talking in public about Judaism all the time. One could easily say that is to be expected because I am a rabbi. This is true, but, I still carry with me the old adage that one should not talk about religion and politics. Despite that sage counsel, I still end up discussing religion quite often with folks at all sorts of non-religious occasions and social gatherings.
A recent survey by the Pew Survey Center found that most Americans adhere to the position that it is unwise to discuss religion whether it is at work or in informal social settings. There is a preference to relegate such discussions to private family settings. The risk of talking about religion can often lead to heated arguments and debate which ends up creating tension and turmoil not only in our pubic lives but also inside extended family settings.
According to the study, “Jews, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants don’t talk about religion much—only a quarter or slightly more of each group said they did so once or twice a month.”
Furthermore, agnostics and atheists speak about it even less than people who identify with a religion. The study found that two-thirds said the best thing is to “try to understand and agree to disagree.” Pew claims that forty-one percent of Jews said it’s best to avoid talking about religion with people who have different views, compared to a quarter of all Christians.
There is obviously an ethos in our culture that discussing religion at dinner parties or other social events has a risk which is that the issue may not be resolved and can lead to hard feelings. There is an underlining discomfort among Americans about delving into spiritual and theological issues with others outside of the immediate family.
I am not sure that the only reason is to avoid uncomfortable social situations. Is it possible that part of the reservation in part due to the possibility that we ourselves are not knowledgeable about our respective religions, including its history and theology? I concur that discussing our religions with people from other faith traditions is a delicate matter.
Yet, if we can set up some initial boundaries about how to discuss religion and not get drawn in to an argumentative debate, then there can be some degree of mutual learning without having to declare one person the winner or that one person’s faith is better than the other person’s religious affiliation.
So here are a few suggestions in social circumstances that might help to guide us toward approaching a discussion about different religions without having to face a confrontation or an argument.
One, try to ask questions rather than make judgmental statements.
Two, show respect for someone else’s faith even if we do not understand their religion.
Three, saying ‘I do not know’ about some aspect of one’s own faith tradition does not diminish oneself or one’s faith.
Four, if a conversation becomes uncomfortable, do not hesitate to say, “I’d prefer to conclude our conversation.” Or ‘let’s take a break and revisit this subject at another time.’
Finally, don’t forget to thank the other individual for sharing their views before concluding the conversation.
If talking with others about religion is about proving who is right and who is wrong, then the conversation is off toward an eventual confrontation.
If, on the contrary, the dialogue can be viewed as a sharing experience in which both learn more and appreciate the different faiths, then we emerge with a better relationship with the people involved.
As it is written in the Book of Proverbs, “ Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.”