Descending from Mount Moriah: A Reflection on Interfaith Study
by Or N. Rose
It was the final meeting of our course on "The Binding of Isaac in Jewish and Christian Traditions." It was time to descend from the mountaintop after an intensive exploration of this dramatic biblical text and a variety of post-biblical commentaries on it. Class by class we moved from Genesis 22 to the works of the early rabbis and Church Fathers, to medieval philosophical and mystical interpretations, to modern literary adaptations of this ancient and timeless narrative.
On this last day of discussion, something special happened as the level of trust in the room peaked. After nine weeks of studying together, the twenty or so rabbinical and ministerial students from Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School shared of themselves with unprecedented honesty and vulnerability. The catalyst for the conversation was a poem entitled "Heritage" (and especially its final lines) by the modern Israeli poet, Hayim Gouri:
... Isaac, as the story goes, was not
sacrificed. He lived for many years, saw
what pleasure had to offer, until his
But he bequeathed that hour to his
offspring. They are born with a knife in
After discussing at length various literary and historical dimensions of this heartrending poem -- including the place of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in Gouri's work -- my co-teacher from Andover Newton, Dr. Gregory Mobley, and I invited the students to reflect on the poem personally.
Within a few moments several hands went up throughout the room. A rabbinical student who had just become a father spoke of the great sense of trepidation he felt when thinking about the pain he might cause his son in the name of God and other lofty ideals. An African American student from Andover Newton spoke of the difficulty of carrying the sacrificial theodicy she had learned in her childhood congregation: that her ancestors bore the burdens of discrimination and oppression so that she and her classmates could live better lives. Students from both schools shared their sense of gratitude for the opportunity to explore together this rich and challenging material, including those sources that initially made them feel uncomfortable in the presence of the religious "other."
We offer interfaith courses to our rabbinical and ministerial students because we believe that contemporary clergy working in an increasingly interconnected world should possess knowledge of other religious traditions and the skills to interact constructively across religious lines. It has been our experience that these courses have helped many students clarify their values and beliefs, address their fears and prejudices, and learn to work together on issues of common concern. We strive in these classes to create a safe space in which our students can engage in a multidimensional educational experience that includes both rigorous historical and textual study and meaningful personal and interpersonal exploration. Of course, we do not always succeed in reaching all of these goals. But we have been blessed to witness moments of deep encounter -- moments in which our students honestly and thoughtfully share with one another their religious commitments and questions, their similarities and differences, and the pain and joy they carry in their hearts.
Rabbi Or N. Rose, a contributing editor to Tikkun, is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the coeditor of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections (Jewish Lights).
His articles in Tikkun include "In the Footsteps of Hillel," November/December 2008; and "A season for inclusion: a family reflection," June 2009.
Source Citation: Rose, Or N. 2011. Descending from Mount Moriah: A Reflection on Interfaith Study. Tikkun 26(1): 64