This week on Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos morning talk show - we have special guest Sjimon Den Hollander.
Sjimon has a unique background. He studied many religions on a sophisticated level, in that he learned for extended periods of time from scholarly practitioners of different religions, studying religious texts in their original languages with traditional as well as modern scholarly commentary.
I had the privilege to study Torah with Sjimon and his breadth of knowledge and real life experiences opened up new vistas of understanding that even great scholars of Judaism sought to learn from him.
In America in the 21st century even the most cloistered traditional Jewish sects are engaged with people of other faiths. Agudat Yisrael, the umbrella organization that represents the Hareidi world, regularly partners with other faith groups to discuss and advocate for their beliefs, values, and practices.
Simply talking to people of another religion does not necessary make for meaningful interfaith dialogue.
A number of years ago a Jewish man in Omaha wanted to meet with me. He was not a member of my shul, and we had never really had a conversation before (we subsequently became very close friends). When we met he told me that his daughter on the East Coast was dating a Catholic boy. They were selected to be on a reality television show that was showing how couples of different faiths deal with their differences. The television show was flying them around and doing interviews with friends and family. When they visited the son's religious Catholic parents they had a lot to say about their Catholic faith. This Jewish man was an active member of the Jewish community, but did not know much about Judaism and he wanted to have something interesting to share with the show.
So he searched his house and he found a pair of tefilin that belonged to his father. He brought them with him and asked me what I could tell him about them. I told him what they were, we learned the verses in the Torah that talk about them and I told him that if he came to minyan the next day I would show him how to put them on and how to daven with them. He came and he had a spiritual and educational experience that gave him something uniquely Jewish to share with the show. This man understood that if he was going to have a meaningful discussion then he had to know more Torah.
Interfaith dialogue is only meaningful if both sides are educated about their respective religions. If both sides are uneducated then people have superficial discussions about how all people are the same and how we all value loving our neighbors. We sing Hava Nagilah and you sing Amazing Grace - but we are all really the same in the end.
Sjimon is involved in what should be the model for interfaith dialogue. He is a knowledgeable person who has studied different faiths. He engages with Muslims and Christians who are equally knowledgeable. The more knowledgeable the two sides of an interfaith discussion are, the more meaningful the dialogue will be.
Tomorrow on Good Shabbos Nebraska Sjimon is going to tell us some of the benefits to engaging with people of other faiths, but also some of the pitfalls that people must look out for.
This is a very relevant topic for Omaha's Jewish community as Temple Israel, the Reform Synagogue across the street, is currently involved in a tri faith initiative where they are seeking to have dialogue with Christians and Muslims. I hope that tomorrow we see a good turn out for what will be a very important episode of GSN.
So don't miss Good Shabbos Nebraska, this and every Shabbos, 10 am ONLY at Beth Israel Synagogue where every Shabbos is a Shabbaton.