Chicago rabbi will offer keynote talk at Interfaith Partnership annual event

Rabbi David Sandmel

David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Papering over disagreements in an attempt to highlight areas of similarity does not build a strong foundation for mutual respect among faiths. That will be the message delivered by a noted scholar on interreligious dialogue later this month.

“Understanding that there are differences between religious traditions, sometimes fundamental differences on core issues, is as important as understanding the commonalities for a true, deep relationship,” said Rabbi David Sandmel, director of Life-Long Learning at Chicago-based Temple Sholom. “You can’t always focus on the commonalities and gloss over the differences. When one can explore and discuss those differences is when the kind of relationship that we hope can be built can take place.”

Sandmel, who also serves as the Crown-Ryan Professor of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, will expand on that topic during an Oct. 14 address keynoting the Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls of Metropolitan St. Louis 19th Annual dinner.

A former Jewish scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Sandmel once directed the National Jewish Scholars Project designed to promote discussion between Christians and Jews. He has also dealt with interfaith issues as a member of Rabbis and Imams for Peace and has lectured on both historical and modern Jewish-Christian relations. A graduate of Ohio State University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he has a doctorate in the history and literature of Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world and has served congregations in Maine, Cleveland and Chicago.

The rabbi’s talk will mark the 25th anniversary year for Interfaith Partnership, which merged with Faith Beyond Walls two years ago. He was a selected to speak to this year’s dinner as a representative of the Jewish community, which is 2010’s symbolic “host” of the event. Last year, the Muslim contingent was highlighted by keynoter Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. Members of the Christian and Baha’i faiths rotate in during the other two years.

Beth Damsgaard-Rodriguez, executive director of the group said Sandmel was a natural choice because of his interfaith work. She noted the theme of this year: “Tolerance is not enough: Moving beyond dialogue to action.” Tolerance, she said, is only part of the battle.

“Those of us who do this kind of work find that word to be a little uncomfortable because no one wants to be just tolerated. We really want to seek understanding,” she said. “The theme was chosen because it speaks to the work that he does to help people not just tolerate one another but truly find a way to engage in dialogue and put some action pieces in as well about what it means to be understanding of other faith groups.”

Sandmel said interfaith conversation that has tangible results is vital to the future but difficult to achieve in practice. Part of it is sensitivity.

“Having the opportunity to learn what hurts another and learning to avoid that and being willing to stand up for the other when one is aware that these sorts of things are going on is very much a part of the religious dialogue scene,” he said.

While earthly commonalities won’t erase theological differences, Sandmel said that work on urgent issues can create an atmosphere of cooperation.

“I think all you need to do is look out one’s front door or open the newspaper and see the crying need in our communities with people concerned about the poor or the elderly or those who are in some way or another disadvantaged in our world,” he said.

Ecology and the environment are other places where agreement might be found.

“These are areas where people who may disagree about scripture and the afterlife can roll up their sleeves and work together where everybody benefits,” he said. “What you often find is that working together on these kinds of common projects makes the discussion of thorny issues easier to have because there’s a shared experience and an understanding that whatever our religious differences may be we are all committed to building a better world.”

For Jews, one of those thorny issues can be the Middle East situation, though Sandmel notes it’s a problem that gets more noise and media attention than it is probably due.

“This is an area where politically and sometimes theologically, Jews and Christians don’t necessarily see eye to eye,” he said. “The ability to talk about these differences and understand what those sensitivities are is an example of exactly what I was saying earlier.”

In any event, it’s vital that new forms of understanding and dialogue take shape, he said. With technology making the world smaller by the day and threats from extremism growing, communication takes on a new and powerful immediacy.

“The climate today in our country makes interreligious relations even more important perhaps than it has ever been,” he said. “The religious community and those involved in interreligious relations have both a responsibility and an opportunity to model for the broader community what it means to live in a country where there is such diversity of religious expression.”

The Oct. 14 event will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Crown Plaza in Clayton. For more information about the dinner, call 314-531-4787 or visit