During this semester’s fall break, I and three other Eastern University students (Brooke Scott, Alberto Bonilla-Giovanetti, and Templeton student Anthony Barr) journeyed up to Boston as part of the Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship. The Fellowship, named in honor of Dr. Ted Chamberlain (a Christian) who was dear childhood friends with David Feldman (a Reform Jew), seeks to bring students from their respective faith traditions together twice a year in order to form friendships and engage in interfaith dialogue. As I prepared for this Fellowship, I found myself reflecting on the nature of the relationship between friendship and argument, and I wondered what exactly the “end” was for the Fellowship, and how best to reach that end.
Prior to our trip to Boston, we read and discussed What Do Jews Believe, with Eastern’s chaplain, Dr. Joseph Modica. The reading and discussions were a blessing, for I found that I knew very little about Jewish thought, and the book provided an excellent overview of varying opinions. At the same time, I realized that the upcoming Fellowship would be a challenge, for some of the core beliefs of Jewish thought were starkly opposed to those I hold as a Christian. Thus, the dilemma: ought I seek to build bridges in friendship, focusing on the beliefs that Christians and Jews can agree upon? Or, should I be willing to find where the disagreements lie by seeking to understand how our Jewish friends thought, and by pushing the conversation towards the points where we do not agree?
Perhaps one of the most important things that happened during our trip to Boston was that I did not come to a clear answer on this question. Instead I learned that friendships formed between people of diverse backgrounds will not always form the same way, yet will always require respect, attentiveness, and a deep desire to know and love the other.
Upon our arrival at Temple Beth Shalom, we were greeted by two of our three Jewish Fellow counterparts, Lily Altman and Dora Evans, and their families, who would be hosting us for the extended weekend. That first night was largely spent walking on egg shells, as everyone tried to figure out what constituted an acceptable question, and how much each of us could respond to (and disagree with) each other. However, it did not take long to realize that we had a deep desire to know the others, and would happily answer any question posed.
It was during our first night together that the three Christian Fellows staying with the Altman family attempted to explain the three main branches of Christianity—Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodox (each branch was represented by a Fellow), and what it meant that we disagreed but were all devout Christians. In turn, we learned about the Jewish understanding of the authority of the Torah, and how one determines which of the Talmudic laws, or mitzvah, are most important. Over the course of the weekend, further, and harder questions were considered.
I continued to wrestle with how much I ought to express my disagreements, wondering whether or not I could become true friends with someone I did not fully engage especially when that engagement may end with a deep disagreement. Yet, as the weekend continued, I found again and again that I could not treat each of our counterparts the same way. Some simply were not ready to argue, and thus I learned that one of the most basic elements of friendship is trust—and trust must be earned.
Still, I cannot help but share what was, for me, the most beautiful engagement of the entire weekend. On the last night before we returned to Eastern, I found myself sitting next to Rahel Block, the coordinator of the event from Temple Beth Shalom, and Anthony Barr, one of my counterparts from Eastern. Rahel is Jewish, and identifies as queer. Anthony is an adopted, African-American Roman Catholic. I, in turn am Caucasian, and a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Over the course of a number of hours, the three of us had very intense debates on the nature of sexuality, sexual ethics, the ends of marriage, the nature of parenthood, the good of adoption, legislating virtue, the nature of freedom, and much more. We would ask each other a question, and listen intently as the others shared their thoughts, our eyes often wide with surprised as we realized just how drastically we disagreed. The conversation was, perhaps surprisingly, full of laughter and smiles, as the three of us realized that each person was deeply thoughtful, incredibly courageous, and marvelously beautiful.
I found myself thinking of what C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” By seriously engaging in intense debate, I had been confronted with the beautiful humanity of these others. We did not agree. Yet it was by taking them seriously and believing that their thoughts were worthy of response that the most beautiful friendships began to emerge.
Real friendship is hard, especially when entire traditions separate us from a shared vision of the good. Yet my experience with the Jewish Chamberlain Fellows, and my conversation with Rahel and Anthony, has taught me that people are worth knowing, and knowing fully. They are worth sharing with, they are worth spending time with, they are worth disagreeing with, and they are worth loving.
It is with true anticipation that I look forward to welcoming our Jewish counterparts to Eastern this spring, and to continuing to honor Dr. Ted Chamberlain’s memory by fostering community and working toward friendship and the common good.
–Jessica Nielsen (’17) is a Templeton Scholar and a member of this year’s Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship.