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4 The next thing to dialogue.

A line often attributed to the poet W. H. Auden says that love, like sleep, resists approaches that are too intense. All of us understand what is meant. There are things that in their very nature must be sought by a kind of indirection. There are things that can only be seen if you are not looking directly at them. Friendship generally arises among those enjoying time together intently occupied otherwise than in planning how to get to know each other. The young sports fan learns math in the process of figuring batting averages.

This pattern is especially characteristic of certain kinds of learning. It is not only that they may happen so. It is that they happen best and most regularly in that manner. So it is with interreligious dialogue. To sit people down opposite each other and ask them to represent their religions is rather like sitting the same people opposite each other and asking them to "represent" their families. An afternoon spent in the midst of family, while you all climbed a mountain or went to the circus, would probably teach you much more about the nature of the family in question than an exchange of descriptions. Likewise, it is often extremely enlightening for religious people to speak together about a subject that is not, in full-frontal terms, "my religion."

One of us has taken part in more than his share of organized dialogues, those based in academic settings and those sponsored by church or ecumenical groups. He observes that in many respects such organized, formal events come into existence in an artificial attempt to supply the profound lack of "accidental" relationships and conversations. Fruitful and necessary as such occasions are, they rarely duplicate the benefits of unprogrammed learning--except in the peculiar but real instances where the "task" of interreligious dialogue itself becomes a kind of shared job, around the edges of which (at meals, on planes, in coffee breaks, settling logistical arrangements) the participants focus on something else. When asked to give examples of what they have learned in such dialogues, several participants will refer to those kinds of experiences for every one that quotes a paper presented or a panel discussion remembered.

These observations are not meant as objections to formal dialogue but as a clue to paths by which interfaith learning and conversation can become more common and accessible. Many people sincerely desire interfaith engagement. For them the barriers are an uncertainty about how to proceed and an apprehension about their preparation for the experience. These anxieties run the range from concern that one is not knowledgeable (or committed) enough in one's own tradition to represent it to fear that ignorance about others will lead to embarrassment or offense, from worry that another faith may be presented so attractively as to weaken ours to suspicion that others may focus only on the idealized image of their religion while we apologize for the failings of our own. Most of these barriers are only heightened the more that the dialogue in view is the direct sort.

One Degree of Separation

Where religious differences are approached head on, obstacles can loom large. The more cultural and political tensions that exist around particular relations (and this is certainly true today of relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews), the more dramatic this dynamic seems to be. The very features that make dialogue imperative make it daunting. In the ordinary settings where these barriers are most intimidating, nothing can help nurture dialogue more than examples of concrete strategies to overcome this dilemma. What is most important is that the steps involved are those that require no special expertise (and can be seen not to require it) and that the activity can likewise be readily seen not to involve what we have called direct dialogue but dialogue with one degree or dimension of separation. An illustration of what I mean by one degree of separation could be drawn from the experience of Jewish-Christian learning that has accompanied the partnership between our school, Andover Newton Theological School, and Hebrew College. Hebrew College purchased a portion of land on the Andover Newton campus and relocated there. From the beginning of this development, the two independent institutions engaged to build and model a cooperative relationship. The faculties met together over several years before the actual physical relocation. For many, these exchanges led to a new level of dialogue--not because we have spent much or most of our time in formal dialogue but because we have worked together on numbers of common issues and practical concerns. Our differences and commonalities in faith have been illuminated tellingly and unexpectedly when our attention was on something else.

To take a specific example, the two schools jointly sponsored a conference whose focus was on educating religious leaders who could address the need for community formation around distinct religious identity and also lead and equip their communities to participate constructively in a pluralistic society. That is, the conference addressed a common challenge that both our schools and traditions face. Its primary topic was not Jewish-Christian relations, but by virtue of talking about this common challenge together, it became a profound opportunity for mutual learning and dialogue. Another example comes from the Interreligious Center on Public Life, an institute formed as a common project of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. The center sponsors an international summer school on religion and public life. (2) The summer school organized a project that brought together Muslim, Christian, and Jewish young people to work together on the physical reconstruction of places of worship destroyed in the Balkan conflicts. During days dominated by the shared labor and the countless practical problems that this work involved, the participants found that religious dialogue was an equally constant feature, permanently resident in everyone's peripheral vision, we might say. In these cases, it is not at all a matter of changing the subject from interfaith discussion. It is the less linear path that leads into the heart of the subject.

If these observations offer at least one helpful perspective on approaches to dialogue, how might they be applied practically at a grassroots level? In the balance of this essay, we would like to highlight one model that incorporates many of the elements we have noted but that can be readily implemented in many different settings. The model is that of a book discussion group. In recent years there has been an explosion of such groups, of many types. For our purposes, the key aspect of this model is that it does not approach interfaith dialogue directly. It brings together people of various faiths to talk about books, but the books (by specific choice) are not necessarily focused directly on "religion." They depict the lives, literature, and history of people who live in faith. The group is made up of people belonging to the three Abrahamic traditions, discussing books whose characters and settings are entwined with one or more of these traditions. Religious pluralism is built into the process. Its reality is inescapable, but it is not the explicit and immediate focus. That focus is a book that stands at one remove from the actual participants. The topic is the characters and the story and the world presented in the text, to which each reader has his or her own response. In sharing those responses, dialogue is the implicit curriculum but never an imperative imposition.

Getting Started

The inspiration for the particular group in question was an interfaith service for Jews, Muslims, and Christians held on the night of September 11, 2001, at First Church (United Church of Christ) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of us attended that service, and the shock of the attacks that day and the awareness of the religious divisions surrounding them sparked an idea in her. The idea was to gather women of the three Abrahamic faiths for a monthly book group with the goal of learning about each other's faith traditions. In what follows, she tells the story of how the group (which adopted the name "The Daughters of Abraham") learned to function and some of the wisdom that might help others find their own way in such a project.

Although one person (a Christian) had the idea for the group, it became clear that the group would cohere only if women of all three faith traditions worked together to form the group. One of the prospective members (who had had extensive experience in interfaith dialogue) early on suggested the need for all three faiths to be represented in the leadership at every stage, and this proved to be invaluable advice.

We tried to have a balance of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the group, although we found achieving this goal to be an on-going process. There was much to learn. For example, at first, the Jews and Christians in the group were not aware that for some Muslim women, particularly those from Middle Eastern countries, traveling alone to attend a night meeting could be problematic. We learned to offer rides where necessary.

It took several meetings to get organized. We had to agree on the ground rules. It became clear that no one wanted this group to be a forum for political discussion. Members wanted to stick to religious themes and seemed genuinely interested in learning more about each other. We wanted everyone to feel safe in the group. One strategy to foster a sense of safety was to adopt rules for our discussions, a kind of discipline for our conversations, based on advice given in a book about book groups, The Reading Group Handbook. (3) At first, we asked each member to read a chapter from this book, "The Art of Discussion," which recommends following certain rules of engagement during the discussion. Later we all read Kay Lindahl's "Listening in Dialogue," which distinguishes between discussion and dialogue. (4) Eventually, after three years of meetings we arrived at the following rules: Listen to each other (it's harder than you think); no interrupting, monopolizing, criticizing, or attacking another member or a faith tradition (particularly including a denomination or group within your own tradition, such as an anti-Catholic remark by a Protestant); speak from personal experience, rather than making broad statements; speak up if someone hits a sore point; and, finally, assume that we are not enemies.

We decided not to pray together. One of the members was vehemently opposed to this attempt and so we dropped the idea.

One person volunteered to lead the discussion and serve as timekeeper. The group leader was responsible for the flow of the discussion, keeping the group on track, asking questions to move the discussion along. If any members had not spoken by the end of the discussion, the leader would encourage them to contribute if they so wished.

We set a regular meeting time, the third Wednesday of every month from seven to nine in the evening. We tried to adhere to the agreed-upon timeframe. For some, having clear times for beginning and ending each meeting was very important (particularly for those with young children and for our hosts). We agreed that we would meet at seven, socialize for thirty minutes, discuss the book for an hour and then, depending on the evening, spend the last thirty minutes talking about choosing the next book, alerting others to special events that might be of interest, dealing with problems or new suggestions, and, on occasion, continuing to discuss the book.

Books were selected by majority vote, although if any member strongly objected, we did not choose that book. Members were encouraged to look for books that the group might enjoy reading. Over time we developed a large list and have now created a sub-list of those books on the list that we consider "high priority." (5) We agreed that we would alternate reading books that in some way related to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Food became an important part of our gatherings. In fact, one of our members co-authored a book, The Book Club Cook Book (in which our group is featured), that notes the importance of food at book groups around the country. (6) We took turns bringing food and sharing our special recipes. We learned only to bring snacks that conformed to kosher and halal standards so that everyone could enjoy them. We ate at the beginning of each meeting, during the informal gathering time. Members arrived at various times throughout the half-hour period. Each person was greeted and offered a nametag and some food. Personal announcements were made during this time: "I'm adopting a baby!" "My dissertation was accepted!" "I quit my job!" We grew closer as we ate together and learned about each other's lives.

What Happened

The group developed in surprising ways. We learned to appreciate all the creativity members brought to the group and to trust what emerged. As noted, one member decided to write a book about book groups. Two other members had the idea of traveling together as an interfaith group. As a result, a trip was organized to Andalusia, Spain, in 2005, and another, to Jerusalem, in 2006. There were many invitations to attend concerts, movies, and art exhibits that related to our discussions and invitations to more personal events, such as bar mitzvahs, weddings, and naming ceremonies. There were invitations to visit each other's houses of worship and to join Muslims in feasting at the end of Ramadan.

As we came to know each other, we shared our joys and sorrows, learning how each tradition provided support for such life events. The death of the mother of one of our Jewish members prompted a long discussion about our different approaches to death and grieving. Illness and trauma brought us together. One Jewish member shared her top ten psalms to comfort a Christian member who became ill.

An unexpected development was the use of e-mail to communicate outside of meetings. Members voted to join a computer listserve so that we could easily communicate between meetings. All of our e-mails to group members were saved on the listserve. We also posted information on this site, such as our book list and member list. One of the members took responsibility for sending out reminders of the next meeting time and the books we were reading. Several e-mail "threads" raised interesting issues. (7) In one of these threads, a Jewish member objected to the choice of a book that has an unflattering portrayal of Orthodox Jews. She reminded the group that, although she is not now Orthodox, her mother was. She therefore found it painful to read a book with Orthodox Jews portrayed as "them." A Christian member empathized, and a Muslim member concluded the thread, commenting that she could find very few books about the "normal" Muslims she knew. In another e-mail conversation, a Christian member sent her condolences to a Jewish member on a death in the family, but then confessed "I don't know what is appropriate to say." The Jewish member wrote back: "Avoid references to heaven and don't send flowers!" It became clear that exercising restraint was just as important when writing e-mails as when we spoke directly to each other in the meetings. The tone of our e-mails was key. We learned to be careful and respectful and to avoid "ranting."

The Discussions

The group leader often started the discussion with a general question, such as "What stood out for you?" or "What surprised you?" The leader was also prepared with more specific questions, if needed, although generally the discussion took on a life of its own. Members were encouraged to read from the book, drawing attention to specific passages to support their points.

It is difficult to represent the nature of such wide-ranging conversations, but we offer at least a few samples. Reacting to Annie Lamott's autobiographical Traveling Mercies, a Jewish member noted, "I learned about the importance of Jesus for Christians. It seems to be a religion for sinners; you don't have to be good. The author is saved but mixed up. I see the importance of grace and forgiveness for Christians." When the group read the novel Lying Awake (the story of a Catholic nun who sees visions), a member asked: "Is this spirituality or madness?" Another member commented that this book raises the question of how devout, observant people of any faith can live in the everyday world. She asked, "What if you want to say 'Peace be with you' but the world is saying 'Have a great day'?" The discussion turned into a reflection on what it means to be a person who seeks to devote a life to faith, in the midst of a society that may view that devotion in negative terms.

Our group read Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Many of us were surprised to learn of the "Convivencia," the time when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in relative harmony in Andalusia, Spain. Someone noted that the suppleness of the culture and society at that time is hard for us to imagine today. A Jewish member noted that she learned that "We have a shared history" and "The Muslims were once avant garde!"

On another occasion the text was Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito. One member particularly liked this book because it was about all three of the "daughters." Our shared roots were emphasized. On reading the interpretation of the story of Hagar in the book, a Jewish member noted, "Reading about Hagar made me feel bad for the Palestinians for the first time. It all started so long ago with Hagar and Ishmael's exile." At one member's suggestion we read the story of Hagar, first from a Muslim source and then from Genesis.

When we read Bruce Feiler's Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, the book prompted a general discussion about how we value our discussions. A Christian member who was a doctoral student stated, "I study comparative religion, but this is where I live it." Another member said, "I have no other group of women interested in faith to talk to. Faith is not 'p.c.' [politically correct]." Two Jewish members commented: "We are learning that there are different kinds of Christians. We thought you were just all the other (the group we have had so much Antisemitism from, a monolithic group that all basically think alike), but now we see that you have all these different groups."

Some Reflections

Since the beginnings of the Daughters of Abraham, three other groups have been formed, and others may follow. Much of this experience is special to the individuals involved and its particular context. Every group will not end up organizing trips to Spain or Jerusalem! One of the things that catches the imagination of those who learn about this experience is the simplicity and accessibility of the process. No experts are needed, nor any guest presentations. The preparation does not require much beyond what an interested reader might be doing in any case. The participants do not need to represent any experiences but their own. The immediate subject for discussion is a fictional character or a historical period or the shared experiences of women. This allows for religious diversity to be explored as part of the whole texture of life.

As this brief description of the Daughters of Abraham makes clear, it is very important that it is a group of women. The path to religious dialogue is opened by a shared curiosity about the experience of women in various settings and also by a focus on hospitality and mutual care. The spread of book groups in general has in large measure been fueled by women who find the format particularly well suited to build relationships as well as to provide education and stimulation. The dynamics will vary for mixed-gender groups or for male groups. Nevertheless, this is one of the best models that we know to offer to those who want to make interfaith dialogue a reality at the concrete level, dialogue that will leave its mark not only in the ignorance dispelled but also in the relations established.

Questions for Reflection

1. The authors propose that indirect approaches to interreligious engagement often work better than a direct approach. What do they mean? What misapprehensions can accompany a direct approach? Have you found the authors' concems to be valid? What experiences of an indirect approach to interreligious engagement have you had?

2. Name some books and films that could foster an indirect approach to dialogue.

3. Is there a benefit to "women only" and "men only" settings for dialogue?

4. Based on this chapter, what characteristics of active listening need to be applied to interreligious-dialogue exchanges?

5. How might food be incorporated into interreligious-dialogue activities?

6. Tell about some of the threads that you have observed developing during interreligious-dialogue experiences.

7. If you felt safe and at ease, what personal observations might you make to members of another tradition about their religion? What observations can you imagine people of another tradition making about yours?

Suggestions for Action

A. Identify projects that young people from various faith traditions might engage in that would foster dialogue, mutual respect, and trust.

B. Put together a program with members from other faith communities that would meet the goals of "indirect dialogue" as described in this chapter.

C. Begin a book-discussion program that would also provide opportunities for interfaith dialogue.

Books Read by the Daughters of Abraham


Godwin, Gail. Father Melancholy's Daughter.

Read in February 2004.

The daughter of an Episcopal clergyman comes to terms with her mother's desertion.

Godwin, Gail. Evensong.

Read in February 2004.

The heroine of Father Melancholy's Daughter faces challenges concerning her marriage and her ministry.

Kellerman, Faye. The Ritual Bath.

Read in January 2003.

In this detective-fiction novel, an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Baptist policeman share an interest in love and mystery.

Rosen, Jonathan. Joy Comes in the Morning.

Read in March 2005.

A female rabbi falls in love with a secular Jewish man. This contemporary American tale addresses topics such as issues of faith, ethics, creating a Jewish home, observance of rituals, and the balance of public, rabbinic, and family life.

Salzman, Mark. Lying Awake.

Read in May 2003.

A woman mystic faces serious illness and difficult decisions.

Steinberg, Milton. As a Driven Leaf

Read in April 2003.

This historical fiction, set in the first century, follows the life of a young rabbi who participated in the writing of the Talmud.

Stollman, Aryeh Lev. The Far Euphrates.

Read in October 2005.

This novel uses biblical and kabalistic language and imagery to touch on issues of life and death, intellect, and faith through the story of a Jewish boy in Canada, post-Holocaust.

Nonfiction: Autobiography, Memoir, and Essay

Ahmed, Leila. A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey.

Read in December 2002.

In this memoir, an upper-class Egyptian woman speaks about growing up in an Egyptian/Turkish family in the 1950s, going to college in England, and understanding the complex identity of Egyptian women in her time.

Buber, Martin. Tales of the Hasidim.

Read in September 2004.

This collection contains stories on the lives of the Hasidic masters.

Feiler, Bruce. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.

Read in January 2004.

This work explores Abraham, the father of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Gallagher, Nora. Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith.

Read in April 2005.

This work details the life of a congregation through a liturgical year.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazback, and Esposito, John, eds. Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Read in December 2003.

These essays explore the traditions of three religions during the past century from a feminist perspective.

Halevi, Yossi Klein. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

Read in March 2004.

The author embarks on a spiritual quest, praying and meditating with both Christians and Muslims to better appreciate the religious dimensions of the conflicts in the Middle East.

Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. Read in February 2003.

The author documents her reluctant journey into faith.

Lang, Jeffrey. Even Angels Ask: A Journey to Islam in America. Read in April 2004.

Author shares the American convert's experience of discovering Islam.

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters.

Read in May 2004.

A senior-level demon coaches his nephew in tempting people away from God.

Myerhoff, Barbara. Number Our Days: Culture and Community among Elderly Jews in an American Ghetto.

Read in October 2002.

This study of aging through the portrait of elderly Jews details their lives, rituals, thoughts, and wisdom.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Read in November 2003.

A western professor of literature discusses her experiences with a clandestine women's study group during the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk.

Read in November 2002.

After twice living with a society of celibate Benedictine monks, Kathleen Norris, a married Protestant Christian, relates her experiences, including discussions of celibacy, women's history, scheduled prayer, and festivals.

Salamon, Julie. Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give.

Read in June 2005.

This study of modern-day giving as it fits with Maimonides' "Ladder of Charity" includes examples and discussion based on people of all faiths in New York after 9/11.


Franzen, Cola. Poems of Arab Andalusia.

Read in May 2005.

This collection of poems is based on the codex of Ibn Sa'id, from tenth- to thirteenth-century civilization in Andalusia.

Mohiuddin, Majid. An Audience of One.

Read in May 2005.

This book is a collection of Islamic Ghazals on prayer and faith.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East.

Read in May 2005.

Poems about the Middle East and being an Arab woman living in America.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.

This survey examines the historical roots and contemporary condition of Islamic discourse on gender.

Barlas, Asma. "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an.

Read in March 2003.

The author argues against misogynist interpretations of Islam and examines egalitarian aspects of the Qur'an.

Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent.

Read in June 2003.

This fictional account of the daily life of a biblical sorority of mothers and wives is told through the eyes of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter.

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.

Read in September 2002.

The author captures the ideals of seven major faiths.

World Religious History

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes.

Read in June 2004.

Through contemporary Arab chronicles of the Crusades, the author offers insights into the historical forces that shape Arab and Islamic consciousness.

Makiya, Kanan. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem.

Read in September 2003.

This novel touches on the interplay of religions in seventh-century Jerusalem.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Read in October 2003.

This historical fiction covers the rise and fall of Islamic Spain through the stories of Muslims, Christians, and Jews who lived in the region.

Middle East History

Adelson, Roger. London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922.

Read in October 2004.

Adelson examines how the modern Middle East was molded by British power and influence in the early twentieth century.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. Original Sins: Reflections in the History of Zionism and Israel.

Read in October 2004.

This exploration of the State of Israel demystifies the Zionist movement.

Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village.

Read in October 2004.

Fernea recalls her two-year immersion into the local culture in an Iraqi village.

Lerner, Michael. Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation.

Read in November 2004.

Rabbi Michael Lerner critiques the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and provides answers to help progressive Jews better understand and cope with the conflict.

Lewis, Bernard. Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery.

Read in October 2004.

Three essays analyze the clash of religions and cultures around 1492.

Pearlman, Wendy. Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada.

Read in October 2004.

This collection of interviews highlights everyday struggles of Palestinians.

Tuchman, Barbara. Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour.

Read in October 2004.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Tuchman looks at the history of Britain and Palestine and at Britain's role in the formation of the modern Jewish state.

Edith Howe and S. Mark Heim (1)


(1.) With thanks to Rona Fischman, Anne Minton, Mary Luti, and other members of the "Daughters of Abraham" who contributed to this article.

(2.) For more information, see educational_programs/summer_school.html.

(3.) Rachel W. Jacobsohn, The Reading Group Handbook (New York: Hyperion, 1998).

(4.) The essay can be found at,com_docman/ task,doc_view/gid,16.html.

(5.) The appendix to this essay lists the books that the group has read to date.

(6.) Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, The Book Club Cook Book (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).

(7.) The listserve is a secure environment, so that members are assured of the "privacy of their conversations."
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Author:Howe, Edith; Heim, S. Mark
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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