Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff
One of the biggest challenges facing inter-faith groups is helping the world “keep faith in faith,” Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a prominent consultant on inter-faith values and inter-religious affairs in Washington, D.C., told the 21st Annual Neighbourhood Inter-Faith Dinner in Toronto recently.
Rabbi Resnicoff urged the gathering, held April 25 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and attended by various religious denominations, not to be swayed by those who say that inter-faith dialogues do not work.
“There are a lot of naysayers who say that meetings like this are pointless because the world today is torn apart by religious misunderstanding and violence and that gives us no hope. Don’t listen to them,” said Rabbi Resnicoff, who once served as a line officer in the U.S. Navy before his ordination, and later returned to the Navy as a chaplain. “We’re not wasting our time by having these inter-faith gatherings. We can use our relations to build hope for better times even in the worst of times.”
Rabbi Resnicoff said that his own journey into religious life showed how he had been touched by other people’s faith.
“If it had not been for an Episcopal priest who became my role model when I was on tour duty in Vietnam, I wouldn’t have become a rabbi,” he said. “He was the one who taught me how to be a chaplain and who made me understand the concept of Christian love.” He said that during his tour of duty as a young soldier, there was a shortage of Jewish chaplains and so “the Christian priests became by rabbis.”
When he applied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he recalled, “I was the only applicant in history to receive a letter of recommendation, not from a rabbi, but from a Protestant priest.” When his father died, it was a Southern Baptist chaplain who comforted him, he added.
Rabbi Resnicoff said people must stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with other faiths in good and bad times and not be afraid to talk to each other and not worry about our faith being watered down (by doing so).”
He said the reason why military chaplains from various faiths “work so well together” is because “we don’t start by talking about theology; we say we’re from other religions and we’re here to help people who are afraid and lonely, and we establish family relationships based on trust.”
Citing what he called “the rules of engagement,” Rabbi Resnicoff said that people from various faiths must understand certain things: “We need to understand that religions are different and languages of faith are different. There should be no assumption of assymetricality.”
Rabbi Resnicoff, who has served as former special assistant to the secretary and chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said that historically, religious groups have been reluctant to meet “because dialogue was seen as diatribe, a chance to condemn others.” But, he said, “we need to talk and we need to share what words hurt – whether based on gender, race or religion.”
The heart of inter-faith dialogue “is that we learn not just about the other, but the presence of God in the other.”
Rabbi Resnicoff also noted that religions have “conflicting visions of the end of days,” and urged the faithful not to focus on this difference. “What we must focus on is getting through the day, and the more we do that, the more we’ll co-operate in programs like Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “The more we focus on the end of days, the more we disagree.”
He also urged religions to abandon the “us and them” attitude. “We should not compare our best to their worst … We should not compare our teachings to their actions and not compare our beliefs to their words.”
He also warned against comparing one’s teaching to someone else’s teaching yanked out of context.
The dinner was attended by members of the Church of St. Clement (Anglican), Grace Church on-the-Hill (Anglican), Christ Church Deer Park (Anglican), Beth Sholom Synagogue, Beth Tzedec Synagogue, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, St. Ansgar Lutheran Church, Temple Sinai, Timothy Eaton Memorial Church (United), and Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.