Twice in recent months Jules and I have had the great good fortune to be present for a talk by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. The first was in May, at the formal launching of the wartime memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler. There he spoke movingly about the role of Jews throughout history in giving unique witness to the fullness of humanity as made in the image and likeness of God. (As soon as the Hildebrand Project makes the video available, we'll link it.)
The second was just the other day, at an Agora Institute event, where the topic was religious liberty in America from the point of view of Jewish experience. It was a rich and deep and thoroughly engaging presentation—providing ample material for many discussions. It has inspired Jules and me to make Jewish personalism the focus of this year's reading circles. But more on that later. Here I want to zero in on just one of his themes and insights.
Rabbi Soloveichik began by referring to a book by Catholic theologian Maria Poggi Johnson, called Strangers and Neighbors: What I have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews. (I've just bought the Kindle version.) He proposed that this title captures well the American ideal of religious liberty. Our Constitutional order is not a secular order, like France's, where religion is relegated to the private sphere. Nor is any one religion privileged over others, as in pre-modern Europe or current day Islamic countries. Rather, the American ideal of religious liberty allows (in theory, if not always in practice) for believers to be fully engaged citizens precisely as religious men and women. That entails believers and unbelievers of different kinds and traditions learning to live and cooperate with each other without losing our distinctiveness as individuals and communities of faith. We want to be both neighbors and strangers.
One member of the audience objected a little afterwards: Do we really need to be strangers? It sounds so cold and alienating. Shouldn't we strive for more than that?
Rabbi Soloveichik was adamant—stern almost—in his reply. Yes, we remain strangers, even when we become friends. That strangeness is a function of our holding different, even conflicting beliefs, experience, customs and values.
In the unexpected almost-sternness of his reply, I sensed immediately how a rejection of the category of strangeness must feel to a religious minority coming from the majority. It must seem to carry an element of oppression, if not aggression, as if suggesting, "You are not allowed to maintain a zone to yourself, where we do not belong and are not welcome."
I associated it with what I have experienced in codependent personal relations, wherein there is an implicit demand that I abandon unamenable aspects of my subjectivity, for the sake of "unity"—as if any reserve of subjective plenitude is mere selfishness, the cause of unnecessary tension and divisiveness. I've learned to stay away from those people as "unsafe" (in the usual parlance of psychology). In wholesome inter-personal relations the irreducible "otherness" of the other is cherished and enhanced, not subdued or curtailed.
Likewise, in the religious pluralism of the American ideal, we don't merely tolerate, never mind try to reduce or abolish religious difference, rather we cherish it. We cultivate it as both challenging and enriching. And then, mysteriously and paradoxically, we find in it new avenues and sources of true friendship.