ROCHESTER — The keys to religious harmony in a religiously diverse world are appreciation, humility and respect for others, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of New York City and author of You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism, which was published in January.
Rabbi Hirschfield spoke about religious tolerance to a crowd of several hundred people at Temple Beth El March 5. Appearing with him were Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who has pioneered several interfaith initiatives, and Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, director of the Islamic Center of Rochester and executive director of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College in Pittsford. The event was sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation’s community relations committee.
Rabbi Hirschfield said he considers people’s beliefs — whether in Islam, Hindu, Judaism, Christianity or atheism — to be a product of their personal wisdom and insight.
“These are paths that have their own blessing, but you can’t walk every path,” said Rabbi Hirschfield, president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “Fall in love with one and walk it with commitment, but at the same time, know that each one is beautiful.”
The book draws on the rabbi’s own history of living in a religiously diverse family and growing up as a self-described religious fanatic. He said he believes it is possible to find faith without becoming fanatical, which he defined as a total commitment to a cause to the point of believing everyone else is wrong.
Yet among fanatics, “It is not enough for us to be right about everything,” Rabbi Hirschfield said. “Whoever is different from us is wrong.”
He said it can feel intoxicating to believe that you are 100-percent right, he said.
“Genuine faith is the antidote to fanaticism,” Rabbi Hirschfield said. “Genuine faith is about humility.”
Bishop Clark similarly observed that we must use extreme humility in speaking of the Lord, since there is no way that human words can come close to the mystery of God. When we are humble, we allow ourselves to be appreciative of other views, which allows our understanding of God to broaden or deepen, he said.
“In our (Catholic) tradition,” Bishop Clark said, “we are called to appreciate and accept and respond to God’s personal call to us.”
He said it’s easy to forget God’s voice and get caught up in things that are only marginally important. Yet we should respond to our call as Abraham did, in leaving the familiar and the comfortable to go where God told him.
Dr. Shafiq, visiting professor of Islamic and religious studies at Nazareth College, noted that students in his world religions courses at Nazareth often say they developed a deeper appreciation of their own faiths by learning about other faiths. Open minds, discussion and education can help alleviate fanaticism, he said.
He recalled an instance in which two people had a dispute following prayer and confronted each other. Neither would back down, though neither could be sure that he was right and that the other was wrong.
“That anger comes from fanaticism, when people are not sure of themselves,” Dr. Shafiq observed.
Rabbi Hirschfield said one central idea of his book is that faith can allow us to be comfortable enough to become uncomfortable. He said the spiritual pangs that come from being open-minded can be healthy.
He spoke of the example set by his mother, who was Jewish but who did not keep Jewish traditions or attend the synagogue. When he was 12 years old, he asked his mother to begin cooking for him kosher food using kosher methods, which include using multiple dishes, pots and pans for cooking and serving various foods.
“When you go away to camp, I will kosher the entire house, because in our home we don’t eat off different dishes,” Rabbi Hirschfield recalled his mother saying.
Yet she also made her own request of him: She asked him to figure out how he would be able to eat with his family at non-kosher restaurants. By this, he said, she was telling him he was not to use his beliefs to drive a wedge in his family. This example helped his family to coexist peacefully, even though he became a rabbi while his brother became an atheist.
“I was so proud of her that she could accommodate that and that they could live together in peace and harmony,” Dr. Shafiq remarked.
The book also spends time dwelling on the humility needed for forgiveness, and how it differs from forgetting.
“Forgiveness, for example, doesn’t mean forgetting, but it does mean letting go of the need to cause pain to someone else,” Bishop Clark said.
Forgiveness is healthy, Rabbi Hirschfield said.
“There’s a kind of arrogance that comes from rightness and a kind of pain that comes from not being able to forgive,” he said.
Karen Quinn of Honeoye Falls, who learned of the talk through an adult Jewish-education class she is taking, said she found truth in the message that it is harder to forgive when you believe you are right.
“We need to make the room to have some doubts,” she said.
Don Avery, a member of Chili Baptist Church, said he appreciated the discussion’s focus on forgiveness and on trying to find the things that we share in common.
“By forgiving, you open yourself up to becoming a better person and a better human being,” Avery said.