Cafeteria Jew?

Last night during an interfaith event in Nashville two criticisms were raised that deserve wider attention.

The first came from a woman who asked if my Judaism was equivalent to what she called Cafeteria Christianity: picking passages from the Bible I liked and interpreting them in ways that I found meaningful. From her nervous tone of voice I suspect she thought I would disagree. I didn’t.

I happily and unabashedly pick and choose texts and teachings I find meaningful, and then weave them into the fabric of my personal philosophy. In fact, I believe this is what everyone does, which is why there are so many religions and denominations within religions.

She was pleased with my answer either because it proved what a fool I was, or because it proved how wise I was. Which of these is true depends on her own relationship to Cafeteria Christianity, about which she did not elaborate.

The second criticism came from a grey haired man carrying a huge faux leather Bible. He complained that my interpretation of the Bible didn’t conform to God’s. When asked if he knew what God had in mind, he said he did. When asked how he knew, he said because he read the Bible. When I suggested that I too read the Bible and that the only difference between he and I was that he claimed his opinion was God’s opinion while I did not, he assured me I was wrong.

There are three ways to deal with such people. You can argue with them; you can make fun of them; you can inquire more deeply into their understanding; or you can ignore them. As is my habit I opted for number three, and asked the man how he benefited from his beliefs. He said they brought him peace. Sadly his agitated, aggressive, and belligerent tone suggested just the opposite.

I shared with him and the audience a true story about a Christian Fundamentalist friend of mine who refused to join any church because none of them preached the Word of God as she understood it. She was profoundly lonely. I asked the man if he were lonely, and if knowing the will and way of God when the rest of the world opted for alternatives left him alienated and alone? He walked out without answering.

What I didn’t get to say to him, and would have had he stayed, is that I suffer from the same sense of certainly that he seems to harbor. For all my curiosity about and willingness to dialogue with other people of other faiths, I am convinced that my understanding of things is true, and that those who disagree with me are wrong. After all if I thought they were right, I would change my position and agree with them. But I don’t. And the reason I don’t is that I think I’m right.

The only difference between this fellow and myself is that I still harbor the slight chance that I could be wrong. And because I do, I remain open to other ideas. Of course if I found an idea that was truer than my own I would make it my own and fall back into the same hubris of certainly. So I pray to God not to know the truth, but for the humility to admit that I don’t.

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