On 6th September at the Oxford Jewish Centre, to a packed audience, Wendy Fidler presented findings from her study of contemporary Jewish attitudes to interfaith involvement, a study based on interviews with volunteers from the Jewish community in Oxford.
An important aim of her study was to test widespread but unproven assumptions about inclinations within different branches of Judaism – for example, an assumption that Orthodox Jews will not want to take part in interfaith events. Wendy’s interviews, on the contrary, showed that interest in interfaith encounters could not be predicted on the basis of a person’s place on the religious spectrum, their age, or their cultural background. Instead, feelings and opinions in this field are unpredictable, and essentially personal.
For this occasion, Wendy chose the material from her interviews that dealt with involvement with the sacred space of the Other. Here she used questions which became progressively deeper, requiring the Jewish respondents to access the implication of their attitudes toward Christian space. They could not hide behind generalities when the questions focussed specifically on their responses to Christian services and liturgy. The ‘layers’ began with exploring attitudes towards just entering a church, and progressed to attending an interfaith service held in a church; then to participating in such a service; next to attending a Christian service in a church and finally to participating in such a service.
Wendy has drawn together the findings from her study into an original and significant concept, to which she has given the name Personal Interfaith Boundary. (PIB)
The PIB emerged from the respondents’ comments. It re-defines what people think and where they will go. The boundary is not confined to Jews or Christians but can apply to every religion. Each person, whatever their religion, has a personal interfaith boundary, a boundary beyond which they will not venture. It is different for everyone, and must be respected and understood by all. This doesn’t mean that over time a boundary will always remain in the same place for each person; there is always potential for change.
Are individual PIB’s predictable? Among Wendy’s interviewees, against prior assumptions, the Orthodox were more open than had been anticipated. And age was not a significant factor: for example, a younger Orthodox respondent might be expected to be more open to interfaith encounters because of the pluralistic environment in which students live, but what was found was that an elderly Orthodox rabbi, and an elderly Orthodox academic who was brought up solely within Judaism, had a wider PIB than a young university undergraduate.
It also proved impossible to make generalisations across Orthodox, Masorti or Liberal Jews: each respondent had different responses to different interfaith interactions, regardless of their denomination. What emerged were very individual, particular and personal responses to interfaith opportunities and interactions – revealing their Personal Interfaith Boundaries.
What are the consequences of this reseach for future interfaith activities in the UK?
- It must be remembered that some Jews may not wish to be involved in church attendances; but this is only one aspect of interfaith engagement. The interviews revealed that the Orthodox are doing plenty of other kinds of interfaith work, and the extent to which they do so appears to be personal and self-determined
- There is no clear link between Jewish denomination and involvement in interfaith. There is no evidence to show that fewer respondents who are Orthodox are involved. What is most significant is that all the respondents, irrespective of Jewish denomination, or whether they have positive, negative, or ambivalent attitudes, are ALL engaged in dialogue.
- Any interfaith activity or event must not make the assumption that one size fits all. What will interest one will not interest another. What will be acceptable to one will not be acceptable to another.
- What this research clearly shows is how careful organisers – both Jewish and Christian – must be in putting together a programme if it is going to take place in a church, for it is not only Orthodox Jews – a result which might have been expected – who are concerned about the service content, but also all the participating Jews – Masorti and Liberal included.
It is hoped that Wendy, together with some of those who participated in her study, will be presenting a fuller acount of its findings at Limmud this year.