Rabbi Ted Falcon is one of three clergymen who make up the eclectic and funny “Interfaith Amigos.” Along with an imam, Jamal Rahman, and a pastor, Don Mackenzie, Falcon has traveled the world since 9/11 preaching from the Torah, Gospel and Koran about what he describes as “interfaith spirituality.” But he recently appeared by himself at Temple Emanuel to talk about his ongoing interfaith work.
My fascination with interfaith dialogue stems from my own life story. I attended an Orthodox Jewish day school where I turned devout, both bewildering and annoying my Reform parents. Although they sent me to day school, they never expected me to become a strictly kosher, Sabbath-observant teen. In my new observance, I ate off paper plates in their kitchen and demanded to go to an all-girls ultra-Orthodox high school in New York—a place my parents perceived as far away in miles and intent from their life in West Hartford, Conn. If I wanted single-sex education, the local Catholic all-girls high school was offered to me instead.
My parents’ proposal was not as outrageous as it seems. Nuns in Havana had educated my Cuban mother. She was quite comfortable with sending me to Mount Saint Joseph Academy. I took up the challenge, expecting to last only two weeks. Four years later I graduated from the Mount, and it was one of the greatest social and interfaith experiences of my life. I was the only Jew in my class, and I successfully lived an improvised interfaith experiment in real time. My classmates were curious about me; the sisters were kind to me. What started out as a dare, even a social crisis for me, ended up making me a stronger Jew—a Jew even more appreciative of my Judaism, as well as the Christianity of my classmates.
I suppose you could say I cultivated my own “interfaith amiga” persona at the Mount. I was the Jew who was excused from chapel, but with the support of the administration planned an annual interfaith Thanksgiving service. I was the Jew who curiously didn’t celebrate Christmas, but invited friends over to light the menorah. For many of my classmates, I was the first Jew they had ever known. While the Mount was not a perfect place, I never encountered anti-Semitism. I think that was because my classmates and I went through our own version of the five stages of interfaith dialogue that Falcon introduced to his audience at Temple Emanuel.
I present them as Falcon cited them because they are so critical to initiating meaningful relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
- Reach beyond distrust and suspicion, and even fear, by sharing our stories with each other.
- Gain an appreciative understanding of the core teaching of another’s tradition.
- In the context of those core teachings is an invitation to each of us to understand how some of the verses and practices in our tradition are consistent with those core teachings. And how some other of those verses and practices are inconsistent with those core teachings.
- Be willing to enter into more difficult conversations, such as about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
- Be willing to celebrate and experience spiritual practices from other traditions.
While these tenets make up a kind of wish list of interfaith harmony, Falcon acknowledged that many major religious traditions have gone astray. Religion goes awry, he noted, when it promotes exclusivity, violence, the inequality of men and women and homophobia. “Spirituality is always inclusive,” said Falcon. “It reminds us of the absolute interconnectedness of all beings and embraces the parts of us we are afraid to embrace.”
The Interfaith Amigos have authored three books together. In each they convey the basic principles they have patiently and lovingly cultivated in the past 15 years. Their newest book, “Finding Peace through Spiritual Practice: The Interfaith Amigos’ Guide to Personal, Social and Environmental Healing,” is a unique book that offers support to social activists. Falcon conceded that even an Interfaith Amigo can burn out and become overwhelmed. “We wanted to supply spiritual grounding to support activists, because spirituality without compassionate action in the world is not an authentic spirituality,” he said.
In a 2012 TED talk that was as warm-hearted and funny as it was inspirational, the three Interfaith Amigos summed up the basic teachings of each of their traditions: Judaism conveys a oneness that integrates ethical action. Christianity pointedly promotes unconditional love in a judgmental world and Islam advocates for compassion for one’s self as well as for others. In some ways these condensed descriptors are deceptively simple. Falcon and his colleagues point out that to be effectively connected in this world we must be inclusive, we must be willing to name the truth and we must not be afraid of being vulnerable.
I think my Mount classmates and I understood those precepts even many years ago. We were thrown together in a sink-or-swim situation in which we could either ignore one another or learn about one another. We blessedly gravitated toward an inclusive education of our own making and were the better for it. The Interfaith Amigos would have been proud of what we teenage girls built together.