Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Perils of Interfaith Dialogue

In 1996 and 1997 I spent about ten months at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Trappist monastery in Northern California. The monastery provided me with a small cabin, meals in the guesthouse refectory, and access to the monastery library. The few other expenses I had were covered by serving every other weekend as visiting rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, about three hours away.

In return for my room and board, I gave lectures to the monastic community every couple of weeks. I also studied one on one with a couple of the monks, and for a few weeks taught a course to the scholastics.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Trappists, they are what is known as a cloistered order. This means that they are generally expected to remain within the walls of the monastery unless they have a very important reason not to. So of course they go into town to see the doctor; one of the monks is sent into town on a regular basis to buy supplies the monastery needs; and they travel on business for the monastery or the larger Trappist Order. But under ordinary circumstances they would not, for example, leave the monastery to hear a lecture or see an exhibition. To provide intellectual stimulation, then, monasteries are always bringing in guest lecturers on all types of subjects -- if the monks can't go to the lecturers, the lecturers come to the monks. That's why the Abbey was willing to host me for the ten months.

The "scholastics" are monks who are studying to be ordained as priests. Most monks these days in the Trappist order are priests, though some are not and remain as Brothers rather than Fathers. Scholastics have already been through several years of monastic training and have taken vows; they are full-fledged monks but not yet priests. Because the Trappists are cloistered, they don't send their priests-in-training to a seminary. Instead, they have seminary classes right there in the monastery. Since Trappist monasteries these days tend to be pretty small, it is not unusual for scholastics from one monastery to temporarily be transferred to another in order to get their seminary classes.

Father Thomas, the Abbott, thought it would be a good idea for his scholastics to get a couple of months of Jewish studies, since I was available and anxious to teach. And so twice a week I spent two hours with the scholastics giving them the equivalent of an introductory college-level course in Jewish Studies -- very similar to courses I had already taught at American University and at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. We also took a "field trip" one Friday night to the synagogue in Chico, about twenty miles away. The scholastics loved the service and especially the Oneg Shabbat (cookies, cake and coffee or soda) afterwards.

The scholastics were on the whole excellent students, eager to do the readings and able to grasp the material pretty quickly. The one thing that was really different, though, was their unwillingness to ask questions. Some of this may be cultural; Jews may simply be more garrulous on the whole than Catholics. But some of it is due to the particularities of Trappist life -- their practice of silence (though they are allowed to speak in classes and lectures) and their obedience to authority.

At any rate, one morning my lecture was called "Judaism and the Problem of Modernity." I described the challenges Judaism faced starting about 250 years ago with the breakdown of traditional societies, the rise of democracy and the nation-state, and so on. This is familiar material to anyone who has studied Jewish history beyond elementary school.

But two of the monks clearly had trouble following some of what I was saying. However, as was their wont they did not interrupt to ask for clarification. Only after the lecture did it become clear what was troubling them.

Brother Gaetan, a French Canadian who was not quite fluent in English, came up to me and said "that was all very interesting, but I still don't see what it had to do with the problem of maternity."

He was followed by Brother Alberic, from the Phillipines, who said "I had some trouble understanding the significance of the Dry Fish Trial."

(The Dreyfus Trial was one of the catalysts to the founding of the Zionist movement. Dry fish, apparently, is a staple dish in Brother Alberic's part of the Phillipines.)

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