A startling event took place within the Jewish community recently.
An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi (Naftali Brawer and myself) co-wrote a book on our sometimes agreeing and sometimes differing perspectives on issues that modern Jews face, ranging from religious doubts to gender reassignment and from business ethics to dementia.
It was a key departure from the status quo of refusing to engage with each other, even though both groups promote the same faith and share the same history and morals.
Christians, Muslims and others will recognise the conundrum: fights within the family are always more acidic. It applies elsewhere too, be it splits within political parties, or the strained relations between the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.
However, internal religious chasms seem less excusable, bearing in mind the numerous sermons we give about mutual respect and seeing God’s handiwork in all human beings.
Within Judaism this is particularly regrettable when the community needs to pull together to fight antisemitism, whether it be attacks on Jewish students at university campuses or verbal assaults by individuals such as Ken Livingstone.
There is also a curious double-think: we are happy to discuss relations between the different faiths, but much less open to those within our traditions.
Until recently, there were many Orthodox rabbis who would shake hands with a vicar but not with a Reform rabbi. Protestants and Catholics no longer burn each other at the stake, but still question each other’s religious authority. Sunnis and Shias are engaged in bloody conflict abroad and, although relations are far better in the UK, both will object if meetings involve a third group, the Ahmadi Muslims.
It stems, of course, from the sincere belief that we alone are the true heirs of our faith and that we have a responsibility to maintain that precious heritage. It includes opposing any, to our mind, false variations of it.
There is nothing so guaranteed to infuriate our religious sensibilities than the claim of others to be the real us. Those with an entirely foreign set of scriptures can be politely dismissed as irrelevant, whereas those who quote the same verses but derive a different conclusion are far more threatening.
Any hope of mutual acceptance within faiths has to overcome the power of tradition and the difficulty of letting go of past claims to be sole arbiters of the truth; the fear that by acknowledging the validity of other approaches, one is thereby lessening one’s own integrity; and the fact that tolerance has not always been a religious value. It was the intolerance of paganism, sacred prostitutes and child sacrifices that was the hallmark of ethical monotheism. Unfortunately, that intolerance became extended to groups that did not merit being opposed physically or abused verbally.
The Jewish festival of Passover starts next week, celebrating the Exodus and freedom from slavery. It is marked by not eating leavened food, reflecting the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt, before the bread they were baking could rise.
Rabbinic tradition emphasises Passover’s perennial message and how every generation needs to remove the leaven from its heart, fighting whatever injustice or oppression prevails in its midst.
Perhaps our task is to learn to love our same-faith-different-sect neighbour as much as anyone else. We need to embrace pluralism within faiths as much as between faiths. When we benignly say that all the main faiths lead to the same Creator, we have to extend that same religious passport to internal dissenters too.
The many bridges that Jews, Christians, Muslims and others have successfully built between each other needs to become a model for those much closer to us religiously, but who challenge us more.