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Religious Jokes are changing

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue argues that interfaith dialogue has made a tremendous leap forward in a piece published in The Times.

One of the great religious success stories of our time has been the leap forward in interfaith dialogue. The extent to which regular meetings of rabbis, vicars and imams is no longer newsworthy proves the point — but it also masks the fact that it is a surprisingly novel development.

Not so long ago the different faiths saw each other as rivals or vied to convert each other’s members.

Preachers warned their flocks of the perils of contact with unbelievers and highlighted religious differences; now they regard each other as allies in a common fight against religious indifference.

A milestone in this change — and later a catalyst for progress between other faiths — was in 1942 when the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) was founded and the first nervous attempts were made to bridge what, for centuries, had been a hostile and bloody divide.

Three short religious stories in common currency in Jewish circles in the decades since then reveal the rapid journey from deep suspicion to mutual trust between the two faiths.

The first is from the 1950s. An elderly religious Jew is dying. It is the middle of the night, he lives in a cottage far from the nearest town and a fierce storm is raging. He turns to his wife and says, “My end is coming; please fetch the vicar.”

She is aghast: “You have been a pious Jew all your life. Why are you suddenly switching faiths at the last minute?” “Don’t worry,” he replies, “I’m not — it’s just that I wouldn’t dream of calling the rabbi out on a night like this. Get the vicar instead.”

The story indicates that Jewish-Christian relations are non-existent; an us-and-them attitude prevails.

The second story comes from the 1970s: a Jew crossing the road is knocked over by a car; he is badly injured; a crowd gathers round and a nearby priest rushes to help.

Bending over the man, he gives the Last Rites, saying: “Do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”, to which the Jew exclaims: “I’m dying and he asks me riddles!”

Whatever the quality of the story, it shows that Jews are aware of Christian practices and theology. They may reckon it is incomprehensible, but there has been a significant advance in knowledge. They now know what is going on in each other’s traditions.

The third is much more recent: a Catholic priest and a rabbi are enjoying a meal and swopping stories about religious lapses. The priest says: “Tell me, have you ever tasted pork?” The rabbi pauses and then confesses that he did do so once. “Nice, isn’t it,” beams the priest.

The rabbi thinks, then says: “OK, so let me ask you, have you ever gone out with a girl?” The priest blushes but eventually admits to it. “Ah,” says the rabbi, “nicer than pork, isn’t it.”

What is significant is not so much the humour as the context: the priest and rabbi are old friends, are socialising over a meal and trust each other with personal experiences.

Jokes reflect realities that listeners recognise and often have a serious point behind them. These particular stories depict the interfaith revolution that has occurred.

The benefits have been enormous, not only breaking down barriers between different communities but also enriching them with insights concerning their own faiths.

Christians, for instance, have appreciated new aspects of the Last Supper through learning about the Jewish Passover upon which it was based. Likewise, Jews have realised how some medieval Jewish pietism was influenced by the Islamic mysticism of the period.

Such exchanges may be taken for granted nowadays, but the courage of the pioneers 70 years ago, both to step outside their religious comfort zone and to admit that the voice of God can be heard in other traditions, deserves to be recognised and celebrated.

This piece first appeared in The Times

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