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Women educating for dialogue and transformation
Over the past several decades Christian and Jewish women have made distinctive and valuable contributions in North American scholarly and professional fields. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that women are increasingly influencing interfaith dialogue in North America. As feminists they are asking what new vision and forms are needed if Jewish-Christian dialogue is to enter the twenty-first century with vitality and effectiveness.
In the United States two women are energetically shaping one response to this timely question. Ten years ago Mary C. Boys SNJM, then Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College (1), met Sara S. Lee, Director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. As their friendship deepened and their collaboration became more extensive, they worked out an initiative to involve religious educators in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. and sponsored by the Institute for Christian- Jewish Studies in Baltimore, their initiative - the Catholic- Jewish Colloquium - represents a creative venture in interreligious learning.
In the five years since they began working on the Colloquium, Mary and Sara have literally spent thousands of hours on its design. At the heart of their planning is the conviction that interreligious learning requires sustained study in the presence of the other. The mutual study and conversation that are the hallmarks of the Colloquium lead, they believe, not only to a transformed understanding of the other but to a transformed self-understanding as a Catholic or Jew.
In February 1992 they convened the first of five intensive sessions for 22 educational leaders (11 each from the Jewish and Catholic communities) from the northeastern United States. The focus of this first weekend session was on Scripture to enable the participants to understand and experience Scripture as the common source for Jews and Christians and yet also as the source of their division. In the following three intensive weekend sessions they examined the "parting of the ways" between our two communities in the first and second centuries; emphasized reappropriating one's history as a Catholic or as a Jew in the presence of the other; and complemented their historical work with a sociological focus which examined Catholicism and Judaism in the North American context. In their fifth session in May, 1994, the participants worked out the educational implications of their mutual study during the preceding 28 months and designed strategies.
In November 1995, the same group of educators will reconvene with Mary and Sara to review together the new programs and initiatives they have been developing since May 1994. During this second phase of the Colloquium a network for further collaboration has been developing. The participants are planning projects to rework curricula and educate teachers, and they have expressed an intense desire to go together on a study tour of Israel.
As Mary and Sara describe the process they are using and their manner of working with each other and with the participants much of what they say reflects Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's statement:
Feminist Theologians maintain that theology has to become again communal and holistic. Feminist theology expresses itself not only in abstract analysis and intellectual discussion, but it employs the whole range of human expression, e.g. ritual, symbol, drama, music, movement or pictures. (2)
Taking the nature of dialogue with the utmost seriousness they emphasize learning through a three-way interaction between self, the other and texts/tradition. Stimulating informed engagement they complement scholarly input and a rigorous study and analysis of texts with times of personal sharing, community-building, ritualizing and celebration. They chose to spread five sessions over eighteen months rather than condense them into one ten-day conference to allow time for pondering, assimilation and integration. They model relationship through their team teaching which gives evidence of structure and careful planning as well as of freedom for intuitive changes and spontaneous transitions. Emphasizing accurate knowledge and understanding of one's own history and tradition as well as that of the other, they are also attentive to the diverse affective movements of the participants. These movements are inevitable as faith understandings are questioned or new and exciting insights break through.
The words Mary and Sara use to describe the Colloquium include: a gathering (a synagogue, an ekklesia), a forum, an intensive study session, an encounter, an in-service workshop a laboratory to integrate Catholic-Jewish scholarship and personal relationships. These images give evidence of engaging the cognitive, rational and linear functions traditionally associated with masculine learning, as well as the intuitive, emotional and relational functions traditionally associated with the feminine. They reflect, as well, the relational and prophetic qualities of two courageous, intelligent women working responsibly and interdependently in North America where they educate for dialogue.
1. Since July 1994, Mary C. Boys is Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
2. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation," Woman: New Dimensions, ed. Walter Burkhardt (New York, Paulist Press 1977) p.40.