Rabbi Raphael Levine was a great mentor to me and many other rabbis and ministers over the years.
Rabbi Levine came to Seattle and Temple De Hirsch in 1942, and served the temple until his death in 1985. Beginning in 1960, Rabbi Levine with Father William Treacy and a rotating panel of clergy led the weekly TV program “Challenge,” which for 15 seasons discussed issues of the day in a multi-religious context.
He was one of the foremost advocates for interfaith dialogue in our nation and he was duly honored for that during his long life. One of the most important lessons he taught and lived through example was that there was no room for undue deference in true dialogue. He was always proud of his Jewish faith and never minced words or kowtowed to anyone, whatever their status.
I believe, as he did, that respectful interfaith — and indeed, intrafaith — dialogue serves an important purpose; but only if it conducted on a level playing field. He was adamant that he would not be set up as a straw man or be anyone’s patsy, which is not uncommon when asked to represent Judaism in a Christian or Muslim setting.
Recently, we hosted a Muslim group at our synagogue as part of a joint Tisha B’av/Ramadan pray and break-the-fast event. It was among one of the first times these two holy days of Judaism and Islam, respectively, were marked together. As we began to plan the gathering, I was direct and absolutely clear that it had to be a gathering of equals and that each faith must have a balanced role in terms of time and content.
It worked out quite well, given the challenge. My remarks focused on the strengths and beauty of our heritage. My Muslim counterpart spoke poetically and clearly. However, there was one difference which was to be expected. He asserted in a subtle way that Islam is an improvement on Christianity and Judaism and that their prophet was superior to those who had come before and that there would be no one greater in the future.
Islam is a proselytizing religion and that is part and parcel of its message. Fair enough. I knew that while some Jews might be offended, there was virtually no chance any would embrace Islam. It is fair to say that we believe that Judaism is the best religion, but we do not feel the need to assert that or to try to make converts. It really is a matter of style and not of substance.
But the principle is important: Insist on balance and equality. For example, if there is a presentation of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, do not accept that it will be in the order of origin: Judaism, Christianity and then Islam. That implies a kind of hierarchy. Historically, Christianity portrayed itself as the fulfillment of Judaism; just as Islam says the same about the other two. I insist that we flip a coin or draw lots to determine the order.
In a similar way, when the Summit at First Hill invited an Orthodox rabbi and a Conservative rabbi along with me to discuss the meaning of life (a light topic) I similarly insisted that we be listed alphabetically in the publicity — which turned out O, R and C — no hierarchy implied.
Some people might argue that such interfaith and intrafaith gatherings are so much “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Maybe so. I prefer to believe that we can learn from one another and be a source of light and not just heat. We can model respect while maintaining our own sense of integrity and strength.
That is what Rabbi Levine was able to do in the 40-plus years he served our community as our emissary to the larger community. We who engage in interfaith follow in his footsteps as Joshua and Caleb did in those of Moses.