Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski advocates for ‘cultivating curiosity’

Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, the Kraft Family Professor and director of the Center of Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College, speaks Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Interfaith Lecture Series. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Natalie Hanson
guest writer

The Rev. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski has a lot of experience cultivating curiosity, and on Wednesday afternoon in a rain-dampened Hall of Philosophy, he unpacked those experiences for his Chautauqua audience.

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is the Kraft Family Professor and director of the Center of Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College, and the author of The More Torah, The More Life: A Christian Commentary on the Mishnah Avot. He spoke as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Nine theme of “Realizing Our One World: Strengthening Interconnection.”

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski observed that interconnectedness itself does not bring peace. Our greatly interconnected world has conflicts that are more intense and more complex on more levels than ever before. In the midst of this cultural, political and religious stress, we’d like to think that peace is just a matter of seeing all we have in common, and that conflicts would cease if we could see each other as fellow human beings. We want to frame a single ethos of peace and justice where differences exist, but are subsumed into an overarching unity. This is familiar in the Christian tradition, for example, in the vision of diverse members finding oneness in the Body of Christ.

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski suggests it’s not that simple.

Referring to The Dignity of Difference, the work of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said tribalism ensues when groups engage in conflict over “identity markers.” We are tempted to turn to the idea of universalism as a defense against such polarization, but when a society tries to impose universalism it can become another form of dictatorship. In Medieval Europe, for instance, the Christian church as the Holy Roman Empire created a sort of universal order that gained social unity at the cost of repressing the expression of Judaism.

Sacks writes that the Biblical book of Genesis begins as a universal story that ultimately collapses. The story of the building of the tower of Babel, symbolizing a single-language, wholly unified culture, is one of failure. In the very next chapter after the tower’s fall, God makes a particular covenant with a particular people: not exclusively (other peoples have their own relationships with God) but in a special way, one that affirms the different and individual identities of human communities.

So the Biblical story presents not a universal monotheism, but a particular one, as God relates differently to different cultures and peoples. Sacks writes that “a God of your side as well of mine must be a God of justice for us both.”

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski asked, if this is so, how do we engage more deeply with our own particularities, with the social, caste, ethnic and faith differences among us? Where do we find a starting point between the poles of polarization and homogenization? He suggests beginning with “cultivating curiosity,” or finding a way to learn and ask questions without needing to declare a single truth.

His own life has led in that direction. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski grew up in a conservative United Methodist church shaped by the charismatic movement and the Moral Majority. He was taught that the world was divided between the righteous and the sinful, and that wrong actions had lasting consequences. 

At the same time, he was taught that God loved everyone and that Jews, as God’s historically special people, were to be respected. Growing up, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski had close Jewish friends, and his father cooked kosher meals for a Jewish summer camp nearby. He remembers listening to and being moved by the voices of a community who were deeply passionate about their traditions.

When he arrived at divinity school, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski found himself torn between the challenge to expand his horizons and the fear of being non-righteous. Taking a class on Buddhism and encountering its non-theistic spirituality, he found himself fretting over whether or not the tenets of Buddhism were “correct.” His professor said to him, “What if you stop worrying about whether something is right or wrong? What if you just learn?” It was his invitation to “cultivate curiosity.”

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski moved into a deepening inquiry into Judaism, trying to bracket judgment in favor of learning and allyship. He has been especially focused on repairing the breaches created between the two communities over many years by the sinful actions of the Christian church. He realizes that, as a Christian, it is all too easy to approach Judaism still centered in Christian concerns, trying to heal Christianity by redefining the relationship between Christians and Jews. This isn’t true curiosity.

Instead, cultivating curiosity means not deciding, as a Christian, what is important in Judaism, but intentionally remaining in a posture of listening to Jewish people themselves as they talk about, write about, and live their religious life together. The same principle would apply to our relationship with other religious communities, as well.

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski learned that engaging “curiously” with Judaism meant engaging with the role of the State of Israel in the Jewish community. The State of Israel is both a modern nation-state and a symbolic statement. The people, Israel, share a common sense of destiny and covenant going back to Abraham and Jacob; and Israel is culturally and historically their name. Israel is also the memory of the ancient kingdom ruled by David and his heirs, and that memory carries with it a sense of belonging to the land itself.  And then, Israel is a concrete political entity established in 1948, creating a new history in a particular place, so that “Jews” and “State of Israel” are – in complex ways – not exactly the same thing.

Engaging with the role of the State of Israel can feel risky: the politics are complicated, within the nation and throughout the Jewish community. Conservative evangelicals have an apocalyptic vision in which Israel plays a crucial role, so that supporting the State financially and politically becomes a special blessing and call for conservative Christians. This dynamic is sometimes called “Christian Zionism.” At the same time, there is increasing anti-Semitism throughout the world and in the United States; and there is a strain of anti-Zionism in American Protestantism that dates back to the reports of Christian missionaries serving the Palestinian population before World War II. Early Zionists returning to Palestine to purchase land were seen as change-agents and interlopers and judged negatively.

The easiest thing for a Christian outsider would be to observe from the sidelines and not get involved with any of the above, but Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said that cultivating curiosity demands something else of us. His curiosity led him to these three questions around the meaning of the State of Israel for Jews:

First: Why is the State of Israel so important for Jews? Joslyn-Siemiatkoski has heard a variety of responses, but among them these are frequent: As Israel is both a state and a symbol, its very existence is a manifestation of Jewish self-determination in a world that has sought to control and destroy them. It is an antidote to the years of exile and “a modern expression of an ancient aspiration.” It is an affirmation that Jews are a people, and the State of Israel is a place of refuge. In a world where anti-Semitism is not only alive and well but growing in frequency and intensity, the message of a Jewish nation with borders and the ability to defend them is a powerful one.

Second: What is Zionism, really? The word is sometimes used negatively, but the Zionist movement emerged in the late 19th century as a search for a “publicly assured home.”  The creation of a nation-state was not an issue in the movement of 1897, but became one after WWII and the Holocaust. “Philanthropic Zionism” developed in the United States as a way to fund, first a return to the land, and later, the needs of the young nation. For some, Zionism was a symbolic promise, the transformation of the stereotype of the pale and harassed European Jew into a strong and virile worker-of-the-land.

The cultural dimension of Zionism was the redevelopment of Hebrew as a modern, living language, which then became an engine or development of a distinctly modern Jewish culture. The early Zionists did not foresee the emergence of political, ethno-centric Zionism, which exists today as one of the stress points within Israel.

Third: Who are the Palestinians? The War of Independence for Jews is known as “The Catastrophe” among Palestinians. Palestinians account for 20% of Israel’s population and they live both in mixed cities like Jerusalem and majority-Palestinian cities like Nazareth. While Palestinians do hold leadership positions, their legal rights are not equal to those of Jewish citizens. Gaza and the West Bank are another matter: the separation laws and continued building of Jewish settlements have only added injustice and complexity to the situation. Israel is both an ideal and a political reality, and it should be called to account according to its ideals; but not, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said, more than its neighboring nation-states.

Joslyn-Siemiatkoski spent time learning from a Jewish settler on the West Bank, Hanan Schlesinger, who has become an advocate for his Palestinian neighbors and for peace. Schlesinger began to ask who his neighbors really were – cultivating curiosity – and his worldview changed. Curiosity led to engagement, which led to learning, which led to advocacy. Schlesinger now dreams that some day there will be a confederacy in which the two, differing world visions of Palestinian and Israeli can be respected and accommodated. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski commented during his lecture’s Q-and-A session that it might be time for the Western Christians to step out of the way and allow Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians and West Bank Palestinians to listen to and have agency with each other.

The lesson is that trading the need to be right for the opportunity to listen grows humility in us and respect for the particularity and dignity of others. Cultivating curiosity may not provide dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs, but it can plow the ground for solutions that will be equitable and sustainable in the long run.

In the Q-and-A, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski responded to a question about conversion to Judaism by reflecting that conversion operates in a different context for Christians and Jews. Because Christians often focus first on believing, conversion becomes acceptance of the group’s belief system. Judaism, as with many world religions, is focused first on behavior and belonging, so the question for converts is not “What do you believe?” but “Do you — and how do you — belong to us?” Similarly, the concern of Jews in a time of anti-Semitism is not in solving the conceptual differences between Jews and Christians, but in asking, “Are we safe with you?” Becoming that respectful, safe ally demands that we engage in the kind of long-term, personal relationships which only grow through humble questions, receptive listening and shared experience.


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