Confession: When I was 19, I fell totally, completely, flat on my face in love.
You never forget your first love. It was at Campion College at the University of Regina. The course was Modern Jewish Thought and his name was Franz Rosenzweig. He was German, and Jewish, and oh so fascinating. He worked on Jewish-Christian relations. Franz opened up my world, and said everything my soul was searching for. He was perfect. He died in 1929.
Up until that point I was a pre-journalism major. After that point I became a religious studies major. Well, perhaps, that’s not quite true, because I fell in love for the second time shortly thereafter. This time it was in the Classroom Building at the University of Regina while taking a course — Jesus of Nazareth. A particularly contentious argument between a guest speaker and a student was smoothed out by one of my favourite profs. The topic was Jesus in Islam, the guest speaker was Muslim, the student was enraged. You see, Jesus holds a special place in Islam as a prophet and a messenger, and is mentioned more times in the Quran than any other person. My fellow student, however, did not want to hear this. She stood up, crying, pointing her finger at him, screaming “What do you know about my Jesus?”
I was shocked, and not a little terrified. The professor stepped in and, through his gentle yet firm handling of the situation, defused it and taught us all about the importance of respect for the other, for another religion’s belief system, and how to speak to the person directly in front of us.
I will ever be grateful for that moment because it revealed to me what was to become my vocation. I remember thinking: “That will never happen again in my presence. I will do what needs to be done to stop that!” It was then that I made the decision to switch to a religious studies major.
I have devoted my life and my studies to knowing and teaching others about the importance of one’s faith to oneself, others, and to the world in general. If Franz Rosenzweig was the content of my love, then religious studies was its form. If my prof was the example of what to do in the face of religious prejudice, then I was going to do that.
The story helped form my religious identity. The professor and priest, Rev. Don Bolen (now archbishop), taught us not only with his words, but with his presence. It was not just his words that helped us understand why it is important to treat other religious faiths with reverence, but also his presence, his admiration for the speaker in front of us, and his respect for the speaker’s tradition and beliefs that clearly showed how someone of one faith can love someone of another.
I have tried to model my teaching, my faith and my interfaith journey on his as well.
I study “the neighbour” in biblical and Jewish texts. I study how “we” treat our neighbours, our “others,” our world, and ourselves in accordance with Leviticus 19:18, Isaiah 49:6, and 1Kings 8: 41-43. These verses focus on the “love command,” the concept of universal salvation, and the responsibility to foreigners in one’s land and houses of worship. When taken together, these verses show us the shape of God’s love for humanity and call us to not only recognize that love, but feel it ourselves.
The “love command” is the command to love. The verse that first states this command, Leviticus 19:18, however, is not simply just the command to love. It reads: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love our neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.”
I have been studying this one verse for 13 years now, and every time I look at it I am struck by a new thought, a new image, a new possibility. But one thing always remains the same — this verse is God’s command to love the other in the midst of difficulty with the other. It is about love, difficulty, the other, and God; and yet it is mostly about our own selves in the face of the other (this shows in the Hebrew — “you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself”).
To me, this love is about respect — the respect I have for you because I have respect for myself, and because I have respect for myself, I have respect for you.
I try, with hope, anger, failed attempts, and woeful inadequacy to live this verse in my life and in my work. Loving is difficult, but its why I do what I do. How about you?
Pomazon is assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.