Tikkun Olam: Interview with Rabbi Tamar Grimm

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By: Samra (admin)

I paced around, then paused to look at the clock.  It read 1:35pm.  “Only 25 minutes to go,” I said to myself.  I decided to calm my nerves by calling on God using the prayer/meditation beads.  I called on Him by His various names in Arabic, such as The Light (An-Noor), The Bestower of peace (As-Salaam), and The Guide (Al-Haadi).  As peace permeated my senses, my eyes turned to the clock that now read 1:57pm.  I quickly put away the beads, grabbed my cell phone, and texted Rabbi Tamar Grimm to let her know I was about to call her.  A few crazy thoughts passed through my mind: what if she changed her mind about speaking with me? What if she doesn’t pick up? What if there’s an emergency at my kids’ preschool while I’m in conversation with the Rabbi?

Thankfully, I didn’t dwell too long on my fears.  Both nervous and excited, I went ahead and dialed her number.  After a few rings, I heard a friendly “Hello.”   I expected to begin with a formal greeting and then dive straight into the questions.  But what I actually got was an extraordinary experience engaging with the rabbi.

I felt very comfortable from the beginning.  Rabbi Tamar Grimm told me about her car troubles that day, and  we exchanged remarks about the extreme cold weather (she’s located outside of Chicago and I’m near Toronto).  Then she asked me about how I got involved in the interfaith movement.  For a good five to ten minutes, I talked about myself, sharing my insights into faith and spirituality.  I told her how I realized that in the end, we all believe in basically the same fundamentals, such as One God and living a moral life.

Rabbi Tamar Grimm was very gracious in her responses, telling me how at one of the interfaith events  in her town, she was surprised when the imam working with her quoted the Quran on the taking of a single innocent life being equivalent to killing all of humanity.  She was astonished because Jews have the exact same principle in their faith.  She went on to say that any killing or hurting done by anyone in the name of religion was not really because of religion, but because of the greed for power and money, but the perpetrators would never admit to that fact of course.

It really felt like we were old friends.  We were open and honest with each other throughout our conversation.

Me: How does Judaism explain or define God?

Rabbi: There are actually many interpretations within Judaism of God.  But basically Judaism looks at God as One.  And not just that God is One, but that He is indivisible.  God cannot be compartmentalized. 

Me: What is the essence or the ultimate goal of Judaism?

Rabbi: It is to heal the world.  To make it a better place.  We use the phrase “Tikkun Olam” which means to repair the world.  It’s a major idea in Judaism that we should try to fix the world because the world is broken.  I think a person could do this without religion, but the idea is that the Jewish traditions are supposed to train us, get us in the habit of doing acts of kindness and charity.  So by following the religion, it becomes natural to look at the world that way and interact with the world that way.

Me: How does Judaism/Torah view non-Jews?

Rabbi: There are many kinds of non-Jews according to Judaism and according to the Torah.  The Torah and the religion view people on who they are, but mostly on what they do.  There are non-Jews who are considered righteous, and they’re considered righteous, because they’re righteous! If they’re acting in good ways, if they’re doing good things; treating people fairly and kindly then they’re considered righteous.  But if they’re not (righteous) then they’re not (righteous). There are even special roles or status for people who attach themselves to the Jewish community, but may not be Jewish.  There are some negative ideas about idol worshippers, which don’t really exist anymore but at one time they did. And that was considered as doing something evil, or doing something wrong.

4) What do you feel are some major misconceptions non-Jews have about Judaism or Jewish people?

Rabbi: You know, there are a lot of stereotypes.  At our last interfaith dialogue that we held, this was the topic.  I presented three misconceptions there.  The first one was that sometimes people will say that Jews are obsessed with money, or they’re greedy, or they’re rich.  It’s not true: there are poor Jews, there are rich Jews.  They’re just like any other population.  There are plenty of Jews who are poor, just like any community. 

The second one is that Jews control the media, Hollywood, and they wanna take over the world – sort of a conspiracy theory kind of thing.  I don’t know where this thing came from.  There certainly are Jews in Hollywood, but there are way more non-Jews in Hollywood; more Christians in Hollywood.  But there are actors and actresses who are Jewish in Hollywood…so what? There are African American actors. Whenever there’s a minority group that is prospering I think, they get stereotyped as having some kind of secret power.

The third one is I think there’s this idea that Jews view themselves as God’s chosen people, that they’re better than everyone else.  And it’s funny because more often than not I get Christians coming up to me and say “But you’re the chosen people.”  I don’t think we view ourselves that way at all. There are a couple of lines in the Torah that talk about Israelites, which would include all of us descended from them, as being a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. And theres a connotation of chosen-ness in some of those verses, but we don’t see ourselves as better than anybody else.  If anything, it’s like “Thanks, you’ve chosen us for all this history of discrimination.” We’ve been through so much. We don’t think we’re special. We choose to follow the Torah, but it’s not something that confers anything special on to us. It does give us special responsibility to carry the laws in the Torah. If anything, it’s more of a burden.

5) Are you happy with how the interfaith dialogue has been so far? In what way do you think interfaith dialogue could be improved?

Rabbi: I’ve been involved in a lot of different initiatives.  I think there’s a lot going on.  There could always be more.  What has been nice for what I’m involved with in my community, is that people can come, who feel like they have really little knowledge and they can just listen and hear and learn about other religions without feeling like they have to represent to anyone else. There’s an imam, a priest, and myself giving presentations.  The audience can ask questions. We don’t just let people stand up and ask questions, they have to write it down. It’s really structured to prevent too much discomfort. We feel like three of us being clergy, could represent our religions, and people would feel comfortable.  Before in Boston,  we had  a women’s group for Jewish and Muslim women, where we would get  together at people’s houses and we would watch a movie and have different events promoting dialogue. That was beautiful and wonderful, but it was a totally different thing. 

Even after going through the interview questions, we kept talking.  It was wonderful to connect to a woman rabbi, and I expressed my hopes for some day talking to a woman imam.  I felt a little saddened by the fact that the Muslim community was still behind on officially accepting women as imams.  But I do have hope that as our identity evolves, we can hold on to our core values and beliefs and still be inclusive.

There is a lot to learn about Judaism, and by no means is this interview meant to encapsulate the entire Jewish faith or experience.  This was just a basic attempt to let go of fear and embrace love, compassion, and understanding towards our Jewish siblings.

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