Next week, the Steering Committee of our newly re-organized Abrahamic Forum will meet for the first time. Now I believe there is a need for us to clarify our position on bilateral and trilateral dialogue.
As we have indicated on a number of occasions, the International Council of Christians and Jews has no intention of turning into the International Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims. In order to explain why, I would like to borrow a phrase from Psalm 34:14, “turn from evil, and do good.” Under the category of “turn from evil,” there are two aspects of the bilateral Jewish-Christian relationship:
1) There is still a great deal of unfinished business between us. One need only glance at Sections 1 through 8 of the ICCJ Berlin Document to see that we have much work to do on both sides. Many non-Western Christians, including in the Middle East, adhere to beliefs in supersessionism and even traditional Christian anti-Judaism.
2) Unfortunately, even when a problem appears to have been “solved,” we can not always assume that it won’t crop up again. There needs to be constant vigilance on the part of all sides to the dialogue to make sure that its positive outcomes remain intact. And, as Hebrew University Bible scholar, the late and sorely missed Moshe Greenberg, once suggested, on another topic, “Even the choicest vine needs seasonal pruning to ensure more fruitful growth."
But once we have “turned away from evil,” it still remains for us to “do good.” Here again, I would point out two aspects:
1) Even if “the problems “ had all been solved, Jews and Christians have a great deal of common ground, chiefly because of historical ties and shared Scripture. Study of each other’s texts and their interpretations is a particularly rewarding activity. Participation in shared liturgies—for example, the Psalms—can be spiritually enriching.
2) For Christians, the study of Judaism is the study of the Jewish roots of their own faith. For Jews, the study of Christianity is, at the very least, an exploration of “the road not taken.” It can also shed much light on Jewish culture in the early centuries of the Common Era. Much of Rabbinic Judaism developed in response to the challenge of Christianity. Learning about the Other helps us learn more and understand more about ourselves.
For these reasons, I would like to see the ICCJ continue to promote Jewish-Christian dialogue throughout the world. And what about “trialogue?” I would like to suggest some of the reasons why trilateral dialogue is also important:
1) Islam is not only the second largest religious group in the world, after Christianity, but in some parts of the world, it’s the fastest-growing.
2) The three “Abrahamic” faiths have much in common, perhaps especially Judaism and Islam. The three monotheistic faiths with their origins in the Holy Land have interacted throughout history, have influenced and been influenced by one another. All three share certain core beliefs and values that can be of major importance in society. It should be noted, though, that there are also very significant differences among the three religious cultures, and they do not necessarily share a common political and social agenda.
3) The large-scale immigration of Muslims has become a critical issue on the European scene. Unfortunately, there are some radical movements within Islam prone to extremism, which seem to have become the single major cause of terror and armed conflict in the world today. All three of our communities have their extremists, and I have become especially concerned recently with the rise in Jewish xenophobia. One of the most important goals of trialogue, in my opinion, is to reach out and strengthen the moderate voices in all of our communities.
There is also some importance to be attached to bilateral dialogues between Jews and Muslims and between Christians and Muslims. Each of those discussions carries with it particular concerns, often contextualized within the geopolitical setting in which it is taking place (e.g., Israel/Palestine, India,etc.) Personally, I have been involved in dialogue frameworks that go beyond these three monotheistic faiths, and include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and members of other communities. I find it particularly challenging for me as a Jew to engage with people of indigenous spiritual traditions. So, is the answer to all of this to look for the lowest common denominator that unites us all? I hardly think so. I also think it is difficult, if not impossible, to expect the same individuals to engage in all of these various forms of dialogue, trialogue, and so on. As finite beings, humans are limited in what any one of us can do. However, they are all worth doing, and I believe there are enough of us around to divide our time and resources among several worthy causes.
Let me add what for me are three more salient points:
1) The grandeur of God is revealed, not only in nature, but also in the tremendous diversity of human culture and experience. To me, the greatness of God would seem lessened if God could be worshipped in only one way. By knowing more about religions and cultures, we know more about God.
2) The most important function of learning about the Other lies in seeing her or him as a human being, like ourselves, which is the first step towards a more empathic relationship. When we encounter each other as people, we begin to communicate on a human level. A process of humanization, rather than demonization, can occur. Hopefully, this will, at the very least, stop us from killing each other, and, at best, will provide the basis for the mutual recognition of our legitimate needs and rights, such as self-determination and security.
3) Ultimately, I would hope that the goal of all these dialogues would be to work on what in our Berlin Document we included in the last 4 calls: to work together for a world of justice, peace, and what Christians so aptly call “the integrity of Creation.”