Where else can one spend 5 intensive days in profound interreligious learning with leading Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars and practitioners from Europe, North America and Israel than at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Annual Theology conference on their beautiful campus in the heart of Jerusalem! This year’s conference was dedicated to the memory of Rabbi David Hartman, of blessed memory, (who passed away the previous week), who was not only the founder of the institute but the founder, with Christian partners, of this amazing theological conference, known for serious learning and open inquiry, which are the pillars of the learning experience at the Hartman Institute.
I have had the privilege of being a participant in this conference for the past several years and it is always one of the intellectual and spiritual highlights of my year. Yet, this year’s conference (the 26th one!) was especially meaningful for me and most of the participants, as the theme of “Forgiveness” provoked profound substantive deliberations as well as sensitive dialogue among the 50 participants.
First of all, it is important to state that the method of learning in small groups, based on the hevruta model, is at the heart of this conference. The 50 participants were divided into 6 learning groups, with Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and practitioners in each one. Each group studies collections of Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts on the theme, prepared by one of the scholars in a carefully selected and thoughtful way.
My hevruta was comprised of three scholars of Christianity, two Muslim scholars, and three Jewish ones. It was a wonderful group of people who not only got deeply into attempting to understand the texts that we were studying , but engaged in much personal reflection and conversation based on great mutual respect and trust in each other. By the second day, I noticed that we often used “I think” or “I feel” as much as “the text says” or “they say.” It was a marvelous mix of deliberation and dialogue.
The issues of Forgiveness that we studied and analyzed were both communal and personal at the same time. Can there be unconditional forgiveness? Or is it always conditional? Is it not a process? And what do the different religious traditions have to say about this process? Is forgiveness an antidote to Justice? Do we not need both Forgiveness and Justice in our communities and societies? And in our personal lives?
These were just some of the issues that we discussed in depth, as a transformation took place and we became a caring and committed community.
On the last day of the conference, one of the scholars presented texts that sum up his or her personal story, his or her approach to teaching of a particular academic discipline in a particularly poignant way. This year’s presenter was Prof. Ellen Davis of Duke University’s Divinity School, with whom I also had the privilege of studying in hevruta during the conference. Her topic was “The Bible and Practical Theology: What Good Should Come from Reading Scripture (Critically)”.
Not only did Prof. Davis offer us particularly poignant texts — including a song composed by a South Sudanese songwriter (Prof. Davis has spent much time in Sudan over many years) and a woodcut about the Biblical story of Ruth — but her summary of her work in the plenum following the hevruta study was a moving intellectual and spiritual experience that captivated the entire audience. For Prof. Davis, studying the Scriptures allows her to engage in a “theologically rich conservation across difference”.
In addition, Prof. Davis has been engaged in interreligious study and interfaith dialogue for much of her professional life. She referred to interfaith work as “the call of the Holy Spirit in this generation.” Moreover, she feels strongly that one of the great challenges today for those who are teaching religions in divinity schools and seminaries is “learning how to enter into interfaith conversation”. I was deeply inspired by her words, which I believe rang true for most of the participants at the conference.
In the midst of all the conflict in our region, and the negotiations to form a government in Israel, and the manifestations of animosity, hatred, racism and violence in our society, fifty Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and practitioners spent 5 days together in Jerusalem, quietly and without fanfare, demonstrating that we can engage in respectful study and dialogue which seeks to understand our human commonalities as well as our religious and cultural differences. Yes, this actually happened in Jerusalem. Perhaps it is a foretaste of the future, in which Jerusalem can become a city of shalom, of harmony and wholeness that respects and values differences and uniqueness at the same time.