Exploring space; making space

50 years since humanity touched the face of the moon….Deep in the human spirit is the desire to travel, to explore, to discover new places, meet new people. The Midrash, book of Jewish myth and consciousness locates the urge to travel in the original human being. Adam, it says, was created out of the dust of the earth. It speculates where the dust came from. God, it suggests gathered the dust from the four corners of His universe, or alternatively from the holiest spot in the world: the epicentre Jerusalem. In other words, says Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik we are both origin-driven (always seeking to return home) and cosmic – conscious, driven to explore all the uncharted lanes of the galaxy. Inbuilt in our psyche is the need to travel in order to discover who we really are. So human beings are impelled to seek out the furthest reaches of space.

Ancient myth and contemporary tales focus on the travels of human beings, the odyssey of the human spirit. Abraham’s pilgrimage to the holy land, is pivotal to the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. With Tisha B’Av approaching I got to thinking of another Journey to Jerusalem: Several years ago a group of Melbourne Jews, Christians and Muslims embarked on a journey to Jerusalem together.

The journey got me not only to reflect on my years of interfaith engagement, but also to encounter first-hand the challenges and limitations of the interaction. It was both harder and easier than I had anticipated and left me both less confident and more convinced about the importance of interfaith dialogue.

Humanity, as Rabbi Sacks has suggested, is constantly threatened by the tension between the unique and the universal. ‘If we were completely different we could not communicate and if we were completely the same we would have nothing to say. Unless we are prepared to make space for the each other we will continue to hate each other in the name of God’. This is the central challenge for Jews, Christians and Muslims especially in this tiny fateful land which God summoned Abraham, father of our three faiths some 4,000 years ago.

Our little group had no pretensions about our capacity to meet this challenge but moving in this contested political and geographical space we hoped to at least acknowledge each other’s unique theological space.

For all of us it’s the sense of being in a place that engages not only your mind, but your heart and soul. It encourages you to go deeper; like the multilayered levels of this ancient city there’s always another layer to dig down.

And that’s what we explore as we walk together, share meals and debrief at the end of the day. Jerusalem is both a divided city and an indivisible place. The religions constantly bump up against one another and that’s not just figuratively.

That’s why I’m frankly surprised that our eclectic group attracts so much attention, after all here they’re doing this interfaith stuff every day. Perhaps they don’t have the luxury of contemplation and reflection. Maybe in some very small way we’re helping them look at themselves and helping them dream of the possibility of things being different and even better!

But then there are the fractious and difficult moments. Probably, the most critical challenge takes place at Yad Vashem. One of the Muslim women accompanying us lived through the Lebanon War and as she enters the museum she is re-traumatised by the images of suffering and war and needs to exit hastily. She is deeply upset and accuses Israel of exploiting the Shoah to gain sympathy. She is angry at the high school children at the Memorial claiming we’re brainwashing them and causing more hatred. The Muslims join her in solidarity, the Christians are confused, the Jews are deeply wounded by what we perceive to be an unjustified attack and a demeaning diminution of our collective trauma. I am also furious – angry at what I see as a myopic lack of compassion and recognition of the Shoah.

We spend hours trying to talk through what happened but the chasm remains. Yet despite the disjunction there are moments we come together in harmony and shared togetherness.

The Shabbat brings us together in a Jewish Jerusalem hotel unaccustomed to having Jews, Christians and Muslims alongside each other. We draw other guests to us, religious Jews from Israel and from across the world wondering at this motley, harmonious group from the Antipodes. They want to know what we’re doing there, how do we actually manage to travel and talk together and to do it in this edgy city. They want to emulate us and do the same trip from their hometowns. Now we feel, for a brief period, that we’ve touched on something deep and essential, that we’ve recognised our differences, that we can let go of hate and victim-hood, supremacy and supercession. That we can learn to re-read our ancient stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael which divides Jews and Muslims to reinterpret, the hostility between Esau and Jacob which separates Jewish and Christian readings and understanding of the Scriptures. Jerusalem is a place where so much has been lost. It’s also a space where so much has been found. On this trip to Jerusalem I discovered and uncovered more than I anticipated. But I also lost some of my idealism, the belief that with enough love and goodwill we could overcome the hostility and distrust of generations.

So I despair and I dream, I hope and I doubt about the future of our dialogue. I hope because I’ve witnesses how many Jews and Christians can share a common language. And I hope because without hope there’s only more violence and hatred and centuries of bitterness to come.

I like to think our small group of Jews, Christians and Muslims found more than they lost, that together we represent the hope that the solution, or at least part of it, will be found not in politics but in religion; in the genuine seekers of faith in each of our magnificent monotheistic movements.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.