Yesterday, dozens of people of all ages, all backgrounds and faiths gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate a 65th birthday. However, as all those offering blessings on the occasion said, this was not a time for retirement. The passing of 65 years of the Swedish Theological Institute’s activities in the Holy City has laid the groundwork for the future as an important site of hospitality, dialogue and education. The diversity and the quality of the crowd gathered was testament to that.
STI is situated in Tabor House, one of the most beautiful buildings in the centre of Jerusalem, originally a home designed and built by architect Conrad Schick in 1882. It was purchased in 1951 and tastefully renovated and maintained by the Church of Sweden. The courtyard provides a wonderful setting for a multitude of ecumenical and interfaith events throughout the year but yesterday focused on celebrating STI itself.
The morning and afternoon were devoted to a conference, “Pilgrimage in the Abrahamic Traditions” in honour of one of the greatest scholars who lived in Jerusalem in the modern era, Professor Zwi Werblowsky, who died one year ago at the age of 91. In addition to his remarkable academic achievements, Professor Werblowsky was an advocate for and a practitioner of interreligious dialogue. Alongside of his research, writing, teaching and administrative duties (from 1965 to 1969 he served as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University), he founded in 1958 the Israel Interfaith Committee, which he led for many years. He was also one of the founders fifty years ago of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group, where Jewish and Christian intellectuals,including STI faculty, regularly meet for open and frank discussion. (I have the honour of being the current secretary of Rainbow, which is still going strong.)
Professor Werblowsky’s daughter, Yiscah Harani, and his student and colleague, Dr David Satran, offered wonderful tributes and great insights into the wisdom that he spread. Then, an audience of academics and religious leaders turned to the theme of pilgrimage and, incidentally, to the significance of Jerusalem for the three Abrahamic faiths. As Dr John Tleel, a great personality of Jerusalem, a friend of Professor Werblowsky and vocal participant in the conference, who was born in Beit Jala in 1928 and is a Rum (Greek) Orthodox Palestinian, said, anyone living in Jerusalem has the opportunity to witness daily the sanctity of the city and the peaceful interactions of the three religions.
A disappointing aspect of the day was that the Muslim community was not well represented numerically or theologically. The keynote speaker on Islamic pilgrimage was an academic from Leeds University whose presentation was very basic and for the most part, predictable. His contention, in response to a question, that Solomon’s Temple was, in fact, the al-Aqsa Mosque, constructed for Muslims, raised some eyebrows. However, one aspect of his presentation struck me as most significant – and it was part of his opening remarks. Bearing a Muslim name, he had been warned that he was likely to be held up at Ben Gurion Airport before being allowed to enter the country. As it transpired, he was ushered straight through and was able to spend a relaxed time visiting all the sacred sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, unimpeded by any unusual security checks. He has already left for a meeting in Turkey and will bear the message, after his brief first visit, that he was not harassed in any way. What a contrast his experience was to so many others I have heard, where innocent people with the wrong names or appearances have been caught up in what may be legitimate security concerns but which leave such a sour taste.
Professor Jesper Svartvik, of Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute made the final academic presentation of the day and his paper on “Pilgrimage and Interreligious Relations” described the desire for and obstacles to joint pilgrimage, whereby people of different faiths embark on a shared journey of discovery. Professor Svartvik (Jesper, another member of the Rainbow Group,) pointed out that Abraham was the quintessential pilgrim. The first step in pilgrimage is to be willing to leave something behind; the second is packing one’s back-pack. What do we need to put into our back-packs in order to share the pilgrimage with our fellow members of the Arahamic family?
Cleverly, he suggested three things: the absolute conviction of the oneness of all creation; the duality of the written and oral law – an openness to interpretation; and, a non-egocentric theology. He controversially suggested that a triune theology could become grounds for dialogue rather than a barrier towards understanding. His paper inspired a thoughtful and respectful response from his audience. Dr Deborah Weissman commented that Jews who are proud of Jewish sportspeople, Jewish actors and Jewish business successes, fail to acknowledge and take pride in the fact that possibly the greatest historical figure – arguably the most influential – of the past 2000 years was a Jew.
It became clear that while the topic of Jesus is for Christians a theological consideration and for Jews is probably best described as “deep anthropology”, the idea that we could speak about Jesus should not be threatening. And we can speak about God, Who reveals Himself in different emanations while still being One. Svartvik quoted Tennyson, who said that “words half reveal, half conceal.” The works of God can be observed; the essence of God can never be described in words. But that is no excuse for us not embarking on a joint pilgrimage – a search for truth and meaning and a willingness to be transformed.
The celebrations at STI continued into the evening with music and food. A larger crowd gathered, knowing that there is a place in the city where everyone who is on a search for meaning, and wants to explore ways for Christians, Muslims and Jews to move forward together is welcome. It has become another pilgrimage site in the Holy City of Jerusalem – one to which we can journey together.
In August, STI will be hosting the Elijah Summer School and Interfaith Leadership Institute. See http://summerschool.elijah-interfaith.org/.