Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Towards Genuine Interfaith Dialogue

Earlier this month, I had the honour of being a guest at ‘Domus Galilaeae,’ a center for Catholic seminarians situated near Korazim (on Mt Beatitudes) in the north. My hosts were a group of Roman Catholics who are part of a movement called the ‘Neocatechumenal Way.’ This stream of the Roman Catholic Church is a lay initiative which is having remarkable success in recruiting new enthusiasts for Catholicism, particularly from lapsed Catholics but also from other Christian and non-Christian communities around the world. The members are not particularly sophisticated in their theology but their enthusiasm and commitment have made them a formidable force. One of the things that makes them unusual is there deep love for Jews, Judaism and Israel.

The ‘Neo-Cats’, as they are affectionately called, love the faith of Jesus and believe that he would want them to love today’s Jews as fellow travellers on the spiritual paths. Their sincerity is beyond doubt. They came to this meeting from around the world to enter into dialogue with Jews and I responded to their invitation with the best of will.

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Interfaith Gathering at ‘Domus Galilaeae’, May 2015

In my personal life and my professional life, it is my sincere desire to develop genuine dialogue with all my acquaintances. By ‘dialogue’ I mean more than the ability to exchange information; ‘dialogue’ involves affecting each other on an emotional level, too. One of my favorite passages on the subject is from the work of one of the 20th Century’s most important philosophers, Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”:

There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.

There is technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding.

And there is monologue, disguised as dialogue, in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.

I have been profoundly influenced by Buber’s observations that not all conversations are genuine communications and that there is an important difference between communicating something ‘technical’ and something that establishes a true relationship. Buber has taught me that it is not good enough to simply speak with someone – indeed, speaking may interfere with dialogue. And I have discovered that intention is not enough either. There must be a combination of awareness, effort and patience if true dialogue is to occur.

I have also learnt that sometimes ‘technical dialogue’, while inadequate in and of itself, can be a precursor to ‘genuine dialogue.’ Our Catholic friends, who came to this meeting from around the world to meet Jews, may have been surprised by the actual encounter. People generally do not conform to stereotypes. Jews of today are certainly not the Jews of Jesus’ time, who undoubtedly were, themselves, not of one ilk; we are not all conservative on issues of family; there is not necessarily a correlation between religious observance and an active search for spiritual meaning; we have not necessarily ‘found’ religion or found that ‘religion’ provides the answers to our existential questions. The expectations of our Catholic partners that we would conform to certain traits and values and that ‘religion’ for us was the same as it was for them meant that there was no possibility of genuine dialogue. There was not yet a clear appreciation of the ‘present and particular being’ of the Jews of today.

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp and Cardinal Toppo
Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp and Cardinal Toppo

In a similar vein, many of the Rabbis who came to the meeting, particularly those from Israel, had no idea about the beliefs of these Catholics regarding Judaism. Roman Catholicism has changed since the enactment of Nostra Aetate, 50 years ago, in which Jews were formally exonerated from any guilt in the death of Jesus and in which the Church took responsibility for the antisemitism that resulted from the Church’s teachings over the centuries. While most of the Jewish delegates were aware of that document, they were not prepared for the expressions of love for Jewish belief and were taken aback by the appropriation of Jewish prayer, particularly the Shema, which they (the Neo-Cats) invoke enthusiastically.

There was a danger that our dialogue would indeed be monologue: that the Christians would be speaking to the imaginary Jews whose Judaism was that of Jesus and that the Jews would be reluctant to engage with a group whose zeal for Jesus could be understood to preclude genuine respect for beliefs in which he has no role.

Dialogue, at a rudimentary level, was achieved, however. It began with the magnificent performance, by full orchestra and chorale, of the symphony, ‘The Suffering of the Innocents’, which the host for the meeting composed and which has been performed, among other places, at the gates of Auschwitz. Chazzan Chaim Adler, of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, completed the performance with a moving rendition of Keil Malei Rachamim, the prayer for the souls of the departed. Regardless of the concern by many of the Jewish participants about the inclusion of the Shema proclamation in the symphony, the power and beauty of the music earned the admiration of all present. This was followed by rousing singing of Hebrew songs at meals and between discussions. Music is a language – one that breaks down many barriers. Listening together is one form of fellowship; singing together is even deeper.

The music was only one element of the delights we shared. The physical environment, also, was exceedingly beautiful – both the natural environment, overlooking the Kinneret (Galilee) and the magnificent architecture of the buildings in which we met. Eating (kosher) meals together provided opportunities for shared pleasure and easy conversation. In other words, everything in our surroundings conveyed positive messages.

Peta Jones Pellach and Cardinal George Pell
Peta Jones Pellach and Cardinal George Pell

The first step towards dialogue is encounter, thus creating the opportunity to know each other. We were in the presence of the other, we smiled at each other, greeted each other and we spoke. Most of the conversations were on a very simple level. There were questions about family, about daily life and about ritual and religious practice.

In this environment, we gradually gained some objective understanding of who the other was. Some of the suspicions and stereotypes were erased. We did not yet establish the type of relationship with each other that Buber would have described as ‘living’ and ‘mutual’ – our knowledge of the other is still superficial – but we moved in the right direction by creating a basis on which to build mutual understanding. If and when we meet again, we will move even closer to engaging in genuine dialogue.

Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian. She made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.

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About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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