Why have I always been involved in working with other faiths and their leaders? What has pulled me to that type of work? I ask this question now, as this week is Inter Faith Week, a programme of whose Faith Communities Forum I am the Jewish community Moderator .
My first answer would be a historical one. My great grandfather was a Rabbi in the town of Rastaat. It is not such a well known town, although it lies close to the more visited Baden Baden. Rabbi Emanuel Mayersohn officiated at the opening of the New Synagogue of Rastaat in 1906, the year other of my great grandparents married in the New Street Synagogue in the East End of London. My great Auntie, Rabbi Mayersohn’s daughter, would tell me how her father would walk into the hills around Rastaat each Sunday afternoon with local Parish Ministers. This story has always stuck with me. Twenty or thirty years before the deluge of the Second World War, there was my great grandfather and local German ministers sharing ideas, thoughts and ways in which they worked. This was a true example to me of Rabbinic leadership and so when I began in my first community fifteen years ago, I reached out immediately to local Christian and Muslim leaders. I sat in Kingston, on the local Faith Forum, networking with faith leaders and finding time to meet them for coffee. We talked openly about how we worked within our communities. I remember even having an argument with a local Anglican Minister regarding his progressive understanding of the Pentateuch.
So family history is important – and it helps also that I am named after my great grandfather. My middle name is his, Emanuel. But I have also developed what I might call a person centred religiosity. That may sound contradictory. Surely religion is based on God and fulfilling His obligations for us on earth. We learn in Judaism, that if one is asked to forego belief in God by worshipping idols or lose one’s life, the difficult former choice should be taken. But people are important in their own right. Think of how the prophet Jonah is rebuked by God for feeling so despondent that the people of Nineveh were being forgiven. God is clear to Jonah that He shows compassion on the people. So if God shows compassion, so should we. Think of how Abraham stands up to argue with God to save the people of Sedom, even if a limited number of righteous people were found there. As the 19th century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Berlin writes, Abraham was interested in the sustaining of God’s central creation, humanity. The second century Rabbi Akiva famously located the core of the Torah in the words ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
So people are important. We might go further however, to say that learning from those in other religions in a way completes my human existence and experience. As an orthodox Jew, I feel the importance to learn about how I should personally act through plumbing the texts of my religion. But I also am keen to learn how people of other religions attempt to fulfil the obligations of their religion. I may feel that there is some greater clarity on belief through the prism of the Jewish Torah, in its written and oral forms; but that does not preclude other religions from having a view through on to the Almighty. Less clear possibly, but real nevertheless.
So there is for me a family historical pull. There is also an existential pull. A life of religion requires a curiosity and care for humankind. And this lead me to a third pull, to consider the natural tensions that exist between religious and ethnic identities. And these tensions would not necessarily at some point vanish. I can feel a deep difference between myself and someone from another religion and yet still want to build a relationship with them. In fact in a century where already at this early stage, the destructive side of national identity is raising its head again, religious leaders have a vital role to play in resolving conflict. We need religious theology to show now its calming and accepting side. Too many conflicts have been started or facilitated by the more aggressive, exclusive side which is present in potential, in most religions. Only 3 years ago, I studied for an MSc in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at Kings College, learning there about identity, ethnic conflict and possible resolutions of such conflict.
There is a statement in the Jewish text, ‘Ethics of the Fathers’, which states that ‘All disputes which are for the sake of Heaven, will endure forever’. I love this statement. It is condemning us to eternal argument! And it is saying that an argument where both sides feel that they are right; and yet desire and require the existence and understanding of the other side, is an argument for the sake of Heaven. I may believe in the efficacy only of my religion – but I respect the fact that other faith leaders hold by the truth of their religion. I’m not sure that you would call this religious pluralism. But it is still based on integrity, which leads to solidarity, curiosity about the other, and deepening bonds of respect.
If people of different faiths can create arguments immersed in respect that do not lead to the victory of one side – how great would it be if this model could be taken on by wider society. What a success that would be for interfaith work.