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Why rabbis support restoring the burnt church

The project to restore the torched Tabgha Church is a Jewish religious imperative

Elhanan Miller reports on a recent initiative for Jews to help support the rebuilding of the burnt Church in Tabgha. The initiative was launched by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who met with a delegation of rabbis from the Religious-Zionist sector who support the initiative. The idea for the initiative draws its inspiration from a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov — if you believe you can spoil, believe you can also repair. In this spirit, the crowdfunding campaign turns to Jews for a show of support, essentially symbolic, given the vast expenses associated with restoration work, for the rebuilding of the Tabgha Church.

As initiator of the campaign, I have had to account for the reasoning behind it more than once, and I would like to share here the reasons for launching this campaign.

Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.
Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.

Perhaps a word is in order first concerning the precise focus of this fundraising campaign. Strictly speaking, it is not a campaign to rebuild the Church proper, that is, the Church sanctuary, for the simple reason that the sanctuary itself was not harmed as a consequence of arson.

What was harmed was the courtyard, leading up to the Church. Here were the gift store and a welcome center, where groups of different nationalities and religions were received. I recall visiting Tabgha with an interfaith group some years ago and the beautiful sharing that took place between Jews, Christians and Muslims in that space.

The campaign is accordingly titled “Restoring Friendship” focusing on the dual aspects of restoring the torched friendship center and on the very process of restoring friendship between Jews and Christians. Tabgha is a site of interreligious friendship, a non-missionary meeting place, where youth, handicapped, and members of different segments of society come together against the background of beautiful nature, running waters and warm Benedictine hospitality. Torching Tabgha strikes at the heart of friendship and the campaign seeks to manifest friendship as a response.

In saying this, I have already provided the first rationale for the campaign. All those who ask why launch the campaign do so from a perspective of distance and estrangement from the reality of living Christian communities. For those of us for whom these communities are faces, dedicated lives and even personal examples of dedication and inspiration, there is little need to offer justification. Friendship precedes these events and therefore the drive to rebuild friendship is an intuitive and natural way of responding to what happens to a friend.

But a lot more is involved in this campaign. As I have written here before, the arson at Tabgha is the first time that attacks on Churches and monasteries makes appeal to religious, rather than political grounds. Citing a verse from the Aleinu prayer as the incentive for arson makes this an act of religious terrorism, and must elicit a stronger response.

Not only is there no room for silence; even condemnation is not sufficient. We have heard 41 condemnations in the preceding attacks on religious institutions of other religions. Now that the attacks are out and out religious, more is required. A positive campaign of support moves the battle against this form of religious extremism from “avoiding evil” to “doing good”, to echo the words of Psalm 33.

A priest walks past a graffiti reading in Hebrew "idols will be cast out" as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on June 18, 2015 AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA
A priest walks past a graffiti reading in Hebrew “idols will be cast out” as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on June 18, 2015 AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

The need to make a more explicit statement that distances us from these acts and that highlights an alternative view of Judaism is required on two fronts — within and without.

Jewish tradition recognizes there are moments of hillul Hashem, descration of the divine name. One can hardly think of a more extreme case of hillul Hashem than the case at hand. One recalls that Rabbi Herzog argued with the United Nations, on the eve of the founding of the state of Israel, that Israel would guarantee freedom of worship for all, as a precondition for its international legitimation. At a time when we are facing a tidal wave of delegitimation, religious extremism undermines our collective existence. More specifically, Catholics are, nowadays, some of our best friends, globally. To alienate them with one attack after another, none of which ever lead to the trials of perpetrators, is to send a message they don’t matter to us. In global terms this is harmful. In theological terms, this is as bad as hillul Hashem can get.

When I convened a group of rabbis in support of this initiative, many appealed to the logic of kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the divine name, as the reason for why one must support this venture. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, was first to make the point. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, winner of the Israel Prize in Jewish education, and professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan, affirmed that this is a case of public kiddush Hashem, more visible and pronounced, and therefore one that overrides concerns of avoda zara, which in this case are a matter of difference of halachic opinion, even if one were restoring the Church sanctuary itself.

But there is a no less important aspect to this campaign, one that focuses internally. I am grateful for Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch’s willingness to offer his broad shoulders as a leader of a group of rabbis who supported this initiative. It was the involvement in the campaign of Rabbi Rabinovitch, who heads Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’ale Adumim, that raised many eyebrows in the Religious-Zionist community, asking how it was possible for rabbis to support the rebuilding of a church.

I consider this moment to be an extremely significant moment in educational terms. In the course of talking with Rabbi Rabinovitch I discovered we share many fundamental views. This includes concern for the increasing ghettoization of Israeli Judaism in its relations with other religions, the sidelining of what were yesterday mainline halachic views that consider Christianity non-idolatrous and the need for a Judaism that recognizes and makes room for other world religions.

Rabbi Rabinovitch’s support was intended to deliver a message within on all these matters, a message that is rarely heard in the right wing circles with which he is associated. A discussion appeared in the Religious-Zionist website Serugim. Rabbi Rabinovitch was queried by his students as to how it was possible for him to show support for this initiative, and he clarified the importance of correcting common mistaken views on Christianity and how important and rare this opportunity is, in providing us a context for doing so. For me, this piece alone was worth the entire campaign.

There is one further aspect to the campaign — providing a voice for the common person. Very few of us are newsmakers. We are glued to our screens and consume news created by others. For the most part, the average person has very little opportunity to express his or her sentiment on fundamental issues in a public way. The crowdfunding campaign was designed to provide a voice for everyone. In supporting the campaign, an opportunity was provided for everyone to vote, through a symbolic donation, for what kind of Judaism he or she considers normative. Will one support the Judaism of the arsonists or a Judaism of friendship to all? Judging by the responses to the campaign, now mire than half way to its goal, many Jews, in Israel and abroad, are grateful for the opportunity to express their voice and to join it to an initiative that speaks of a different and better Judaism, pointing the way to a different and better future.

Click Here to Support the Campaign

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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