| |

SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 7-12)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Faith, Israel and Interfaith
Rossing, Daniel


In the course of the past thirty years, faith, Israel and interfaith dialogue have become for me a composite whole in which it is difficult to isolate the individual parts, or to say which element has most influenced my thinking and my life. I can no longer imagine any one of the three without the other two. The three constitute for me a kind of three-in-one and one-in-three interactive ‘trinity’; each of the three ‘persons’ constantly informs and transforms the nature and substance of the other two.

The heart of my faith is a trust in God’s promise that things can and will be different, that the cycles of mutual non-recognition and of cruelty and suffering can be broken. This trust is the foundation and motivation for my involvement in interfaith dialogue. Dialogue – both with God and with people of other faiths – nourishes my faith, shaping – and sometimes shaking – it. Dialogue is the beginning and the end; it is the way to change that which is not yet transformed and a sign that relations have already changed. Israel is the lodestone that pulls faith and interfaith out of theological outer space and grounds them in this world, a world of alienation and anguish that we must heal and transform (tikkun) through faith and interfaith dialogue.

Throughout much of my personal journey, two pithy paragraphs from the concluding pages of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic work Israel: An Echo of Eternity have remained foremost in my thought and life:
Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers. Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions. To have faith is to be in labor.
Well-meaning people used to say that a Jewish state would be an answer to all Jewish questions. In truth, however, the State of Israel is a challenge to many of our answers. To be involved in the life of Israel is to be in labor.1

To Heschel’s succinct commentaries on faith and on Israel, I would add my own gloss on interfaith dialogue: Sincere people often presume that interfaith dialogue can provide quick relief from the residue of pain caused by centuries of estrangement, fear and animosity. In truth, authentic dialogue challenges many of our instant interfaith remedies and superficial ecumenical salves. Dialogue is not an answer. It is an all-encompassing way of life, a way of being in the world with others without pretensions. To engage in interfaith dialogue is to be in labor.

The Voice of the Land

Eretz Yisrael – the Land of (or for) Israel – has been a very vocal partner in my dialogue both with God and with other faiths. Even its topography has a commanding voice. Thus, for example, anyone who is familiar with the historical-geopgraphy of Jerusalem will know that the Mount of Olives reaches to the heavens not because of its physical height (only about 800 meters) but rather because of its many associations with the lofty messianic visions of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Nearby, at the foot of the mount is the Valley of Gehenna – traditionally associated with Hell. This Land is the closest place on earth to Heaven, but also to Hell.
Ultimately, the only geological claim to fame that can be made by the Land of Israel is that it has the lowest point on the face of the earth – the Dead Sea, or as it is known in Hebrew, the Salt Sea. Rising up to God might be uplifting, but the land that God has chosen for us seems to be telling us that what we are really here for is to bring God down to earth, into the very depths of human experience. The Salt Sea is an ever-present reminder of the sea of tears that still covers the earth – tears of unfulfilled aspirations, of broken hearts, of crushed lives, of sorrow. The geography of Ha-aretz (the Land) proclaims that whoever calls this place home has a covenant with the salty tears of the world, with the lowest depths of human experience. To have faith, to be involved in the life of Israel, to engage in interfaith dialogue is to be in labor.

If I had to fix a starting point for my own involvement in interfaith dialogue, I would say in retrospect that I began the journey in earnest in the wake of an encounter with deep pain. I spent the summer of 1969 travelling through Europe with two fellow students from America, both of them children of Holocaust survivors. It was the first time that any of us had been in Europe. We roamed the old Jewish ghettos; the ghosts of the past followed us everywhere.

I came away filled with a good deal of rage over the pain and suffering that for centuries had been inflicted on the Jewish people in Christian lands. That pain haunted and gripped me. I needed to enter into it, to understand it, and above all to probe its root causes. How was it that Modern Enlightened Liberal Christian Europe, which 150 years earlier proclaimed the rapidly approaching dawn of heaven on earth, in the end raised Hell up to the surface of the earth at Auschwitz.

I spent much of the next two years researching the history of antisemitism and immersing myself in the literature of the Holocaust, with a special focus on the issue of Christian anti-Judaism. The works of authors like Hannah Arendt, Emil Fackenheim, Edward Flannery, Raul Hilberg, Jules Isaac, Primo Levi, Franklin Littell, James Parkes and many others increasingly filled my bookshelves. Like many in my post WW II generation I experienced a growing alienation from most everything and everyone around me.

The encounter with the Holocaust and my study of antisemitism intensified the sense of estrangement. I found refuge in Israel, an Israel that for me, like for many at the time was still wrapped in the innocence of a pioneering ethos and the euphoria of the Six Day War era. Israel was my answer, my island of security, and the place where I felt at home.

Interfaith dialogue saved me from total withdrawal into the seclusion and security of the tribal tent. I confess, however, that initially I was motivated to participate in the dialogue almost exclusively by the desire to combat antisemitism and to heal the pain that it had engendered. Basically I wanted to change the other side, and understandably so. Jewish attitudes toward Christians and the traditional Jewish understanding and assessment of Christianity were not at issue. In the course of the three decades of my involvement in interfaith activities, I have come to view dialogue somewhat differently.

Two Complementary Dialogues

Since immigrating to Israel in 1971, I have engaged two very different but for me complementary Jewish-Christian dialogues. The first is a dialogue between Christians and Jews who, like myself, hail from the West. I participated in this dialogue for several years in the USA, prior to coming to Israel. I am certain that the history, dynamics and content of the Western dialogue are familiar to the readers of the SIDIC Review, many of whom are faithful participants in or keen observers of this dialogue.

Even when conducted in the setting of Israel, where Jews are a numerical majority, this Western Jewish-Christian dialogue has been in many respects essentially a dialogue between a Jewish minority and a Christian majority. Christian participation in the dialogue has been stimulated in large measure by a religious crisis brought on by the stark reality of the Holocaust in the heart of Christian Europe, and by a consequent sense of the bankruptcy of the traditional Christian definitions of Jews and Judaism. Consequently much of the effort in the dialogue has been devoted to rooting out the legacy of anti-Judaism and the tradition of mission to Jews on the one hand, and on the other to reconnecting with the Jewish roots of Christianity and with Jesus the Jew.

The Jewish contribution to the dialogue has been mainly in the form of willingly helping interested Christians rediscover their Jewish origins. Jewish scholars in Israel have made a unique contribution in the study of the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Jewish setting of the life and teaching of Jesus. Working in the language of the Bible, in the midst of ‘the people of the book’, and surrounded by the same sacred geography in which sacred history took place, they have produced outstanding works that give a new realism to the Word of God.

I too made a contribution to helping Christians in this regard, most especially during my eight years as the Director of the Melitz Center for Christian Encounter with Israel, from 1988 to 1997. Melitz (a Hebrew acronym for Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education) is a Jewish educational institution. The Center for Christian Encounter with Israel was set up to provide Christian (and interfaith) groups with innovative informal educational programs through which participants could uncover their roots and confront questions about faith, people and nationhood in the context of complex regional problems. In the course of nearly a decade, thousands of Christians participated in the programs that I designed and implemented. I deeply enjoyed sharing Israel – people, land and faith – with them, even though the country’s halo had dimmed considerably by the 1990's. I delighted in their excitement with each new discovery or insight, an excitement that at times re-ignited my own enthusiasm for Israel. Many seemed to experience a sense of liberation through their new and more positive understanding of Christianity’s most significant ‘other’ – the Jew.

At the same time I became increasingly uneasy with the essentially one-directional nature of most Western Jewish-Christian dialogue. Thankfully, Melitz also provided me with a framework in which to work with Jewish groups, both from Israel and from abroad. With a bit of gentle persuasion on my part, Melitz became a pioneer in providing Jewish groups with an opportunity to encounter the Christian communities in Israel, not as part of the Christian majorities of the West but as tiny minorities struggling for survival. My mini-seminars on the Christian communities conducted in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City in collaboration with representatives of the Christian communities, have become so popular with Jewish groups that today I regrettably must turn down as many requests as I accept.

The foundation for my educational programming on the Christian communities is the other, very different Jewish-Christian dialogue in which I have engaged for the past 25 years, namely my dialogue with the indigenous, largely Eastern, minority Christian communities in Israel. My intense daily encounter with their reality during my 14 years (1975-88) as Director of the Department for Christian Communities in the Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs led me to discover extraordinary parallels between their history and struggle for survival and those of the Jewish people.

My close relations with these Christians meant that I could not dialogue with Christians exclusively from the position of a minority or only as a victim. Through them I gradually recognized that there is a need, indeed dire urgency, to examine my own attitudes and theology of the other. I am now of the opinion that there can be no significant breakthrough in interfaith relations in this country until there is a sincere change of heart and mind, and a sincere reaching out to these communities, on the part of the dominant Jewish and Muslim populations. I first publicly expressed this view – albeit with some trepidation – at a symposium on The Future of Jewish-Catholic Relations in the World and in Israel/The Holy Land held in Jerusalem in February 1997. At the time I proposed a radically different agenda for Jewish-Christian dialogue in this land. As the proceedings of the symposium were never published, I repeat here some of the specific issues that I put on the table at the time.

We need to carefully study the history of the Eastern and Oriental Christian communities in the Middle East. We are familiar with many of the details of the history of Christianity as a ruling majority in the West, and especially the dark side of that history. We know nothing about the radically different historic experience of Christians in our region as a much-maligned and often-wounded minority whose struggle for survival has required special skill and extraordinary faith.

We need to sensitize ourselves to ways in which Christians in this land are hurt and offended by the Jewish and Muslim majorities. In this regard, we must scrutinize the host of widely accepted subtle anti-Christian practices and terminology that became engraved in our tradition in the course of, and in reaction to, the long centuries of Christian teaching of contempt. In a setting in which we are the majority, we cannot passively assume that the cumulative effect of these practices and uses of language are harmless; indeed they are a manifest threat not only to the tiny Christian communities but no less so to our own spiritual and moral health.

We must strive to comprehend the plurality of the Christian presence in the land of its birth. To dismiss this plurality – as do many Western Christians also – as nothing more than petty pre-modern squabbles is to do injustice to the rich diversity of these Christian communities. At the same time we miss an opportunity to encounter a type of pluralism that might raise questions about some of our cherished Western notions and norms of multiculturalism.

Above all, we must try to fathom the depths of the daily struggle of these Christians to find a place for themselves and to construct a viable identity in a Middle East environment that is far from ‘user-friendly’. Without some kind of affirmative action on the part of both the Jewish and Muslim majority populations, the situation of these Christians will remain precarious at best and untenable at worst.

I noted that I submitted this new agenda for this country with some trepidation, as I feared that someone might understand me to be suggesting that the Western Jewish-Christian dialogue has run its course and must now be replaced by a new dialogue. That is not my intention as it is clear to me that a total reversal in Israel of minority-majority roles relative to the dialogue in the West is not possible. Although there are elements of a ‘teaching of contempt’ in our tradition, we do not bear the burden of a 2,000-year history of persecuting Christians. Furthermore, the Eastern Christian churches have hardly begun to come to grips with the anti-Jewish elements in their liturgies and theologies. Above all, although we are the clear majority in our relations with the Christian minorities in this land, on all other fronts – in the region and world-wide – we, like the Christian communities, are a tiny minority that is dependent on the understanding and goodwill of dominant Christian and Muslim majorities.

Dialogue of Another Kind

During the past 25 years I have observed that in the Western dialogue the Jewish minority generally prefers to stick to practical matters (e.g. combatting antisemitism) arising out of historical, social or political realities, while Christians often nudge discussions in a more theological direction. In the emerging dialogue in this land between Jews and representatives of the Christian minorities, the Christian side tends to put their precarious position and daily difficulties at the top of the agenda, while the Jewish majority prefers the safety of innocuous topics, such as ‘our common Abrahamic origins’ or ‘our shared values’.

Most of my dialogue with Western Christians has been in the setting of well-orchestrated interfaith symposia, seminars or conferences. My dialogue with the local Christian minorities has been conducted mainly in the midst of endeavors to creatively coordinate the day-to-day exigencies of Jews, Christians and Muslims living together separately in the close confines of this land and, in the most intense way, in Jerusalem. The challenge of this dialogue is best summed up in the succinct words of Professor R.J. Zwi Werblowsky:

Jerusalem in its perhaps more irritating than edifying concreteness prevents interfaith relations from floating in the theological stratosphere. They cannot even be put into orbit in the usual social-denominational atmosphere. Jerusalem, for people of faith, is a spiritually loaded symbol whose spirituality is ‘incarnate’ (to borrow a term from Christian theology) in the aspirations, ambiguities, fears, suspicions, and ideas surrounding political realities.2

As I pen these lines in late November 1999, a short time before the dawn of the third Christian millennium, the media, both in Israel and abroad, is filled with reports of two emotionally-loaded issues that provide a clear illustration of Professor Werblowsky’s point. One concerns the inter-communal/inter-religious tensions surrounding plans to build a new mosque close to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The other issue that presently generates daily updates in the media regards a heated debate over the issue of an additional exit at the Basilica of the Resurrection (Church of the Holy Sepulcher) in Jerusalem. In both cases the Israeli government is in the eye of the storm. In the context of the latter issue, the Muslim-dominated Palestinian Authority warned the heads of the numerous Christian communities that have rights in the Holy Sepulcher not to give in to the pressures of the government of the Jewish State to open an emergency exit in order to ensure the safety of the throngs of Christians visiting the tomb of Christ, a shrine in which the keys to the only door are held by a Muslim family. (The grammar check in my word-processing program tells me that this last sentence is too long and complicated. My computer simply does not understand the complex sentence structure of Jerusalem.)

Issues like the above are not normally on the menu of Western interfaith dinners or discussions. They were, however, my main diet during my fourteen years as the Director of the Department for Christian Communities. While many – both Jews and Christians – in the Western dialogue have little patience for such ‘petty’ affairs, these are the issues that test interfaith relations. Interfaith dialogue, I believe, is not about finding and sharing ultimate truth, but rather about sharing creation in the most tangible ways. Interfaith dialogue in Israel is largely an exercise in seeking the peace of Jerusalem in the midst of the down-to-earth, often messy daily realities of a host of diverse communities living together separately.

Mutual Recognition

It was at Auschwitz in the summer of 1994 that I realized more than ever the full transforming power of the interfaith dialogue and relations in which I had engaged during the 25 years since my first visit to Europe. A Jewish colleague from Jerusalem, a psychotherapist who works primarily with Holocaust survivors and their children, and I had agreed to join a small group of Sisters of Sion from around the world for a conference on Racism, Xenophobia and Antisemitism. The conference included four days and nights at Auschwitz.

To this day I am unable to adequately communicate to anyone who was not among the participants the full depth of what I experienced during those four days and nights at the place where Hell was raised to the surface of the earth.. Needless to say, acute pain was a dominant part of the experience. Rivers of personal pain, of the pain of my people and of the pain of humanity flowed together and flooded my being. The redeeming grace was that the pain was shared in the most profound ways, not only between myself and my Jewish colleague, but also between us and the Christian participants.
Over the years I had close contacts with the Sisters of Sion. True trust developed. That trust was put to the ultimate test in the joint journey into Hell. I dared to hurt and mourn openly. I even let Christian participants truly comfort me. Perhaps most importantly, I found myself encouraging the Christians in the group to let their own pain surface and to express it openly in the small group processing sessions which were an integral part of the conference. Many initially felt guilty as Christians about bringing their pain into that place. I felt a strong need to tell them that it was okay, even critical that they too feel free to expose the traumas of their lives. And they did.

In our final processing sessions nearly all the participants spoke of a sense of liberation. For me the liberation had to do above all with the level of mutual recognition that prevailed during the conference, and especially during our time at Auschwitz. Non-recognition of the other is the root of all evil, cruelty and pain. Recognition – to be known and affirmed by another, to be understood, seen, loved – is the most basic human need. We need recognition from one another and from God, and we need to be recognized by ourselves and one another as embodiments of God. In authentic dialogue, mutual recognition is both the means and the end.

A Foretaste of Messianic Days

In recent years my Shabbat is often devoted to interfaith encounter in the unique setting of Jerusalem. Not infrequently I spend Shabbat morning with a group of Christians, helping them to experience Shabbat and diversity within the Jewish people through a study tour of ethnic synagogues during the hours of the Shabbat morning services. On Shabbat afternoon I then take a group of Jews to the Christian Quarter of the Old City for an encounter with the diverse minority Christian communities and the ancient liturgical traditions of East and West celebrated daily in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In pondering the integral connection between faith, Israel and interfaith in my life, I have come to realize that it mirrors in many respects the indivisible relationship between the three primary parts of Shabbat. Shabbat without one of them would not be whole and could not be a foretaste of the messianic days.

On Friday evening the focus is very much on creation, both the creation of the world and the formation of the Jewish people through Exodus. The Shabbat Eve service and the ceremonies in the home provide a framework in which to contemplate my faith and my personal relationship with the Creator. The Shabbat Eve has an intimacy that is perhaps best celebrated in the more private context of the family. The central theme of Shabbat morning is revelation. Shared revelation is the glue that binds Israel as a community of faith. The reading of Torah is appropriately done in the public framework of the community and synagogue. On Shabbat afternoon our thoughts are directed toward redemption. The mood is one of longing and yearning for the messianic time when universal peace and rest will prevail. Redemption is not for Israel alone but for all the nations.

Thus, for me it is fitting to devote time to interfaith activities on Shabbat. Like the Shabbat afternoon, interfaith dialogue points ahead to that day in the messianic future when “the Lord will be one and His name will be one.”


* Daniel Rossing was Director of the Dept. for Christian Communities in the Israel Ministry for Religious Affairs and Director of the Melitz Center for Christian Encounter with Israel. He currently divides his time between teaching and as Director of the Christian Communities Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation. He has published numerous articles and is a much sought-after lecturer on Christian minorities in the Middle East, on interfaith relations and on Jerusalem.
1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Girous, 1969) p. 35.
2 R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, “Interfaith in Jerusalem” in Face to Face, II (1977) p. 8.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011