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Interfaith Dialogue in Latin America: The Beginning of a New Era
The beginning of a new millennium, from a traditional point of view, has no special meaning for Jews; in our calendar there are still 240 years until a new millennium begins. However, the common perception of the Western world – that this date represents a turning point in human history rather than merely a numerical change – is shared not only by Jews but also by the great majority of humankind. The great scientific and technological advances of this century, the achievements which have enabled improved communication and knowledge for human beings, are calling for a time of introspection and analysis in order that humanity may know how to move on with life. Humanity has not yet experienced its real cathartic moment in which it asks itself: how, after thousands of years in search of civilization and spirituality, could a Shoah as well as all the other atrocities have occurred in this dark spiritual century? Humankind would like to leave behind the shadows and ghosts of the past and replace them with a new beginning. However, without deep questioning and genuine introspection all that will change is the number marking a date.
Whereas for Christians the year 2000 also marks the great Jubilee with all its implications of reflection and teshuva, for Jews all time is propitious to make teshuva. This is the first common point which can be the beginning of a new dialogue between Jews and Christians. The second point refers to the dialogue itself. All who root their faith in the Jewish Bible must be aware of the real meaning of the word dialogue. Dialogue is not merely an exchange of words, nor even of thoughts. Biblical dialogue implies a true effort by the involved parties to understand, suffer or enjoy with the other. Dialogue is the means by which one takes note of the meaning of life by realizing that one is not alone in the company of fellow human beings and God. The first to look for dialogue was God Himself. He began to speak with man after his creation. He went after the despairing Adam who had sinned by eating from the forbidden tree and after Cain who had killed his brother. He did not leave His creatures alone in the midst of their oppressive silence. He called his great-small creature into dialogue with Himself: “And God called unto Adam: 'Where art thou?'”
Dialogue means more than declarations; its ultimate aim must be compromise. Mere declarations without actions revealing the real decision of a renewed compromise do not meet the spirit of the Bible. Martin Buber was a great master who sensed the importance of dialogue in Jewish thought. He taught that the entire Bible could be seen as a dialogue between heaven and earth and that humanity's challenge is to transform our existence into a dialogical one. The challenge for the new era, if we do want to create a new one, is to provide the conditions for dialogue as described above in order to throw light on the real reasons for human misery and thus to discover the proper response to it.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an outstanding Jewish thinker of this century and a survivor of the Shoah, in a 1966 lecture at Union Theological Seminary in New York stated:
Nazism, its very roots, was a rebellion against the Bible, against the God of Abraham. Realizing that it was Christianity that implanted attachment to the God of Abraham and involvement with the Hebrew Bible in the hearts of Western man, Nazism resolved that it must both exterminate the Jews and eliminate Christianity, and replace them with a revival of Teutonic paganism. Nazism suffered a defeat, but the process of eliminating the Bible from the consciousness of the Western world continues. It is on the issue of maintaining the effect of the Hebrew Bible on the minds of humanity that Jews and Christians are called upon to work together. Neither of us can do it alone. Both of us must realize that in our age anti-Semitism is anti-Christianity and that anti-Christianity is anti-Semitism.1
This is an accurate description of the real task which Jews and Christians must work to achieve together. According to Maimonides,2 Islam must be considered in the same sense as the Christian religions, and therefore it must be an active part of this dialogue with all those who consider that the life of each individual is sacred, and that life has meaning.
To realize this dialogue is not easy in our days. The twentieth century was the century of ideologies while the new one appears to be heralding a return to religion – though not as a consequence of a deep spiritual process nor as the revival of old fanaticism. It is a consequence of the failure of all of the ideologies in this century which have tried to provide redemption to man. This is why humanity is reviving religion as a pattern for life.
Our reality is that of a merciless materialism in which great richness coexists with deep poverty. For the rich religion is a way to buy eternity and happiness; for the poor it is a miraculous escape from the reality of their poverty. At the same time, the old intolerances – which were supposed to have been overcome – have again resurrected. If a new and different era is to begin, a new voice must emerge – a voice capable of revitalizing the ancient Biblical message among the nations. Latin America shares this challenge with the West, and adds its own. Democracy is not yet a rooted value in the mind of Latin American people. A long history of feudalism has shaped the way of thinking and behavior of the different societies of this part of the world. In spite of the present democratic regimes, a democratic conscience – which is actually the most important thing – is still beyond the people. Argentinean and Chilean people are still suffering from the open wounds inflicted by the despotic military governments of the seventies. Throughout Latin America there exist relegated populations which are mostly exploited and which receive nothing from the huge technological developments.
The first aim of interfaith activity in Latin America must be a common effort to remove the prejudicial barriers which are separating people's hearts. There is not yet a real consciousness of true equality at all levels of society. Faith must be an element of union, consideration and respect among people and not a tool of discrimination. Anti-Semitism based on fanatic pseudo-religion is still an endemic spiritual disease in Argentina. Until now interfaith activities in Argentina have depended on the personal initiative of a small number of clergymen who undertook the mission to 'change the story'. Since its beginning the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (Latin American Rabbinic Seminary), founded by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer around forty years ago, has developed important ecumenical efforts with other institutions. Several years ago the Argentinean Episcopal Conference opened a department for the relationship with Judaism and other faiths. Sister Marta Bauschwitz, NDS has recently received an award from B'nai B'rith for her efforts toward a significant encounter between Jews and Christians.
These recent advances have been very small and they have been taking place in relation to other areas in Argentinean life which also demand dramatic change. In the last few years Argentina has been paving the way for Democracy. When Mr. Fernando De La Rja assumed the presidency on Dec. 10, 1999 the country began its fourth presidential period since military dictatorship. The elimination of corruption in all areas of life is one of the challenges the new government has to face. The absence of a strong and independent judicial system, capable of assisting all levels of society, has eroded belief in spiritual values and enhanced violence during recent years in Argentina. A background of spiritual sensitivity is necessary for developing a mature and deeply religious conscience. If, after seventeen years of democracy, the new government succeeds in eliminating at least some of the present corruption, a renewed belief in spiritual values will hopefully return to Argentinean society. Then surely the effort of the few leaders who have worked to establish real interfaith dialogue in this country will flourish.
The history of human spirituality develops in a pattern quite different than that of scientific and technological achievement. The latter is always, more or less, one of forward advancement whereas human history is characterized by rather dramatic movements of both progression and regression. It is impossible to foresee the development of future events at the core of humanity. We understand the human being as having freedom of choice. Therefore good and evil, life and death were set before us by the Almighty. His eternal voice addresses each of His creatures: “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” 3 The first and ultimate challenge for all religious people who have the Bible as the cornerstone of their faith is to sanctify life by doing good. Doing this for oneself and for one's kin is only half of the task. The most significant part consists of the good actions we direct toward those beyond our boundaries. Beginning the dialogue with them is just the first step of wishing them goodness. Dialogue does not imply convincing the other, but implies knowing them and letting them know who we are. Knowing a person, in Biblical Hebrew, is sometimes synonymous with love.4The eschatological vision of Zeph 3:9 reveals to us: “For then I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord.” The “pure speech” can only emerge from sincere dialogue – and this is what human beings have been seeking since they lost Eden.
* Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka is Rector of Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano M. T. Meyer and Rabbi of Comunidad Benei Tikva
1 Published in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, Part 1 (Jan. 1966) pp. 117-134.
2 Yad, Hiljot Melajim 11:4.
3 Dt 30:19
4 Eg., Hos 2:20