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Aug 5, 2008

Receipt of the Divine Word

A presentation
A presentation

How does God communicate with us?

That, in essence, was the question that a group of Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews explored over two half-day sessions, Thursday and Friday of last week, at the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City.

We were participating in a joint retreat of the Interfaith Encounter Association, an Israeli organization, and the Palestinian Peace Society.

The Jews were mostly “Anglos,” native English speakers, immigrants to Israel. Professionally the group included two people on the staff of IEA (both of whom have PhDs in topics related to Jewish mysticism!), a hazzan/artist, a teacher, a businessman/rabbi, etc. The Palestinians were all from Hebron or Tulkarm and included a professor, a government official, an accountant, a businessman. Very diverse group.

Fr. Markus Stephan Bugnyar, the rector of the Austrian Hospice (which is NOT what the term “hospice” connotes in contemporary American English – it is, rather, a guesthouse for tourists!) presented the Christian view of revelation. He pointed out how Jews believe the Torah was revealed to Moses, and the Koran was revealed to Muslims, but Christians have no concept similar to this. Jesus did not write any of the gospels himself, in the way that Moses is considered the author of the Torah, or Mohammed the author of the Koran. Further, unlike the Torah, where we see the refrain “God spoke to Moses saying” over and over, phrases like that aren’t used in the New Testament. God does not speak to Jesus – Jesus simply speaks. They take this as a further proof of the divinity of Jesus. When we started discussing the concept of the divinity of Jesus,” Jesus as God,” one of the Muslim participants got quite upset and needed to be calmed down by his co-religionists.

An important ground rule was mentioned by the meeting organizers – we are not there to critique each other’s religions. We were there to hear what Christians have to say about their relationship with the Bible, what Muslims have to say about their relationship with Koran, etc. NOT what Christians think of the Koran or what Muslims think of the New Testament. Keeping that principle in mind is a good way to avoid acrimonious debate that does nothing to further respect for each other.

Rabbi Joel Zeff, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar, presented the Jewish perspective. He talked about the desire of humans to love God and of God to love humans and about the challenge in that as God is infinite and we are finite. The solution comes from the Mystical saying that the whole of Torah is composed of God's names. And as the name represents the essence of the thing, this means that the Torah is the essence of God. God put his thoughts and will in the Torah – we connect with God through the Torah. The Mystics of the Kabala say that when we learn Torah we take its wisdom and put it in our brain, but as the Torah is God's essence – when we do that actually God is in our soul. In this way we make love to God and the main importance of the revelation is the way to do that.

Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi, coordinator of the Palestinian Peace Society presented the Muslim perspective. He talked about how the archangel Gabriel served as an intermediary between God and Mohammed, but just as for the Jews, their holy scripture is believed to contain the word of God. He also spoke about how the Muslims also consider the Torah and the New Testament revelations of the Divine Word. Interestingly he mentioned that Muslims believe in the immaculate conception, the concept that Mary was made pregnant without a physical father, but they don’t take that as meaning Jesus is a physical incarnation of God – they just believe that it was a miraculous pregnancy. They revere the Jewish prophets and Jesus as prophets, some of whom, like Moses, rise to the highest rank of “messenger of God.”

Following each of the presentations we had time for conversation in small groups. Some of the issues that came up were: what brings us closer to God and what take us away from him? Even prophets make mistake – only God is perfect; The most effective love is the one based on the guidance of religion; True lover of God truly loves people; and more.

As is often the case when I’ve been involved in gatherings of the “Abrahamic faiths” we discovered that Judaism and Islam are very close to each other theologically – Christianity is sort of the “odd man out” with a lot of concepts that would appear to be rooted in Hellenistic thought, not Jewish thought. One of the participants asked whether it is better that people be religious, or not? In other words, is religion a force for good, or a force for evil?

I shared the idea that in each of our traditions we can find teachings of love, and teachings of religion can be a powerful force for good and peace. If we focus on the “Torah of hate,” religion can be a powerful force for racism and violence. I think this is why the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) taught that one has to do teshuva BEFORE studying Torah – for Torah is an amplifier that can make good people better, or, God forbid, bad people worse.

I hope that in future gatherings we will feel comfortable enough with each other to take a look at the “troubling texts” we each have in our traditions, and talk about ways we can defuse them within a religious context. I don’t think we can simply ignore the unpleasant verses in the Koran or the Torah.

All the participants I think left feeling warmly toward everyone. Our challenge is to bring that message to others – the Palestinians need to let their friends know that not all Jews are crazy people bent on oppressing them, and the Jews need to let their friends know that not all Palestinians are latent suicide bombers. Long term, I believe activities like this are essential to building bridges and building peace. If only we could multiply the number of participants geometrically!!!

Based on a blog written by Rabby Barry Leff (who took part in this retreat), adapted by Yehuda Stolov

Group conversation
Group conversation
Two in dialogue
Two in dialogue
Jun 3, 2008

The day of a hundred in 1st and 2nd grade

The day of 100
The day of 100

This day that was held in A-Sallam School with participation of teachers, students and parents – from both Majd el-Krum and Karmiel.

The students went through different stations where they fulfilled assignments related to the number 100. They heard from the teachers a short presentation about the number 100 and how many times it is mentioned in the Koran, with examples of verses that include the number 100. During that day they learned mathematical thinking and were exposed to the principles of mathematics.

The goal of this joint encounter was to develop strong ties between little children who will grow loving each other and building joint citizenship.

Dec 19, 2007

"Binding of Isaac/ Ishmael" - a joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith retreat

Joint dinner at the retreat
Joint dinner at the retreat

The Binding of Isaac/ Ishmael in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

A joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith retreat of Palestinian Peace Society and Interfaith Encounter Association November 29th-30th at the Austrian Hospice

The retreat started with the introduction of the two organizations and their approaches to building peace in the region. It was remarkable to see how both organizations share so much in common in that regard. Both talked about their commitment to the promotion of peace, about the need to include in the process all ideologies, religions. Political views etc, and both spoke to the necessity of building the grass-roots infrastructure without which peace can not stand and of the power of encounter and mutual acquaintance in constructing mutual trust. The Palestinian Peace Society is based in Hebron and works since 1993 and the Interfaith Encounter Association is based in Jerusalem and works since 2001.

Then each of us introduced himself or herself and we shared a personal story in which someone sacrificed something for us.

Then we continued with the three religious focuses on the theme. First was the Jewish perspective and unlike the usual model where we have a short presentation first and then a conversation, this time they were combined thanks to the decision of the presenter Rabbi Bob Carroll to conduct the presentation around joint reading – that soon became joint learning – of the biblical text. We read the text in Hebrew and English and translated it into Arabic too. Here are some points that came up in the presentation and conversation: • Our venue at the heart of the Old City is perfect for the theme as in the Jewish tradition the binding took place just some two hundred meters from here… • Unlike many other religions (Christianity, Buddhism and others) where the founder spreads his message through disciples, Abraham spreads the message through his children – which could be problematic, as anyone who raised children knows. But on the other hand: if a disciple does not believe any more in the message – he is no longer part of the group; when family one continues to love even if they do not follow the message. • In fact, in Judaism Ishmael was also about to be sacrificed when he was sent to the desert with Hagar. And both gained from this event too: Hagar was awarded a conversation with the angel and Ishmael was purified through his desert experience to the degree he could grow into a nation. In Islam: Hagar asked Abraham why he leaves them in the desert but when he answered that it was the command of God – she accepted it. • Abraham was willing to sacrifice his whole future without any argument, out of his full belief in God. This resulted in the future becoming of the place of the binding into the Temple. Kierkegaard wrote a book about the Binding. He says that it is easier to justify God by saying that he never meant for a real sacrifice – only to try Abraham; but how can we justify Abraham? He answers that if Abraham had refused we may have applaud him as caring for his son, but what he chose to do was not to effuse to identification with human suffering throughout human history and this is a much more meaningful act. We had a long conversation about full obedience to God versus arguing with Him. We mentioned Abraham's argument about the destruction of Sodom, Moses' argument that prevented the destruction of the Nation of Israel, the argument of Prophet Muhammad encouraged by Moses to ask for reducing the number of daily prayers from 500 to 50 to 5, and the criticism on Noah who did not argue when God told him to prepare for the coming flood.

The second session focused on Christianity and was presented by Kerstin. Kerstin pointed out the interesting fact that we kept speaking about "sacrifice" which is the Christian term, instead of the Jewish term of "binding". In Judaism Isaac is 37 years old and definitely can not be forced by the 137 years old Abraham. In Islam too: Ishmael was a young adult. The agreement to be sacrificed came out of deep faithfulness. In contrast: in Christianity the emphasis is on the sacrifice and Isaac is portrayed as a small child. The old approach interpreted the sacrifice as working against human sacrifices but it is now clear that human sacrifices were not common in the time of Abraham, which can also be understood from Isaac's question about the lamb for the sacrifice. The new interpretation talks about trying Abraham and Isaac. This is being connected to Jesus who was actually sacrificed y his father in order to grant forgiveness for the sins of humanity. Christianity makes a direct link between Moriya and Golgotha. For example: Rembrandt paints the sacrifice and the crucifixion in very similar way: the cloths, colors, light emanating etc.) The conversation following the presentation touched on issues as: animal and plant sacrifices, Messiah and the Temple, and charity.

The perspective of Islam was presented by Dr. Taleb Alharithy. It talks about Abraham coming to Ishmael and telling him that he saw in his dream that he has to sacrifice him and about Ishmael accepting. In memory of this event Muslims celebrate Eid el-Adha – the Holiday of the Sacrifice. In this Holiday every Muslim who can in obliged to take part in sacrificing one of a few kinds of animals (a lamb for one family, a cow for seven families etc.). There are many details for the right sacrifice: the animal has to be healthy and not crippled, the slaughtering has to take place after sunset and after the prayer, it is preferable for the person to slaughter himself but it is possible to hire a slaughterer – however without paying him anything. One should select the healthiest and heaviest of his animals, which are at the minimum age of: six months for a lamb, a year for a goat, two years for a cow and five years for a camel. The meat should be mainly given to the poor. It is best to give it all to charity but it can be divided up to a third for himself, a third for his friends and a third for charity – definitely not more than a third for himself. On that day: a animal should not see another animal being slaughtered, the slaughtering has to be very swift with an especially sharp knife, which should not be sharpened in front of the animal who should not be facing Mecca. It is forbidden to sell anything – not even the skin or the bones. In Saudi Arabia the meat of the millions of pilgrims is collected, being frozen and sent to poor Muslim countries. The conversation then touched upon: vegetarianism, eating meat as sublimation of violence, prophets and the interesting point that from a Muslim perspective it is not important is the son was Isaac or Ishmael as both are equally respected as prophets.

We concluded the retreat with a joint delicious lunch and with gratitude to the Austrian Hospice for their wonderful hospitality.

Joint study of the biblical story
Joint study of the biblical story
Listenong together
Listenong together
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