Address to the World Summit on Peace
New York, USA, January 30, 2009
Openness to learn from every person
Because I’m a Rabbi, I’d like to start with a Jewish teaching. The teaching is from the earliest rabbinic writings, the Mishnah, from about the 2nd century CE.
The sages ask, Eizehu hacham? - Who is wise?
They answer, Halomed mi kol adam – The one who learns from every person.
A wise person is one who can learn something from everyone he or she meets. One aspect of this teaching that I love is its universality. The Rabbis could have taught that the wise one learns from every b’nei Israel – every Jewish person, or from every ish – every male person. But they chose the word adam – whom you know as Adam – the most universal word available in Hebrew for a human being.
Now let me give you an example of this teaching in action by telling you the story of Madelyn and Abdullah. Madelyn and Abdullah were participants in Auburn’s international multifaith teen leadership program called Face to Face / Faith to Faith. In this year-long program, teens from South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine and the United States come together to learn how their own religious traditions and those of others can be used to build a more peaceful world.
Although Madelyn and Abdullah were both from the US delegation, they came from very different backgrounds. Madelyn grew up in a comfortable Jewish home in Manhattan. Abdullah was a young Muslim refugee from Iraq who had been living in Denver for three years. Madelyn knew much about the war in Iraq, but she had never heard about Iraqi refugees. Intrigued by Abdullah and his story, she became curious. She learned that the US had largely locked its doors to Iraqis who wanted to immigrate, even those Iraqis who were risking their lives to aid the American forces on the ground.
Along the way, Madelyn met Lisa, whose husband, an American journalist, was killed in Iraq. Her husband had had a young Iraqi translator (Nour), and because that translator had helped the Americans, she was at great risk of losing her life. Lisa decided to do everything she could to help this young female translator get to safety. In her film, Madelyn chronicles the painful yet moving story of a mourning widow searching for meaning by trying to rescue an Iraqi who had helped her husband. After finishing the short film, Madelyn screened it in front of the entire student body at her high school.
Madelyn and Abdullah embody the teaching that we have something to learn from every person, regardless of their background or our perceived differences with them.
This panel is about case studies of interreligious cooperation for peace and development. So let me briefly mention three areas of multifaith work we are engaged in at the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Seminary, in hopes that our work in this area may in some small way be helpful to you. The three areas are: 1) religious leadership; 2) scholars and diplomats; and 3) teenagers. We have found that interfaith work among each of these three groups holds great promise.
Multifaith work with religious leaders
Here are two brief examples of how multifaith work with religious leaders can lead to peace and development. The first example is from Princeton University, where my wife is the Rabbi and leader of the university’s Jewish community. Two years ago she and the Imam on campus decided to take 20 students on a travel dialogue program to southern Spain. They wanted to expose their students to the period of history when Jews lived under Muslim rule in relative peace. The impact that this travel dialogue had on the students was palpable and long-lasting. More importantly, the relationships that emerged between the Jewish and Muslim communities on campus have had a lasting impact on campus. Since returning, the Rabbi and Imam have conducted a variety of shared interfaith programming: Iftar meals during Ramadan, dialogue sessions and, with some difficulty, shared demonstrations about the recent conflict in Gaza. When leaders of different faiths have a strong working relationship, they are able to lead their communities toward increased understanding and peaceful work together, especially when conflict arises.
Let me offer a more poignant example from the Middle East. In 2002, a group of moderate religious leaders met in Alexandria, Egypt. Included in the group were a prominent Rabbi from Israel and a Muslim leader from the city of Hebron. Some time after this meeting, violence was about to erupt in Hebron. Jewish Israeli schoolboys had posted anti-Muslim drawings around the neighborhood. Local imams were organizing in response, planning to give reactionary sermons during jumma prayers on Friday. Because of their previous relationship, the Mufti of Hebron called his colleague Rabbi Melchior to try and prevent the violence. Melchior was able to get the Prime Minister of Israel to publicly disavow the boys’ actions. But because this disavowal came from a secular leader, it was not trusted and the preparations in Hebron continued. Melchior then contacted the Israeli Chief Rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who then traveled to Hebron himself to meet with the Mufti. The Chief Rabbi assured the Mufti that the boys’ actions were not in accordance with Judaism and that what they did constituted a shameful, sinful act – a hillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name. This explanation satisfied the Mufti, and for that moment, an escalation into violence was avoided.
The actions of the Rabbi and Imam at Princeton, and the actions by Rabbi Melchior and the Mufti of Hebron in Israel and Palestine, teach us something we already know: when faith leaders have working relationships, they can work more effectively toward peace and development.
At Auburn, we teach religious leaders to engage across lines of faith through our unique Doctor of Ministry program for Ministry in a Multifaith Context, through educational programs for seminary students, and through our network of more than 100 faculty at seminaries and rabbinical schools around the US. This is one type of practical interfaith work that can make a difference: giving religious leaders the chance to develop working relationships.
Interreligious work with scholars and diplomats
In the last decade, social scientists and political analysts have begun to realize that religious belief has not died out, as expected. On the contrary, religious belief continues to be a touchstone of public behavior. Theories that equated modernity with secularization are losing their sway. We can no longer afford to ignore the role that religious belief plays on the world stage.
For the last two years, Auburn has hosted a Fulbright scholar as part of the new Interfaith Community Action Program at the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, better known as the Fulbright program. This new initiative brings ten religious scholars from around the world to America for a four-month intensive experience. The scholars are hosted at universities and seminaries like Auburn with strong interreligious programs. Our first Fulbright was a Baha'i scholar who served as the Interfaith Officer for the Government of Scotland. Our second Fulbright was an expert on Maronite Christianity from the University of Notre Dame in Beirut, Lebanon. I found it extraordinarily rewarding to develop a friendship with both of these scholars. They taught me many things that have enriched my work in this field. The exchange is a two-way street: Fulbright scholars teach American academics, religious leaders, and diplomats about the religious dynamics and diversity of their home countries. And while they are here in the US, the Fulbright scholars see first-hand how, in America, different religious traditions get along. They leave inspired by American interreligious activity and take those learnings back home.
In a time when religiously motivated groups are engaged in violent conflict all over the world, no one can doubt how critical it is that our scholars, diplomats, and political leaders learn about other faiths. For peace and development to thrive, our political leaders and their advisors must also engage in interreligious learning.
Interreligious activity is with teenage youth
Our future leaders need to relate to their peers from different religious backgrounds while they are in their formative stages. It is no longer enough to ground our youth in their own tradition. In the 21st century, developing a strong affiliation with one’s religious tradition must include the opportunity to understand how one relates to those who believe and act differently.
I already mentioned to you the story of Madelyn and Abdullah, who taught each other profound things from across the religious divide. Here’s another example from Face to Face / Faith to Faith, but this time from our delegation in Israel and Palestine. During their follow-up programming, the delegation decided they wanted to do an education project for their family and friends. The Palestinian and Israeli teens, who come from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds, some devoutly religious and others deeply secular, organized a tour of the separation barrier. With guided tours on both sides of the wall, given by the people who live next to the separation barrier, these teens modeled what it means to open up to the narrative of the other. They taught their friends and family how to take the difficult step of asking what life is like for someone on the other side. While I could go on with other examples, let me instead tell you what the program means to these teens in their own words. Here are quotes from three of them:
Steven, a Christian participant from South Africa: "It is difficult to put into words something that was so life altering. Through Face to Face / Faith to Faith I found that I had the ability to understand people better. The program opened my eyes to what is happening in our world and made me a stronger person. My Christian life has also improved. Listening to others talk about their religious beliefs made me surer in my faith but also more understanding about theirs."
Avi, a Jewish participant from Israel: "A few months ago I brought a Palestinian friend of mine, Saleh, from Face to Face to my school. Most of my classmates had never actually met a Palestinian. They heard about Palestinians only on the evening news after a terrorist attack. The questions kids in my class asked Saleh were hard like, 'Why don’t we hear any protest from Palestinians who want peace?' Saleh did his best to answer and just before Saleh left, my classmates told him, 'I didn’t know there were Muslims like you.'"
Abdullah, a Muslim participant from the US: "Great civilizations of the past ended when different faiths clashed. We are not that different from those people in the past. We can either do what people in history did or we can take the seemingly harder way: STOP, WATCH, and LISTEN. Maybe if we begin to really listen to our faiths and allow inner peace to transform us step by step, we can start listening to our foes, our friends, and to the voices within. Our faiths are no longer barriers; rather, they are our bridges to peace."
Whether working with religious leaders, scholars and diplomats, or teenagers – interreligious relationships can weave a security blanket that shelters our communities. This multifaith security blanket reduces violence that is based on ignorance, religious intolerance and bigotry. This multifaith security blanket fosters peace and development. I hope the examples I have given you today will serve as evidence of that claim.
If some people of faith create problems by carrying out violence in the name of God, then other people of faith need to create solutions by patiently learning about each other, reducing ignorance and stereotypes, and working together on issues of common concern.
In our lifetimes, we have learned much about how to wage holy war. The way to wage holy war is to be religiously intolerant – to claim that my path to God is the only right path to God. When we claim that our path to God is the only path, we commit the sin of creating God in our own image rather than remembering that we were created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
We have learned much about waging holy war, yet we have not learned enough about waging holy peace. The path to holy peace is paved with interreligious relationships. The path to holy peace is forged when we learn from someone who is not like us, from someone who does not follow our traditions. Because God created us in the divine image, there is something divine in each one of us. That divine spark is what we must search for in each person.