Jews, Christians and Muslims: Allies for Peace
Posted by rabbibrian on February 25, 2010
Below you will find the text of an edited version of the talk I gave to Christian leaders who gathered in May last year at the Carter Center to discuss ways they could work together to promote justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. I edited the text of the talk and have shared with the participants in the upcoming Christian – Muslim Summit. I am reprinting the edited version here as I would love to generate dialogue on moving beyond Jews defending Israel to the notion of Jews joining with Christians and Muslims as allies for peace. What do you think?
Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Allies for Peace
Rabbi Brian Walt
(Adapted from a talk given to a meeting of Christian leaders at the Carter Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia May 2009)
Have you but one blessing? Bless me too my Father! (Gen. 26:38)
Jews, Christians, and Muslims are often bitter antagonists on several different issues but especially in relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rabbi, committed to the prophetic call to peace and justice, honored by all three traditions, I pray that Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders can transcend the history of conflict and become allies for peace. In this spirit I offer the following reflection.
In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, after Isaac tells Esau, his son, that his brother Jacob has stolen the blessing, Esau burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father,
“Have you but one blessing? Bless me too, my father” (Genesis 26:38)
Esau’s painful words, “Have you but one blessing?” raises the critical issue that must be faced today by all people of faith. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all people who seek peace, must respond to Esau’s cry with an unqualified “No!” God is not limited to one blessing. God blesses all God’s children: Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet, for far too long, religious leaders and teachers of our respective traditions have claimed that God has only one blessing that has been conferred on our particular community. This painful history of religious exclusivity, of privileging our own religious tradition over others, has fuelled prejudice, hatred and violence. It is time for us as religious leaders to take action to end this cycle of pain and violence perpetrated in the name of religion. It is time for all of us to repent, to do teshuva (return), to return God, to return our shared belief that in God’s eyes no particular people or religious community is privileged over the other.
For Jews this means returning to our belief stated in the very first chapters of our Torah, that all human beings are created in the Image of God. In our tradition there is a debate between two great rabbis: Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva argues that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important principle of Jewish faith; Ben Azzai counters that the belief all human beings are created in the image of God is even more important. Both values, love for all human beings and the inherent dignity of all human beings, lie at the core of our faith and, I believe, at the core of Christianity and Islam.
The affirmation of this shared legacy does not in any way negate the distinctive character of three traditions. The distinctive character of different religious traditions are precious and sacred, but the distinctiveness of our faith traditions must be placed in the context our core universal understanding that all every human life is sacred and deserving of human dignity, equality and justice. It means placing our shared religious understanding of human dignity, love and compassion at the center of our faith. Nothing is more important.
Highlighting this shared legacy and moving beyond exclusivity and privileging is not only critical to our faith traditions, it is also essential for the healing of the conflict in the Holy Land. Just as Jacob and Esau assumed there was only one blessing, so the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have claimed exclusive title to the land.
Over the centuries during the various bloody conquests of the Holy Land, religious leaders have encouraged the exclusive claim of their particular religious traditions and often fomented violence in the name of religion. Is it possible for religious leaders in our own time to move beyond our own murderous history of exclusivity? The Holy Land is the land of two peoples, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Is it possible for religious leaders help resolve this conflict in a way that assures both peoples justice, security and peace?
It is the same Biblical story of Jacob and Esau that offers us hope for such a vision. In Genesis, Chapter 33, the Torah recounts that after years of separation, during which Jacob and Esau harbored murderous hostility to one another, the two brothers come together. Jacob, terrified that his brother will kill him, and according to rabbinic interpretation, that he could kill his brother, offers Esau gifts. In an extraordinary moment, Esau, the aggrieved and embittered son who didn’t receive the primary blessing, says to his brother, “I have a lot my brother (more than enough), you keep what is yours” (Genesis 33:9). Jacob pleads with him to accept the gift and says to see your face, my brother is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10). This is one of the most inspiring and extraordinary passages in the Torah. Jacob and Esau finally understand that they are both blessed, that they both are children of God.
Inspired by this vision, the task of religious leaders in our time is to help Israelis and Palestinians to move from the painful cry of the aggrieved and dispossessed, to the reality where both parties understand that there is enough for both peoples, where they can see God’s face in the other.
The task is not easy, and it will involve much dialogue, listening, compassion and generosity. It requires of Jews, Christians and Muslims, an openness to a sacred encounter with one another, learning about one another’s cultures beyond the demonization and characterizations. It requires a curiosity and eagerness to understand the other. Last year I was blessed to travel with a group of Christians, Jews and Muslims to Egypt and Qatar. It was my first visit to Arab and majority Muslim countries. I learned so much, about the countries we visited and especially about Islam. It was such a gift to share the journey with an imam and to spend time in prayer and dialogue. And, I also learned so much from travelling together in a group that included all three faiths, dedicated to understanding, justice and peace.
In this dialogue we need to understand one another and our respective communities. Because Israel is so important to us, I want to share some thoughts about what the State of Israel means to Jews and some of the challenges we face in our own community.
For most Jews, and, for most Israelis, the issues related to Israel are not primarily theological or religious. The founders of Israel were secular and envisioned a state that would embody the prophetic teachings of justice, freedom and peace. For most Jews, Israel is not about God, the Promised Land or theology. Israel is about survival, safety, and ongoing Jewish cultural creativity.
The vulnerability and victimization of Jews in the world was the primary reason for the birth of political Zionism. Theodore Herzl and the other leaders of political Zionism argued that the price Jews paid for our lack of political power, our powerlessness, was too great. The catastrophe of the Holocaust 40 years later convinced many Jews and much of the world that they were right. Jews needed a place where Jews could be secure and where we could express our national identity. On this level, Zionism has been a huge success. Today Israel is a state that provides Jews with national expression, where Jewish cultural creativity flourishes and where any Jew can find safe refuge in times of need.
Christians and Muslims are often confused why their Jewish friends, often so liberal on many social issues, react so passionately to any criticism of the policies of the State of Israel. When Jews hear criticism of Israel, they hear a challenge to the survival of the Jewish people. Any resolution of this conflict needs to address the Jewish fear about survival along with the justice for the Palestinian people.
Yet a crucial part of the Zionist dream has not been fulfilled. One of the dreams of the founders of Israel was that the Jewish state would translate the Jewish experience of victimization into a resolve not to victimize others. Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, articulated this when he wrote in 1948, just as the state was being created:
“The state is only a means to an end…. There must not be one set of laws for Jews and another for Arabs. We must maintain the principle expressed in the Torah: “The same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you… I am sure that the world will judge the Jewish state according to the way it treats the Arabs”
The dream, that the Jewish state that would wield power differently, has not been realized. In the very creation of the State of Israel, injustice was committed against the Palestinian people who were dispossessed of their homes and communities. Further, as Israel has developed over time it has become a society where there is one set of norms that apply to Jews and another to non-Jewish citizens. This is true even within the pre-67 War borders of the State of Israel, and is much worse in the Occupied Territories.
This is a painful reality that is acknowledged by a fairly significant number of Israelis and a much smaller number of American Jews. It is this disturbing reality that has led to the creation of many Israeli peace and human rights organizations that are committed to upholding the core Jewish value that all are created in the image. The Jewish community is deeply divided on this issue. Many American Jews and Israelis deny that Israel has acted unjustly towards Palestinians and will often attack anyone within our community who suggests otherwise.
Just as there is deep conflict within the Jewish people, so too there is conflict within the Christian and Muslim community. There are significant clashes within each of our religious traditions and civilizations. Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders who are prepared to challenge our own communities, to build understanding and ultimately to work together for peace, are a source of hope that we may end the centuries of prejudice and discrimination fuelled by religious leaders and ideas. Religious leaders, who have the courage to engage in this difficult dialogue, could be allies for peace. The task is challenging, even somewhat dangerous, but it is sacred work.
If we join together in this sacred work, we will be responding to Esau’s cry of pain by refusing to take sides, by advocating for a just solution for both people, for all people.
If we join together as allies for peace, we will be following the inspiring footsteps of Jacob and Esau’s courage to face one another and to see the face of God in the other.
If we choose to follow this sacred call, we may help the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to transcend the history of violence and dispossession that has characterized this conflict and most human conflicts over land.
The Torah tells us that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father Abraham. It is time now for the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael to come together, to see the face of God in one another and to make peace. May we, with God’s help, join together as allies for peace, and may God bless our efforts.
As it says in the daily Jewish prayer for peace: “Bless us all, our Father/Mother, as one, in the light of your Presence.”
Keyn Yehi Ratzon!
May it Be Your Will!
Rabbi Brian Walt is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA. and the co-Founder of Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. He is the former Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.