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The Importance and Meaning of Dialogue from a Jewish Perspective

By Yehuda Stolov, Interfaith Encounter Association

On Wednesday, 23 June, the Interfaith Encounter Association organized, at the request of several of its activists, an intra-Jewish meeting with Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa that also has longtime interfaith experience, in order to learn the importance and meaning of interfaith dialogue from an inner Jewish perspective.

Some eighteen people gathered in our small office. The Rabbi opened with an introduction and then responded to questions. In the following lines you can find the main points that were discussed.

There is a basic hesitation in the Jewish mind towards interfaith dialogue and relations - as a result of the unfortunate history, in which the relations took the form of debates, always initiated by the ruling religion for the purpose of conversion, many times followed by coercion. The reality now is very different as there is no fear from coerced conversions. Moreover, there is openness to learn from the light of the Torah and we should spread it to "prepare the path for the Messiah" as says Maimonides. The Rabbi described a letter that he received from another Rabbi, who criticized him for his role as the Chair of the Committee of the Chief Rabbinate for dialogue with the Catholic Church. The Rabbi replied that looking at the prayer of "Aleynu Leshabe'ach" - our emphasis now is less on the first part, that looks for the dangers and negates other religions, but on the second part, that stresses our vision for the coming time when "And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one".

In the Catholic Church there was a major change that is no less than a revolution, with the second Vatican Council. As a result of the Holocaust the Church introspected at the Christian climate in Europe that helped make it possible and revised its teachings. The present Pope implemented extensively the decisions of that council, saying that God does not take back his gifts - therefore Jews should be respected as they are the older brothers of the Christians.

Rabbi Soloveichik, in his famous article "Confrontation", outlined the limits of Jewish-Christian dialogue by encouraging the advancement of joint social action and the negation of theological debates about who is right and who is wrong.

In Islam the faith is one God is very pure and there are no theological challenges. The problem here is the lack of a strong Islamic leadership that will counter effectively those groups that interpret Islam in a militant way.

It is important that we come to the dialogue with self-esteem and with knowledge and acknowledgement of our sources and what we have to offer to the dialogue. Both should go together: self respect and respect for the other.

In occasions of joint prayers the Rabbi recommended reading Psalms. He also described the practice in St. Edijio where the Jews go to the Synagogue, the Christians to the Church and the Muslims to the Mosque. After each finishes their prayers, they go out with their prayer costumes and walk jointly for peace.

The Rabbi concluded with a quote from his speech at the ceremony of ordination of young rabbis, from which he came to our meeting. The Midrash says that Moses was selected to be the leader after he went out of his way to take care for a lamb that was lost from the herd. The Rabbi told the new young rabbis that the leader is like a shepherd and as such his ultimate test is not the treatment of those who stay within the herd but how the treatment of those who run away from it and go astray.

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