Rabbis and Imams: A Report From the Conference

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The [London] Jewish Chronicle offered several participant reports about the recent conference in Spain. AP had a brief item about it, but there has not been much depth coverage of this fascinating event.

Minimally, we now know what both religions share in common: spritual leaders who speak too long.
[Thanks to Martin Brody, Los Angeles]

As I stepped into the enormous lobby of the Alcora Hotel in Seville, I was met by a cacophony of multilingual greetings, handshakes and embraces. The Second World Congress of Rabbis and Imams was about to start and participants from across the world in a variety of religious garb were renewing their acquaintance around the giant fountain.

I had been fortunate to attend last year s, inaugural event in Brussels, organised, as was last month’s, by Hommes de Parole, an international humanitarian foundation. Ar-ound 100 rabbis and imams had gathered on this occasion in Spain, along with interfaith activists, academics and directors of NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

Israel s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, was there, together with a contingent of Charedi rabbis including representatives of various Israeli batei din (rabbinical courts) and yeshivot. As a rule, the Charedi community is reticent to engage in interfaith dialogue and is often underrepresented at such initiatives. Their presence therefore added tremendous clout to the Jewish delegation. Equally impressive was a deputation from Gaza, led by the imam of Gaza, Imad Al-Falouji.

Predictably, security at the hotel was tight. In the face of threats from Hamas, following the Israeli raid on the Jericho jail, the organisers were taking no chances. Spanish Swat teams camped out in the hotel lobby and refused entry to anyone without a special pass.

It is fascinating to watch the social dynamics at such events. On the first evening, after the usual introductory speeches, we sat down to dinner. With rare exception, Jews sat with Jews and Muslims with Muslims. Eventually this changed so that by the last night most tables were a colourful mix of religions and cultures.

The most challenging part of these conferences is sitting through the plenary sessions with countless interventions. I quickly discovered that, with rare exceptions, most people don’t have anything original to say. Yet, not only does this not stop them speaking in the first place but the majority go well over their allotted time. Religious leaders are used to sermonising captive audiences and have never been forced to acquire the skills of speaking briefly and pointedly.

The conference organisers went some way towards solving this problem by introducing numerous small workshops where real conversations could be had. The new format was not to everyone s liking and some Israeli rabbis left the conference in protest.

At the end, everyone received booklets summarising close to 50 workshops. Topics included how to share the Old City of Jerusalem, mysticism as a bridge for peace, writing new school curricula for peace, absolute truth and theological diversity, and expanding interfaith dialogue to Asia.

In the Jerusalem workshop, the rabbis pointed out that setting foot on the Temple Mount is proscribed by Jewish law. They called on the imams to publicise this to allay Muslim fears that Jews have designs on the Al Aqsa Mosque. They also noted that such incitement among the Muslims only provokes extremists in the Jewish community. The imams, in turn, called on the rabbis to make their voices heard to ease Muslim access to their holy sites in Israel. It was recommended that a committee of imams and rabbis be set up to further dialogue on this delicate subject.

There were some heated moments at the conference, when members of the Palestinian delegation, for instance, demanded justice for their people, at a plenary on the family. The chairman reminded them that, while he was sensitive to their plight, this was the wrong session to raise it. They took umbrage and left, feeling that no one was interested in what they had to say. The Jewish response was divided. One rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, got upset and shouted across the room that no one had a monopoly on suffering. Other rabbis were more conciliatory and argued that although it was uncomfortable, we were duty bound to listen to the narrative of others.

My own feeling is that most of the real work was achieved neither in plenaries nor workshops but rather during meals and late-night conversations in the hotel lobby.

On the second night, we were treated to an impromptu concert of Sephardic and Arabic music and singing. A circle formed around a small group of imams and Sephardic rabbis who, accompanied by a single bamboo flute, took turns leading those ass-embled in songs from their respective faiths. It was striking how similar the tunes were. Without the words, one would never know where the Islamic song ended and the Jewish one began. The highlight that evening was a mystical dance led by a Sufi, in which rabbis and imams clasped hands and went round and round in circles. It reminded me of a Chasidic rikud (dance.)

What is the point of a conference in an exotic location if you can t play truant? My wife Dina and I managed to sneak away with some friends for half a day to visit Cordoba, the birthplace of Maimonides and Averroes, and the once great centre of Is-lamic culture and Jewish learning. On the train home, we were seated next to an imam from London and his wife. It seemed we were not the only ones playing truant.

I thought we would get into trouble, said his wife. I won t tell if you don t, I replied. No one got into trouble; on the contrary, our little trip together achieved what the conference had set out to do. To an observer, we must have been a peculiar sight: two rabbis, one imam and their wives, laughing and chatting together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A 12th-century Cordovian wouldn t have given us a second glance. The irony was not lost on me. I will always remember the laughter and friendship we shared that day on the train out of Cordoba. We may be miles from our desired destination but if we ride together, we will reach it in the end.

Rabbi Brawer is the adviser on Islamic affairs to Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks

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15 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    The quote from Chateaubriand inspired some thought about the relationship between freedom and nature. Although I did not encounter any “denizens of the streams” or “beasts of the earth” in Flatbush(besides the cats which inhabit my backyard), we did have a few days of beautiful spring weather over Yom Tov, which made me think of the following comments.

    Based on the Maharal, Rav Gedalya Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu explains the reason why the Torah provides a connection between the Shalosh Regalim(three festivals) and the agricultural cycle. The physical changes that occur in nature each season are reflections of a deeper, spiritual reality found in the “olomos hoelyonim” (higher spheres). A similar concept is also expressed by R’ Yosef Bloch of Telz in a fundamental essay in Shiurei Torah entitiled “Nishmas Hatorah”, as well as in the preface to the Shelah, both of which are cited by Rav Mordechai Gifter in the Hebrew overview to the Artscroll Shir Hashirim.

    The Torah refers to Pesach as “Chag H’aviv”, the Festival of the Spring. The budding and the blossoming of plants and flowers during this season reflect the spiritual capacities of freshness and renewal present in the universe during this time. The reason why Hashem created the physical phenomena of each season of the regalim, is to make us aware of the existing spiritual realities which correspondingly manifest themselves during the times of each yom tov.

    According to Rav Schorr, the month of Nissan represents a unique opportunity for personal renewal, spiritual growth, and freedom. May we merit freedom both on the personal and on the national levels, as Chazal tell us , “Just as during the month of Nissan we were redeemed in Egypt, so too, shall we be redeemed in the future” !

  2. Robert Bicknell says:

    “To an observer, we must have been a peculiar sight: two rabbis, one imam and their wives, laughing and chatting together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

    I would think thatit SHOULD be the most natural thing in the world as we are all descendants of Abraham.

  3. Drew Kaplan says:

    btw, speaking of YCT, there were four YCT students at this conference

  4. question says:

    A circle formed around a small group of imams and Sephardic rabbis who, accompanied by a single bamboo flute, took turns leading those assembled in songs from their respective faiths. It was striking how similar the tunes were. Without the words, one would never know where the Islamic song ended and the Jewish one began. The highlight that evening was a mystical dance led by a Sufi, in which rabbis and imams clasped hands and went round and round in circles. It reminded me of a Chasidic rikud (dance.)

    And if Sefardi Rabbis feel a kinship to Sufi song in that we all worship one God when we sing his praises, their tradtions run deep.

  5. mycroft says:

    “The CR of Israel , for some reason, has engaged in such conferences,etc despite RYBS’s Confrontation. You should ask the CR why it engages in such conferences”
    The CR of Israel has no reason to follow RYBS’s Confrontation-he’s not their Rebbe. The same way Talmidim of RYBS did not follow RAK’s issur on the Synagogue Council of America. RAK was not their Rebbe. We don’t have a Sanhedrin-thus there is simply no one that one must follow to be within the pale. One must follow ones own halachik authority. To some its RMF, to some RAK to RSZA to some RYBS etc.

  6. Nachum says:

    Michael:

    My mistake, of course you’re right. I meant the Makom Hamikdash. Different opinions on where the Mikdash stood (although it’s pretty clear) probably keep those who go up from setting foot on the original (much smaller) Har HaBayis, though.

    I believe that the mikvah detail and other practices is something of a chumrah, as the modern Mount (and perhaps the original Har) has limited halakhic status. After all, you can be tameh meis and go up.

    Is there a difference between Moslems and Christians in these matters? Were Moslems even on Rav Soloveitchik’s radar screen, or was he speaking of all religions?

  7. question says:

    No, it is not a good point. The Israeli government, rabbinate, and now defunct misrad hadatot have to deal with more complex issues of halkhic cost-benift about other religions on a daily basis. They have experience, shut, and rabbis behind them. They decide what is handled by the Rabbis and what they send a non- rabbinical official to attend.
    It is not this smallness of an annual visit of cardinals to YU, YCT, Chabad, Belz, HUC, and others.
    They regularly have to deal with Imams, Archbishops, and others. ANd to protect and maintain their houses of worship. And if the news is correct, Pope Benedict will be visiting Israel and they will work out the protocol of formal meetings, politics, theology, visiting houses of worship and study, and theological dialogue. None of it will involve reference to an English essay of the Rav.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Who is doing the true halachic cost-benefit calculation for all these types of things? Steve’s point is well-taken.

  9. Michael Kopinsky says:

    Rav Adlerstein et al:

    I think I speak for much of your readership in requesting an explanation of how you see the difference between thjis and the cardinals at YCT.

    Nachum:

    There is no difference between the Temple Mount and the Har Habayis. To go there, you need to go to the mikveh. Only stepping foot on the Makom Hamikdash is assur bizman hazeh, since we’re all tamei.

  10. question says:

    The CR of Israel follows the lead of Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen on interfaith, and he allows dialogue. As do Rabbis Bakshi-Dorn and Lau. The English essay of Rabbi SOloveitchik does not play any role for them, they do not even have to mention it to refute it. It is not cited in the halakhic literature of the last 40 years.
    That essay mainly plays a role now to allow people in America to attack others.
    Even if the CR did read it, they would not find a discussion of the Rambam nor of the many Shut permitting teaching a gentile Torah, nor of the Shut on the role of allowing crosses to enter a Jewish place.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    The CR of Israel , for some reason, has engaged in such conferences,etc despite RYBS’s Confrontation. You should ask the CR why it engages in such conferences.

  12. mb says:

    “as if British rabbis are somehow more enlightned and moderate.”

    Yes they are. And thankfully so. And this goes way back to pre expulsion( 1290) Tosafists.

  13. Nachum says:

    Peace is always good. But disguising the truth to make it seem like we can all get along forever will never work:

    “In the Jerusalem workshop, the rabbis pointed out that setting foot on the Temple Mount is proscribed by Jewish law.”

    Setting foot on the Har HaBayit is prohibited by Jewish law. The Temple Mount is much larger than the Har. Some rabbis proscribe setting foot even there. Many others (those nasty “extremists”, I suppose) don’t.

    “They called on the imams to publicise this to allay Muslim fears that Jews have designs on the Al Aqsa Mosque. ”

    Well, considering that the Mosque is not on the Har, maybe. But Jews certainly have “designs” on the Dome of the Rock.

    Sadly, I detect a note of (historical) condescention throught, as if British rabbis are somehow more enlightned and moderate than the Israelis and Holocaust survivors who can’t let things go.

  14. question says:

    So I guess that Rabbis Meltzer, Yaakov Ariel, Shaar Yashuv Cohen, Shlomo DAICHOVSKY and Abraham SHERMAN( both of the BADATZ) are supporters of YCT and do not understand halakhah?!!!

  15. Jewish Observer says:

    “Without the words, one would never know where the Islamic song ended and the Jewish one began”

    very much like rock music and jewish music in the US