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Promoting Interreligious Understanding
Dr. Shuki Ben-Ami, Theologian and Author, Israel
November 26, 2007

The first question that should be asked in any interreligious dialogue, regardless of the religions it includes is: what is its purpose?

Interreligious dialogues occurred frequently throughout Jewish history, especially since the thirteenth century. Some of the better known dialogues are the Paris Debate, the Barcelona Debate, the Tortosa Debate, the Polemic Writings, and the "OTO-DI-PO." They all began as interreligious dialogues but ended up with pogroms, forced conversion, expulsions, forced exiles, and executions.

Therefore, at the beginning of our dialogue we would like to emphasize that this is not a debate. An interfaith dialogue is not a battle between religions; it has no winners or losers, right side or wrong side. Our dialogue is a gathering of brotherhood, so we may get to know one another with the purpose of learning to appreciate and respect the other's belief.

The key to interreligious understanding and tolerance is found in the way we respect and cherish the belief of the other, having no intention to influence or interfere, and knowing that we are all created in the image of God. We should know that the others are also created in the image of God and that our religious affiliation is a secondary issue.

In regard to Jewish-Christian relationships, throughout the history of both religions, especially since early medieval times, there was never a complete disconnection between the two. We find mutual influences on religious thought: both a Jewish influence on Christian thought and a Christian influence on the Jewish thought. A stronger influence can be found between Judaism and Islam.

Nonetheless, the Jewish-Christian relationship has been compared to the relationship between Jacob and Esau, based on the concept of "my brother: my enemy." Viewing the members of the other religion as brothers and at the same time as enemies is the most important and consistent motif in the way these two religions have been relating to one another.

The fact that we find the same motifs and concepts in both religions and the fact that they both use them in the same ways emphasizes the mutuality in the relationship of the two religions. This issue can be a good starting point for dialogue.

The idea of two nations, big and small, and of pairs in which one is rejected and one is chosen—such as Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sara, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Manassah and Ephraim, Saul and David—has led to the awful labeling of good and bad.

The concept of the "chosen one" and the "rejected one" has led to the most terrible things in history, such as anti-Semitism, genocides, the slavery and oppression of African-Americans in America, the holocaust of the Native Americans in America. This concept is also part of the roots of the race theory and the ideas of the Third Reich. It is important for us to remember that these labels are made by man; they are the creation of human beings, not of God. God has created us all in His image, in His likeness.

Looking at history, we discover that more blood has been shed in wars between religions and in the name of religions than in all other wars put together. The worst crimes in history have been committed in the name of religions. Religious institutions have sent their believers on bloodthirsty journeys, trying to force their belief and eliminate and destroy the other.

Religion has always been, and will continue to be, a major factor in the relationships between nations. Therefore, in addition to the diplomatic efforts to mediate between nations in conflict, a central role should be given to interreligious dialogues and to other efforts promoting interreligious understanding.

We must not forget, not even for one minute, that we are all created in the image of the same God, and that His image is reflected in each one of us. It is reflected in our different colors, in our variety of beliefs, and in the fact that we are like a colorful bouquet in which the flowers are bound together. If you want to see God, you need to look into your brother's eyes.

Only dialogue and conversation can bring together people from different beliefs and lead them to tolerance and interreligious understanding. We can engage in interreligious dialogue only if we respect each other's belief and each other's right to believe in it. Just as there are many ways to reach the top of the mountain, so also there are many ways to worship God. The summit is one, and there dwells the Absolute One, the Father of us all. Each way is right and appropriate in the eyes of its believers.

If we believe that the spirit has the power to destroy, we should believe it has also the power to restore. If religions are able to separate people, no doubt they can also unite and build the bridge between them. We are all children of one father. We have one world and one Father.

We should unite and shed light into all the dark corners, so we can eliminate darkness from our lives. If we do so, peace will no longer be a dream. This is the only way to fulfill Isaiah's vision: "... and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (2:4)

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