Yom Kippur Address Oxford 5776/2015 by Wendy Fidler
Yom Kippur, a day of reckoning. The day of taking stock of what has happened in our lives over the last year. What have we done that has been good; what have we done that has been less than good; and what have we done that has been bad. Student or professor; zero hours contract or captain of industry; Care worker or consultant. We all stand before God in what we have done, or failed to do. Weare allthe same, each one of us moulded by God in His image, yet each different and unique.
Some of our actions are specific many are intangible. How tolerant or how caring have we been? How altruistic or how self-engrossed. How compassionate and understanding have we been; or do we have a closed mind to those who are not the same as we are. Orthodox and Liberal; Sunni and Shia; Anglican and Roman Catholic; Christians and Jews
It won’t come as any surprise that my subject of choice this morning is ‘interfaith’. To set the scene, I begin with a personal memory from my childhood. I was born during the war and brought up in a traditionally orthodox family in Manchester in the 1940s and 50s, surrounded by non-Jewish neighbours. Wash day in our house followed Shabbat and every Sunday we all had to change the sheets on our own beds for my mother to begin the washing. However, despite Manchester rain and before tumble dryers, and even on a rare dry Sunday, my mother would never hang out the washing in the garden. When questioned about this, her immediate response was to say, ‘We live with our Christian next door neighbours. We must always show respect to them and to the faith of the majority of the people around us. To hang out the washing would not do this and we, as Jews must remember that all faiths are of equal validity, worth and importance and thus must be respected.’
Thereby began my first lesson in interfaith at about aged 5!
The word ‘Interfaith’ covers a huge spectrum of thoughts and ideas and it is about some of these I want to talk this morning.
We are all accustomed to hearing that today we live in a diverse, multi-cultural society. But today it is this multi-cultural society which is creating tensions. Society is fragmented and there is religious, political, social, ethnic, racial and national dissonance all around us.
Internationally there is little doubt that the scourge of hatred, intolerance and oppression remains the most urgent global challenge of our time. Extremism is gaining credence and the upper hand. To combat these issues we need those people with a balanced belief in all the Abrahamic faiths to promote their moderate beliefs. This means that people of different religions need to live with each other with tolerance and understanding; knowledge without prejudice.
But it is not enough just to hear or to mouth these words; we must understand what this means. We must consider how. And this is where interfaith work comes in. It is imperative we put diversity on a more meaningful level if we want to be able to live together. We need to live and interact with the Others, not just live side by side in parallel
And that means we must engage with the Other and establish relationships of trust. The only way to do this is through dialogue. Fundamental differences do exist between our beliefs which can never, nor ever should be reconciled, but an understanding of the Other will enable people to live together with mutual respect.
All I’ve said so far affirms and demands respect between Jews and Christians, between those of all other faiths and none. This I firmly believe, but I am aware that all people, including Christians, Muslims and Jews, should practice what they preach in all, rather than in selected contexts. We therefore need to consider intra-faith respect, in our case respect between Jew and Jew.
When Judaism entered the modern world at the beginning of the 19th Century, one of the things that we imbibed from Christianity was denominations. For the best part of 200 years we have livedwith Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Modern-Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal/Progressive Jews. Spoken in that usual order, we think of it as a simple spectrum from right to left. We tend to categorise the groupings by levels of ‘traditional observance’ rather than theology or ethics. We are often guilty of the sin of regarding anyone more observant than us as being obsessive and anyone less observant being scarcely Jewish at all. The right pointer on the spectrum is exactly where we sit. It is not a very attractive attribute. In a small community like the British Jewish community, it is wasteful and destructive. It is often about issues of power, authority and perceived ‘rightness’, the very same attributes which poison interfaith relationships. We in Oxford are privileged not to live in a separated Jewish environment. Here a Jew is a Jew irrespective of affiliation or none. We have a lot to be thankful for in our own Jewish lives but we need to be continuously aware that our community is unique, achieved as Miriam Shire mentioned last year in her address, because we want it to work and we are all prepared to offer respect and interact with all the OJC members. Sadly, in many communities outside Oxford, the situation has become worse not better since the rise of global fundamentalism in the 1960s, when Jews became polarised by difference rather than being brought together through a common heritage.
As a follow-on from this, since all humanity is made in the image of God, one could ask should respect be given equally to all human beings, and should that respect be given unconditionally and non-judgmentally? Can there even be respect if it has conditions attached? Am I obliged to respect everyone and everything they do? For example, a man who is so committed to his faith that he hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into a sky scraper, or, the brutality of the Islamic State. The very first sentence in Jonathan Sacks’ most recent book ‘Not in God’s Name’ is ‘when religion turns men into murderers, God weeps’.
Until the second half of the 20th Century there was little or no formalised interaction and dialogue between faiths in Britain. The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) which, as the UK’s oldest national interfaith organisation, was established during the dark days of World War Two in 1942, took the first steps on the tortuous road to establishing relationships between Christianity and Judaism. There is little doubt that the foundation of CCJ wasprompted by the growing recognition of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe but that in no way detracts from the courage and vision of the then Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz.
The circumstances in which CCJ was founded, the Shoah, influenced its terms of reference and created the agenda to combat antisemitism that has persisted for many years. Jews wanted to call the Church to account for its anti-Judaism and the consequences which flowed from that; Some Jews found the courage to enlist the help of our sibling religion, Christianity, to ensure that the horrendous events of the Shoah are never repeated. Some Christians wanted to expose the anti-Judaism and antisemitism endemic in the Church and cleanse it. Yet even such an ‘untheological’ agenda was a ‘risky activity’. Any attempt at reconciliation could expose Jews to Christian mission and to the danger, and possibly the disrespect that posed.
Some of us have thought that now in the twenty-first century, having responded to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and the catastrophes of the 20th century our job should have been accomplished. But the roots of estrangement and the pain of the past are so deep that they will take far longer and far wider engagement than anyone could have envisaged. The situation has, sadly, been greatly exacerbated by events in the Middle East, particularly since 1967. Whatever view one takes of the policies of particular Israeli Governments, the situation is alarming, and sadly Jews are not guilt-free. Since 2012 there have been several attacks on Christian religious sites by Israeli Jews. Most recently in the Gallil a 5th century church was attacked twice, the first time occurred when a service was in progress and a fire was started, people were hurt in the attack. These attacks are justified by those Jews who participated, on the grounds that Christianity is not a monotheistic faith but is idolatrous, made so because of the Trinity, and therefore an abomination. Do you hear any similarity here between the destruction of Temples in Palmyra? Or synagogues full of Jews being set alight in the last war? Fortunately, The Elijah Interfaith Institute, headed by three well-known Israeli Rabbis (David Rosen, Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Michael Melchior), have spear-headed a project called Restoring Friendship which includes a fund raising drive in order to not only restore friendship but also restore the burnt Church in Tabgha, the Christian site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. One wonders what happened to the Talmudic injunction of ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend’.
How did all this angst happen especially between the three monotheistic faiths. Jonathan Sacks explains that the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has, historically been a poisoned one. Each initially assumed the others would disappear. Their members would either convert or acknowledge the primacy of the new faith. Christians expected Jews would become Christian because the founder of their faith was a Jew. Muslims expected that both Jews and Christians would become Muslim because their faith incorporated Abraham, Moses, Jesus and elements of their teachings. Some converted but most did not. Jews remained Jews; Christians remained Christian and Muslims remained Muslim. The result is that each was challenged by the existence of the other. Does this matter? For most of the time, no, as all three have lived peacefully together, but when they don’t, yes, o yes this matters a lot. And this is why interfaith is not optional. It is vital.
When Jews, Christians and Muslims do come together, develop a relationship of trust in each other, we face one another in our full humanity. In the case of Judaism and Christianity it took the Holocaust for this to happen. The result has been dramatic. Today after the estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more together as friends rather than enemies. Sadly there is still much work to do, and it seems that in each decade there is a need for all the interactions to begin all over again, but society would gain so much if we felt able to move beyond the fear or just the dismissal of the Other.
On the practical level what can we do? There is a need for religious literacy in schools. Many OJC members contribute enormously towards this aim. Sarah Montagu organises our band of people who go into schools to talk about Judaism and we have contact with well over 3000 pupils and adults each year.
We need to ask if 'religion' needs to have well defined borders in schools and synagogues or be taught as a porous subject which goes into every aspect of life, as so often we are talking to pupils who know very very little about Christianity, the faith of their own country. Interaction though should not be restricted to schools or interfaith organisations but go beyond these boundaries out into society.
At a personal level, I am fascinated by people and interested in everyone. All people have a ‘story’ worth listening to. People matter in this world; All people matter. There is a desperate need for each group of people to understand the culture, the power and the ethnicity of the ‘Others’. One can ask ‘why’? Don’t we have enough trouble or tsorros just being Jewish? Dayenu. I believe that isn’t enough. We HAVE to involve ourselves with the others because today it is intolerance, prejudice and ignorance that is tearing at the fabric of our society; That is creating the tragedy of the migrants whilst the world, and particularly the UK turns a blinds eye. In order to combat this we MUST get to know them and they must know us. It is not religion or faith per se that causes conflict. It is the abuse of religion. This abuse then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction can, all too often hide. I firmly believe that it is interfaith involvement, interfaith work, interaction with the Other and getting to know, understand and trust those of other beliefs and practices and none, that is the only way we have to achieve a solution to ensure there is greater tolerance and understanding and reduce the blind aggressive prejudice which seems to flourish today. Of prejudice Albert Einstein has said, ‘It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom’. A pity this sentiment is still relevant today.
I hope that working with CCJ in this field has made me a better person than I might otherwise have turned out to be. The attitudes of the Others are humbling. We need to respect who we are and show this same respect to others.
I close with the ultimate conundrum. We are made in the image of God, yet everyone living on the globe is different. Can we focus on what joins us as people, rather than obsessing on our different beliefs. Peace only comes when we are comfortable with ourselves, our neighbours and beliefs.