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Interreligious Dialogue in Jerusalem

Christian Leadership Initiative participant Dr. Robert Cathey discusses his visit to Jerusalem and the Hartman Institute
Robert Cathey

Robert Cathey

Robert Cathey

This article appeared originally on the McCormick Seminary’s website.

This year during my McCormick sabbatical I spent two weeks in Jerusalem for study at the Shalom Hartman Institute as part of the Christian Leadership Initiative of the American Jewish Committee. Some of you may know that President Cynthia Campbell and Professor Emeritus Fred Holper participated in this program in the summers of 2008 and 2009.

The modern Orthodox philosopher David Hartman, in honor of his father, Shalom Hartman, founded the Hartman Institute in the 1970s. It stands in the middle of a modern residential neighborhood in Jerusalem. It brings together leaders and teachers from across the Jewish spectrum (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) for study of classic rabbinical and mystical texts. But the interest is more than academic. The Hartman Institute is contributing to the global Jewish renaissance in creating a philosophy, theology, and ethics that addresses spiritual life in secular societies like Israel, Europe, and North America. Very few Jewish institutions have won the respect of all four major streams of Judaism as a center for advanced studies. As a Christian, it is a great privilege to be invited to study in a place where a kind of Jewish reformation is underway.

The Christian Leadership Initiative this summer included seminary Presidents, Deans, Old and New Testament professors, a National Council of Churches staff executive, a religious educator, a director of a Catholic-Jewish studies program, and a theologian (yours truly). Most of us had studied Hebrew and Hebrew Bible / Old Testament as part of our theological educations. But few of us had ever formally studied rabbinic texts from the Mishnah (circa 200 CE), the Talmud (circa 425-525 CE), rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible called Midrashim, and mystical texts from the Zohar (circa later 1200s CE). All of us had some prior contact with the American Jewish Committee, one of the most respected and enduring human relations organizations in the U.S .

Hartman Institute scholars, who often come from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University in Israel, use a rabbinical method of study called havruta. We all received a packet of carefully selected texts drawn from classic Jewish sources on topics like: “Who Determines the Good?,” “Serving God Through Prayer,” “Serving God Through Commandment,” “Standing Before God in Morality and Interpretation,” “Serving God Through Talmud Torah,” “Images of God,” “Providence and the Problem of Evil.” After a Hartman scholar had briefly introduced the topic and texts to us, we broke into small groups of four Christians with one rabbi or Jewish leader. Then we would slowly read through the selected texts together and talk about possible meanings. (It truly helped to have a biblical scholar in our small group who previously had taught some early rabbinical texts.) The focus was not merely in historical-critical exegesis of these texts, but what they meant to us as Christians studying together with Jewish scholars and rabbis. Then we reconvened for a large group session with a Hartman scholar who led us into a more informed discussion of the text and its significance for Jews today.

Our intense periods of study were punctuated by a series of meetings with Israelis and a Palestinian to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, esp. how it is viewed in Israel and Palestine today. It was particularly interesting to hear from Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee who served as a rabbi in both Ireland and South Africa before moving to Jerusalem. Arising from these meetings, our group discussed whether and how it is possible to convene public meetings to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the U.S. without embittering our long-term dialogue partners, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian.

We also took a field trip to visit three distinctive sites: at Ono Academic College the student body includes among others Ethiopian-Israeli Jews and Orthodox women. Ono College also hosts a unique program in law for clergy from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Druze communities. We traveled north to Yemin Orde Youth Aliyah Village that provides a home for abandoned children and adolescents with a distinctive philosophy of communal care and responsibility. Finally we visited with Rani Jaeger , a young Israeli scholar who has constructed with his friends in Tel Aviv an emerging alternative spirituality for more secular Jews in this most secular of Israeli cities. In the summer up to 800 young Jewish adults attend their form of Friday evening Shabbat that includes jazz music.

One highlight for us was an audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III. His community has one of the oldest covenants with Muslims for sharing space in Israel / Palestine, and the Patriarch is active in inter-religious work with other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem.

We also attended Friday evening Shabbat at Shira Hadasha, a gathering of Orthodox Jews where both a woman and man lead or chant parts of the prayers and scripture. The joy of welcoming the coming of Shabbat in Jerusalem was followed by dinner in the home of one of our teachers, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the President of the Hartman Institute.

When I returned from Jerusalem, someone asked me what was the real agenda of this study tour to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Some Christians are suspicious of Jewish organizations that host Christian leaders to visit the State of Israel. Given the diplomatic nature of the American Jewish Committee and esp. our leaders Emily Soloff of Chicago and Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of Los Angeles, and the wide-open discussion format of the Hartman Institute, I was never reticent to speak my mind on any issue we discussed. Nor did any of my Christian and Jewish colleagues hold back when we discussed the future of Israelis and Palestinians. One insight I have learned from Emily Soloff is that Christians and Jews sometimes use the same words, like covenant or justice, to mean different things. In programs like the Christian Leadership Initiative there is time and space to parse out the different meanings of some of the symbols and texts that Jews and Christians share. Hopefully we are crafting a language and a set of relationships that will make more faithful and true interfaith dialogue possible with our co-religionists in the U.S. My hope is that a day will come when Jewish, Christian, and Muslim citizens of the U.S. will find better ways to support our own government in seeking a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians without coercion and threats for Middle Eastern communities traumatized by decades of violence and poverty.

Dr. Robert Cathey is Professor of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary. He was a Fellow of the Hartman Institute’s Christian Leadership Initiative. 

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