Writings from the Rabbis

Context, Conflict, Cooperation: Interfaith Relations—Past, Present and Future.
July 9 2018

Panel Presentation for Neighbourhood Interfaith Group
9 May 2018 ~ 24 Iyar 5778


I am delighted to speak on this panel with Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton and Imam Yosef Badat, and thank the Neighbourhood Interfaith Group for organizing this important event this year, continuing a process initiated over third years ago.

Ancient/Medieval Relations

Each year on 9 Av, I fast and join other Jews at the Western Wall, the landmark remnant of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, a place remembered by Christian tradition as the location where Jesus disrupted the market and venerated by Muslims as the site of Muhammad's ascent to heaven

The Roman Wars of 70 and 138 decimated Jewish community of Land of Israel, yet Jews continued to live in land, producing the religious literature of Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud.

As Christianity developed and grew, it distinguished itself from Judaism in practice, spread a growing awareness of monotheism, and eventually claimed the covenant as the true Israel. However, the survival of Jews and Judaism in a post-messianic era posed a question of the legitimacy of Christian claims to be the “new” Israel and questioned even the role of Jesus as messiah.

A central teaching of Augustine developed to deal with the continued existence of the Jewish people: “Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed, Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Saviour, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.” At the same time as he maintained that Christianity superseded Judaism, inherited Jewish scripture, history and most importantly, the Covenant with God, Augustine also provided a rationale for the continued existence of the Jewish people.

God allows the Jews to survive “debased,” “destitute” and “in dispersion,” as a warning to Christians:  “The Jews who slew Him, and would not believe in Him,” were punished by God, but allowed to survive as a continuing punishment because they “bear the guilt for the death of the Saviour, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.”

This theology laid the groundwork for persecution of Jews and for their continued existence. Expulsions, riots, Crusades, ghettos, and badges.  Expulsions: from France (626, 1182, 1254, 1322, 1359, 1394),  Naples (1288), England (1290 ), Switzerland (1392), Spain (1492), Bavaria (1442), Portugal, Bavaria, and the Papal States. There also were accusations of well-poisoning  and ritual murder. This tradition was continued by Martin Luther who denounced their "damned, rejected race” (“On the Jews and Their Lies,” 1543).

As Islam began to spread in Arabia and North Africa, it also helped to make many people aware of one God. Many Quranic verses preach tolerance towards the Jews; others make hostile remarks about them (similar to others who did not accept Islam). We know that Muhammad interacted with Jews living in Arabia, preaching to them in hopes of conversion, fighting and killing them, as well as befriending others.

Unlike Christians, Muslims did not attribute "cosmic evil" to Jews. The Quran didn't hold up Jews who rejected  Muhammad as “all Jews” nor did it portray treachery as the embodiment of Jews in all times and places. 

In the Pact of Umar, Islam taught that Jews were to be protected—dhimmi. As a people of the book, Jews experienced restrictions and local and sporadic violence, rather than general and endemic.  There were notable examples of the killing or forcible conversion of Jews by the rulers of the Almohad dynasty in Al-Andalus in the 12th century and confining them to walled quarters (mellahs) in 15th century Morocco. We were forced in some places to wear identifying signs.

Convivencia in Andalusia was a short-lived ideal. Religious confrontation was more prevalent. Jews were unable to defend ourselves by military might. We consistently reaffirmed the ongoing validity of our Covenant and hoped for return to the Land of Promise.  Yehudah Halevi’s work, the Kuzari was sub-titled “a defence of the despised people.”

David Nirenberg, in Anti-Judaism (2013) notes that hatred is not only expressed as physical anti-semitism, but in symbolic form of what was to be rejected as alien and corrupt. “[A]nti-Judaism [became] a constitutive idea and an explanatory force in Christian and post-Christian thought.” Nirenberg shows that Islam also decisively defined itself as non-Jewish. Anti-Judaism was articulated in many ways, whereas a more neutral “non-Judaism” was seldom articulated at all.

20th to 21st century

The great historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, noted that Nazi laws against Jews had their precedents in Canon and Islamic laws to identify, isolate and restrict Jews. "The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live."

When Jews look back at the years of the Shoah, we note more than the efforts of the Nazis to exterminate our people. We are cognisant of the acquiescence of German Lutherans and the silence of the Catholic hierarchy. The turning away of the ship St Louis and the Canadian policy of “none is too many” came from leaders who went to church on Sundays.

The 20th century also saw anti-Jewish violence in Jerusalem and Hevron in August 1929 stimulated by a perception that the demand of the Jews for free access to the wall threatened the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock shrines. The national issues of Jewish immigration to Palestine and Zionist land purchases were infused with religious fervor, and the Jewish presence in the Land was identified as an existential threat to Islam.  

The Mufti of Jerusalem sought assistance from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. He perceived Germany to be a natural ally of Arab causes in Palestine and opposition to British colonial rule. In Iraq, the Farhoud or "violent dispossession" was carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad, on Shavuot, June 1941. During this riot, over 180 Jews were killed and 1,000 injured; looting of Jewish property took place and 900 homes were destroyed. Still, one historian could write that ”Relatively good ties between Jews and Muslims in North Africa during World War II stand in stark contrast to the treatment of their co-religionists by gentiles in Europe.”

Following the establishment of State of Israel, the departure, flight, expulsion, evacuation and migration of 850,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries took place from 1948 to the early 1970s. The last major migration wave was from Iran in 1979–80, as a consequence of the Islamic Revolution. The reasons for this exodus included push factors, such as persecution, antisemitism, political instability, poverty and expulsion, together with pull factors, such as the desire to fulfil Zionist yearnings, find better economic status and secure safety in Europe or the Americas. 

While not shirking from “facing history and ourselves,” it is important to also tell good stories: about the Christians of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, led by their pastor Edouard Theis, who risked their lives to rescue and hide Jews from being rounded up. Few know about Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, his brother Klymentiy, who hid Jews in monasteries.  Until Geraldine Brooks wrote about the Sarajevo Haggadah, I didn’t know of the efforts of Muslims to safeguard this sacred book and some of the Jews of that city.

And in our own community: about the Christians and Jews who responded with Circles of Faith after the  killings in the mosque of Quebec City. Of the synagogue that offered prayer space to a church when Toronto lost power just before Christmas. Of the Muslims who have worked with Jews and Christians on the Faith Build project of Habitat for Humanity and who stand with other religious communities  in the face of poverty and injustice. Of Christians and Jews who have sponsored Syrian Muslim refugees to settle in Canada.

What about the Future?

We should note that as Jewish-Islamic relations became more complicated with the birth of Israel, a revolution in Christian theology took place as reaction to the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1950s, there was a shift from confrontation to conciliation, disputation to dialogue.

Although some leaders of faith traditions see secular society as problematic, we should realize that the secular state and society have made possible the contemporary developments for dialogue among faith practitioners.

Liberal Christians have come to a positive embrace of Judaism and a recognition of how Jesus arose within the general religious culture of the Jewish people in ancient times. There is increased interest in Judaism, but great ambivalence about the Jewish people with its commitment to Zionism. In contrast, evangelical Christians are ardent lovers of Zion, Israel and the Jewish people, but have complicated theological perspectives about Judaism and the ongoing covenant of God with Jews.

Within the Catholic Church, disagreements between more conservative and more liberal Catholics often involve differing perspectives about the exclusiveness of the Catholic faith and the status of the pre-existing covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Catholic and Muslims are in dialogue even as competition exists in places such as Cordoba or Gibraltar.

Throughout the world, our faith practitioners continue to develop dialogue groups. Jews are new to these conversations with Muslims and Muslims are new to this game. Yet we can note many commonalities: language, peoplehood, dietary rules, times of prayer, and the legal frameworks of our faith traditions. We can begin to build on that base.

The challenge for each of our faith traditions is to listen to each other, hear each other’s stories, share commonalities and separate political and religious issues.