Religion is both the problem and the solution

2010-09-03 00:00

RABBI David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department for Interreligious Affairs and its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding, is currently visiting South Africa to give the keynote address at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies 2010 Gauteng Council conference. His topic? “Is religion the problem or the solution?” The short answer, he says, is “yes”.

Rosen is no stranger to South Africa, having lived in Cape Town from 1973 to 1979 where he was senior rabbi of the country’s largest Jewish congregation in Sea Point, and it was Rosen’s experiences in Cape Town that saw him become involved in interfaith activities. “I wanted to contribute to social justice in South Africa,” he says.

“I believed the Jewish community needed to get involved, and be seen to be involved, against a system, the policies of which were in conflict with our ethical heritage.”

Accordingly, Rosen became the founder chairperson of the Cape Inter-Faith Forum. “It was the first interfaith group with Jews, Muslims and Christians on board,” he says. “It was a way of coming together, of breaking the so-called colour bar, and not only important for that, but also to advance our shared agendas.”

At the time, the South African authorities were wary of interfering with religious activities even if they did break apartheid laws. “They tended to leave us alone but there were death threats against my children and eventually my visa wasn’t renewed.”

Rosen is English by birth, born in Newbury, England, and educated at Carmel College, of which his father Rabbi Kopul Rosen was the founding principal. He furthered his studies in Jerusalem, served in the Israeli Defence Force and was chaplain to the Israeli Defence Force in West Sinai.

After leaving South Africa, Rosen was appointed chief rabbi of Ireland, based in Dublin. There he was regarded as a figure of state, one of the “three archbishops” of Ireland. “Ireland is the only place where a Jewish boy can become an archbishop,” he laughs. “If a new ambassador arrived he had to present his credentials to the Catholic cardinal, the Anglican archbishop and the chief rabbi.”

In-between his “state duties”, Rosen also served on the Academic Council of the Irish School of Ecumenics, returning to Israel in 1985 to take up the appointment of dean at the Sapir Centre for Jewish Education and Culture in the Old City of Jerusalem and subsequently Professor of Jewish Studies at the Jerusalem Centre for Near Eastern Studies.

Rosen’s experience in interfaith affairs saw him greatly consulted by those in authority, both religious and political, which dictated his later career path. “I became the beneficiary of others’ ignorance,” he says.

In 2000, he was appointed adviser to the chief rabbi in relations with the Vatican and was a member of the commission that negotiated the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. For the past four years, Rosen has been chairperson of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, a coalition of Jewish organisations representing world Jewry to other religions.

To an outsider, the interfaith movement tends to come across as an extremely polite affair with everyone being very careful not to tread on one another’s religious sensibilities. “Yes, there is the tea-and-sympathy level,” acknowledges Rosen, “but there is also the more serious theological engagement.

“We do go into the interreligious exploration of ideas. It is more than just superficial contact. It is a mutual, serious learning experience and, like any educational process, it’s a long-term process. They say life is about relationships and that’s also an important aspect.”

Rosen sees such interfaith relationships as more enduring than political or diplomatic alliances. “Those are temporary relationships but interfaith activity creates long-standing relationships between people from the spiritual bedrocks of their societies.”

Rosen says his involvement with the Vatican was the most dramatic example of interfaith contact. “When we started, we had to overcome a positon of suspicion, if not downright hostility. Now we have arrived at one of mutual respect and co-operation.”

It was a process of rapprochement set in train by the Vatican Council in the sixties, but it was Pope John Paul II who really broke down the barriers, says Rosen, citing the words used by John Paul II in his 1986 address in Rome’s synagogue: “You are our dearly beloved brethren”.

Back in Israel, Rosen is one of the founders of the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council that provides an umbrella body for 70 organisations active in interfaith relations, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Rosen says it has a number of functions and tends to be non-political — “such as sorting out matters around archeological excavations threatening religious sites” — but is also a way of bringing religious leaders together.

Rosen says the council supports politicans in a bid to enable the two nations — Israel and Palestine — and the three religions to which they are home, to live peaceably together.

But, given the current Israel-Palestine situation, isn’t there a danger that, as in apartheid South Africa, religion will be used to justify the political status quo? Rosen says the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa is not valid. “Generally speaking, no violence is perpetrated on the basis of another person’s religion or ethnicity,” says Rosen. “We see it as a conflict between two nation states, two national movements. It’s not oppression on the basis of race or colour.”

Rosen says a better comparison would be to Ireland where the past and current “troubles” are the outcome of the “plantation” or immigration of English and Scottish people 400 years ago. That history cannot be reversed but people of all religious groupings should be able to agree, in the present time, that killing is wrong.

“Religion is used and abused in a conflict,” says Rosen. “But it cannot be used to justify oppression. Such action is unjustifiable. Any major Muslim body, or minor for that matter, condemns violent actions where innocent people suffer.”

Rosen says that violence with religious backing comes about as the misrepresentation of what is seen as permissible in self-defence. “The noble idea of self-defence, of one’s home and one’s family, is interpreted in an ignoble way,” says Rosen. “The concept of self-defence is interpreted to a degree that is pretty horrendous.”

So is religion the problem or the solution? Rosen says “yes” to both. “What I’m saying is that you must not ignore religion but engage with it, so it plays a constructive role.

“Secular bodies see religion as a problem and ignore it,” says Rosen. “But nature abhors a vacuum and ignoring it invites the extremists to step in and occupy centre stage. We need to engage the moderate voice and that belongs to the overwhelming majority of people. If they are treated as irrelevant, they are alienated from the process.”

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