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Interfaith work moves up a gear

15 November 2013

Relationships need to go beyond good deeds, say Laura Janner-Klausner and Ben Crome

Together for Mitzvah Day:left to right: Arup Ganguly from the Hindu Forum of Britain; Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner; the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks; Sheikh Yazdani of the London Fatwa Council; the Revd Toby Howarth

Together for Mitzvah Day:left to right: Arup Ganguly from the Hindu Forum of Britain; Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner; the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sack...

IT HAS been a long and bumpy journey. Over two millennia, inter­­­actions between Christians and Jews have fluctuated greatly, and often been strained and hostile.

The past 60 years have been dominated by twin burdens: first, learning to accept that religious dif­ferences in Western societies are now a civic matter, since in these societies Christianity is prevalent, but no longer the main defining force for social norms; and second, re-establishing positive relations in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In Britain, the facilitatory work of the Council of Christians and Jews has made a significant impact, engaging to various degrees with all strands of Jewish communities.

A particular challenge now is to move interfaith dialogue and action from the realm of leaderships to grassroots collaboration. An out­stand­­ing example of such an initiative is the annual Mitzvah Day: it takes place this coming weekend.

It started within the Jewish com­munity in 2005, and encourages participants to perform amitzvah, a commanded good deed towards others. Underpinning Mitzvah Day is the Jewish concept oftzedakah. Like Christian charity and Muslimzakat, it is based on the premise that a portion of a person's wealth and effort must be devoted to assisting those in need.

While donations to charity are a form oftzedakah, Mitzvah Day is a call for action over and above finan­cial support. It has burgeoned, and now involves 25,000 people around the world.

Mitzvah Day's expansion has been fuelled by these joint values, and participation now extends across a range of religious groups. For instance, in Hendon, north London, members of a synagogue and a mosque have again jointly organised the distribution of items to homeless charities. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a church and a syna­gogue visited a hospice together.DESPITE these uplifting examples of co-operation, theological and political challenges affecting the rel­a­­tionship between Christians and Jews in Britain cannot be ignored. Once, flashpoints primarily con­­cerned theological claims to super­ses­sion, the validity of scriptures, or the very damaging denunciations of Jews as Christ-killers. Today, core tensions have moved towards primarily political issues relating to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A concern of many British Jews is that Churches' justice work, rightly concerned with the situation of Pal­estinians, may be now extended by some so that it is a euphemism for sug­­gesting a new form of in­­valida­tion. In the past, Judaism was seen as being made invalid because of claims of exclusive truth by some Churches. This time, the invalida­tion is of Jews' relationship with Israel as a source of self-deter­mination.

Against this background, I find it encouraging that surveys repeatedly say that the majority of British Jews support the establishment of a Palest­­inian State alongside Israel, which suggests that both Jews and Christians have a mutual interest
 in a lasting peace in the Middle East.

When it comes to issues that both religions consider important, such as Israel-Palestine, it is all too easy to take the soft option, and proceed with good deeds, while ignoring potentially divisive topics. Initiatives such as Mitzvah Day are important, but their importance needs to be contextualised.

Jews and Muslims are justifiably concerned about their status as mem­­bers of religious minorities in a State with an Established Church. Trevor Philips, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said to me that, as some 95 per cent of the UK population say they have never met a Jewish per­son, misunderstandings between Jews and Christians often arise from the one possessing a basic wariness of the other.

Bringing different groups to­­gether for one day a year is effective only if we take advantage of the opportunity this provides to nurture more meaningful relationships, which are strong enough to with­stand conversations about controversial issues.

LAST WEEK, I visited Belfast with Christian, Jewish and Muslim reli­gious leaders to participate in a seminar on conflict-resolution and reconciliation; it highlighted faith leaders' ability to mediate between politicians and the grass roots. This was an educationally and emotionally transformative experi­ence based on touring Belfast, text study, and, movingly, meeting activists from both sides of this conflict.

Belfast is providing a springboard to a more challenging, and I hope even more fruitful, interfaith en­­­counter in Israel-Palestine, at which the same group will discuss topics such as: conflict-resolution, and the significance of faith leaders in bringing about peace in the region. As a rabbi, I believe that religious leaders from all faiths can use our mediating capacities to take risks to help others to move towards decisive change.

The kind of interfaith activity that we truly value relies on joint ex­­periences, such as Mitzvah Day, being legitimised by interaction be­­tween communal and religious leaderships. Such experiences can, on the one hand, be theoretical, from theological discussions and learning about a topic through text study, to talking through the social and political issues that affect different communities.

On the other hand, faith leaders can collaborate in the nuts and bolts of community-building, developing skills such as pastoral training and community-organising that are es­­sential to all religions. These two levels of interfaith work - shared experiences and interfaith commun­ication - can underpin dialogue that is resilient enough to confront jointly even the issues that are divisive. They may provide the suspension bars that can soften our occasionally bumpy journey.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is a Senior Rabbi of Reform Judaism, and chairs British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights. Ben Crome is a researcher in Jewish History at Reform Judaism.

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