I’ve just delivered this message to a group of Jewish communal representatives focused on high-level international interreligious dialogue.
This past Shabbat’s Torah reading has special resonance for all those active in interreligious engagement, but also so many simply navigating relationships in a diverse, multireligious world.
The Torah portion, Kedoshim, points to the tension that can be inherent in balancing individual religious commitments and convictions with a broader dedication to humanity and to intercommunal peace—fundamental religious imperatives themselves. In traditional terms, these might be described as mitzvot ben adam la’Makom and mitzvot ben adam lachavero—duties between people and their Maker, and between people and our fellow human beings. In just the opening verses of Kedoshim we have commandments such as those to observe the Sabbath and to reject idolatry. But we also have the commandment “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha”—“and you shall love your fellow as yourself”—that is considered not just important but the very essence of Judaism.
The current season on the Jewish calendar is one that highlights the tumultuous history of Jewish relations with other peoples and faith communities. After celebrating on Passover our liberation from foreign bondage during ancient times, Yom Hashoah marks the culmination of two millennia of primarily European Christian anti-Semitism, while Yom Hazikaron memorializes the over 27,000 Jews and Israelis from different backgrounds who have lost their lives over more than a century of conflict, primarily with Muslim Arabs, over the return of Jews to the Land of Israel and to statehood there. And, of course, Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates the achievement and perseverance of that statehood despite such sustained challenges—an epic event with practical but also real doctrinal implications for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Our hatafara, or prophetic text, this Shabbat seemed to also foretell a time such as ours. In the text customary among Sephardic Jews, Ezekiel has God relating of swearing to the Israelites to take them “to a Land that I had sought out for them, flowing with milk and honey, a splendor for all the lands.” In the text customary among Ashkenazi Jews, Amos has God saying this: “I shall bring back the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild desolate cities, they will return and plant vineyards… I shall implant them upon their Land; they will not be uprooted again from upon their Land that I have given them.”
While we may not yet have reached a utopian era of true harmony and universal acceptance— something borne out in the continued incitement and terrible violence that we have seen again over recent days and weeks—there is genuine cause for hope in progress toward greater mutual understanding, kinship and common purpose in the region.
Twenty years ago, it could not have been taken for granted that Gulf and other Arab states would formalize not only open government-to-government but also broad-based people-to-people relations. The same was true 30 years ago of official diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican, bookmarking the very same century of Theodor Herzl’s unsuccessful appeal to Pope Pius X to support his Zionist cause. But this too is by now a well-established reality.
The rebirth of Jewish national sovereignty has bestowed upon Jews not only great blessings but also new responsibilities and new challenges. In the case of a nation-state named Israel, on a small territory known by so many as the Holy Land, these challenges involve not only mundane, worldly matters but questions of religion, religious identity and belief. In this, we can continue to play a distinctive and meaningful role. May we be guided with wisdom to support true peacemaking—and to forging vital new friendships.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. He previously trained at the Foreign Ministry of Germany, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Embassy of Israel in Washington, Ha’aretz and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.