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The First Covenant Was Sealed With The Rainbow. Does Hope For Interfaith Harmony Begin There?

This article was published in the April 4,1999 edition of "Catholic New Times."

I believe we are passing through a transitional phase in human cultural and spiritual evolution, and that early in the new millennium there will emerge a more pluralistic paradigm of what constitutes truth, including religious truth.

Until now our respective traditions have been jealous rivals in the competition for divine favour. We have been long-distance runners in a spiritual marathon over centuries, believing that only one competitor could earn the first-place medal while the others would either lose in disgrace or qualify for an inferior prize. How much evil and suffering have been caused by such theological self-glorification? None of our traditions is innocent in this regard. We have all succumbed, at one time or another, to such arrogance and blindness. In meetings such as this, we need to acknowledge our failings and approach one another in humility and repentance.

At the Tantur Ecumenical Institute where I teach, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the rector is Father Thomas Stransky, an American Paulist priest. He uses a striking metaphor to illustrate the problem of how the three Abrahamic faiths have developed in mutual estrangement, each convinced of its own triumphal truth. His image is of a "holy rocket" launched by God to bridge the gap between earth and heaven, and between our present woundedness and the fulfilled promise of divine healing.

A changing flight plan

The Jews believe that the "flight plan" for this holy rocket ship was revealed at Sinai, as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. In this flight plan, revealed in Hebrew (the only language God speaks), the trajectory takes the Jews from that smoking and thundering mountain into the air, but not outside the earth's gravitational pull (for we Jews are very down-to-earth, practical people).

The rocket travels in a small arc just a few hundred kilometres north and lands in Jerusalem. Jews throughout history have been pilgrims on the road from Sinai to Jerusalem, too often a via dolorosa of suffering for us. But in the messianic future, the rest of humanity will ascend to Jerusalem to join us there, learning Hebrew in an ulpan (a house of teaching for newcomers) in order to study Torah with us, and coming to appreciate that we were the carriers of the true revelation all along.

Christianity came next and proclaimed that a new flight plan had been revealed through Christ, this time in Greek. According to this new understanding, the original rocket launched at Sinai was, in fact, a two-stage vehicle. The first stage, Israel of the flesh, had fulfilled its function; and the thrust of divine energy had now been passed to the second stage of the rocket, the spiritual and true (verus) Israel, namely the church. Moreover, the new flight plan contained a mid-course correction.

The new trajectory took the second stage out of the Earth's gravitational field into outer space, where the celestial Jerusalem awaited the pilgrim who wanted to meet the divine in the devotional heart, not in a particular land or city. The church declared that one day the whole world would be on board the second stage, including the Jews, and in the meantime those people who chose not to join the Christian fellowship would suffer the consequences of their refusal-either in this world as accursed wanderers, or in the metaphysical realm of hell, or both.

After another six centuries, yet a third monotheistic tradition emerged, this one also laying claim to the earlier prophecies and promises and affirming a new flight plan for the holy rocket. Islam saw itself as the final stage of a three-stage rocket. The Arabic text of the holy Quran now offered the truest version of the rocket's trajectory, as global in scope as that of Christianity, but with this worldly criteria of holiness similar to those of the Jews.

On the way to the Day of Judgment, the caliphate on earth would be the realm of divine dispensation, with the Islamic umma (community) now acting as the vanguard carrier of divine revelation. According to the new flight plan, Muslims were now at the controls of the vehicle, with Jews and Christians already on board as believers to be protected, not condemned, by the dominant Muslim community. Islam would eventually spread to cover the earth, by persuasion if possible and by force if necessary.

One can argue over which of these flight plans has engendered more harm to other communities throughout history. (In my view, this has been largely a matter of political empowerment rather than intent.) What is undeniable is that all three of the flight plans are self-centred and self-glorifying. No equality is perceived among the three traditions and so no pluralistic or inclusive promise can be envisioned. Divine truth and love go together, both limited by some scarcity principle. At the end of time, one and only one community will "win" the marathon of sacred history and be vindicated.

Time for a radical overhaul

This paradigm of exclusive truth and dispensation is in need of radical overhaul. If religion is to be a force for good, for life, for blessing, it must undergo a metamorphosis, a real metanoia, and become a force for inclusive, truly unconditional love. This is not a defence of relativism. It is, instead, a recognition of pluralism within the monotheistic family.

The one God of History has chosen to reveal the same essential message in different languages, or symbol systems, through different messengers at different times. If the adherents of these traditions would focus more on godly (i.e., just and compassionate) behaviour toward others, rather than on demonstrating their supremacy over them, surely God's name would be more genuinely glorified by the faithful and the face of religion would be more attractive to the skeptical nonbelievers.

In order to realize this aim, a new paradigm must be found. One biblical image that could be acceptable to all three monotheistic traditions is that of the rainbow revealed to Noah after the flood, as a sign of the covenant between God and all humanity (whatever sub-covenants may come later). A rainbow is a panoply of different colours, none more beautiful than another, and the whole spectrum having a beauty greater than any individual colour. And what is the source of this aesthetic wonder? It is the refraction of white light through the prism of the Earth's atmosphere.

The parallel for our consideration is this: the "white light" of Divine Truth is refracted through the prisms of historical experience, human language and culture, and subjectivity of thought and feeling. Yet despite these particularities, the general thrust of the Abrahamic faiths is the same: love and serve God through acts of justice and mercy toward other human beings. Creed is tested through deed, doctrine through practical discipleship, devotion to God through attending the needs of our neighbours. Or, as one Hasidic rabbi has taught, `We should care about the welfare of other people's bodies and of our own souls, rather than the other way around." We have to be in constant dialogue with our neighbours in order to know when we might say or do something that is hurtful to them. In our global village, ignorance is no longer an excuse for insensitivity or ......... Before we profess love and concern for them, let us invite them to tell us what hurts them so that we can live the Golden Rule with conscious intent, not just pay lip service to it.

Litmus test of humility

Beyond the moral dimension which remains the litmus test of humble theologizing, there is the deeper question of divinely sanctioned or "chosen" destinies. This is a difficult and delicate matter to address in interfaith discussion, since it touches on the most intimate question-ultimately a mystery- of identity and destiny.

Values are one thing, vocation within the plan of God is another. The first may be shared in common, while the second is, by definition, unique. Not surprisingly, interfaith dialogue tends more toward the search for commonalties and less toward a confessional exposure of our intimate, distinct, soulful relationships with God. This latter enterprise is potentially threatening, and we need to develop a greater degree of trust before it can be undertaken. But I believe such an exploration is necessary if we wish to take interfaith relations to a higher and more fruitful level.

Putting relations to the test

Let us take as one concrete example, because it is so recent, the canonization of Edith Stein. I hesitate to discuss this matter, but I do not want to miss this opportunity to raise questions that can guide us in our discussion. And I stress that these are questions, not answers.

Edith Stein lived her life both as a Jew and as a Catholic, conscious of this dual identity and vocation. Yet at the end she was martyred as a Jew, and she chose this destiny knowing what it was. In making her a saint, what message concerning Jewish and Catholic identity or vocation has the church proclaimed?

I have heard it said by Catholic friends that, by welcoming into the company of saints the first Jew since Mary and the apostles, the Catholic church has made a gesture of love and solidarity toward the Jewish people. Other Catholic friends, together with most Jews who have voiced opinions on the matter, strongly disagree.

They argue that, by focusing on this one Jew who became a Carmelite nun and ignoring the other six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, the church has displayed gross insensitivity toward the feelings and self-understanding of Jews. The church, they say, has again embraced only the baptized Jew(s) while ignoring, or forsaking, the Jews who remained faithful to their tradition, even unto death.

To most Jews Edith Stein is an apostate, not someone to praise or emulate, while for the church she is a spiritual heroine and role model, a true Christian who was ready to be crucified for her faith.

The deep gap between the two faith-orientations was clearly demonstrated when the pope suggested, during the canonization ceremony at St. Peter's, that August 9, the anniversary of Edith's martyrdom in Auschwitz, be marked by Catholics as a day of remembrance and reflection on the horrors of the Shoah.

Why not join with the Jews on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day (the 27th of Nisan), in a genuine act of solidarity with Israel and her martyrs, instead of choosing a separate day, the day when the one Jewish-Catholic nun was put to death? Doesn't this choice reflect self-centredness rather than compassion, estrangement rather than love and fellowship?

I can recognize the disparate feelings, theologies, world views brought into conflict over this issue. There is no easy resolution of the matter, for it touches on intimate mysteries belonging to our covenantal relationships with the Eternal. So do we simply ignore these questions to avoid embarrassment, or do we carefully and caringly try to clarify them, even if we can't agree? There are many other issues like this one, and most of them have to do with either the Holocaust or the creation of the state of Israel. Catholics and Jews give different meanings to these two watershed events in our century, and that is only natural. How can we talk about these fundamental issues with respect for one another's views, as well as for each other as persons?

The human heart of Jerusalem

To close this reflection, I want to share with you a kind of meditation on what I call the pluralistic geography of Jerusalem, the city we call holy and relate to as a kind of mother-icon, and which is also my home. I do so out of a conviction that what ails Jerusalem, as well as the potential remedies for those ailments, are relevant for Sarajevo and for any other place afflicted with estrangement and hostility between communities.

Jerusalem, with its four quarters, has been likened to a human heart, with its four chambers. It is indeed a holy heart, beating to the rhythm of ancient traditions and pumping vitality through the spiritual bodies of Jews, Christians and Muslims. But there are also clear signs of "cardiac disease" in Jerusalem, with the flow of people and cultural energy from one community to another chronically blocked. The barriers of ignorance, fear and hatred severely hamper the organic functioning of the holy city. Beyond the local pathologies, the conflict over Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians threatens to explode into a regional conflagration with horrific suffering for everyone.

If we hold onto the image of Mother Jerusalem as a shared heart, both holy and diseased, a healing path to justice and peace may lead through her varied geography:

The ecumenical "Christian Quarter" resonates with the diversity of Christian life in Jerusalem over the centuries. I will leave it to Christians to decide whether this diversity is a positive sign of plurality within the Christian fold or whether the separate chapels within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre signify a tragic fragmentation, a brokenness in the Body of Christ.

One Christian community has a separate quarter unto itself: the Armenians. They were the first people to embrace Christianity as a national faith in the year 301, a decade before Constantine's rise to power. The Armenians are a deeply devout people and their small Jerusalem community (numbering some 1,500 residents) revolves around the ornate Cathedral of St. James. When one considers the distinctiveness of Armenian Christians and then juxtaposes that reality to the identities and histories of the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims in the adjacent quarters, a pattern with a significant message emerges.

These three peoples, the Armenians, Jews and Palestinians, are rooted in the Holy Land for centuries with their respective traditions. One common aspect of their religious heritages is a three-fold loyalty: to a people, to a faith tradition and to a particular land. Perhaps because of this shared basis for self-identification, the three peoples have undergone similar experiences in this twentieth century.

Suffering and surviving in common

On the level of the physical body, all three communities have endured traumatic massacres: first the Armenian genocide before and during World War I (a war sparked by an assassin's gunshot in this city); then we Jews passed through the Valley of Death during World War II; and since then the Palestinians have suffered massacres at the hands of virtually every other Middle Eastern people they have encountered.

The Palestinian experience can not be objectively compared with the genocide of the Armenians or of the Jews; yet a subjective sense of being survivor peoples, mourning their martyrs and affirming their communal dignity, does characterize all three national-religious communities.

The three peoples share yet another common denominator: all have suffered, in this century, exile from their respective homelands. This is more an assault to the spirit than to the body. We Jews, of course, know what it means to be refugees, "strangers in strange lands," for some 2,500 years. Psalms 137 and 126 are ample testimony to that experience of exile and then return. Now if, in this twentieth century, we have been blessed to return once again to Jerusalem as a free people, and we rejoice over that homecoming as a central part of our destiny, while the Armenian and Palestinian peoples are suffering the pain of their own diasporas, there must be some lesson in this fateful intermingling of joy and sorrow.

One image that conveys the shared experience is of three abused and traumatized individuals walking through darkness, holding flickering candles lit by their ancestors long ago to illuminate their way. Each of the three wanderers longs for the security of his lost homeland and for the chance to define himself again in positive terms after being defined negatively by others. Each of them fears that, out of the darkness, some enemy will attack, making him a victim once again. None of them is able to trust others who might help him overcome the trauma and the dread.

Then, suddenly, the three of them converge, and their candles illuminate each other's faces. Each experiences the shock of mutual recognition. In the human faces is a reflection of something mysteriously divine, so that each can echo the wondrous exclamation of the wounded Jacob, renamed Israel upon reuniting with his estranged brother Esau: "For I have truly seen your face as though seeing the face of God." (Genesis 33:10)

An awareness of the divine aspect of each other's identity would help us overcome our conditioned fears, loyalties and animosities. ... The underlying, liberating truth is that the one Creator has made us all in the divine image, every human person being infinitely precious and beloved in God's sight.

Here on earth, our common father Abraham and our mother city Jerusalem make all of us sisters and brothers in the family of believers. If we could recognize one another in that spirit, even while dialoguing about distinct identities and vocations, we could work together to sanctify God's holy land and the entire creation, sharing the divine blessing of shalom.

Yehezkel Landau holds an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. Since 1978 he has lived in Jerusalem, where he has been an interfaith educator at several Christian ecumenical institutes and a religiously-motivated peace activist, first as executive director of the OZ veSHALOM religious peace movement and then as co-founder and administrative director of the OPEN HOUSE center for Jewish-Arab coexistence in Ramle, Israel. He lectures internationally on Judaism and Middle East peace issues, has authored numerous articles in various journals, and is co-editor with David Burrell of the book VOICES FROM JERUSALEM: JEWS AND CHRISTIANS REFLECT ON THE HOLY LAND (Paulist Press). He is married to Dalia Landau, and they have a 13-year-old son Raphael.

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