The Perspective of an Israeli Educator

Deborah Weissman


It was my good fortune to have been visiting in Boston on November 24, 2003 and to have had the privilege of attending the Boston College symposium. I am honored as well by the challenge of writing a response. My response reflects my experience as an Orthodox Jew living in  Jerusalem since 1972, involved in interfaith teaching and dialogue since the mid-1980’s.

Several of my colleagues and I have remarked on the fact that one of the differences between interfaith dialogue in Israel and in the USA is the greater participation in Israel by Orthodox and other traditionally observant Jews. The Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein-HaLevi has speculated on whether this phenomenon reflects a greater sense of psychological security of Jews living where we are the majority.[1]

This particular point has been developed by Daniel Rossing, a veteran leader of interfaith dialogue in the Holy Land. Rossing suggests that Israel is the one place in the world in which the normative patterns of majority and minority relations might be neutralized. In other words, we have in Israel an encounter among Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Jews are everywhere else in the world, a minority, and, often a tiny minority, but in Israel, we’re the majority. Christians are the largest single faith in the world, and, in many countries, the majority religion. But in the Holy Land, they are clearly a small minority. The Muslims are the overwhelming majority within the Middle East, but a minority in Israel. So, all three groups speak out of a common experience of being both a majority and a minority.

Alternative explanations would involve two further factors that characterize Israeli religious society: 1) The liberal movements within Judaism—specifically, the Conservative and Reform—while in some countries (such as the USA ) the largest synagogue movements, are, in Israel, small and beleaguered. Their leadership is well represented within interfaith circles, but they are augmented by Orthodox Jews to a greater extent than would be the case abroad. 2) As a sovereign nation among nations, Israel conducts foreign relations with other countries (and, in the last few years, with the Vatican.) The Israeli Ministry of Religions assumes responsibility for the holy sites of all the faith communities. Thus, the Chief Rabbis and the officials of the Ministry—most of whom have, typically, been Orthodox Jews-- have had dealings over the years with Christian, Muslim and other clerics, both locally and internationally.

Notwithstanding the wisdom of these observations, I would like to suggest an additional explanation, more relevant to the question at hand:

Until recently, the important work of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik had been relatively less known and certainly less influential on the Israeli religious scene. A telling example is that in North America, Rabbi Soloveitchik was affectionately known as “the Rov,” (“The Rabbi”.) In Israel, the term “HaRav” referred to Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook.[2] As more and more of Soloveitchik’s students and disciples settled in Israel, as more and more of his work became translated into Hebrew,[3] and as more and more graduate students wrote theses and dissertations on his thought, his influence became stronger. Still, he has not had in Israel the kind of impact that he had, for decades, in North America .

I would submit that that fact has had both positive and negative effects on the Israeli religious scene. I will begin with the negative, which are perhaps more obvious: The Israeli rabbinate has, by and large, been characterized by much lower levels of general education and scholarship. Rabbi Soloveitchik was not only a prodigious Torah scholar but also a highly educated, Western intellectual, with a doctorate in philosophy and a broad familiarity with the general world of ideas. His own individual contribution to the development of Jewish thought, as well as his providing a role model for synthesis between Jewish Orthodoxy and the modern world, have been unparalleled among Israeli religious leaders. The image of the rabbinate in Israel is entirely different from that in the Diaspora. Until recently, the only Orthodox rabbis in Israel with academic backgrounds had been immigrants, generally from Western countries. Only in recent years have there emerged among the younger generation of rabbis, men with a secular academic background, army experience and other accoutrements of Israeli modernity.

On the other hand, because “the Rov” has not impacted on Israeli society to the same extent as he has on North American Jewish society, his positions do not have binding authority on Israeli Jews. Furthermore, there is no one central institution like Yeshiva University to serve as a “gate-keeper” in determining what remains within the legitimate parameters of Orthodoxy and what goes beyond them. In truth, the Chief Rabbinate has little power, and within the “Modern Orthodox” or “Religious Zionist” communities, there is no one central legal authority. I believe that this situation, halachically anarchic as it may seem, has actually served to enable Israeli religious Jews to go beyond our counterparts in North America, in a number of key areas: feminism, including experimentation with more egalitarian worship, the integration of the arts into religious life and openness to interreligious dialogue. While it is true that many of the Jews, particularly the rabbis, engaged in interfaith dialogue in Israel have been Western immigrants, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, part of the reason for this is their greater familiarity with English (frequently, the language in which the dialogue is conducted.) Nevertheless, the percentage of native Israelis among them is definitely increasing[4].

I believe that for us in Israel, interreligious dialogue is not only an important intellectual exercise; it has become an existential necessity. Rabbi Michael Melchior[5] and others have criticized the Oslo process for its failure to take into account the central role of religion in the Middle East . The power of the Church may be waning in Western Europe, but in the Middle East, religion is still a vibrant and vital force in society. The “peace process” is, unfortunately, often a debate between secular Israelis and secular Palestinians, with secular Europeans as onlookers. I believe that only through a dialogue grounded in our respective religious traditions can we Jews fully explain to our Christian and Muslim counterparts what the importance of the Land and State of Israel have been throughout Jewish history and continue to be for us today. The Alexandria Declaration was an attempt to supplement the political peace process with a parallel initiative among religious leaders.

I see four reasons why interreligious dialogue is essential in our Middle Eastern context and why the potential benefits of its success would far outweigh any possible dangers it might pose:

1)      Interreligious dialogue can enhance and strengthen our individual traditions. The     grandeur of God is revealed, not only in nature, but also in the tremendous diversity of human culture and experience. The greatness of God would seem lessened if God could be worshipped in only one way. Professor David Hartman has suggested on a number of occasions that the Universal, Infinite Creator reveals Himself to human beings through particular revelations. By knowing more about religions and cultures, we know more about God.

2)      In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, learning about the Other helps us learn more and understand more about ourselves. A study of the origins of Christianity helps us understand more about first and second century Judaism (and vice versa). The three monotheistic faiths with their origins in the Holy Land have interacted throughout history, have influenced and been influenced by one another.


3)      The Western monotheistic religions (as distinguished, perhaps, from some of our Eastern counterparts) have, in many cases, tended to stress the theme of social justice and getting involved with social change. In Hebrew, this theme is expressed through the concept of Tikkun Olam , literally, “mending” or “repairing”—hence, bettering—the world. Although it may be home to some of the richest families and principalities on earth, the Middle East is an area particularly stricken by injustice, tyranny and squalor. Concerted efforts by adherents of the religions in the Middle East could do much to eradicate some of the social and environmental ills plaguing the region.


4)      The most important function of learning about the Other lies in seeing her or him as a human being, like ourselves, which is the first step towards a more empathic relationship. When we encounter each other as people, we begin to communicate on a human level. A process of humanization, rather than demonization, can occur. Hopefully, this will, at the very least, stop us from killing each other, and, at best, will provide the basis for the mutual recognition of our legitimate needs and rights, such as self-determination and security.

I don’t know if Rabbi Soloveitchik, were he to be living today in Israel, would agree with my reasoning. I do find Dr. Korn’s argument, that the thesis of “Confrontation” is not intended as a Halachic pesak, compelling. I prefer to view it as an opinion, albeit an informed, important, influential opinion, of one of the greatest Torah scholars of our times. But as his opinion, it does not necessarily have binding authority, even on his disciples and certainly not on us as Israeli Jews.

I believe we must engage intensively in interfaith dialogue, in an effort to fulfill the religious imperatives of bettering our society and pursuing peace.

[1] Remarks delivered in Jerusalem in November, 2001, at an evening sponsored by the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) on the publication of his book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden :A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (William Morrow: New York, 2001.)

[2] Both terms mean the same thing,. The essential difference between them is that the first is pronounced in the more Diasporic, Yiddish-influenced manner, the second, in the Israeli Hebraic manner.

[3] For example, the article under discussion, “Confrontation,” is not yet available in Hebrew.

[4] I would like to point out the efforts in this regard of Dr. Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), to organize dialogues among more “indigenous,” mainstream clerics, especially Jews and Muslims.

[5] Rabbi Melchior, former Chief Rabbi in Norway, has served in two different cabinet posts in Israel, most notably as Deputy Foreign Minister in Ehud Barak’s Labor government, 1999-2001. Rabbi Melchior was invited to give testimony to the US Senate Subcommittee on the Middle East, regarding the role of religious dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.