Spiritual leaders discuss holy places and debate violence

The second interfaith ethics and tolerance symposium brings Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is together for discussion on sanctity of sites.

October 21, 2010 08:20
4 minute read.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Dr. Albert Lincoln, Sheikh Sa

interfaith conference 311. (photo credit: Vadim Mikhailov)

The second Annual Interfaith Ethics and Tolerance symposium took place in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and local religious leaders benignly grappled with the loaded topic of the meaning holy sites bear for the various creeds.

A rabbi, an Imam, a Catholic priest and the secretary general of the Baha’i International Community offered the audience at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center their differing religion’s take on the fascinating question of how a physical site, or location, may embody or represent ethereal sanctity.

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, who chaired the conference in his capacity as academic adviser to the Jerusalem Center for Ethics, pointed out that in Judaism, there is only one holy site per se – Jerusalem. Different locales bore in past times that divinity – Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, Shilo when the Tabernacle was there – but only Jerusalem was noted in the scriptures as being the place God chose for the Temple.

And the city’s sanctity is still valid, he said, without disregarding the religious significance of other historical sites and grave-sites in Judaism. This concept of only one holy place, Cherlow noted, could be a type of compromise between the contradictory notions of God’s ubiquitousness as instilling sanctity everywhere, and the idea that divinity is in a different realm than the temporal one.

“A holy place should be the end of a moral, ethical journey, not the replacement of it,” Cherlow stressed in the spirit of the prophets. Cherlow also noted how people of all faiths can commit terrible crimes in the name of their belief, a statement that resonated on the eve of the day Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in the purported name of the sanctity of the land of Israel 15 years ago.

To Father Vincent Nagle, representing the Latin Patriarchate, “Holy sites remind us that you can’t abstract history, which is the place you meet God. Holy sites for us are not kiosks of propaganda, rather places of rediscovery of historical dimension of God encountering us, reawakening our curiosity in encountering God in all places and people.”

Dr. Albert Lincoln of the Baha’i faith spoke of how holy places are “commissioned places to touch our hearts and minds, places related with figures and events” that can be identified and relived. “Holy places raise our consciousness, and enable us to live better lives,” he said, adding that the fact that more than one religion shares a holy site should not detract from its sanctity, rather augment it.

Many of the questions raised by the audience were directed to Sheikh Samir Asi, Imam of the large Al-Jazar Mosque in Acre, who is active in interfaith dialogue, and recently led a delegation of youths to Auschwitz, along with Acre’s chief rabbi. Why is it that the average Israeli constantly fears that Friday sermons in Mosques are grounds for violent incitement, one member of the audience asked.

“We must be just and fair to note that there is violence in every religion, and it is the social status of every nation that dictates the degree of its violence,” Asi responded, noting that many times Arabs and Muslims live in atmospheres lacking democracy, a condition that encourages violence.

“But let’s be fair, who was the one who murdered Rabin?” Asi continued.

“Wasn’t that the result of [religiously motivated] violence, committed by a religious Jew?” Asi noted his efforts to promote coexistence, such as sending his daughters to Jewish kindergartens so that they’d meet and learn to respect Jews. But large issues still remain unresolved, such as the ownership over the Temple Mount, as illustrated by another question to Asi. We didn’t come to agree about everything, but to conduct a dialogue,” he said in response.

The event was supported by Aleksander Gudzowaty of Poland, who also initiated and created the Tolerance Monument and park in the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood.

His wife Danuta explained that Aleksander saw importance in helping interfaith dialogue in a place considered holy by Abrahamic religions, “where a call to God is a local call,” she added with a smile. Symposiums such as this will hopefully create an impulse that will spread across the world, she added.

Also attending the event at the behest of the Gudzowatys was head of the Anti Defamation League Abraham Foxman. It was interfaith tolerance that saved his life during the Holocaust, Foxman said, when a Polish Catholic woman risked her own life to save his, that of a Polish Jewish child.

“In the history of Western Civilization no institutions have had more influence on events that churches, synagogues and mosques,” said Foxman.

“Great power demands great sensitivity. Today civilization is polarized by hate and rage, facing a crisis.

We are witness to the resurgence of global anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, the plight of Christians fleeing from the Middle East. We cannot run away from acts of intolerance, and must demand of those of us whose words or deeds may have impact to stand up, take a leading role. We must express ourselves and our outrage against anti-Semites, anti-Muslims, anti-Hindus, anti- Bahai’s; show intolerance to their intolerances,” he said.

Foxman later expressed his concern over the crisis of religious leadership in all religions, where there is a reluctance to challenge bigotry. “Not enough voices in the faith community speak out against the bigotry so many suffer from,” he said.

Participants in the event then boarded buses to the Tolerance Monument, where prayers were offered by representatives of the different faiths.

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