(photo credit: AP)
Every once in a while - a great while - there is a ray of light in the darkness that is the Middle East. Perhaps "ray" is too strong a word; "spark" might be better.
I saw such a glimmer not long ago when I participated in a meeting of clergy of three faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Six representatives of each religion, rabbis, priests and imams, came together to discuss what we have in common as well as matters on which we disagree.
The purpose was to promote better understanding and to see if religion could play a positive role in leading to peace or at least to an atmosphere that would promote the possibility of peace. No one was naive enough to think that we - 18 of us - could possibly bring about a change in governmental policies as a result of whatever understandings we could reach.
NEVERTHELESS, PERHAPS our voices could make a difference in the discourse (or lack of it) among people who share our religious beliefs. Perhaps we could find a way in which religion could move from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
We began by attempting to discover common values that we all share. We agreed that we see ourselves as part of one extended family, all descended spiritually if not biologically from one father, Abraham. Believing in one God, the creator of heaven and earth, the merciful Father of all, we are all the children of Adam, God's creation. Therefore all human beings are of equal value and all of human life is sacred. No group is superior to another.
All three religions teach the importance of justice, righteousness, mercy and peace and command us to love and respect our fellow human beings. The stranger must be treated with fairness and justice, and we are even commanded to love the stranger.
Agreeing to these beliefs is not to be taken for granted, since within the writings and teachings of each of these religions the opposite ideas can not only be found but often have prevailed and been concretized into religious laws and regulations. Any elementary book describing the history of these religions and the relations among Christians, Muslims and Jews over the centuries will demonstrate that they did not treat each other with kindness, certainly did not love one another and often did not honor one another as equals. Peaceful relations were the exception, not the rule. Equality was not practiced.
If this was less so with Jews than with others, this might be attributed to the fact that Jews did not have the power or authority to do unto others what was being done unto them.
In each of our traditions there are statements and laws that deny human equality and disparage the other. Yet the positive values we embrace can be found there as well. It is all a question of what you choose to emphasize and legitimize from your tradition. We chose to search for and emphasize those things that teach equality, and to contend that those are the basic beliefs of our religion. They, rather than those things promoting hatred, represent God's will.
For too long religion has been used as a wedge to divide us rather than a force to unite us, as a goad to violence and hatred rather than an encouragement to peace and respect. Religion is too potent a force to be used only to foment hatred. Rather it must be enlisted in the cause of peace and reconciliation.
MORE DIFFICULT was our discussion of the positions of our traditions concerning the Land of Israel - the Holy Land. Here too we know it is not difficult to find religious sanction for claiming exclusive rights to this territory, however you define it. Yet both the Jews and the Muslims found it possible to envision and justify a situation in which part of the land would be owned and governed by others. For reasons of theology in which the importance of land is played down, Christians have less of a problem today with the question of sovereignty (something that at the time of the Crusades seemed rather important to them!). Fortunately the Muslims did not take the position we have heard so often - that there was no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem - although they did express concern about those who want to build the Third Temple now.
How sincere were these statements? Did they represent the true feelings of the participants? Even if these are honest beliefs, are there enough religious leaders who accept them to make a difference? No one can possibly answer these questions with perfect certainty.
If these leaders do what they pledged to do and speak out in favor of these beliefs publicly in their houses of worship, if they condemn extremists in their midst and speak in favor of working together in peace, then we will have accomplished something - no matter how small. Some spark of light will have been released.
There are those on all sides who say there is no partner for peace. If they are right, and I hope they are not, then we are condemned to a future that will endlessly repeat the past and bring us all increased suffering. Israel cannot forever sustain a situation in which it governs millions against their will. Finding the solution that will permit us to compromise on the question of sovereignty over the land and to do so without endangering the lives of Israelis will not be easy and will take courage, but we have no choice but to try.
Hopefully the teachings of our religion will encourage us to do so.
The writer, an author and lecturer living in Jerusalem, is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly. His most recent book is Entering Torah.