The world next door

The new Museum of the Good Samaritan calls for inter-religious collaboration.

samaritans ritual 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
samaritans ritual 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked. Jesus responded: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who... beat him... leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest [cohen] was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he... saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and... he was moved with pity. He... bandaged his wounds... put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' "Which of these three do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer said it was the one who showed compassion. Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise‚" (Luke 10:25-37). This story, commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, carries a timeless message advocating universal human kindness. Perhaps this is why it has inspired so many artists, including Rembrandt and Chagall, while a sculpture of the Samaritan by Bartholdi sits in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The parable also inspired the naming of Israel's first mosaic museum, the Museum of the Good Samaritan, which opened last month. "This parable includes men of different faiths. Accordingly, the museum exhibits mosaics and artifacts from both Jewish and Samaritan synagogues, as well as from churches," wrote Dr. Yitzhak Magen, head archeological officer for the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, in the museum's brochure. The museum, located off the main road between Jerusalem and Jericho, is near the biblical Ma'ale Adumim, the junction between the lands of Benjamin and Judah. When Jericho began to thrive, the road became a bustling hub. As the popularity of Christianity grew at the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, the nearby monasteries and Jordan River baptismal sites attracted even more pilgrims. To serve these travelers, the inn of Jesus' time was reconstructed to include a church, cistern, residential quarters, and a fortress for protection from robbers. The museum offers free admission, an open-air display and indoor exhibits. In the open-air display, which serves as the entrance, visitors weave through 11 masterfully preserved mosaic floors, water cisterns, and a restoration of the Byzantine church. The creators of the exhibit achieved a seamless balance of authenticity and modern renovations to provide a church-like atmosphere. Though the altar and wooden benches are recent additions, the refurbished structure was built on the ancient foundations and is lined with fragments of the original mosaic floor. The indoor exhibit consists of six connecting halls. The design of Hall III, which showcases seven mosaics from Samaritan synagogues, is particularly striking. Unlike the other rooms, this hall has mosaics on the floor illuminated by sunlight streaming in through glass walls. As visitors enjoy an exceptionally opulent mosaic from Khirbet Samara in the center of the floor, they can see the ancient, red-tinted hills of Ma'ale Adumim. The museum's dedication to the celebration of different religions invites us to explore the lawyer's question in the context of the modern world. Is it more important to help those similar to ourselves or to feel an equal obligation toward everyone, as Jesus suggested? How can Jews justify the rabbinical interpretation of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) as referring solely to one's fellow Jews? Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), explains that rabbinic Judaism interpreted the verse not as a general sentiment, but as a practical commandment involving one's neighbor. The underlying rabbinic principle is that the privileges of the Law apply only to those who accept its obligations. With this in mind, are Jews expected to look out only for other Jews? On the contrary. Early Christianity Prof. Kenneth Sacks of Brown University claims that although the rabbinic interpretation only applies to Jews, "Jews had a long tradition of helping non-Jews." He cites the Book of Ruth, in which the wealthy Jewish landowner Boaz takes pity on the Moabite woman gleaning in his fields, and adds that rabbinical Judaism identified the Seven Noachide Laws destined to form the basis of international law. Jews have many obligations to non-Jews, including visiting the sick, respecting the deceased and feeding the poor. They are expected to fulfill these responsibilities on the basis of the verse mishum darkei shalom - a phrase that Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future, says is often mistranslated to keep the peace between Jews and non-Jews. He supports the translation of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who rendered the phrase "this is the way of Shalom." Shalom is one of God's names, notes Rabbi Brander. Therefore, "we help other humans because we imitate God in this world.... our responsibility is to be God's partners in making this world a better place." According to Rev. Malcolm Hedding, director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, sectarian care distorts our view of people and is a denial of the Judeo-Christian tradition that sees all people created in the image of God. "Jewish theology taught this through the principle of 'repairing the world' (tikkun olam), and the Torah is careful to remind Israel that it must care properly for the strangers in its midst," says Hedding. Brander points to a discrepancy between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud that sheds light on this issue. The question is: do you need to put yourself in safek sakana (quasi-danger) to save your neighbor? The Jerusalem Talmud states that if a friend is in certain danger, you must extend yourself even to the point of getting in harm's way. The Babylonian Talmud, a later redaction, did not accept that such risk is required. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't get your hair wet‚ but there's a limit, and putting oneself in danger crosses the line of what is necessary," Brander explains. Despite the apparent disparity between the teachings of Jesus and rabbinical Judaism, calling Judaism exclusive and Christianity inclusive is a gross oversimplification. According to Sacks, the struggle amongst the disciples about whether they would also preach to gentiles shows that early Hebrew Christians were not jumping to embrace pagans. Rosen identifies another aspect of Christianity that does not correspond with the universalism of Jesus' message. "Christianity claims that everyone has to be a Christian in order to gain salvation, as opposed to Judaism, which teaches that 'the righteous gentiles of the world have their portion in the world to come,'" he says. "Christianity's 'universalism' is precisely what made it intolerant and violent for much of its history." Rev. Hedding argues that while Jesus' message certainly calls for universal kindness, Christianity in practice cannot be considered a universalist religion if Christians do not put his words into action. "The world will definitely be a better place if we practice the lesson from this parable. If the Christian world had heeded it, much of the anti-Semitism through the centuries would have been avoided," says Hedding. In terms of interfaith relations, Rosen does not believe that the different definitions of "neighbor" will play a determining role. "The idea that 'charity begins at home' is both practical and ultimately the only way genuine universalism will succeed. Judaism teaches that one's obligations 'in the family' do not exclude one's obligations 'outside the family.' On the contrary, one who sincerely attends to the former will be better able to address the latter." This article first appeared in the print Jerusalem Post Christian Edition