Compare and contrast

During a recent seminar for religious understanding, students at the Women's Judaic Institute in Ein Hanatziv challenged Christian and Muslim leaders.

study group 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
study group 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At 9:30 Friday morning, the Arab priest appeared with Rabbi Elie Kahn, the guest host of the weekend, in the doorway of classroom number 4. The largest lecture hall of the Women's Institute of Judaic Studies in Ein Hanatziv was filled to capacity with 70 eager students. A girl stood up, then another. One by one, the whole room was standing in respect. Seconds after the priest finished his half-hour summary of Christianity, hands flew into the air. "How could the Christians commit such bloodbaths like the Crusades in the name of God?" asked a girl. Taking a moment to ponder, the priest answered that people sometimes make mistakes in the name of God. "But, God doesn't make mistakes!" another girl persisted, "the executors of the Spanish Inquisition were sure of their mission's divinity! How can there be a religion which can have such misinterpretations!?" Without hearing the quiet sympathetic murmurs objecting to those questions, he deflected the attack, "How could the Israeli state kick me and my whole village off our land!?" Before anyone could respond, an American girl called out a question about the Christian holidays. More factual inquiries followed this question; the time ran out, and Kahn announced that the lecture was over. Noting the priest stepping toward the exit, the girls stood once more. The Women's Institute of Judaic Studies in Ein Hanatziv, located in the pastoral setting of the Beit Shean Valley, was founded in 1986 by the Religious Kibbutz Movement as an intellectually open institute for post-high school and post-army young women seeking to build their religious identities with a commitment to halacha and to expanding their knowledge of Jewish texts. The day, which begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues until 10:30 p.m., is split equally between classes and independent study. Each student designs her own study program, based on core offerings: Bible, the oral law, halacha, Jewish philosophy, and Hassidism. The institute's year-long program is unique in that it fully integrates American students. It is also one of the three religious women's seminaries that offer a program combining Judaic studies and army service. Extracurricular activities include hikes "with a Bible in hand," volunteering, discussions held in teachers' homes on the kibbutz, and special weekends devoted to stimulating topics. The priest's visit was the first in a weekend seminar addressing religions other than Judaism. On Saturday night, following Shabbat discussions on Judaism's complex relationship to the gentile world, participants gathered again to listen and respond to a kaddi, a judge in a Muslim religious court. A moment before he reached the entrance, a debate was burning over whether to rise for him. As he entered, half the crowd stood and half did not. He sat down in the chair by the desk in the front of the room, opened his book, and began to share the basics of his religion. When the girls were allowed time to ask questions, they immediately delved into the topics that touched their hearts most. "How do suicide bombers use your religion to justify their actions?" asked one. Folding his arms, the kaddi explained that suicide bombers' acts were a corruption of an obligation to defend oneself. He pointed out that these bombers were a minuscule percentage of over a billion practicing Muslims in the world. Similar questions followed. When the opportunity arose, some of the quieter members of the audience asked the kaddi about his religious practices and beliefs. When he left the room, half the class rose. This type of interfaith meeting is unusual in Israeli Modern Orthodox circles. Kahn, who heads the institute and who is on sabbatical this year, arranged this "bizarre" weekend as part of his involvement with an organization called KEDEM, an acronym for Kol Dati Mefayes, or Voices for Religious Reconciliation. Founded in 2003, Kedem is a growing group of some 25 mainstream Orthodox rabbis, priests, imams and kaddis. They meet on a regular basis to cultivate friendships and discuss each others' religious texts and ideas - hoping, ultimately, to improve relations between different religious groups in Israel. Kahn and Kaddi Abdulhakeem Samara, the kaddi of Jaffa and the Central District of Israel, initiated the Kedem Institute For Learning and Reconciliation. The institute's mission is to prepare educational materials for Jewish and Muslim communities about religiously intolerant texts from each tradition, and offer alternatives for rereading them through interpretations that emphasize pluralism. Kedem members also decided to invite one another to speak at their respective institutions. According to Kahn, "The purpose of these encounters is for participants to diminish their negative stereotypes of people of different faiths, expand their horizons by learning about and recognizing other religions, and maybe to be enriched through exposure to them." When 10 Ein Hanatziv students were asked whether the program had affected them as Kahn hoped it would, all said they felt they had learned more about the other religions, most felt they had been dispelled of some negative stereotypes, but almost none said that the experience enriched their personal lives. One student said, "This was a one-time opportunity… Maybe the American girls can have such experiences encountering Christians in the United States, but religious Israelis will never have such an opportunity to meet the other side. The main thing I got out of this is a greater knowledge of the other religions. Before the meeting, I had no doubt that Arabs equaled Muslims, which equaled Jihad supporters. I was sure that the essence of Islam was to commit Jihad, and now I'm not sure about the matter." The student said that the meeting had raised questions for her about the reasons behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also, she added, the Shabbat classes on Jewish texts about other religions had made her think about Judaism's relationship to other religions. "It's still hard for me, however, to accept the other religions with open arms in light of the history and the current anti-Semitism and jihad in the world," she stated. Another girl said, "I think the ideas and theory of the other religions are very funny because they sound so lovely, but in practice they are quite a failure. I don't believe what the Muslim said - that most people of his religion don't support violent jihad; maybe there are good individuals, but the overall religion sustains violence." Shira Satler of Jerusalem said, "I came out of the weekend very delighted, because I know the midrasha doesn't hide anything from me and allows me to deal with reality. Also, I felt very happy I was born Jewish." "At first glance, the way the Israelis reacted to the encounter would show that it failed to open their minds to respectfully learning about other religions," said Ruthie Eisenberg, one of the 10 Americans studying at Ein Hanatziv, "but developing a sense of genuine religious tolerance and pluralism takes a long time, and this event was a small step in the right direction." In response to Eisenberg's comment, Kahn said, "There is reason to ask questions from the place of the heart, of the pain, and of the truth. For a religious girl, there is no other opportunity to have such an encounter with the religions associated with so much pain, and a girl can't leave this situation with the weight of the accusations left on her heart." Ahinoam Pollack is an American student at Midreshet Habanot Ein Hanatziv.