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Christian-Muslim Summit at the National Cathedral

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Next week I will be in Washington D.C. to participate as a Jewish observer to an exciting Christian Muslim Summit at the National Cathedral. The goal of the Summit -- the first of four such meetings -- is to bring together religious and political leaders from Christianity and Islam as well as Eastern and Western nations to promote understanding and reconciliation between Islam and the West, and to encourage religious leaders to continue using their influence within governments to promote -- and positively impact -- peace and reconciliation efforts worldwide. Most of the meetings will not be public, but the Summit ends with a public dialogue on Wednesday night. You can participate in the dialogue by watching it online via a live web cast from the National Cathedral's web site.

Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and I, will be the two Jewish observers to this Summit. I am honored to be granted this opportunity to witness a critical dialogue between Christian and Muslim leaders and to be part of this initiative to build joint interfaith efforts to promote peace and justice.

Over the past year, since I left Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, I have devoted much of my energy to doing justice and human rights work in an interfaith context. I participated in a meeting of Christian leaders last year at the Carter Center, spoke at the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America, traveled in an interfaith delegation to Egypt and Qatar, and participated in the launching of the Palestine Kairos Document in Bethlehem in December. Although Taanit Tzede-Jewish Fast for Gaza is initiated by rabbis, it is an interfaith effort. The goal of my work is to build relationships with Christians and Muslims in America so that we can work together as American citizens on issues of peace and human rights in Israel/Palestine.

Participants in the Summit were asked to submit a speech or article they have written on issues related to the goals of the Summit. I edited a short talk I presented at the meeting of Christian leaders at the Carter Center last year related to the possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews joining together as advocates for peace. My article, which I will also post separately in my next blog post is offered below. I would love your feedback.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Allies for Peace

Rabbi Brian Walt

(Adapted from a talk given to a meeting of Christian leaders at the Carter Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia May 2009)

Have you but one blessing? Bless me too my Father! (Gen. 26:38)

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are often bitter antagonists on several different issues but especially in relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rabbi, committed to the prophetic call to peace and justice, honored by all three traditions, I pray that Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders can transcend the history of conflict and become allies for peace. In this spirit I offer the following reflection.

In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, after Isaac tells Esau, his son, that his brother Jacob has stolen the blessing, Esau burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Have you but one blessing? Bless me too, my father" (Genesis 26:38)

Esau's painful words, "Have you but one blessing?" raises the critical issue that must be faced today by all people of faith. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all people who seek peace, must respond to Esau's cry with an unqualified "No!" God is not limited to one blessing. God blesses all God's children: Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet, for far too long, religious leaders and teachers of our respective traditions have claimed that God has only one blessing that has been conferred on our particular community. This painful history of religious exclusivity, of privileging our own religious tradition over others, has fuelled prejudice, hatred and violence. It is time for us as religious leaders to take action to end this cycle of pain and violence perpetrated in the name of religion. It is time for all of us to repent, to do teshuva (return), to return God, to return our shared belief that in God's eyes no particular people or religious community is privileged over the other.

For Jews this means returning to our belief stated in the very first chapters of our Torah, that all human beings are created in the Image of God. In our tradition there is a debate between two great rabbis: Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva argues that "Love your neighbor as yourself" is the most important principle of Jewish faith; Ben Azzai counters that the belief all human beings are created in the image of God is even more important. Both values, love for all human beings and the inherent dignity of all human beings, lie at the core of our faith and, I believe, at the core of Christianity and Islam.

The affirmation of this shared legacy does not in any way negate the distinctive character of three traditions. The distinctive character of different religious traditions are precious and sacred, but the distinctiveness of our faith traditions must be placed in the context our core universal understanding that all every human life is sacred and deserving of human dignity, equality and justice. It means placing our shared religious understanding of human dignity, love and compassion at the center of our faith. Nothing is more important.

Highlighting this shared legacy and moving beyond exclusivity and privileging is not only critical to our faith traditions, it is also essential for the healing of the conflict in the Holy Land. Just as Jacob and Esau assumed there was only one blessing, so the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have claimed exclusive title to the land.

Over the centuries during the various bloody conquests of the Holy Land, religious leaders have encouraged the exclusive claim of their particular religious traditions and often fomented violence in the name of religion. Is it possible for religious leaders in our own time to move beyond our own murderous history of exclusivity? The Holy Land is the land of two peoples, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Is it possible for religious leaders help resolve this conflict in a way that assures both peoples justice, security and peace?

It is the same Biblical story of Jacob and Esau that offers us hope for such a vision. In Genesis, Chapter 33, the Torah recounts that after years of separation, during which Jacob and Esau harbored murderous hostility to one another, the two brothers come together. Jacob, terrified that his brother will kill him, and according to rabbinic interpretation, that he could kill his brother, offers Esau gifts. In an extraordinary moment, Esau, the aggrieved and embittered son who didn't receive the primary blessing, says to his brother, "I have a lot my brother (more than enough), you keep what is yours" (Genesis 33:9). Jacob pleads with him to accept the gift and says to see your face, my brother is like seeing the face of God" (Gen. 33:10). This is one of the most inspiring and extraordinary passages in the Torah. Jacob and Esau finally understand that they are both blessed, that they both are children of God.

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Rabbi Brian Walt is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America and was the founding Rabbi of JRF Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA

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