Keynote address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the 20th Anniversary Oration of the Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria) on Sunday, 25 September, 2005 at the Glen Eira Town Hall, Melbourne.
In a previous incarnation – and surely one is permitted to speak of incarnations at an inter-religious event – I was a professional youth worker.
Up and down the British Isles I went, visiting youth clubs and organising or advocating religious programs.
At one youth club, a teenager possessed of the unrivalled wisdom of the very young decided I was already in my dotage, even though I was probably no more than 24 or so.
“Anyone over 20 is a has-been,” he confidently informed me.
Seeing that all this happened many years ago, the wise young man is now probably highly middle-aged with children of his own who are well into their twenties or even older.
Fortunately he is unlikely to remember his exchange with me, but I not only remember but would like to apply it to tonight.
For now that Victorian CCJ is 20, there may well be a need to ask whether the organisation, which had its beginnings at a highly propitious time and under particularly impressive auspices, is on the way to becoming a has-been.
That question I will attempt to address in the course of these remarks, though it may take me a little time to arrive at an answer.
In CCJ work, indeed in inter-religious collaboration of a wider kind, I have been an observer and a player for countless years, first in that earlier United Kingdom incarnation and then for well over three decades in Australia.
So I believe I am qualified to assess the state of the art in general and in CCJ in particular.
Of course it is tempting to use superficial criteria such as how many people are paid-up members, whether there are good attendances at meetings and other programs, and whether the organisation balances its books.
These are not unimportant issues, but the real question goes much deeper.
It is concerned with whether the work has helped to build a climate of harmony, understanding and mutual respect. The answer is yes – but it is also no.
Like all my co-workers, I have my moments when I rejoice at how successful we are, how proud we are to say, “We really understand one another!” I also have my moments of disillusionment, when I sadly conclude, “How little we really understand each other!”
A trauma in interfaith work came in 1967 on the eve of the Six Day War. It was a shock to find Christians saying or at least implying, “Why are the Jews so worked up?” – and Jews saying, “But we thought the Christians would feel our pain!”
Seymour Cain, an American philosophy professor, said in 1979: “What must be done is to discuss honestly and openly why we Jews and Christians are kin, yet strangers, to one another”.
We have still not entirely succeeded in discovering each other’s unique identity. For Jews, it is history, hope, land and peoplehood as well as religion, or rather, all are part of religion for the Jew. For Christians it is the word made flesh, man’s fall, God’s grace, intermediation and resurrection. To the Jew, as Martin Buber said, the Christian is too daring; to the Christian, the Jew is too obdurate.
The result? The wall of separation, actual or virtual, that is still there despite the joy we feel in often regarding the other as a member of our own family.
Let me say in parenthesis that I mean this reference to family in a more than metaphorical sense.
I think of occasions in my own family when it would have been unthinkable not to invite priests, nuns, clergy and colleagues from a number of religions; we were part of each other.
But back to the wall, a Berlin Wall that separated us long before Berlin was ever thought of. If it were merely what Paul calls “the middle wall of partition” it would not be so bad. Unfortunately, it is more likely, to quote Paul again, to have been for most of its history “the dividing wall of hostility”.
What built the wall? Two convictions as to truth.
What will remove the wall? Because we are each distinctive, the divide will remain. The question is whether it will be the fence that marks off one friendly neighbour from another, and not a high, solid wall of hostility.
It will not be easy, despite our reconciliation and cordiality. We may never reach a full agreement about truth – but we may jointly reach some truths about truth.
“The truth will make you free” is a Christian saying.
Its Jewish antecedent is the word in Mishnah Avot, “No-one is so free as he who is committed to Torah”; there is a catch-phrase, torat emet – “The Torah of truth”.
You recall Pilate’s question: in Francis Bacon’s version, “‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate. Bacon goes on in relation to Pilate, “(he) would not stay for an answer”.
Pilate was not a gentlemanly character, despite Mel Gibson, and he could offer throw-away lines and then walk off unconcerned at others’ reaction. Pilate could not wait. We do not have that privilege.
We have no choice but to stay and grapple with the question, “What is truth?” – in Jewish terms, “What is torat emet?” Which emet is emet, which truth is truth – your truth or my truth?
Till 9/11, till 7/7, we thought we could grin and smile and get away with conventional pleasantries like “They’re all paths to God after all!”
But now we have no choice, now that we have been caught up in events that show there are some people whose fierce commitment to their truth impels them to want to conquer the world, quite bluntly and literally. Others have no intention of going so far; world conquest is not their agenda, but they certainly believe in spiritual coercion, even if it means they ride rough-shod over other people’s convictions and conscience and seek to delegitimise them.
We have good reason to fear both approaches. The problem is the same from a conceptual point of view regardless of the way people express their own truth.
Said Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik: “It is very easy for zealots and negativists to solve all problems – they see the entire world coloured black and white.”
Zealots and negativists do not engage in dialogue.
Dialogue requires the capacity to listen, not just to speak; to whisper, not to shout; to see in others the face of a brother or sister; to thank God for one another.
There is dialogue when we share information, there is dialogue when we become good friends, there is dialogue when we join forces for a common cause.
Years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others warned against deep theological interchange, but this is only one level of dialogue. It is also dialogue when we sit together, walk together, work together, even laugh together.
Dialogue in all its senses is a sharing in which all make room for each other, not just because pragmatic realities demand it but if we can find the appropriate conceptual framework we can base it on a sustaining idea.
I recommend that we see dialogue as a recognition that regardless of ownership of ultimate truth, we all believe in our own truth and enable my truth and your truth to live together and leave the final determination to God.
All who believe should heed the words of Solomon Schechter, a great Jewish teacher of a century ago, who used to tell his students, “Leave a little to God”.
None of us needs to be God’s policeman, nor do we need to storm the tower and purport to be God. Let us leave God to be God.
In religion there are necessary paradoxes. I submit that there are also necessary ambiguities… ambiguities which enable disparate ideas to co-exist.
I thought I was the one who had discovered this principle, but the more I studied my own tradition the more I found it well entrenched, almost axiomatic.
I found it in Jewish theological teaching, in the ambiguities between the contrasting God-ideas of Maimonides and of the mystics.
I found it in Jewish liturgy, which speaks of God as Avinu Malkenu – a close and compassionate parent who is also a king who sits on a lofty throne of justice.
I found it in Jewish ethics, with its creative tension between the three principles of truth, justice and peace which the Mishnah says are the foundation of the world.
If Pilate could ask, “What is truth?” and Plato, “What is justice?”, Dickens asked, “What is peace?” None of these concepts can be defined in isolation, for truth and justice do not always coincide, nor does either always sit well with peace.
The Jewish halachah brings the ambiguity onto a practical level when it speaks of the seriously ill patient for whom the full truth about their condition may ruin their peace of mind, and it is justice that the requirements of peace be accorded primacy.
In religion the need for ambiguity has long been recognised: for example, the ambiguity between free will and determinism, between transcendence and immanence, between faith and works, between this world and the hereafter.
I see deliberate ambiguity when Kohelet asks which is better, the day of death or the day of birth.
The Talmud introduces us to so many debates about issues that cannot easily co-exist, not only in the practical world of the halachic life but in the ultimate questions such as whether in the end man should have been created or not.
Does this mean that everything is kosher, everything is relative, and nothing is either true or not true in itself?
The Talmud long ago knew the question – and formulated its answer.
It reported the many differences between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. “Both,” it decided, “are the words of the living God”.
But it said two other things: one, “The halachah (in most regards) is according to the School of Hillel”, i.e. in the final analysis there has to be a rule; and two, “Though the Schools had their disputes, they accorded each other respect”.
Some things can be settled on earth, and others have to be left in the theological too-hard basket, in Talmudic parlance, to await the coming of Elijah; in Schechter’s terms, “leaving a little to God”.
There are two messages for our situation.
The first is that there are truths in many traditions, but one’s deepest commitment must be to one’s own; the second, that though our distinctive identities are separated by a “middle wall of partition”, others must be respected, not humiliated or delegitimised, turning the partition into a dividing wall of hostility.
The evidence is all around us that there is today a lack of respect.
Fanatics and negativists blow up trains, buses, places of work or worship, and fellow human beings. For them the victim is nothing; however precious, clever, important, decent, trying simply to live life in dignity, all is dispensable in the onslaught of ferocity.
In the end the perpetrator too is nothing, making no contribution to civilisation, no contribution to anything, not even to his or her own cause.
We have all been impressed by Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment: “Survive! Don’t give Hitler the last laugh!”
Though mankind at large is, in Jewish teaching, not bound by the traditional 613 commandments, with or without Fackenheim’s added 614th; it has the Seven Noachide Laws, to which we might feel like adding an eighth – “Survive! Live! Preserve the world and its civilisation!”
Our duty is to find each other, not to destroy one another.
Part of that duty is to acknowledge the necessary ambiguities which make it possible to find room for us all.
I am sure it is my tradition that is possessed of the truest truth, but the ultimate Judge is not me, or any mortal.
I hope that in the end of days when all mankind walks together up to the mountain of the Lord, all will live by the Hebrew Scriptures.
But the details are not up to me. I do not believe I can bring the moment closer by forcing my Judaism on others regardless of their own conscience. Nor, I hope, will others feel they have to coerce me into their camp.
I prefer the great words of the prophet Micah, “Let all the peoples walk each one in the name of their god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever”.
The wall of partition may remain, but to ensure it never again becomes a dividing wall of hostility we have to dedicate life in what the Hebrew sages call “the world of action” to living as loving brothers and sisters.
There is a wondrous rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 85, verse 11: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
The rabbis say that the verse is speaking of two brothers, Moses and Aaron.
One is the symbol of truth, the other of mercy…
They need each other; the world needs them both.
Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks in his Psalm commentary, “The ideal of the future must come about, not by force, but as a result of a devoted, voluntary union of mercy and truth”.
20 years on, Victorian CCJ has so much to celebrate.
Some of the finest minds and noblest spirits in the religious spectrum have given it their energies and inspiration.
On one level or another it has helped to break down old stereotypes that were left behind from the times of hostility.
It may not have penetrated the grass roots far or widely enough, but that is a task for the future.
It may not even have penetrated all the higher echelons, or where it has penetrated, its effect may have been partial and its reception selective.
But it has issued academically credible documents, come to grips with a series of agonising conceptual issues, formulated theologically tenable positions, and spearheaded appropriate advocacy on national issues that needed a common religious voice.
True, documents and dialogues do not by themselves create revolutions, but they make their own inexorable contribution towards the evolution of attitudes and ideas that in time will truly make a difference.
If my remarks this evening help the debate along, I will be content.
In the meantime, there is vigour and vision in the organisation that ensure it is far from becoming a has been.
Victorian CCJ, happy birthday, and mazal tov!
Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.