It is my privilege to offer greetings on behalf of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, to this plenary of the11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. IJCIC is a consortium of 11 major international Jewish organizations constituted to engage with other international religious bodies including the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, the World Evangelical Alliance, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and non-Christian organizations as well.
The Hebrew month of Elul began last weekend. Elul is a special time of spiritual and moral preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance beginning with the Jewish New Year and concluding with the Day of Atonement.
The theme of assembly is reconciliation that leads to unity. Essential to the Jewish understanding of repentance is the imperative of reconciliation. During Elul, we are urged to examine ourselves, to confront our moral failings, confess them before God, and ask for forgiveness. We are explicitly instructed to seek out whomever we have wronged, to make amends, and to seek their forgiveness. Indeed, our tradition teaches that reconciliation between people is a prerequisite for forgiveness from God. When we are reconciled with God and with our neighbor, we reunite on both the human and the divine level.
One of the most profound examples of the power of communal reconciliation can be seen in what has taken place between Jews and Christians since the end of the Shoah, the Holocaust. The repudiation by many Christians theologians and institutions of antisemitism and the rejection of the classical Christian “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism is unprecedented in human history. Indeed, at its founding in 1948 the World Council of Churches called antisemitism “sin against man (sic) and God” and has repeatedly spoken out against anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence. This revolution in Jewish-Christian relations is something to be celebrated and should serve as an inspiration and a model for overcoming prejudice and hatred. Many in the Jewish community are sadly unaware of the great progress in Jewish-Christian relations.
Unfortunately, Jews around the world continue to be the targets of hatred, including lethal hatred. In this regard, people of good will can have strong disagreements about Israel. Some criticism of Israel, however, is motivated not by facts but by antisemitism or is expressed using antisemitic rhetoric. We all need to find vocabulary to discuss this most sensitive issue that promotes, rather than obstructs, dialogue.
Reconciliation, of course, is an ongoing process. Despite the progress in Jewish Christian relations, anti-Jewish tropes still find expression in some Christian teaching and preaching, in many cases the result of ignorance rather than malice. Correcting deeply imbedded biases and becoming sensitized to what hurts and offends takes time and effort – and the courage to be honest with oneself and others. It also takes time to build trust. It is, therefore, encouraging that in recent years, IJCIC and the leadership of the WCC have engaged in serious, substantial, respectful, and productive conversations about very sensitive issues including our deep and abiding attachment to the people and land of Israel and how together we can further the cause of peace in the region.
We hope that this relationship and our understanding of one another will grow and deepen in the years ahead.
According to some rabbinic traditions the Jewish New Year is the anniversary of the creation of the world, or to be more precise, the creation of humanity. Another tradition teaches that the Eternal created humanity beginning with one couple - Adam and Eve – so that no person could claim to have a better lineage than anybody else. According to Genesis, all humanity is one family with a common ancestor. While we differ from one another in many ways, we share the imprint of the divine in our very being.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about “the dignity of diversity.” He said: “the religious challenge is to find God’s image in someone who is not in our image, in someone whose color is different, whose culture is different, who speaks a different language, tells a different story, and worships God in a different way.”
I note that the Season of Creation first established by Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios in 1989 and later joined by the WCC and the Vatican as a time of prayer and action for our common home begins just before the Jewish commemoration of creation. In the book of Genesis, God says that each of the elements of creation by itself is good, but only when the all the work of creation is complete, including humanity, is it very good.
The human family is one, but strife and injustice abound. Our planet is one, but we fight over it and pollute it. None of us alone can address the challenges our human family faces. The only answer is to work together in unity for peace and understanding and justice, for reconciliation with one another, with our common home, and with the Divine so that, in the words of the prophet, all may sit under their vine and under their fig tree, with none to make them afraid. Amen.