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"Seek Peace and Pursue It": inaugural conference at the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre Building

May 2006, by Dorit Shippin

All the versions of this article: [English] [עברית]

(Translated from Hebrew by Deb Reich)

On the first of May, 2006, after a well-attended festive opening ceremony on the previous day, we held the inaugural conference of the new building of the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre. A sampling of some of Israel’s most notable speakers shared their ideas on subjects that are at the core of our work in the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre. (The conference lectures will be published as a book in 2007.)

We are certain that the discussions at this conference dealt with subjects that NSWAS founder, the Dominican brother Bruno Hussar envisioned addressing.

We wish to thank all those who helped make the conference a reality: the British Friends of NSWAS, who provided the funding, the academic adviser for the event, theologian Dr. Barbara Meyer,the steering committee of Doumia Sakinah, as well as Ahmad Hijazi and the PR staff. We also thank the participants, including friends of NSWAS from Europe, North America and Israel and residents of the village.

Thanks also to Dr. Deborah First of the American Friends of NSWAS, and Dr. Jenny Nemko, of the British Friends of NSWAS, who pitched in at the last moment with their considerable talents to moderate the panels.

The conference was conducted in three segments:

In the first part, we invited our speakers to talk about the idea of silence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Leading off was Dr. Yossef Schwartz, who teaches medieval philosophy and theology at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Schwartz is the author of “Lecha Doumia Tehila…” [To Thee is Silence Praise] about the influence of Maimonides, the Rambam, on Meister Eckhart. Dr. Schwartz spoke on “To Thee is Silence Praise: The Mystical and Political Dimension of Silence.” He talked about medieval thought and the dialogue between philosophers and religious thinkers – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – concerning silence and speech. Avicenna (Ibn Senna), Al-Ghazali, Maimonides and others were in agreement that the language of God is a universal language of nature and that human wholeness is in the silence of the thinking person; the silence of profound thought, utter silence, bringing a gathering together that is beyond the multiplicity of creation. The latter is manifest in the apprehension of the divine as absolute unity beyond language and thought: “To Thee is Silence Praise…” (Psalm 65:2).

The next speaker was Abbot Paul Saouma of the Abbey of Latrun – the Abbey of the Silent – and a good friend of the village. The Trappist order is among those most committed to the practice of silence, hence we wished to hear him on the subject of the order’s approach to the subject of doumia / sakinah (silence). Silence, said Father Paul, is not more exalted than speech and should be known as “the appropriate use of speech” or “the discipline of speech.” Silence is not an act; but speech is a human characteristic that differentiates us from other creatures. Silence honors speech, and must serve it, reminding us that the true goal of silence is listening.

Next came Sheikh Ziad Abu-Much, founder of the first Islamic College in Israel, which he headed for 11 years. Today he is director of professional advising for clergy in the Muslim division of the Ministry of the Interior. Sheikh Abu-Much spoke on “Sakinah in the life of the believer,” noting that in the Qur’an, the word appears in the context of the serenity that reigns in the heart of the believer, strengthening his faith in God and his faith in himself. He noted, too, the connection between sakinah in Islam and the concept of shekhina in Judaism, and additional connections in the Qur’an to knowledge, to wisdom, to the friendship between people, to the performance of good deeds that enhance serenity of the heart. In closing, he mentioned the positive influence of silence on people, on their awareness of and attention to their own lives and the society around them.

The fourth speaker was Professor Rachel Elior, chairwomen of the Department of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof. Elior spoke on “Who is silent, when, and why – in religious Jewish literature.” She began by pointing out that Judaism has a great deal to say about words and silence. Both speech and silence are blessed, so long as they are practiced by choice. Both are cursed when they are either imposed or prevented. She mentioned the two main components of Jewish creative effort: the Tanach, based on divine speech and human silence; and the tradition of the sages, known as the Oral Law, wherein people begin to speak, take responsibility, and develop critical thought and dialogue.

The second part of the conference was devoted to the theme of Prayer and Song.

This segment was opened by poet Fatime Diab, who writes prose and plays as well as poetry. She read some of her poems, among them: “From the valleys of the spirit and the heart.” She shared her experiences as a traditional woman standing up for her rights as a woman within her society. Aided by her talent and her writing, Fatime Diab uses the power of words to pursue a feminist struggle.

Following this interlude of poetry, we heard two additional speakers:

Dr. Hans Ucko, director of Interfaith Relations and Dialogue at the World Council of Churches, lives in Geneva. He argued that our mission is not merely to engage in dialogue, but also to challenge ourselves and our concepts based on what we hear from others. Concerning joint prayer for people of different faiths, Ucko spoke about the complexity of shared prayer but also its advantages in times of crisis when there is a need for solidarity among members of different faiths. The interfaith encounter, he says, challenges the assumption that as members of different religions, we have no points of commonality. The interfaith encounter that takes place with proper thought and planning, he concluded, can be most significant.

Professor Alice Shalvi, an old friend of Bruno Hussar, feminist activist, lecturer in English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and former chair of the Israel Women’s Network, and principal of the Pelech School, an experimental religious school for girls, talked on the subject “In Search of the Shekhina.”

She spoke about having left the Modern Orthodox movement for Conservative Judaism, where she found greater openness to reinterpretation and reexamination of Halacha in light of the evolution of society and its laws. She talked about the new feminism and its influence on every aspect of a woman’s life. She described how women have changed prayers, returning to “supplication” as a way of awakening the Shekhina. Women who are aware of the patriarchal and masculine character of images of the divine are developing a different language and metaphors for the divine as “the source of life,” “the wellspring of life.” The word for “well” (the kind water is drawn from) in Hebrew is a feminine noun. Prof. Shalvi presented a modern prayer in which the divine has a feminine face.

A break for lunch was followed by the artistic portion of the program.

Liturgist Lior Elmaleh performed a selection of Andalusian songs dating back to the expulsion from Spain. Some of them were in Hebrew, some in Moroccan Arabic. The combination of the Arab music and prayers rooted in Arabic and Hebrew took us back in time to the days when Jews and Muslims lived together with openness and mutual acceptance. With his heartfelt songs and clear voice, Lior’s performance was very moving to us all, and in particular to poet Samih Al Qasim who sat in the first row and was visibly and vocally surprised. Lior was expressing his own deepest feelings about the situation and the locale. Appearing with Lior Elmaleh were Eli Tzruya, on the oud and the guitar, and Charlie Peretz on the darbouka.

Samih Al Qasim then took the podium to talk with us and read from his poems. Samih Al-Qasem is a Palestinian poet living in the Galilee, near Rama. He has written some 40 books of poems, prose, plays and commentary; his work has been widely translated (including into Hebrew). Al Qasim was editor in chief of the weekly Kul Al Arab, published in Nazareth.

Having blessed us with Shalom aleichem, Al Qasim noted that the word “peace” is one of the 99 names of God in Islam, adding that “it is harder to make peace than to make war.” He read us several poems in Arabic and in Hebrew. His charisma, and his lucid voice as he read his poems, were living witness to the power of words to create meaning and change reality. Peter Kol, who translates Al Qasim into English, was also present at the conference and read, likewise in a clear, pure voice, a selection of poems in his own translation, among them: “Song of the Dervish”; Waaha (Oasis); and a poem Al Qasim wrote while in an Israeli prison, “End of conversation with prison guard.”

The panel that followed comprised four speakers, each of them contributing a different and interesting facet to this bountiful day:

Rabbi Dr. Dov Maimon talked with us of his special connection, as a Haredi rabbi, to Islam and the influence of this connection on his Judaism. Rabbi Maimon has been involved for many years in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and recently won a coveted prize in France for his doctoral dissertation on “The Intellectual and Mystical Dialogue between Islam and Judaism in 13th-Century Egypt.” Maimon confided that what moved him to pursue interfaith dialogue had been the question, “How can it be that religions, meant to create peace between people, instead create so many conflicts?”

Concerning his relationship with Islam, Maimon described the teaching of Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam, in Egypt during the Middle Ages. Rabbi Avraham argued that Judaism had lost its way and that Jews should learn from those who were devout, and suggested learning from their Muslim neighbors; he did not mean the Jews should follow Muslim beliefs, but that they should learn to worship with the same fervor.

Next came Professor Yaakov Raz, who talked about Far Eastern religious approaches to “Prayer in Silence.” Prof. Raz teaches Buddhism in the East Asian Studies department at Tel Aviv University. At the study center that he founded with clinical psychologist Nachi Elon- called “Psycho-Dharma”, the two teach about the Buddhist path in daily life and in psychotherapy. Prof. Raz addressed the contradiction imposed on silence by speech. Silence, he said, is preferable. Raz read a poem he recently wrote about “the dance between prayer and song,” freely translated here:

Breath

The air enters without our opposition
and leaves without our holding it in
between entry and exit – nothing
between exit and entry – nothing
therein lies the wisdom.

“Meditation,” he said, “is generally sitting quietly and looking at what is. Sometimes it is walking quietly and looking at what is while walking.”

Rabbi Professor Yehoyada Amir serves as director of the Rabbinical Studies program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which ordains wmen and men as Reform rabbis. Prof. Amir is an expert on the word of the Jewish German philosopher Franz Rosensweig and has for many years been an active member of the Prayer Committee of the synagogue where he is affiliated, Mevakshei Derekh. Amir’s subject at the conference was “Changing the prayer – as if the other were listening…” He reviewed the components necessary to make a prayer pluralistic. One is to behave as if “the other” were listening, even if he is not present. Another is the ability to listen and learn from different streams and traditions. Amir noted that attempts to develop pluralistic approaches to various religions had been only partially successful, and added that places like Doumia-Sakinah, the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre at NSWAS, are uniquely necessary and important in order to move ahead with pluralistic approaches. Amir emphasized the need to address the matter of identity, to deepen our understanding of our own and others’ identity.

Fourth and last on this panel was Professor Mustafa Abu-Sway of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Prof. Abu-Sway teaches philosophy and Islamic Studies, and heads the Institute for Research in Islamic Studies at the university. His main field is Islamic philosophy and his research integrates critical and social thought. Prof. Abu-Sway presented an approach in which separation is preferable to mixing. Interfaith consciousness, he said, means an awareness of the need for each religion to have its own space. Islam demands recognition of all the prophets and all the scriptures. Prof. Abu-Sway raised the question of whether silence can be viewed in Islam as a means of worshiping God and gave two examples from the Qur’an of people who took vows of silence as a means of worship. Abu-Sway also noted the Qur’anic emphasis on being aware of, and taking responsibility for, one’s speech in order to avoid doing harm or causing injury through talking.

The final segment of the conference was devoted to the quest for peace.

In this segment, we wanted to learn about the experience of various organizations in religious and spiritual traditions with peacemaking and the quest for social justice.

The first speaker was Ms. Saida Mohsen Byadsi, founder and director of Nisa Waafaq (Women and Horizons). Ms. Mohsen Byadsi, an attorney, is a candidate for a master’s degree in Gender Studies and is an activist for women’s rights in Arab society. She discussed the activities of Nisa-Waafaq, which attempts to change the status of women within the cultural context of Muslim Arab, and mainly traditional, society in Israel. At some point in her life, she said, she realized that it is possible to conduct a dialogue within Islam, to ask questions and to argue. She talked about the vision of a college that would teach a modern Islam for women, with the help of Muslim scholars, both women and men, and with an emphasis on feminism. The first Feminist Islamic conference organized by Nisa Waafaq is scheduled for the end of this year.

Father Dr. Jamal Khader addressed us next; Father Khader is head of the department of Religious Studies at the University of Bethlehem, a Catholic university, where Muslim and Christian students together learn about Islam and Christianity.

The student body is 65 percent Muslim and 35 percent Christian. The students study Islam from a religious Muslim teacher, and Christianity from a religious Christian teacher. At encounters between Muslims and Christians at the university, particularly in the department of Religious Studies, the students learn from the source, not indirectly. The example Father Khader gave is of Muslim students elsewhere who know what they know of Christianity from the Qur’an rather than from a primary source. In conclusion, he said, what is important in the interfaith encounter is to listen to the other and learn about him by how he presents himself – directly. Father Khader notes that the University in Bethlehem is a kind of microcosm of Palestinian society as a whole.

Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner is chair of Rabbis for Human Rights-Israel. She described this organization as a pluralistic one whose members are rabbis, male and female, from the various streams of Judaism, who are brought together by the subject of Judaism and human rights. RHR engages in education and grassroots action in the field. Its educational outreach includes presentations to various publics in Israel, at universities, colleges, schools and pre-army programs, focusing on the close bond between Judaism and the preservation of human rights. Socioeconomic justice in Israeli society is another focus. The organization also aids Palestinian farmers on the West Bank in accessing their land, whether through a physical presence in the field and protecting them from attacks by settlers and the Israeli army, or via legal means. This activity not only helps Palestinians, but also shows secular and religious Israelis, Palestinians, and the world in general that social justice and human rights are an inseparable part of Jewish tradition.

The last speaker was journalist Nazir Majali, who writes for Israeli publications and for Arabic newspapers in Israel, and sometimes for Arabic papers in the occupied Palestinian territories. Majali, along with Father Emile Shufani and Ms. Ruth Bar Shalev, established an initiative called, in Hebrew, “Remembering for Peace” and in Arabic, “Remembering the Pain – for Peace.” This program promotes awareness of the European Jewish Holocaust among Palestinian citizens of Israel and aims to create greater understanding among Palestinian Israelis of the fear and the pain experienced by their Jewish neighbors, and thereby improve the bond Palestinian citizens have with the country they live in. From the other direction, the program aims to create greater understanding among Jewish Israelis of the painful history of the Palestinian Nakba in order to bring Jewish society closer to Palestinian citizens of the state.

*** *** ***

The conference ended with prayers of celebration in the chapel in the new building. The prayer service was led by poet Ghassan Manasra, son and student of Sheikh Abdessalam Manasra; Rabbi Roberto Arbib, of Congregation Sinai, the Conservative congregation in Tel Aviv; and Father Paul, abbot of the Trappist Monastery of Latrun, who brought along two young monks.

Ghassan Manasra and Rabbi Roberto, members of a Sufi-Jewish-Muslim group, “Derekh Avraham,” sang their prayers in Arabic and Hebrew alternately and the monks from Latrun sang a pure-sounding “Give Us Peace” in Latin. These first notes heard in the new chapel were a true and moving manifestation of the intentions and the aspirations inhering in the place.

In conclusion

The “Seek Peace and Pursue It” conference was the most important and biggest event we have undertaken in the year since the inception of the spiritual centre. We would like to develop the subjects that emerged during the conference, by holding additional gatherings, workshops, and seminars. The centre plans a fixed activity of peace studies in conjunction with spiritual content from our various traditions and those of other peoples. The learning will always be integrated with open and participatory dialogue in furtherance of understanding between Arabs and Jews living in this land.

Our earnest wish is that this lovely building become a gathering place for friends and members of the Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam community, on holidays and other meaningful occasions of significance to the community. We also offer it as a locus for groups and organizations who find it an appropriate and inspiring place in which to conduct their own activities.

Portfolio

First panel, Abdessalam Najjar speaking First panel, Dr. Deborah First speaking Dr. Yossef Schwartz Abbot Paul Saouma (ctr.), Sheikh Ziad Abu-Much (right) Prof. Rachel Elior Questions from the audience Second panel, Dr. Jenny Nemko speaking Fatime Diab Rev. Dr. Hans Ucko Prof.Alice Shalvi Lior Elmaleh (ctr), Eli Tzruya (l) Charlie Peretz (r) Rabbi Maimon with Anne Le Meignen Third panel, Dr. Barbara Meyer speaking Rabbi Dr. Dov Maimon Prof. Yaakov Raz Rabbi Professor Yehoyada Amir Professor Mustafa Abu-Sway Final panel, Dorit Shippin speaking Ms. Saida Mohsen Byadsi Father Dr. Jamal Khader Rabbi Ma'ayan Turner Nazir Majali Ghassan Manasra and Rabbi Roberto Arbib: joint Jewish - Muslim (...) The monks from Latrun leading "Donna Nobis Pacem" Samih Al Qasim

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