This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.
Towards the end of the workshop he led on multifaith peace-building with Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Daniel Roth, Ph.D., shared a joke he heard in his home synagogue years ago. Someone in the synagogue pointed to the line in the prayerbook, “The students of the rabbis [lit. sages] increase peace in the world,” and quipped, “This is evidence that the prayerbook has a sense of humor!” The subtext, of course, is the idea that religion is good for destroying peace, not creating it. Rabbi Roth told us that he has devoted himself to proving that, on the contrary, religion—in this case, Judaism—can help us to “seek peace and pursue it,” in the language of the psalmist (psalm 34).
It is too bad the person who told Rabbi Roth this joke couldn’t be at RRC this past Sunday, when Rabbi Roth, along with his colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg, brought together 30 adherents of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism for a workshop on peace building in our communities. I am pleased to report that no people of faith were harmed in the course of the workshop, and furthermore I’m confident that we all came out of it with new resources, interfaith understanding and a renewed commitment to pursuing peace.
This was due above all to our teachers, of course, and I’ll share some of what they taught below, but just as creating the most lasting peace requires involvement from all parties to a conflict, so the diverse participants in the workshop shared from their own perspectives and traditions. I was especially struck by the words of a Muslim participant, who declined to state her affiliation with a specific mosque because of her respect for the ideal that Muslims should attend all mosques. I hope for the day when there will be the value, or better yet the realization, of a similar respect for our diversity among Jews. This would certainly increase the peace in our community.
Roth’s fervent commitment to utilizing Jewish sources to equip people to be pursuers of peace has led him to amass an incredible wealth of peacebuilding wisdom and to create a series of exciting and growing initiatives putting this wisdom into practice. One example is the observance of the 9th of Adar as “a Jewish day of constructive conflict” and also programs in North American Jewish day schools.
On Sunday he led the group in the study of traditional Jewish texts spanning millennia which can shed light on the effort to pursue peace. We studied the text in chevruta (pairs), a traditional way to learn and, Roth taught us, an indigenous Jewish form of training in conflict resolution, when done well. One aspect of the texts that struck me was their focus on Moses’ brother Aaron, who the rabbinic tradition defined as the quintessential pursuer of peace. Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, who helps to train peace builders in his role as director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, writes that “this raises some important issues … about whether the field of conflict resolution has focused too much on skills and not enough on the formation of character, namely, the ideal personality of the peacemaker.”
Rabbi Eilberg, who has decades of experience as a chaplain and spiritual director has spent the last decade pursuing peace in a range of contexts , including interfaith and Israel-Palestine. She recently published the book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, devoted much of her time to just this topic,
She led us through rich and challenging exercises to help us develop empathy for an adversary and to define the middot (spiritual virtues or qualities of soul) required for the pursuit of peace and reflect on which virtues we may have in the right amount and which we may have not enough of, or, equally problematic, too much of. With the guidance of Eilberg’s teaching and my chevruta, I was able to start exploring the complexities of the spiritual virtue of peacebuilding that I find most challenging, courage.
Roth and Eilberg did not try to paint an idyllic picture of religion’s role in conflict, however. Instead, they encouraged all of us to admit the reality that all of our traditions have texts and traditions that can be used to justify conflict and inflict pain. This is the inherent ambiguity of our sacred texts. But just as, according to one midrash Roth shared, for every halacha (Jewish law) there are 49 ways to prove it and 49 ways to refute it, so Eilberg and Roth convinced me that there must be at least as many ways that our religions can create peace as the number of ways they can create conflict.
Our time with Roth and Eilberg was too short, but I’m glad to know that they also taught a week-long class attended by 13 students and graduates of RRC. If we had more time I would have liked to hear what these teachers and model pursuers of peace would recommend for creating peace in situations with dramatic power imbalances between the parties to the conflict.
Photos: Sharon Gershoni