In Jerusalem

In JerusalemCambridge, MA. I often go to India, and it was a special privilege to travel last week to Jerusalem for an academic visit that was also a kind of retreat experience amid elemental realities of human and sacred life in today’s world. I stayed at the Jesuit community at the Pontifical Biblical Institute; was taken on a wonderful tour of some of the recent archaeological discoveries in the old city. I spent three hours at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which powerfully and meticulously documents the slow and deliberate murder of European Jewish life by the Nazis, the icy and wicked mechanism of total destruction, and the ultimate failure of Hitler to erase the Jews from the face of the earth. This is a terrible story peopled with the evil, the cowardly, and yet too some incredibly brave Jews and Christians who resisted evil, even unto death.

PBI is very near the old city, so I was able each day to visit, early in the morning, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and particularly Golgotha, Calvary, the holy site of the death of Jesus. I went there each morning during my stay, and found it most elemental simply to be there, at the center of everything so to speak. I thought of many Biblical passages, of course, but what echoed in my mind turned out to be a stray bit of TS Eliot: “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is… I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.” By my thinking (but probably not Eliot’s): from the still point of Calvary, where else is there to go?

And yet I did keep going. Once I had my bearings, each morning I walked from the Holy Sepulchre to the Western Wall, the holy remnant of the ancient temple of Jerusalem, to stand reverently among pious Jews, and myself to touch the Wall and pray, Only on one morning was I able to walk up to Al-Aqsa Mosque above the Western Wall, on the heights called the “Noble Sanctuary” by Muslims and the “Temple Mount” by Jews, and to pray there too for the peace of Jerusalem.

Much of the rest of each day was taken up with the academic events that brought me to Jerusalem in the first place. On Monday, I gave a lecture at the Benedictine Dormition Abbey, on how my learning of Hinduism might help us to learn differently from Judaism and Islam: enter the free flow of Hindu insights and practices, ever so diverse, in a carefuly and slow manners; study patiently and learn in depth; be transformed by what you learn; see where it leads you; let the difficulties comes later, after learning. All of this suggests that Jews, Christians, and Muslims take up the hard work of much more mutual learning, slowly and in detail.

On Tuesday, I participated in a workshop at Hebrew University consisting on five papers on daily ritual practice in Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu traditions (where I spoke on the Manual of Daily Workshop composed by the Hindu theologian Ramanuja 1000 years ago). After lunch, I joined a small study group dedicated to reading Rabbinic law alongside Hindu religious law (for which I contributed the Hindu text) — we met for two hours, but could have met for two years, so rich and complex were the texts individually and together. The next day, Wednesday, I spent nearly two hours with a very interesting seminar of very smart and perceptive students at Hebrew University on interreligious learning: how can you learn deeply and well, without trivializing either your own or the other tradition?

It was particularly pleasing that on Wednesday evening, for my last public event, I was invited to speak at the Swedish Theological Institute, in conversation with an old friend, Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, a leading figure in interreligious dialogue in Israel and founder of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Like myself, he has studied Hinduism for a long time. We both reflected on our experiences and studies of Hinduism, with attention to doctrinal matters, to the history and life and practice of the communities in which doctrines take shape and are passed down, and to our own personal stories, how we have studied, and where it has led. It was a most unusual exchange, a Rabbi and a priest discussing Hinduism together. Excellent questions pushed us further still, examining how life and theology, Jewish and Christian and Hindu, merge and part and deepen, over and again.

Stendahl RoomSTI was a very welcoming place to visit, and an added pleasure was that our session was held in the Krister Stendahl Room (see the picture), honoring Stendahl, a New Testament scholar, Dean of Harvard Divinity School, leading figure in the dialogue of Christians and Jews, and later on in his distinguished career, bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran Church. People were pleased to have a professor from HDS speaking in this room: Dean Stendahl would have been pleased, I think, to hear this dialogue of a priest and a rabbi on how they learned from Hindus.

It may seem odd to talk so much about Hinduism in Jerusalem. But there are more scholars of Hinduism in Jerusalem than I might have guessed. So too, I learned, many young Israelis head to India for a “gap year” after military service and before university studies. And so, throughout my visit there was great interest in what I, as a Catholic Christian and a Jesuit, have learned in my 45 years of study of Hinduism — and how it might affect how I think of Judaism and Islam, and how my insights might prompt new ways of Jews, Christians, and Muslims relating to one another. I cannot here go into detail, but I return again and again to the basic point, that the Hindu traditions of India offer us a great wealth of insight, experience and devotion, and take those of us who are Western Christians (or, I’d add, Jews or Muslims from outside South Asia) beyond our familiar histories and ways of being, for a great journey in a still largely unexplored (by us) holy terrain. We “return” from India purified in our own faiths, less attached to opinions about ourselves, more ready for spiritual practice anew and at home, and thus ready to see one another with a fresh eye despite 2000 years and more of shared history.

I did my best at all these events, but they were all most interesting for me as windows into the religious intellectual life of Jerusalem today. I am no Jerusalem expert — this is only my third visit — and I would have to return many times and listen to many more people to begin to understand how religion and religions function in this space crowded with history and memory. I would need to learn more of the many kinds of Jews here, and Christians — Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Copt… — and very much too the varied Muslim communities inside the city and in the nearby, occupied territories. It becomes vividly clear here that interreligious dialogue needs to be accompanied by ecumenical dialogue, conversations within traditions, so that Jews among Jews, Christians among Christians, and Muslims among Muslims, sort out their differences and reach harmony and friendship, so that the interreligious communication might have deeper roots. All of this is terribly challenging. Yet my instinct — as tentative and open to correction as all that I have written here — is to have faith and hope that even if religion is a source of controversy and tension, the only way to a lasting peace here is a religious path, the mingling of paths that however never lose their distinctiveness. We can only pray that people of all three faith traditions reach deep into their traditions to find how God wants us to live together in peace, as good neighbors, in our hearts, in our words, and in all the practical matters of politics and the land. Neither secularism nor politics nor the domination of all communities by one community will work. But what do I know?

So I had a very good visit. I am very grateful then to my hosts in each setting, particularly Professors Ulrich Winkler (at Dormition Abbey), Yigal Bronner (Director of The Martin Buber Society of Fellows), Buber Senior Fellow Gregor Buss, who was my very gracious host from the beginning to end of my visit, and at the University too Professor Naphtali Meshel, who kindly helped arranged the archaeological tour and the Hindu-Rabbinic reading group.

When we travel, we learn about home as well. This proverbial wisdom took on a special meaning on Sunday, December 16, when, at Our Lady of Sorrows, my parish in Sharon MA, I listened in on an interfaith conversation of three religious leaders in Sharon: Fr. Frank Daly, pastor, Rabbi Rachel Silverman, and Imam Abdurrahman Ahmad. They reflected together on how we are best to live out our lives religiously today, right in Sharon, as neighbors.

at OLOSWe face, after all, many of the same concerns, regarding family, how youth think about religion today, how to converse with neighbors about the things that matter most. Jerusalem is central for our traditions, our facing of history, our hope for the future; and yet elsewhere too — here and now too, whenever and wherever religious people meet — the still greater work of learning to learn from, live with, and love one another is always already under way.