Wading in 'Hot Water'
Rabbi David Rosen: Building Global Interfaith Communities
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
Tension can be at a rolling boil during interfaith encounters, but Rabbi David Rosen, a modern Orthodox Rabbi, born and educated in England, who lives with his family in Israel, has never been intimidated by the heat. He is a true pioneer of interfaith engagement, serving as the international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and director of its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding. He is also an honorary adviser on Interfaith Relations to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and he represents the Chief Rabbinate on the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. Rabbi Rosen is also a founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which serves as a support system for some seventy organizations in Israel all involved in interfaith relations (ICCI).
Rabbi Rosen’s entry into the minefields of interfaith began in the mid-70s. After completing his studies at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and becoming a rabbi in 1972, he enlisted in the Israeli army for two years, serving as a Chaplain. Afterwards, he married Sharon Rosen, who was raised in England but has lived in Israel for 31 years dedicated to nonprofit interfaith activities. They accepted an assignment in Cape Town where, from 1975 to 1979, he served as the senior rabbi of the largest Jewish congregation in South Africa. While there, he founded the Inter-Faith Forum and the Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims. In this capacity, he was instrumental in bringing together clergy of diverse Christian denominations that up until then had not even been willing to enter the same room together. He convinced them to attend by emphasizing how their voices were important and would be missed if they didn’t show up.
It was a very tense time in South Africa. Apartheid defined both the political landscape and the courage of those opposed to it. Rabbi Rosen, still in his 20s, developed a reputation for taking risky political stances that often landed him in ‘hot water.’ He went on record saying, “religious leaders, particularly Jewish religious leaders, who separate politics from their religion fail in their duty.” Furthermore, he insisted that, “to be Jewish in society is to stand up for principle, and stand against injustice and iniquity.” He was publicly vilified for his views and even received death threats. He was so “successful” in his mission, he says with a touch of irony, “that the Southern African government, which had me under surveillance, decided not to renew my work visa.”
Rabbi Rosen’s next assignment was less dangerous. About to accept a new job in New York, he heard the Jewish community in Ireland was in need of a new Chief Rabbi. He immediately changed plans and headed for Ireland. He served as Ireland’s Chief Rabbi from 1979 to 1985, helping to establish the Irish Council of Christians and Jews and a new program in Jewish-Christian studies at Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics.
His achievements since then keep accumulating across the globe. Reminiscent of a knight from King Arthur’s roundtable, Rabbi Rosen himself was knighted by both the Italian and English governments. In 2005 he was made a papal Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in Italy for his efforts to promote Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and help establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel – which became official in 1993. He was knighted once again in 2010, this time by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II for his significant contribution to interfaith relations.
An advisor on many international boards including Religions for Peace, and KAIICID, the large interfaith organization founded by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Rabbi Rosen racks up thousands of miles annually to participate with global leaders of all faiths in interreligious conferences, symposia, and deliberations. This has included a series of dialogues in Jerusalem, New Delhi, and Washington DC, where he worked together with Hindu leaders and several rabbis from Israel to produce a first of its kind document pointing out the congruence of beliefs and values between Hindus and Jews.
The Rabbi attributes his openness to interfaith engagement to the education he received at home from his father, a prominent rabbi in England. “Fortunately, I came from a background rich in terms of cultural exposure. People from different faiths and from different contexts were often guests within our home. My father established the first Jewish public school (in England it’s called a private school). I grew up to understand that my Jewish identity was not in conflict with my universal human identity and general world culture. On the contrary, one enriched the other.” His 20-minute TEDx talk titled “Understanding Religious Roots” offers a deeply personal story of his own compelling journey into interfaith.
On Being a Jewish Interfaith Activist
When questioned about what might seem to be an apparent dichotomy between the reputation Jews have for being exclusionary and private, while at the same time being publicly engaged in matters of discrimination and political and economic justice, Rabbi Rosen approached the subject head-on in his signature rapid-fire delivery.
“One has to do with Jewish worldview related to our religious tradition and heritage. The other has to do with a mindset which is the consequence of certain social and political realities.
“Let’s start out with the biblical view of the role of the Jewish people. The role of the Jewish people was clearly to create a particular community with a particular character and there are so many aspects of Jewish life that are particular-ist in that sense. But the reason for that particularism was very clear. Judaism emerged in a pagan, immoral, brutal world some 3,500 years ago and sought to create an alternative to that brutality and to that immorality and therefore there was a need for that particularity to be protected. But nevertheless, it is clear that the purpose of that particularity is a universal.
“The Jewish people are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Rabbi Rosen explained, “and the role of the priests is to serve in the community as the agent of the Divine. And the prophets are full of the calls to the children of Israel to fulfill that universal goal and, of course, the first precept within the whole of biblical revelation is recognition that every person is created in the image of God, and that the children of Abraham are called to pursue justice and righteousness and be able to cause that to extend throughout the world. So there is this creative tension that is an essential tension in terms of Jewish identity between the particular and the universal.
“And to be able to emphasize one at the exclusion of the other is ultimately to do violence, to betray that biblical, divine mandate. The challenge is to be able to find that creative balance. But here we come then to that second aspect that is impinged upon the Jewish approach.”
Rabbi Rosen places great emphasis on the Jewish historical experience as a determining factor: “Until very very, very recently, for the majority of the last 2,000 years Jews have been persecuted and there has been hostility from our environment. The experience of us here in the U.S. today is absolutely unique in terms of Jewish history and globally as well. To live in a society where most people don’t care what you are is often more difficult than to live in a society where people do care.
“And of course that is the danger, when you live in a society where people don’t care about you, then you don’t care what you are. It’s much easier to be strong about your identity when people are hostile towards you, but who on earth wants to live in that hostile environment?”
Rabbi Rosen points to the consequences of this hostility: “… caution and suspicion that is strong within the Jewish community. The more rooted the community is, the more particular and the more isolated it is,” he explains, “and as a result, the more fearful and suspicious it will be of the world outside. This is our historical trauma that we have to overcome. One of the important things about interfaith engagement is precisely to help the Jewish people overcome its own historical trauma, to understand that it lives in a different reality and that it can live in an open society where it can play the role that it should play in contributing to the wider society without losing its own particular identity, and it is possible to do that today. But many of us, especially in Israel, don’t live in an open society where we can encounter diversity without feeling threatened. On that level we are still victims of that trauma and we still have a long way to go to overcome it.”
What about Jews who denounce other Jews as being disloyal because they participate in interfaith engagement or take part in what Judaism calls in Biblical Hebrew avodah zarah (foreign/strange religious practices) by visiting churches, mosques, or temples of other faiths? After four decades of interfaith engagement, Rabbi Rosen admits he still encounters criticism for the work that he has chosen to do.
“Of course, you and I have to be compassionate towards those whose trauma and narrow-mindedness reflects a fear and insecurity and – if you like – a cultural and religious immaturity. This is bound to be the case. You and I are pioneers of the interfaith encounter on behalf of the Jewish community. This is very new. Yes, we had individuals who stood out in the 20th century, such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzeig, (German-Jewish theologians and writers), but the real engagement of communities is a new phenomenon of our times.
“And of course, there’s going to be fear, resentment, hostility, and trepidation within our own particular communities. Yes, I face it all the time, but I look at it in terms of the glass being half full. Regardless of the challenges, there is far more understanding of the importance of interfaith engagement today than there was 20 years ago. That is an achievement.”
Clearly, landing in the hot water of fear, resentment, hostility, and trepidation has never phased Rabbi David Rosen.
Header Photo: kveller.com