Interfaith Dialogue

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A suggested lesson plan outline for incorporating these resources into a 60-minute class.

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In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore interfaith dialogue in Jewish thought, and specifically in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.

There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.

Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11-12 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high-school aged students (15-18 years old).

Read the following newspaper article with your students. This report from the Jewish Chronicle (a UK Jewish newspaper) discusses the response of Chief Rabbi Mirvis in 2015 to the UK government’s newly implemented requirement that schools teaching Religious Studies to their GCSE students also study a second faith. Ask your students to consider the pros and cons of studying other faiths in Jewish schools.

Source Article:

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Core Questions

  • How can we benefit from learning about other religions, as well as Judaism?
  • What are the dangers of learning about other religions?
  • Do you agree with the position of Rabbi Mirvis?
  • Do you learn about other religions at your school?
  • Do you think you should?
  • Why do you think Rabbi Mirvis encourages us to study Islam in particular?
  • Is learning about other religions enough to end intolerance and prejudice?
  • What else needs to be done to work towards this?
  • Where else in society can we work to achieve this apart from in schools?

The following sources and texts are taken from a section of four chapters entitled Siblings from Rabbi Sacks' book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (published in 2015) and explore the biblical basis for interfaith brotherhood and dialogue between the three great Abrahamic faiths.

The birth of Yishmael

  • Read the verses in Bereishit 16:1-16

The birth of Yitzchak and rejection of Yishmael

  • Read theses biblical verses: Bereishit 21:1-20

How does this relate to Interfaith?

  • Now read Rabbi Sacks' analysis of how this relations to interfaith relationships, from Not In God's Name:

This is a key narrative, the first of several we are about to analyse. Identity is based on narrative, the stories we tell about who we are, where we came from, and what is our relationship to others. The real theological work of this book lies here, in close reading of biblical texts, especially those whose theme is sibling rivalry. This is what led to the strife between Jews, Christians and Muslims and it is here, if anywhere, that we will find the solution.

We have just read the story of Avraham’s two sons, and the message seems clear. Just as Avraham was chosen out of all humankind, so is Yitzchak. But this is not a straightforward story. Yitzchak is not the firstborn. Yishmael is. What we seem to have here is a displacement narrative. In almost all societies where birth order has a bearing on rank, the oldest (usually male) child succeeds to the role occupied by the father. Here the order is reversed. The older Yishmael is displaced by his younger half-brother. The result, happy for Sarah and Yitzchak, is tragic for Hagar and Yishmael. We can sense the incipient tension. This sounds like the beginning of a story that will end in resentment and revenge.

Historically, as we saw in chapter 5, it had a fateful afterlife. Paul, in the epistle to the Romans, performs a second reversal, arguing that it is the younger religion, Christianity, that has replaced the elder, Judaism, as heir to the covenant. In Islam the story was turned around yet again, in a different way, saying that it was Yishmael who was chosen, not Yitzchak. He, after all, was the first of Avraham’s children to be circumcised and carry the sign of the covenant. Muslims accused Jews of falsifying the biblical text, rewriting it to make Yitzchak the hero. Once these faiths had taken the decision to see themselves as heirs of the Abrahamic covenant, re-reading was inevitable. One might call it the revenge of the rejected.

But all this is on the surface. If we now peel away the layers of this complex and subtle text, we will discover another story altogether. We will discover how the rabbis heard discordant notes in the narrative, and realised that it is conveying a different and surprising message. Only a superficial reading yields the conclusion: Yitzchak chosen, Yishmael rejected. In fact, at this strategic point, the first generational succession in the Abrahamic covenant, the Hebrew Bible contains not only a narrative but also a counter-narrative.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 108-109
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Core Questions

  1. What does this narrative have to do with our own world and our relationship with other nations and religions?
  2. How has this story contributed to tension between Judaism and Islam and Jews and Arabs?
  3. Why do you think it is important that Jews, Christians and Muslims all see themselves as descendants of Avraham?

Yishmael will be blessed by God

Read the following 4 biblical verses:

  • Bereishit 16:9-10
  • Bereishit 17:20
  • Bereishit 21:12-13
  • Bereishit 21:17-20

Note first that God does not reject Hagar. He hears and heeds her distress. He saves her and Yishmael from death. Next, he repeats to Hagar what he had already said to Avraham, that Yishmael will become ‘a great nation’. Third, note the name the child bears. Yishmael means ‘God has heard’, the name the angel had commanded Hagar to give him, ‘for God has heard of your misery’ (Bereishit 16:11). It turns out that what we have here is not a simple drama of choice and rejection at all. Yitzchak has been chosen for a specific destiny, but Yishmael has not been rejected – at least not by God.

Not in God’s Name, p. 111

Avraham and Yishmael

Next, we note the characterisation of the key figures, especially Avraham and Sarah. No reader can fail to sense the harsh light in which Sarah is portrayed in her relationship with Hagar and Yishmael. Having proposed the idea of Hagar sleeping with Avraham, she later blames Avraham: ‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering’ (Bereishit 16:5). There is nothing in the narrative to suggest this was in fact the case. To the contrary, Avraham seems caught helplessly in the tension between the two women…

The portrayal of Avraham is more complex. It was not he but Sarah who proposed having a child by Hagar. Yet once Yishmael is born, he is attached to him. He is acutely distressed when God first tells him that his mission will be continued by Yitzchak, not Yishmael: ‘Avraham said to God, If only Yishmael might live in Your presence!’ (Bereishit 17:18). Later, when Sarah insists that he send the boy away, we read, ‘The matter distressed Avraham greatly because of his son’ (Bereishit 21:11). Avraham accedes to Sarah’s request, the first time of his own accord, the second at God’s insistence: ‘In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice’ (Bereishit 21:12). Yet the love between father and son is unmistakable. As we will soon see, this theme was taken much further by rabbinic Midrash.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 112-114

Why was Yishmael not chosen?

Read these biblical verses:

  • Bereishit 16:12-13
  • Bereishit 21:20

God chooses those who cannot do naturally what others take for granted. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov, all promised the land of Canaan/Israel, own none of it and have to beg or pay to bury their dead, pitch their tent or draw water from wells they themselves have dug. Moshe, bearer of the Divine word, is the man who says, ‘I am not a man of words… I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue’ (Shemot 4:10). Israel is the people whose achievements are transparently God-given. What for others is natural, for Israel is the result of Divine intervention. Israel must be weak if it is to be strong, for its strength must come from heaven so that it can never say, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have achieved this wealth for me’ (Devarim 8:17). It is Yishmael’s natural strength that disqualifies him.

Yet Yishmael is not vilified. That is the masterstroke of the narrative. Despite the fact that Avraham, Sarah and Yitzchak are the heroes of the story as a whole, in the two crucial scenes in the desert our imaginative sympathies are with Hagar and her child. That is what gives the story its counter-intuitive depth.

There is a moral reason for this and it is fundamental. We saw in chapter 2 that violence begins in the in-group/out-group dichotomy. I identify with my side, and am suspicious of the other side. In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal. It is this that the Yishmael story is challenging. At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Yitzchak. She is the first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child. But we also feel for Hagar and Yishmael. We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathise with their emotions. That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy. We weep with them, feeling their outcast state. As does God. For it is he who hears their tears, comforts them, saves them from death and gives them his blessing. Yishmael means ‘he whom God has heard’.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 116-118
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Core Questions

  1. Why is it important to notice that Yishmael was not rejected by God or by Avraham?
  2. If he wasn’t rejected, then what is his status in the eyes of the Torah?
  3. How does this change the way we see his descendants?


  • Bereishit 25:1-11

What is Yishmael doing here, standing next to Yitzchak at their father’s grave? Until now, we have assumed that from early childhood they had lived separate lives. Yitzchak grew up with Avraham and Sarah, Yishmael with Hagar. There was, as far as we know, no contact between them. How then did they come together for Avraham’s funeral? What was their relationship? Did Yishmael bear a grudge at being sent away? These are questions bound to arise for anyone who has been attending carefully to the story. Yet the text offers no answers. It does not even seem to be aware of the questions…

Why, after the protracted drama of Avraham’s wait for a child, do we suddenly read that, in old age, Avraham has six more sons by a new wife? Who is Keturah, of whom we have heard nothing until now and of whom we will hear nothing again?…

The third oddity is location. After the binding of Yitzchak, Avraham returned to Beer Sheva. The death and burial of Sarah take place at Hebron. We would expect to find Yitzchak at one or other of these two places.

However, two episodes locate him elsewhere. When Avraham’s servant returns, bringing Rebecca to become Yitzchak's wife, we read: ‘Yitzchak had just come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev’ (Bereishit 24:62). After Avraham’s funeral we read again: ‘After the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzchak. At that time, Yitzchak was living near Beer Lahai Roi’ (Bereishit 25:11). What is this place and what was Yitzchak doing there? It was this that gave the rabbis the key to unlock all three mysteries. Looking back, we discover that Beer Lahai Roi appears in Genesis 16 when Hagar first fled into the desert… Beer Lahai Roi is the place of Hagar. Teasing out the implications of this unexpected turn in the plot, the sages said: ‘On seeing that his father had sent to fetch him a wife, Yitzchak said, Can I live with her while my father lives alone? I will go and return Hagar to him.’ Yitzchak had been on a mission of reconciliation to reunite Hagar and Avraham.

The rabbis made a further interpretive leap. One device of Midrash is to identify unknown with known biblical characters. Who then was Keturah? Said the rabbis: Hagar herself! Why then was she called Keturah? Because, said the sages, ‘her acts were as fragrant as incense [ketoret]’…

The story beneath the story, hinted at by these three discrepant details, is that neither Avraham nor Yitzchak made their peace with the banishment of handmaid and child. As long as Sarah was alive, they could do nothing about it, respecting her feelings as God had commanded Avraham to do. But once Sarah was no longer alive, they could engage in an act of reconciliation. That is how Yitzchak and Yishmael came to be together when Avraham died.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 118-121

Consider the following source:

  • Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 30:6

Only against this background can we understand a rabbinic tradition remarkable both for its psychological insight and for its astonishing interfaith implications… What an extraordinary rewriting of the story! Now it transpires that Avraham, despite the fact that he had sent Yishmael away, did not cease to love or care for him. He made a visit to see him. Discovering that he had married an ungracious wife, he left a coded message. ‘Tell him that an old man from Canaan came to see him’ was his way of announcing his identity. ‘The threshold of the house is not good’ was a way of hinting, ‘This is not the woman you should have married.’ He pays a further visit three years later and finds that Yishmael has remarried, this time to a woman who gives hospitality to strangers. He blesses their home.

The passage ends on a marvellous note: ‘Yishmael then knew that his father still loved him.’ When he had been sent away, Yishmael was too young to understand what had happened. He must have thought that his father had disowned him. Now he knew this was not so. Whatever the reason for his exile, he had forfeited neither his father’s love nor his blessing that his home be ‘filled with all good things’.

What gives the Midrash its unique significance is the names it ascribes to Yishmael's wives. Both are references to the Qur’an and Islam. Yishmael's first wife, Ayesha, bears the name of the prophet Mohammed’s child-bride. Fatimah is the name of the prophet’s daughter. Neither are Hebrew names. This dates the passage to an early period in the history of Islam, probably the era of the Umayyads. It is astonishing in what it implies. Yes, Ishmael is the central figure in Islam. He is a beloved and blessed child of Avraham. Fatimah is a figure of grace and kindness.

Less important to the story of Yishmael but central to the theme of this book is the test by which Avraham judges the worthiness of Yishmael's wives, namely, did they show kindness to strangers? – the criterion by which, in the Bible, Avraham’s servant chooses a wife for Yitzchak. At the core of the Bible’s value system is that cultures, like individuals, are judged by their willingness to extend care beyond the boundary of family, tribe, ethnicity and nation…

On the surface, the story of Yitzchak and Yishmael is about sibling rivalry and the displacement of the elder by the younger. Beneath the surface, however, the Sages heard a counternarrative telling the opposite story: the birth of Yitzchak does not displace Yishmael. To be sure, he will have a different destiny. But he too is a beloved son of Avraham, blessed by his father and by God…

The surface narrative is itself revolutionary. It asserts that the hierarchy of the ancient world – where the elder is destined to rule, the younger to serve – was about to be overthrown. The counter-narrative is more radical still, because it hints at the most radical of monotheism’s truths: that God may choose, but God does not reject.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 121-124
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Core Questions

  1. What practical lessons can we learn from this reading of the story for today?
  2. Why is the message of the surface narrative (that the younger brother is destined to rule and break the hierarchy of the ancient world) “revolutionary”?
  3. What is the counter-narrative and why is it even more radical?

The displacement narrative of Yaacov and Eisav

  • Bereishit 25:19-34
  • Bereishit 27:1-41

Nowhere are narrative and counter-narrative more subtly interwoven than in the story of Yaacov and Eisav. It is a work of awesome brilliance, so surprising in its effect that we cannot doubt, once we have understood its hidden message, that it is intended as the refutation of sibling rivalry in the Bible. Its significance, set at the very centre of Genesis, is unmistakable. Once we have decoded the mystery of Yaacov, our understanding of covenant and identity will be changed for ever…

Something is amiss. Reading the passage in which Yaacov takes the blessing, it is impossible not to notice how often Yitzchak doubts that the son in front of him is really Eisav… Three times, Yitzchak expresses doubts – giving Yaacov three opportunities to admit the truth. He does not. Far from glossing over the morally ambiguous nature of Yaacov’s conduct, the text goes out of its way to emphasise it…

Reading this passage, we cannot but identify with Yitzchak and Eisav, not Yaacov. We feel the father’s shock – ‘Yitzchak trembled violently’ – as he realises that his younger son has deceived him. We empathise with Eisav, whose first thought is not anger against his brother but simple love for Yitzchak: ‘Bless me – me too, my father.’ Then comes Yitzchak's helplessness – ‘So what can I possibly do for you, my son?’ – and Eisav's weeping, all the more poignant given what we know of him, that he is strong, a hunter, a man not given to tears. The scene of the two together, robbed of what should have been a moment of tenderness and intimacy – son feeding father, father blessing son – is deeply affecting…

There is another discrepant note. Unexpectedly, Yitzchak does manage to give Eisav a blessing (in Bereishit 27:39-40)… The ‘fat places of earth’ and the ‘dew of heaven’ are plentiful enough, Yitzchak implies, for there to be enough for both sons. More significant is his qualification of Yaacov’s supremacy. It will last, he says, only as long as he does not misuse it. If he acts harshly, Eisav will ‘throw his yoke off’ his neck. For the first time, a doubt enters our understanding of the brothers’ respective fates. Until now we had been led to believe that the narrative had reached closure. The elder (Eisav) will serve the younger (Yaacov). So Rebekah was told; so Yitzchak said in his first blessing. Now, it is suddenly less clear. Perhaps Eisav will not serve Yaacov after all. Perhaps Yaacov will misuse his power and Eisav will rebel – a small incongruity, but a significant one.

The real doubt, however, lies in the way the text describes Yaacov’s conduct. Whatever else the covenant is, we feel, it cannot be this: a blessing taken by deceit, a destiny acquired by disguise. Did God not say of Avraham, ‘I have known him so that he may instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, doing what is right and just’ (Gen. 18:19)? Righteousness, justice, integrity, truth – these are key words of covenantal ethics, and we strain to see how they could be applied to Yaacov’s conduct towards his blind father. Besides which, Yitzchak may have been deceived, but was God? The idea is absurd. Had God wanted the blessing to go to Yaacov, not Eisav, he would have told Yitzchak, as he told Avraham about Yitzchak and Yishmael. There is just enough discord to make us wonder if we have read the story correctly. In the end we will discover that our unease was justified and that nothing in the story is as it seems – but only at the end. The suspense is maintained until the final scene.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 125-130

Yaacov Wrestles

  • Bereishit 32:4-32

Who was Yaacov’s unnamed adversary? The text calls him ‘a man’ (Bereishit 32:24). According to the prophet Hosea, it was an angel (Hosea 12:5). For Judaism’s Sages, it was Eisav's guardian angel. Yaacov had no doubt that it was God Himself. He calls  the place of the encounter Peniel, ‘because I saw God face to face, yet my life was spared’ (Bereishit 32:30). The stranger implies as much when he gives Yaacov the name Israel, ‘because you have striven with God and men and have prevailed’ (Bereishit 32:28). The clues seem to point in all directions at once, yet we cannot doubt that the episode holds the key to the identity of the people known to eternity as ‘the children of Israel’. Names in the Bible, especially when given by God, are not labels but signals of character or calling. The tribe of Israel, later known as the Jews, are the people who struggle with God and men and yet prevail. What does this mean? The clue must lie in what happened next. But it is here that we encounter a succession of surprises...

Not in God’s Name, p. 131

The Reproachment

Read the following text:

  • Bereishit 33:1-17

Everything we have read thus far – Yaacov’s fear, his frantic preparations, his nocturnal struggle – prepares us for a tense meeting. The last time we saw the brothers together, twenty two years earlier, Eisav had vowed to kill Yaacov. We know that Eisav is hasty, hot tempered, physical, violent. Yet when he finally appears, all the fears turn out to be unfounded. Eisav runs to meet Yaacov, throws his arms around his neck, kisses him and weeps. He shows no anger, animosity or threat of revenge. Suddenly we understand Eisav’s character. He is, we now realise, an impulsive man who lives in the mood of the moment, quick to anger, quick to forget…

The most striking feature of the passage is its repeated use of the word ‘face’, panim. Yaacov’s words to Eisav, ‘to see your face is like seeing the face of God’, echo his statement after the wrestling match: ‘He called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, yet my life was spared.”’ Altogether, chapters 32 and 33 (the preparations for the meeting, the night-time struggle, and the meeting itself) echo time and again with variants of the word panim. There is a drama here and it has to do with faces: the face of Eisav, of Yaacov, and of God Himself. What is it?

We have before us an extraordinary literary phenomenon. On the surface, this is a simple tale of sibling rivalry in which the younger supplants the elder. Everything points in this direction, from the prophecy before the twins were born to the deception itself. Eisav, the strong, loses to Yaacov, the quick-witted. The younger will prevail. Yet the discrepancies mount up. We identify with Eisav, not Yaacov. Yitzchak qualifies the blessing: Yaacov may not always dominate. Then, after the wrestling match, Yaacov unexpectedly reverses the roles. It is he, not Eisav, who prostrates himself, calling himself a servant and Eisav ‘my lord’. We tend to miss this because everything in the narrative directs our attention to Eisav’s behaviour. Will he attack Yaacov? If so, who will win? So surprising is his conduct – the embrace, the warmth – that we hardly notice that Yaacov’s behaviour is stranger still. Only when we have noticed these discords do we go back and read the story again, in the light of all we have discovered subsequently. That is when we make the discovery that changes everything.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 131-134

Two Blessings, Two Loved Sons

  • Bereishit 28:3-4

There was a second blessing. That is the detail whose significance we miss on the first reading. After the deception, Rebecca realises that Yaacov is in danger because Eisav is planning to kill him. She arranges for Yaacov to escape.… as Yaacov is about to leave, [Yitzchak] blesses him in these words: May God Almighty bless you, make you fruitful and increase your numbers so that you become a community of peoples. May He give you and your descendants the blessing of Avraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as a foreigner, the land God gave to Avraham. (Bereishit 28:3–4)

This is a completely different blessing from the one Yitzchak had given Yaacov thinking him to be Eisav. The earlier blessing spoke of wealth (‘the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth’) and power (‘Rule over your brothers’). The later blessing speaks of children (‘make you fruitful and increase your numbers’) and a land (‘the land God gave to Avraham’). This is what transforms our entire reading of the story.

Children and a land are the covenantal blessings. They are what God promised Avraham. They dominate the book of Genesis. Time and again God blesses the patriarchs – but always and only in terms of children and a land. He never promises them ‘the richness of the earth’, or that they will ‘Rule over their brothers’. Wealth and power have nothing to do with the covenant. They are not part of Israel’s destiny. What Yitzchak is doing in the second blessing is handing on to Yaacov the legacy of Avraham, saying in effect: it will be you who will continue the covenant into the future.

This second blessing was given by Yitzchak to Yaacov knowing that he was Yaacov. There never was a need for deception. Yitzchak did not intend to disinherit Yaacov, nor did he mean to hand on the covenant to Eisav. The blessing he had reserved for his elder son  was the one he knew to be right for him. Eisav was a man of nature, physical, strong, a hunter – and Yitzchak loved him. That love is unmistakable and mutual throughout the narrative. The rabbis knew it. ‘No one’, they said, ‘ever honoured his father more than Eisav honoured Yitzchak.’ Yitzchak loved Eisav even though he knew that the covenant would be continued by Yaacov. Why? Because that is what it is to be a father. Yitzchak loved Eisav for what he was, not for what he was not. He wanted to give him the blessings appropriate to him: wealth and power. These are natural, not spiritual, goods. Yitzchak knew that his children were different. Their paths would diverge. They warranted different blessings. The blessing Yaacov took was never meant for him. Yitzchak had reserved for Yaacov another benediction, given later: that he would continue the covenant of Avraham. To receive that blessing Yaacov had no need for disguise.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 135-136

Mimetic Desire and Embracing Identity

[As discussed previously] the root cause of violence is mimetic desire, the wish to have what someone else has, which is ultimately the desire to be what someone else is. Nowhere in all of literature is this more clearly the case than with the biblical Yaacov. One fact stands out about Yaacov early life. He longs to be Eisav

Why? Because Eisav was everything Yaacov was not. He was the firstborn. He emerged from the womb red and covered in hair (Eisav means ‘fully made’). He was strong, full of energy, a skilled hunter, a man of the fields. More importantly, he was the child his father loved. Eisav was a force of nature…

It is not surprising that Yaacov’s first desire was to be like him. The keywords of the Yaacov story – face, name and blessing – are all about identity. Yaacov wanted to be Eisav. He experienced, as Freud thought all siblings do, mimetic desire. It was Eisav’s face he saw in the mirror of his imagination. It was as Eisav he took his blind father’s blessing. But Yaacov was not Eisav, nor was the blessing he took the one destined for him. The true blessing was the one he received later when Yitzchak knew he was blessing Yaacov, not thinking him to be Eisav.

Yaacov’s blessing had nothing to do with wealth or power. It had to do with the children he would teach to be heirs of the covenant, and the land where his descendants would seek to create a society based on the covenant of law and love. To receive that blessing Yaacov did not have to dress in Eisav’s clothes. Instead he had to be himself, not a man of nature but one whose ears were attuned to a voice beyond nature, the call of God to live for something other than wealth or power, namely, for the human spirit as the breath of God and human dignity as the image of God.

It is now clear exactly what Yaacov was doing when he met Eisav twenty-two years later. He was giving back the blessing he had taken all those years before. The herds and flocks he sent to Eisav represented wealth (‘the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth’). The sevenfold bowing and calling himself ‘your servant’ and Eisav ‘my lord’ represented power (‘Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you’). Yaacov no longer wanted or needed these things. His statement ‘I have everything’ means ‘I no longer need wealth or power to be complete’. He says explicitly what he is doing. He says, ‘Please take [not just my gift but also] my blessing.’ He now knows the blessing he took from Eisav was never meant for him, and he is giving it back.

It is equally clear what happened in the wrestling match the night before. It was Yaacov’s battle with existential truth. Who was he? The man who longed to be Eisav? Or the man called to a different destiny, the road less travelled? ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ he says to his adversary. The unnamed stranger responds in a way that defies expectation. He does not give Yaacov a conventional blessing (you will be rich, or strong, or safe). Nor does he promise Yaacov a life free of conflict. The name Yaacov signified struggle. The name Israel also signifies struggle, but in a different way.

In effect, the stranger said to him, ‘In the past you struggled to be Eisav. In the future you will struggle not to be Eisav but to be yourself. In the past you held on to Eisav’s heel. In the future you will hold on to God. You will not let go of Him; He will not let go of you. Now let go of Eisav so that you can be free to hold on to God.’ The next day, Yaacov did so. He let go of Eisav by giving him back his blessing. And though Yaacov had now renounced wealth and power, and though he still limped from the encounter of the previous night, the passage ends with the words, ‘And Yaacov emerged complete’ (Bereishit 33:18).

Not in God’s Name, pp. 136-138
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Core Questions

  1. How is this story similar to the narrative of Yitzchak and Yishmael?
  2. Why do you think God allowed these stories to play out this way (why not just give the chosen child the blessing from the start)?
  3. Why did Yaacov need to embrace his own identity before he could accept Eisav’s role and existence?

The Rejection of Rejection

We are now in a position to understand the full scope and ingenuity of the literary unit that is the Yaacov-Eisav story. It is two narratives in one. The surface narrative tells the story as if it were a Greek tragedy – a story of sibling rivalry (Romulus-Remus) of a kind found in all mythological cultures… The entire Yaacov-Eisav story, from oracle to victory to fear of revenge, is written to be heard, at first reading, like myth.

The counter-narrative, suddenly revealed at the end, is a totally unexpected subversion and rejection of myth. Mimesis, rivalry, displacement, anger, violence, revenge – these are what the Bible challenges at their very roots. Yaacov was wrong to seek Eisav’s blessing. In the wrestling match at night, Yaacov fights, not Eisav, but himself-in-the-presence-of-God. That is what he means when he says he has seen God face to face. He now knows who he is, not the man holding on to his brother’s heel, but the man unafraid to wrestle with God and with man because he has successfully wrestled with himself. The next morning he gives back to Eisav what he had taken from him twenty-two years before. He now knows that his true blessing was quite different and to obtain it he had no need of disguise.

Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each have our own blessing. Brothers need not conflict. Sibling rivalry is not fate but tragic error. As a young man, Yaacov had lived ‘desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope’, wanting to be what he was not. Alone at night, wrestling with the angel, he discovered the rivalry-dissolving truth that it is for what we uniquely are that we are loved.

No less interesting is the Bible’s attitude to Eisav and his descendants. Moshe commands, ‘Do not hate an Edomite [a descendant of Eisav], for he is your brother’ (Devarim 23:7)… Something of deep consequence is being intimated here. The choice of Yaacov does not mean the rejection of Eisav. Eisav is not chosen, but neither is he rejected. He too will have his blessing, his heritage, his land. He too will have children who become kings, who will rule and not be ruled. Not accidentally are our sympathies drawn to him, as if to say: not all are chosen for the rigours, spiritual and existential, of the Abrahamic covenant, but each has his or her place in the scheme of things, each has his or her virtues, talents, gifts. Each is precious in the eyes of God.

To be secure in my relationship with God does not depend on negating the possibility that others too may have a relationship with him.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 141-143
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Core Questions

  1. What is the surface-narrative and the counter-narrative in this story?
  2. What was Yaacov’s ultimate lesson here?
  3. What should our lesson be from the way Rabbi Sacks reads these stories?

Finding God in the Face of the Stranger: The Dignity of Difference

Nothing has proved harder in the history of civilisation than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.

There are, surely, many ways of arriving at this generosity of spirit, and each faith must find its own. The way I have discovered, having listened to Judaism’s sacred texts in the context of the tragedies of the twentieth century and the insecurities of the twenty-first, is that the truth at the beating heart of monotheism is that God transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding. He is my God but also the God of all humankind, even of those whose customs and way of life are unlike mine.

That is not to say that there are many gods. That is polytheism. Nor is it to say that God endorses every act done in His name. On the contrary: a God of your side as well as mine must be a God of justice who stands above us both, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear each other’s claims and to resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent – greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe capable of being comprehended in any human language, from any single point of view. Only such a God could teach humankind to make peace other than by conquest and conversion, and as something nobler than practical necessity.

What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to humankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now.

The Dignity of Difference, pp. 65-66

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God's image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing Him to remake me in His. Can Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucians, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants make space for one another in the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kosovo and the dozens of other places in which different ethnic and religious groups exist in close proximity? Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognise that we are enlarged, not diminished, by difference, just as we are enlarged, not diminished, by the 6,000 languages that exist today, each with its unique sensibilities, art forms and literary expressions?

The Dignity of Difference, p. 201
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Core Questions

  1. Why is it so hard to see God in the face of the stranger?
  2. How can there be one God but many religions? What message can be learned from this?
  3. How does this impact the way we live our lives and the way we interact with those who are not the same as us?

Universalising the Particular

[T]he structure of the Hebrew Bible is unusual and significant. Its subject is the people of Israel, the descendants of Avraham and Sarah. Yet the Torah does not start with Avraham. It begins instead with universal archetypes of humanity as a whole . We read about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its builders. None of these is a Jew, a Hebrew, an Israelite. They are us in our universality: temptation and sin, sibling rivalry and violence, hubris and the desire for godlike powers. Only after this prologue does the Torah narrow its focus to one man, one family, eventually one nation and its highly specific destiny.

The Torah is a particular text, but it begins with the universals of the human condition.

Future Tense, p. 211

The faith of Israel declares the oneness of God and the plurality of man. It moves beyond both tribalism and its antithesis, universalism. Tribalism and its modern counterpart, nationalism, assumes there is one god (or spirit or race or character) for each nation. Universalism contends that there is one God and therefore one truth, one way, one creed for all humanity. Neither does justice to the human other, the stranger who is not in my image but is nevertheless in God s image. Tribalism denies rights to the outsider. Universalism grants rights if and only if the outsider converts, conforms, assimilates, and this ceases to be an outsider.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 60

The result is a combination, unique to the Hebrew Bible, of universality and particularity. The human condition is universal, but the expressions of that condition are particular. Each nation, each language, each culture has its distinctive character. One nation, that of Avraham and his descendants, is charged with the duty of embodying in its history and laws the sovereignty of God. As this idea became gradually clearer, I found myself putting it in the following proposition: God took one man, then one people, and summoned it to be different to teach all humanity the dignity of difference.

Only the combination of a particular faith and a universal God can yield this conclusion. If God is everywhere, and has set His image on everyone, then God exists outside the Abrahamic covenant as well as within. That is the only form of theology that can yield the God given integrity of otherness, the dignity of the stranger. The alternatives are tribalism many nations, many gods, or universalism one God, one faith, and only one gate to salvation.

Future Tense, pp. 80-82
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Core Questions

  1. What is the message to us behind the universal start to the Torah?
  2. Does God want all humans to become Jewish?
  3. What role does God call on the Jewish people to play in the family of nations?

A Jewish Approach to Other Religions

Though God is our God, He is also the God of all, accessible to all: the God who blesses Yishmael, who tells the children of Yaacov not to hate the descendants of Eisav, who listens to the prayers of strangers and whose messengers appear as strangers. Only a faith that recognises both types of covenant the universal and the particular is capable of understanding that God's image may be present in the one whose faith is not mine and whose relationship with God is different from mine.

Not in God's Name, p. 205

The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means that the Infinite lies beyond our finite understanding. God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the Divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws. These laws constitute, as it were, the depth grammar of the human experience of the Divine: of what it is to see the world as God's work, and humanity as God's image. God is God of all humanity, but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity. Such a narrative would lead us to respect the search for God in people of other faiths and reconcile the particularity of cultures with the universality of the human condition.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 55
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Core Questions

  1. If there is only one God and we all pray to the same God, why do we need different religions?
  2. How does Judaism approach other religions?
  3. How does this impact the way we relate to non-Jews?

Enrichment through diversity

The proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth, one way. To the contrary, it is that unity creates diversity. The glory of the created world is its astonishing multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of God telling us something we need to know. That is what I mean by the dignity of difference.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 21
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Core Questions

  1. What does “unity creates diversity” mean?
  2. What can we learn from other people and other religions?
  3. How can we ensure we live our lives showing that we understand the dignity of difference?

Interfaith Dialogue: Face-to-face and side-by-side

Throughout history, religion has been one of our great sources of altruism, of service to something larger than the self. But it's often been bounded altruism, limited to the people with whom we share a faith. The track record of religions in relation to people of other faiths or none has been patchy at best, and at worst, unspeakable. It's led to crusades, holy wars and jihads, until honest believers stopped and said: there must be a better way. But how do you create peace between faiths?

There are two different ways. One is face-to-face, by doing dialogue, sharing our respective beliefs, but it's a long, slow process, undertaken by rare and special people, and can easily be undone. The other is what I call side by side, which happens when people of different faiths, instead of talking together, do social action together, recognising that whatever our faith we still need food, shelter, safety and security. Our basic humanity precedes our religious differences.

Thought for the Day, 23rd November 2012

There is only one non-utopian way of creating the good without the harm, and that is to create programmes of what in Hebrew is called chessed, in Latin caritas, or in English, loving-kindness, across boundaries. We must love strangers as well as neighbours, in the simple sense of love-as-deed, practical help. That imperative flows from the covenant of human solidarity, and in a national context, from the covenant of citizenship.

That is one way in which faiths could take a lead in healing some of the tensions that currently exist within the liberal democracies of the West. Each church, synagogue, temple or mosque should have some project of kindness to strangers: unconditional kindness, with no element of evangelism or hope of conversion, that we extend to people simply because they are human and have needs, not all of which they can satisfy themselves.

I have tried to illustrate in this chapter what a covenant of active citizenship might look like, taking as a model the rabbinic idea of the ways of peace. The kind of ethnic segregation that the Cantle Report called ‘parallel lives’ can be addressed by programmes of cross-community outreach. This is the side-by-side approach, as opposed to the face-to-face of dialogue. It is modest, local, and makes no pretension to be an I-Thou encounter. It embodies no high aspiration that one day all the differences between faiths will prove illusory and we will find ourselves in the peace envisioned by Isaiah. It is simply working together across divides to solve the simple, practical problems we all face. It worked in the experiment involving the Eagles and the Rattlers. It almost brought about a peace deal between Jordan and Israel. Its strength is its ability to touch deep chords of common humanity.

For we are cast into this world together. We have souls, we have religions, and they are different. But we also have bodies and they have needs: for food, shelter, clothing, education, access to medical care, protection from the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to, sometimes even the simple fact of company. These are human universals that cut across cultural dividing lines, and they suggest a model for benign coexistence.

The Home We Build Together, pp. 180-181

Side-by-side relationships should be encouraged in all religious congregations. Faith leaders should urge their communities to reach out to others in the neighbourhood. Religious representatives should take a lead in creating a covenant around the values we share and our collective commitment to the common good. Faith divides; citizenship unites. That is why it is important for faith leaders to spell out the need for shared space where we celebrate our common humanity, not just our theological particularities.

The Home We Build Together, p. 239
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Core Questions

  1. What can we learn from face-to-face interactions with other religions and cultures?
  2. What can we learn from side-by-side interactions with other religions and cultures?
  3. Which do you think is more important? Why?

To love God is to recognise His image in a human face, especially one whose creed, colour or culture is different from ours.

The Home We Build Together, p. 213

It is in our difference that we are most Divine, and by respecting our differences we do most to bring God into the world.

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 88

We celebrate both our commonalities and differences, because if we had nothing in common we could not communicate, and if we had everything in common, we would have nothing to say.

Opening address for Papal Visit, Twickenham, 17 September 2010

When difference leads to war, both sides lose. When it leads to mutual enrichment, both sides gain.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 23

Society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective future, rather than dust blown by the wind of economic forces. Conversation - respectful, engaged, reciprocal, calling forth some of our greatest powers of empathy and understanding - is the moral form of a world governed by the dignity of difference.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 84

If we care about the common good, the cohesion of society and the support it gives to individuals, the family must be at the very heart of our concern.

The Home We Build Together, p. 209

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God's image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing Him to remake me in His.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 201

Our diversity meets in God’s unity. The supreme truth to which the Torah gives witness is that one who is not in my image—whose creed, culture or colour is not like mine—is nonetheless in God’s image. That is the principle of the dignity of difference.

Future Tense, p. 81

The only adequate response to the fear and hatred of difference is to honour the dignity of difference. That is the Jewish message to the world.

Future Tense, p. 111

Marriage is one of the most majestic achievements of civilisation, bringing together in a single institution the great biological forces, ethical imperatives, social needs and emotional investments. It takes sex, love, companionship, economic partnership, procreation, the nurturing of children and their socialisation, and out of them fashions a work of living art.

Celebrating Life, p. 97-98

For the sake of humanity and the free world, the time has come for people of all faiths and none to stand together and declare: Not in God's Name.

Not in God’s Name

Judaism argues that despite the irreducible differences between faith and cultures, all people are the children of one God.

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 91

Because we are different we each have something unique to give – not to ourselves and our communities alone but to all of us and the life we share. This means integration without assimilation. There are, and will continue to be, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and all the other shades of the rainbow. But what we make, we make together.

The Home We Build Together, p. 22

The proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth, one way. To the contrary, it is that unity creates diversity. The glory of the created world is its astonishing multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of God telling us something we need to know. That is what I mean by the dignity of difference.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 21

Since humankind in its diversity cannot be reduced to a single image, so God cannot be reduced to a single faith or language. God exists in difference and thus chooses as His witness a people dedicated to difference.

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 72

The multiplicity of faiths is not a tragedy but the gift of God, who is closer to us than we are to ourselves and yet lives in lives quite different from ours.

Celebrating Life, p. 158

Faiths are like languages. There are many of them, and they are not reducible to one another. In order to express myself at all, I must acquire a mastery of my own language… But as I venture out into the world I discover that there are other people who have different languages which I must learn if we are to communicate across borders.

Faith in the Future, p. 79

God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants their children to be the same.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 56

Side-by-side relationships should be encouraged in all religious congregations. Faith leaders should urge their communities to reach out to others in the neighbourhood. Religious representatives should take a lead in creating a covenant around the values we share and our collective commitment to the common good. Faith divides; citizenship unites. That is why it is important for faith leaders to spell out the need for shared space where we celebrate our common humanity, not just our theological particularities.

The Home We Build Together, p. 239

Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.

Dignity of Difference, p. 56

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

It is self-evident that meetings between two faith communities are possible only if they are accompanied by a clear assurance That both parties will enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom. No relationship even remotely suggestive of subordination would be tolerable. A democratic confrontation certainly does not demand that we submit to an attitude of self-righteous. ness on the part of the majority faith community which, while debating whether or not to absolve the Jewish community of some mythical guilt, completely ignores its own historical responsibility for the suffering and martyrdom inflicted upon the few, the weak, and the persecuted.

Two basic ground rules must govern such group contacts. First, Judaism is not to be regarded as validating itself in history by virtue of its being the precursor of another faith. Any suggestion that the historical worth of our faith is to be gauged against the backdrop of another faith, and the mere hint that a revision of basic historical attitudes on our part is anticipated, are incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion. Such an approach is  unacceptable to any self-respecting faith community that is proud of its past, vibrant and active in the present, and determined to live on in the future, and which intends to continue serving God in its own unique way. Only a full appreciation of the singular role, inherent worth, and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.

Secondly, the discussion should concern itself not with theological but with secular matters of mutual concern. In the private religious realm, each faith has its own "words" and forms which are uniquely intimate, reflecting its philosophical character, and are totally incomprehensible to people of other faiths. The claims of supernatural experiences on the part of each. group differ, and an attempt to achieve dialogue on this level can cause more friction than amity, more confusion than clarity, and thereby prove harmful to the interrelationship. The areas of joint concern should be outer-directed, to combat the secularism, materialism, and atheistic negation of religion and religious values which threaten the moral underpinnings of our society. As far as religion is concerned, we should be guided by the words of Micah (4:5): "Let all people walk, each one in the name of its god, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord, our God, for ever and ever."

Our approach to the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character. We cooperate with members of other faiths in all fields of human endeavour but, simultaneously, we seek to preserve our distinct integrity which inevitably involves aspects of separateness. This is a paradoxical situation. Yet, paraphrasing the words of our first ancestor, Abraham, we are very much residents in general human society while, at the same time. strangers and outsiders in our persistent endeavour to preserve our historic religious identity.

A. R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav, Volume One, 1979, Hoboken, N. J. Ktav Publishing, pp. 176-177

The Jewish religious tradition expresses itself in a fusion of universalism and singularism. On the one hand, Jews are vitality concerned with the problems affecting the common destiny of Man. We consider ourselves members of the universal community charged with the responsibility of promoting progress in all fields, economic, social, scientific and ethical. As such, we are opposed to a philosophy of isolationism or esotericism which would see the Jews living in a culturally closed society.

On the other hand, we are a distinctive faith community with a unique commitment, singular relationship to God and a specific way of life. We must never confuse our role as the bearers of a particular commitment and destiny with our role as members of the family of man.

In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding and will enhance and deepen our knowledge of those universal aspects of man which are relevant to all of us.

In the area of faith, religious law, doctrine and ritual, Jews have throughout the ages been a community guided exclusively by distinctive concerns, ideals and commitments. Our love of and dedication to God are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship to God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms. Discussion Will in no way enhance or hallow these emotions.

We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-à-vis "similar" aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyse or rationalise our faith in dialogues centred about these "private” topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel. We assume that members of other faith communities will feel similarly about their individual religious commitment.

J. B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment, New York: Meotzar Horav, 2005. pp. 259-260

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

On what basis do we people of different religious commitments meet one another?

First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common: a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the personhood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.

To meet a human being is a major challenge to mind and heart. I must recall what I normally forget. A person is not just a specimen of the species called homo sapiens. He is all of humanity in one, and whenever one man is hurt we are all injured. The human is a disclosure of the Divine, and all men are one in God's care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is holy of holies.

To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God. According to a rabbinical interpretation, the Lord said to Moshe: "Wherever you see the trace of man, there I stand before you..."

When engaged in a conversation with a person of different religious commitment I discover that we disagree in matters sacred to us, does the image of God I face disappear? Does God cease to stand before me? Does the difference in commitment destroy the kinship of being human? Does the fact that we differ in our conceptions of God cancel what we have in common: the image of God?

A. J. Heschel, No Religion is an Island, 1966

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

In rethinking the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, much of the theological speculation has focused on whether the two religions represent two covenants or one. It is time to suggest that both come to fulfil one covenant--the Noahide. In their further development, both religions grow out of one and the same covenant, the Abrahamic/Sinaitic, but by the will of God they have branched into two parallel covenants to reach out to humanity in all its diversity of culture and religious need. Nevertheless, the members of the two faith communities remain part of one people, the people of Israel, the people that wrestle with God and humans to bring them closer to each other; thus they narrow the chasm between the ideal world that God seeks to bring into being and the real world.

Each faith must wrestle with humanity to draw closer to God and each other, to recognise the image of God in the other and respond lovingly on a greater scale than ever before. Both faiths must struggle to push away the use of force and the vanity of monopoly and strive to witness voluntarily. They can offer each other moral support as they renounce past privilege and give up the sense of entitlement and superior status. Standing together, the two can more effectively combat aggressive secularism and scientific materialism. Linked to each other, the two can more easily acknowledge the dignity of secularists and their contribution to shaping a better world. The secular movements that knew their own limitations have played a positive role in placing constructive limits on religion. Now all groups can interact and affirmatively balance society and culture to maximize human betterment. Perhaps the spiritual comfort that the two communities can give each other can empower them to give the other religionists and secularists their due without surrendering the two religions' own norms and their distinctive witness to Creation, Covenant, and Redemption.

The two faiths need each other's help to contend effectively with rampant materialism and reactionary terrorism. The two must realise that the more they overcome the demons of the past, the more they become God's witnesses, channels of Divine blessing for a suffering humanity, couriers of redemption. Yet Jews and Christians must recognise that the two faiths together cannot accomplish the full task. Once they admit this truth, they Can respect other faiths as well. Then wherever people call out in the name of the Lord, there God will come and bless them all.

If Judaism and Christianity rise above past degradation and enable themselves and each other, then they prove that faithfulness to God can inspire heroic love and forgiveness. Thus these two faiths can give unique testimony to the power of life and love to overcome death. This teaching is central to their covenantal affirmations: it is exemplified in their histories. The force of their proclamations will be even more overwhelming if they can connect to each other and thus prove that the “love [which] is stronger than death” is even more powerful than the “jealousy which is harder than She’ol [the realm of death]” (Song of Songs 8:6)

The love that flows from recognising the other as an image of God may start inside one people, but it evokes response from all who come in contact with it. Then the gathering love can flow and overflow through the hidden channels and links that connect all humans to each other. The wrestling through the night will be followed by the rise of a sun of healing and a word of mutual blessing. Then those who have gone before - God and the humans who began this journey - can join with God and all who walk this way today and with those yet unborn who will take up the task to complete tikkun olam. When Yaacov and his brother become Israel, a moment of redemption is at hand. This is our time and our mission. Walk this way, and, someday, blessed humanity will cry out: This is the day that God (and humans) has made. Let us rejoice and be glad to be in it (Psalms 118:24).

I. Greenberg, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, 2004, pp. 101-102
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Core Questions

  1. How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
  2. How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
  3. Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?

Suggested Lesson Plan

The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on antisemitism in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. If you wish to incorporate the broader secular sources and the other contemporary Jewish thinkers into your class, more than sixty minutes will be necessary.

Interfaith dialogue cover lesson plan resources unit text

Title: Interfaith Dialogue in your School

Download our 60-minute class for high-school age classes

Bet Nidrash on Interfaith Dialogue

Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us.

Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.

After spending time learning about Rabbi Sacks’ approach to interfaith dialogue, it would be deeply impactful for them to then actually experience this, through arranging for interfaith or intercultural programming. This could take the form of:

  • Inviting a local non-Jewish faith school to come and share their faith and culture and to learn about Judaism
  • Inviting a guest speaker from another community to share with your students about their faith and culture
  • Staging a cultural festival within your school learning about and celebrating the culture of a local community. You may wish to choose the community and culture of someone in your school community who is not Jewish (such as a member of staff) and they could be your guest speaker.
  • A joint social action/chessed project in the wider community with children of another faith/culture. This could start with programming to share and learn about each other’s culture, and then a joint initiative of social action to improve the local wider community together.