I was privileged to participate again this year in the International Theology Conference sponsored and hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This annual conference, which brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and practitioners from abroad and from Israel, is a very special opportunity for me each year to take a week off from my daily routine to engage in serious interreligious text-study and dialogue.
The method which this conference uses for studying texts is the classical Jewish hevruta (finding a friend to study with) method. However, instead of studying with just one friend, we study with 6 people. In my group, there were 3 Jews (2 from Israel and one from California), two Christians (one from Boston and one from Portugal) and one Muslim (a woman imam from Germany). It was a fabulous group! We had so many engaging and enlightening discussions, not just on the texts presented to us, but on so many related (and unrelated) issues of theology and real life (I, being the practitioner, was the one who usually brought in “real life”).
This year’s theme was “The Good Person”. What does it mean to be a “good person”? Is it just a matter of leading an ethical, righteous, just life? Or is there something inherent about “goodness” which is related to our understanding of God? Does religious Law — Halachaha, Shariya, or the doctrines of the Church Fathers — help us lead an ethical life? Or does it sometimes present serious obstacles? Does “conscience” or “the heart” necessarily trump Law sometimes? These were some of the issues we discussed as we were presented with fascinating collections of Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts on the theme, ranging from the Bible to Rabbinic Thought, to Medieval Theology, to Modern and Contemporary Thought.
There were no simple answers to any of these questions. Rather, it was the deliberation of the issues that was the key to our learning. And I would say that we learned a great deal — both from the texts and from each other, from our agreements and mostly from our disagreements. Often the discussions became very personal, so I would say that we were engaging in dialogue and not just philosophical or theological deliberations.
By the time we arrived at the closing lunch last Thursday on the fifth day of the conference, people were already talking about ideas for a theme for next year. Everyone’s intellectual appetites were wetted and we all look forward to continuing our learning in the years ahead with colleague and friends.
I express my gratitude to the organizers of this annual conference. It recharged my intellectual and spiritual batteries.
Rabbi Ron Kronish