“Pour out Thy Wrath” at the Pesach Seder, or “Pour out Thy Love”?

At a meeting of religious leaders in the Galilee last week co-sponsored by ICCI and the Division of Religious Communities of Israel’s Ministry of Interior—which took place at Kibbutz Hanaton, a Conservative Kibbutz that is undergoing renewal and rejuvenation—one of the rabbis from the area taught some texts about Passover to a group of Druze, Christian, Muslim and Jewish local religious leaders. The non-Jewish religious leaders were fascinated by this opportunity to learn about what Jews do and say on the eve of Passover.

During the question period, one of the Druze participants at the session asked the rabbi to relate to the passage called Shfoch Hamatchah—”Pour Out Thy Wrath” which is a collection of Biblical verses recited after the meal to remember the pogroms in Jewish history by non-Jews against Jews. The rabbi answered by saying that the passage was not necessarily against Christians or Muslims but rather against pagans “who did not know God”. Another rabbi spoke about his personal interpretation of these verses, i.e. when he recites them each year, he thinks about the Nazis!

I thought about this discussion later in the week. I grew up in a home which did not recite these verses. They were removed from the Haggadah which I used as a child. because they represented a spirit of vengeance which was considered problematic. In recent years, however, I have learned about some very interesting and different interpretations of these verses.

For example, in the Family Participation Haggadah edited by Noam Zion and David Dishon, which has become very popular in recent years in Israel and the Diaspora,   the editors bring a medieval rendering of this passage which says “Pour out Thy Love on the nations who have known you and who call upon your name. For they show loving-kindness to the see of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from those who would devour them alive….” (according to the editors, this unique addition to a medieval Haggadah appears side by side with “Pour out Thy Wrath” in a manuscript from Worms of 1521, attributed to the descendants of Rashi, and they add that scholars today debate its authenticity but they see it as a genuine expression of love for righteous gentiles).

As someone who works in the field of inter-religious dialogue and education for the past two decades, I find this text particularly appropriate in the contemporary world in which interreligious dialogue between Jews and Christians—and increasingly between Jews and Muslims –is becoming more mainstream and more normative. This is why I will bring this text to the seder that I will be attending this year in Jerusalem with my extended family.

Rabbi Ron Kronish

Director, ICCI

A Problem that Should Concern All of Us: Why do some Jews Spit on Christians in the Old City?

When Rabbi Ron Kronish, Director of ICCI, invited me to an event entitled, “Why do some Jews spit on Christians in the Old City,” I was surprised.  I had no idea that some “religious” Jews literally spit on Christians when they walk past them in the Old City.  I also had no idea how widespread this practice is: literally hundreds of such incidents of assault are reported every year, and most remain unprosecuted.  Although these statistics are discouraging, Monday night’s event gave me some hope that the people in charge in Israel can put a stop to these incidents, and that members of all faiths can live together in peace in Jerusalem.

The event, co-sponsored by ICCI, the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), and Kehillat Yedidya, a modern  orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, was the first of its kind.  Daniel Rossing, director of the JCJCR, opened the event with some sobering statistics about the attitude of Jewish Jerusalem residents towards Christians: according to a public opinion survey conducted last year by the JCJCR and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies , 43% of Jews living in Jerusalem, and 78% of those who identify as “religious,” believe that Christianity is an idolatrous religion.  Increasingly, there are fewer members of government with a basic knowledge or understanding of Christianity, and many Christians feel that they have no advocate in the government—at  the local or national level with whom to share their concerns, as had been the case in the past.

Part of the problem, according to Yiska Harani, Lecturer in Religions at the Avshalom Institute in Tel Aviv, is that Jews and Christians in Jerusalem seldom interact with each other: Jews and Christians do not tend to work together, and they tend to remain in their own sections of the city.  In fact, the Israel  Ministry of Education prohibits Jewish-Israeli school groups from visiting the non-Jewish Quarters of the Old City due to security concerns, and Christian schoolchildren never enter the Jewish Quarter.  As a result, the Jewish and non-Jewish communities know almost never encounter each other.

This is why the event Monday night was so significant.  Archbishop Aris Shirvanian and Friar Athanasius Makora, representing, respectively, the Armenian and Roman Catholic communities, engaged with a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem, many of whom knew practically nothing about their Christian neighbors.

Archbishop Shirvanian explained that this was the first time that he had ever addressed a group of Jews about the harassment that he experiences, practically daily, in the Old City.  In fact, earlier that day, he was spat upon twice, while walking near the Armenian seminary in the Old City, which is on the grounds of the Armenian Patriarchate.  Despite the humiliation of such incidents, Archbishop Shirvanian has never retaliated: “I cannot resort to the same means as younger and hot-blooded people,” he explained.  Instead, he concluded with a message of peace: “We [the Armenian community] would like to live in peace, and we would like to see love and understanding  exist among all the peoples of this holy land…We have to follow the commandment of our Lord: love your neighbor as yourself.”

Archbishop Shirvanian

Debbie Weissman, who serves both as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), and as a co-chair of ICCI, and is a veteran  member of Kehillat Yedidya, gave a Jewish response.  Earlier, Yiska Harani had described the Jewish community of Jerusalem by dividing it into “secular, liberal, moderate religious and fanatic” groups, but Debbie disagreed: “I wouldn’t describe people like us as moderately religious.  We are passionately religious.”  She continued, “The Zionist ‘revolution’ doesn’t mean that when Jews have power, we behave towards others the way that unfortunately much of our history they behaved towards us.  It is now our responsibility to set a new standard of behavior.”

Andrea Katz, another member of Kehillat Yedidya and one of the organizers of the event, invited the mostly Jewish audience to take action to deal the problem.  In April, a group of Jews will visit with representatives of Christian communities in the Old City because, “In order to empathize, we have to know.”  Then, in May, there will be a “human corridor” of Jews standing silently along the path from the St. James Armenian Convent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It is important, she said, to prove that not all Jews support the degradation of others.

Recently, there have been positive developments on the municipal level: Yaacov Avrahami, an advisor to the mayor on the Christian communities in Jerusalem, who was in attendance, worked with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center to get a ruling from the Beit Din of the Edah Haharedit (the Ultra Orthodox Religious Court in Jerusalem)condemning the practice of spitting on Christians, calling it a “desecration of the divine name.”

The phenomenon of spitting on Christians in the Old City may seem minor when compared to all of the problems in this part of the world, and in this city in particular.  Still, it goes to the heart of the inter-religious tension within Jerusalem.  Because of people like those at Kehillat Yedidya on Monday, I am confident that we can use religion, not to fuel conflict, but rather, to pursue peace and foster coexistence.

Remembering March 7, 2002

Last week was exactly 7 years since I was almost blown up in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. After 7 years, it’s time to reflect back to be thankful for the gift of life.

In March 2002, I hosted 50 rabbis (as one of the programs of the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in Jerusalem that year) at the ICCI Education Center on in the prestigious German Colony in Jerusalem for a panel discussion with a Christian and Muslim Colleague on “The Contribution of Interreligious Dialogue to Peace-building in Israel and the Middle East,” a subject about which I have spoken and written extensively during the past 18 years. After the session, I joined three other rabbis and two spouses for lunch at the well-known Café Cafit on Emek Refaim St., just two blocks from my office. During the lunch, a terrorist entered the outer courtyard of the café and was noticed by a courageous waiter, who tackled him and dismantled his explosives, which were taken away by the police. We were saved by this act of bravery (and by the miracle of the non-functioning of the terrorist’s detonator!) and, thank God, I am alive to tell the story. On the following morning, when we went back to thank the heroic waiter, Shlomi ( a graduate of an elite Israeli army unit), we were interviewed by Israeli television, and by the end of the day the whole world knew about this incident. A few days later, my colleagues and I offered a special blessing of gratitude to God at Shabbat morning services held at Bet Shmuel/Mercaz Shimson, the educational and cultural center of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in the heart of Jerusalem in a very emotional and heart-warming ceremony, which I will never forget.

Notwithstanding this traumatic experience, I have tried to be a voice for dialogue and peaceful coexistence here in Israel. Since Israeli society has been moving to the right in recent years, I often find that my voice is a lonely one, but I persist nevertheless. In my lectures to visiting groups in Israel and around the world, I am often asked if Israel will ever live in peace, and my answer is “Yes!” It can and it will happen in my lifetime! As a counter to the prevailing mode of despair and pessimism, I continue to hold the view that our conflict is not irresolvable. If other complicated and long-standing conflicts in other parts of the world, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, can be resolved, so can the one between Israel and the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states.

Visit to Shfaram High School

I recently had the privilege of visiting an Israeli Arab high school in the town of Shfaram, 20 minutes east of Haifa. I went there with the professional staff of the Division of Religious Communities of the Israeli Ministry of Interior, in order to plan a day of educational programs with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze religious leaders from the Galilee, which will take place in April, after Passover.
It was an amazingly positive experience for me.
First of all, I met an extraordinarily impressive principal of the high school, Dr.Kamal Shofaniye, who founded this junior and senior high school 20 years ago. Today it has 1000 students: 60% Druze, 35% Muslim and 5% Christian. It is the only mixed high school in this large Arab Galilee town, a place that has known its share of tensions, including some serious rioting last June.
Dr. Shofaniye is very proud of the accomplishments of his students: 80% of them take the state matriculation examinations and 78.6% are eligible to go on to college or university after graduating from his high school!! Some of the secrets to his success can be found in old-fashioned discipline which is rare in Israeli society (Jewish or Arab!!): all the students wear the same uniform to school every day; and all of them rise for their teacher when he or she walks into the classroom; all of them meet every morning in the immaculate large courtyard for a morning assembly.
In the courtyard, which is the entrance to the school, there is a huge sign in English and Arabic which says “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more” (from the prophet Isaiah, in the Hebrew Bible). I have never seen this before—not in a Jewish school in Israel, and certainly not in an Arab school. Who says that minorities in Israel don’t yearn for peace?
The faculty of the school is mixed, reflecting the student body. In addition, Jewish teachers also teach there. Together with the faculty, the principal fosters an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.
Based on this first visit, I am looking forward to going back to this unique high school in Shfaram in April, with a large group of religious leaders from the Galilee, to implement lectures and symposia for all of the students in the upper grades. It promises to be a fascinating and enlightening experience.

Welcome to ICCI's Blog!

Welcome! We founded the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel in 1991 with the hope that we could transform religion from a force of division and extremism into a source of reconciliation, coexistence, and understanding for the leaders and followers of the three major monotheistic faiths in our country and region—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is exactly what we have tried to do for the past 19 years!

We hope to use this blog–in English, Hebrew and eventually also in Arabic–to share the more personal dimensions of our work. Through the reflections and personal stories which will be shared on this blog by me and by many other individuals who are involved with ICCI, you will meet many of the participants and graduates of our programs, as well as professional staff and active board members. In so doing, you will have an opportunity to read first-hand accounts of our achievements and challenges which confront participants in our programs—including our ongoing dialogue and action groups as well as our visiting study tours from abroad– and discover the hurdles and rewards of interreligious dialogue and action in Israel.

Dr. Ron Kronish
Director, ICCI