By Oded Wiener
There is great significance to the many efforts undertaken by some religious leaders in the Middle East who are working to create dialogue in place of the continual state of conflict and bloodshed between the people of the region. These religious leaders are aware of the vital need for compromise and achieving mutual recognition of the need to live side-by-side in peace.
Beyond the quest for a better world, one without violence, there is a common element that unites us all – the belief in one God. It is important to understand that man, who was created in the image of God, is not a wild, independent creation, who cannot be subjected to restrictions or criticism. This is certainly not the case. Man is continuously accountable – first and foremost to the Creator, who watches his actions and both demands and expects that he will act appropriately in all areas of life.
What is the significance of man being created in “God’s image”? The meaning is that in every man one can see a semblance of the Creator. The Mishna and the Talmud teach us several truths in this regard: “Therefore man was created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves one soul, it is as if he has saved a whole world. And for the sake of peace among men, that one should not say to his fellow, “My father is greater than yours” and that heretics should not say, “There are many powers in Heaven.” Again, the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, manifests itself in the fact that man stamps out many coins with one seal, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow.”
These words are of great importance and reflect man’s commitment to behave in a way which respects the image and spirit of God within him, and the image and spirit of God in his fellow man – regardless of his religion or views, nationality or his people of origin.
The use of violence and force by a person of faith is in clear contradiction to the ways of God and undermines the ideological basis in the name of which that person is exercising violence.
Religious leaders play a significant role in the modern world and can exercise great influence in their position within the interfaith mosaic. We have witnessed in the past many cases where religious leaders stoked the flames of conflict. On the other hand, in many instances they have managed to quell conflicts and calm people down. Moreover, in that respect they have often succeeded where politicians and statesmen have failed. The real danger in the rise of fundamentalism is that emotions can drag us into a religious war the horrible consequences of which we can only guess.
The role of believers, and particularly that of religious leaders, is to function as the moral compass and conscience of the world; to awaken and comment, to raise a strong voice of protest against every instance of injustice; not to let political leaders become indifferent; to condemn and pursue terrorists who in the name of God or religion murder innocent people and undermine the divine order of the world. Only a clear, strong and immediate response will put these people off from carrying out their evil plans.
Dialogue is the torch that must be carried in pride, without fear. It is no secret that on each side there is an opposition that challenges dialogue between religious and spiritual leaders and which, in extreme cases, is coupled with threats or efforts to condemn and marginalize those who engage in it.
For this exact reason religious leaders ought to ask themselves – in light of the ignorance regarding the traditions and religion of other nations, which is often the catalyst for violence – how can they encourage dialogue, educate, teach, influence, and bring people closer together? This could be in the context of official religious and educational frameworks or, even more importantly, in informal frameworks where religious leaders have a stronger influence.
The Torah requires a special approach when it comes to peace. Our sages have said: “If one encountered an opportunity to fulfil a commandment one must do it, but if not – not.” However regarding peace it has been said: “Seek peace and pursue it,” i.e., “seek peace where you are but pursue it elsewhere.” One is therefore commanded to make a positive and active effort to pursue peace in every way and in any place.
There is a wonderful essay by the late Rabbi Kook, founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, on the issue of peace where he says that just as the beauty and the melody in a chorus or an orchestra does not come from uniform voices but from the different and varied voices that join into one harmony – so truth and world peace will be constructed from different thoughts and aspects, from different opinions and approaches – and all have a place in the harmony of life. It is precisely the unity of forces, contradictions and opposites that gives extra power, beauty and perfection to peace.
Oded Wiener is the Director General and coordinates interfaith dialogue for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is also a core member of the Interfaith Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.