Rabbi David Rosen is one of the world's leading figures in inter-religious relations.
This interview was conducted in his office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2006. Nothing has been left out.
Rabbi David Rosen giving a speech at an Arab university on January 4, 2006
Damon Lynch: Very briefly, I am interested in something called the spiritual imagination. I see my interest in this as being related to character, conduct and consciousness in people, and how they connect their inner life—their spiritual life—to the action they take in the world. I am particularly interested in how they see the use of love, power and knowledge. My feeling is that a lot of religious people talk about love without incorporating necessarily the component of power. There is the Quaker phrase, “speak the truth to power.” I think we can have power as well, and use it responsibly. I am very interested in developing a counterpart to C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, but with a more inner dimension. And I am interested in how people understand the development of their inner selves, their inner life, with the action that they take, particularly peacebuilding. So I wanted to know what kind of ideas you might have in this area.
Rabbi David Rosen: Well I do not know I have any particular significant ideas. What you say sounds extremely right—that these individuals do have what you call a spiritual imagination and are integrated in their approach towards both the more moral and ethical-spiritual dimensions. Then their ability to be able to contribute to reconciliation and mutual respect is all the more powerful. I agree with you that the ideal would be where these elements are of both one’s relationship to the institutional structures that determine people’s life—political structures, the structures of authority—should be the goal of those who are animated and motivated by the moral, emotional and spiritual aspects of their own conviction. But the reality, certainly in this part of the world, is that that tends to happen too rarely, that those who are related to the structures of the power are anyway here very much subject to political authority. Also the vast majority here, because we are in a context of conflict living in degrees of greater or lesser fear and suspicion, which therefore limit the full expression of their spiritual imagination. Those who are more spiritually developed tend therefore not to be part of the institutional structures and tend to be more involved in grassroots activities, and there tends to be a dislocation between the two. And therefore, if I may be so immodest, those few of us who do seek that kind of integration have a responsibility to try to be able to egg on those in institutional positions in order to be more responsive to the challenges. I think we need to be modest as to what extent we can actually open up their minds and hearts.
Lynch: It strikes me that most people when it comes down to it would rather be a blessing instead of a curse on the rest of life.
Rosen: Well it is absolutely true, but nevertheless it is like the famous—this is an over exaggeration—it is like the Mel Brooks takeoff of Hitler where he says “all I want is peace, I want a little piece of Poland, and a little piece of this.” So everybody here wants peace and everyone here wants to be a blessing, but they always wanted peace on their own terms. Generally speaking, because of their own insularity, and because of their fears, they see the responsibility with the Other and see themselves as virtuous and self-righteous.
Lynch: I have noticed that when I have asked people how they connect their inner life to their outer actions, people struggle to articulate this. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions.
Rosen: No, I think it is very true because most people do not think of their inner life. I suppose it depends where. I think in the Western world, that is not so true. In the Western world we have had to look more critically at what our what our religious and spiritual convictions and therefore can talk of them in terms of our inner life. But I would say that is relatively new. Well, it has always been of course the language of the mystics. But, in terms of institutional authority, maybe there are two things. Maybe in a way, power and authority tend to stifle the degree to which people devote themselves more to their own inner life. If you look through history, I suppose, generally speaking, those of the more mystical orientation have been those who have eschewed power and authority. And those who have been in authority, therefore have been by almost definition rather one-dimensional types. In our part of the world to the large degree that is still the case. Then there is another factor, and that is to be able to answer your question properly requires a degree of self-critique. It requires a capacity of introspection, which tends to come with a capacity of self-critique. That requires a degree of confidence and I would say that the vast majority of people here do not have that self-confidence to be able to look critically at themselves or at their tradition. So there are a number of different factors that need to be there to facilitate that integration. Of course there have always been remarkable individuals who have risen above such limitations, but they have been exceptions and therefore almost by definition not impacted enormously upon the overall context. So I think if you going to say to what extent does your prayer and your meditation and of course you religious study impact upon your life, all leaders would say “of course it impacts upon my life, it directs my life.” But nevertheless, they have not really looked at themselves within a more self-critical perspective to enquire more profoundly as to what relationships are between the inner and the external. The difficulty that people have comes to some extent from the circumstances in which they live, and of course it could come from the fact that maybe they do not have a significantly developed inner spiritual life!
Lynch: One example I am intrigued by is the example of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the North West Frontier Province of what is today Pakistan. With his Servants of God, they took on British imperialism with nonviolence. His people were, to put it bluntly, a smashed, divided, very weak people. One of the arguments he put to his people was that “if we Pukhtuns fight the British violence with nonviolence and we are patient, we will show the whole world who are the civilized people here”, obviously putting the challenge to the British to critique their own concepts of civilization. He used a number of religious and nonreligious arguments to convince his followers to stick steadfastly to nonviolence. But I very much like one in particular: the idea of taking the culture’s strengths and using them to overcome its weaknesses. A particular strength of the Pukhtuns was their honor. Khan used it to get his followers to overcome a serious weakness, which was the idea that they were brutes, uncivilized and uncouth (which had some truth to it as well). Sheikh Aziz Bukhari mentioned to me yesterday this idea that if you are standing at a checkpoint and the soldiers are not being nice, he does not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing him respond with anger—sometimes they provoke people to do that. He said he instead smiles. I see that as a similar kind of a concept, but in a smaller way, of taking a bad situation and turning it into a good one. I am beginning to think that this seems to be a core idea of being able to imagine something very different from what it is now—of taking what you have now, and transforming it into something good.
Rosen: I would say two things. First of all, what you are describing with regards to the Pukhtun ways of course was Gandhi’s own approach towards the British as well. A number of scholars have observed that he was very lucky that he was preaching this idea of nonviolence, a culture of nonviolent resistance, to the British. Had he been advocating that let’s say to Nazi Germany, then that would have been the end of India, and it would have been wiped out entirely. In order to be able to have preached that kind of approach, you have to have an antagonist on the other side who can be responsive to it. Otherwise, as a principal I think it is a fallacy with regards to those who cannot appreciate the value of what you are standing for. Therefore I think we have to be very cautious about generalisations in that regard. With regards to Sheikh Abdul Aziz I think it is very important in any situation, if we are able to, to be compassionate. I remember reading a story of somebody during the period of the Holocaust. He was a rabbi, and he was being beaten by the Nazis. He was being tortured, and he was feeling a great deal of pain. He was filled with an initial sense of great hatred towards the people who were torturing him. He said, “I had to remind myself that these are also creatures created in the image of God. Once I remembered that, I could bear all the torture that they had to throw at me.” So obviously the power of both affirming the dignity of the Other and compassion towards the Other is an enormous resource and reservoir that enables us to withstand enormous adversity. However in certain situations, smiling at somebody can actually do the reverse. I remember another Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a shrewish wife and he was very henpecked. She used to say all sorts of nasty things to him, even in the presence of his Hasidim, his followers. He never answered them back. He always kept his quiet, because he was a very saintly man. On one occasion he replied to her sharply and she was quiet and went back to wherever she had come from. The people said to him “Well rabbi, you have never ever replied to your wife. Why did you do that like this? ” He said “because I could see that being quiet and not responding to her was causing more anguish than if I responded.”
Lynch: I remember Sri Ramakrishna used to say to his followers that some people should be saluted from a distance. I very much like that image. As an aside, what you make of the arguments of some that the challenge of the German women to get the Jewish husbands back outside the Reichstag in Berlin—I forget which year it was, 1941, 42, 43—paralysed Hitler’s so-called iron will? What do you make of this account that the German women undertook nonviolent direct action? [Editor’s note: read a detailed account of the event here. The location was Rosenstrasse, not the Reichstag]
Rosen: I do not know. I do not know the story, but I would be very surprised. I cannot see any reason why Hitler would have behaved like that.
Lynch: I wish I had memorised it better, but in short, the German women with their Jewish husband’s, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, were taken and imprisoned. Some were already on the way to the gas chambers. The German women for two or three days conducted nonviolent resistance, right outside the headquarters of something important like the SS, a very symbolic place anyway. Hitler knew what was going on. He could not just shoot them.
Lynch: Perhaps because they were German.
Rosen: He shot plenty of other Germans. He did not have any problem with homosexuals. In fact, I would say the vast majority of those who continued to be married were publicly humiliated. If anybody was caught walking with a Jewish partner they were generally publicly humiliated in the streets. It is very difficult to believe that Hitler felt a little more compassion than his SS guards who were behaving like that the streets.
Lynch: Well apparently in this case not only did the men come back—not only were they saved that day—but they were not picked off one by one as the war progressed, as we might have assumed. Apparently they lived.
Rosen: This is totally inconsistent with almost everything else that happened under Nazi Germany—there must be some other factor at play.
Lynch: I share your concern about the smile and be happy approach all the time. I think it has its time in its place. Sometimes, a word said sharply can be very useful.
Rosen: I think actually what is much more effective is the model that Marshall Rosenberg has developed, which basically comes out of Carl Rogers, and that is the language of empathy—being able to understand somebody’s needs and wants and their feelings at any given moment. Therefore, if you are able to say to somebody something along the lines of “I realise that this is really tough for you and it is really dangerous and there are some really nasty people around who want to do harm, and you had to protect it, etc”. You show compassion to them. Then you say, “I would like you also to understand how I am feeling in this regard” than express your own particular feelings, values and needs. As long as you have shown compassion from the beginning, you are likely to get a lot through. But you have got to be able to connect to the person’s feelings and needs.
Lynch: In your own tradition, what are some ways that you teach others to develop empathy for those who they truly believe are inferior to themselves?
Rosen: In my own tradition, from my point of view, the most important principle is to teach them that there is nobody who is inferior to them, because everybody is created in the divine image, and therefore everybody is of inestimable worth, and every life in all their dignity is therefore of inalienable value. That is not taught well enough. The problem is that when you get to the situation of conflict there is a need to demonise. Therefore you look to sources that therefore can reinforce the dehumanisation of the other. But in my opinion they all fundamentally contradict the most central principle that everybody is created in the divine image. Of course we all have problems with our texts because in every text, whether it is the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran, we find areas of where clearly there violent things that are endorsed in one way or another under certain circumstances. Therefore if you are dealing with a person of a more liberal orientation, you can look at them and you can say what are the more central principles for the more contextual issues, and therefore what we have to be guided for. But when you are dealing with people who are basically fundamentalists—this word fundamentalist of course, Scott Appleby in particular would understand is a rather dangerous word because it can have so many different meanings. But if we said let us use the term to say we are dealing with people who are uncritical with regards to their text in their tradition, then it is very much easier for them to be able to draw on more problematic texts as much as to be able to draw on the more positive texts. I would therefore obviously seek to reinforce as much as possible additional texts. The most famous rabbinic text is a discussion between Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai on what the most important principle is in the Bible. I would say to them “look, there is no way it says the most important principle is a question of protection of property or protection of land. The most important principle that they discuss is that Akiba says ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ And Ben Azzai says the more important principle is that every human being is created in the divine image, so you do not say because I was despised so let my neighbour be despised, because I was cursed, so let my neighbour be cursed. In other words his concern is that Akiba will make ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ to mean ‘love your neighbour as you yourself were loved or not loved’, and therefore his emphasis is that it does not matter how you have been treated, you have to be able to always remember that you have to treat an individual as a child of God and a person created in the divine image. And then comes the punchline of Rabbi Tanchuma who says that if you do so (in other words if you say because I was cursed so let my neighbour be cursed, or because I was despised so let my neighbour be despised) know who it is who you despise, because in the image of God he made man.” In other words, any act of disrespect to another human being is an act of disrespect to God. So if you could communicate that effectively to people that in fact behaving badly towards other people is behaving badly towards God, then even in your more uncritical—or using the term unscientifically, fundamentalist elements—you may succeed better in getting it across. However I get back to what I said before. All these arguments utilising Jewish sources are only going to be feasible if people do not feel threatened and if they do not feel fearful. Therefore to overcome their sense of threat and fear, you have to be able to give them empathy. To give them empathy means that you need to be able to show them that you are connecting to their needs and their feelings.
Lynch: In a moment, I want to come back to this disconnect between the power structures and the religious life. I share your caution about being arrogant about this kind of thing, but let us suppose for a moment the more highly developed spirituality of some people. But as an aside, in Hinduism of course one of the ancient discoveries was that the Atman is the same as Brahman, or the inner infinite Self is the Godhead. Is this compatible with the idea that we are all created in the image of God?
Rosen: I would say yes obviously, and it would be more within the mystical tradition that would see us meaning “all created in the image of God” as all part of God and that we die we are as it were returned to the Godhead. Therefore it is all part of the mystical idea especially developed by the Hasidic movement, that God is in everywhere and everything. This was not always the perception, in which often the sacred was divorced from the non-sacred. There is within the mystical tradition a view that there is sanctity in everything everywhere. And that idea I would certainly identify with, even though I would not buy into all necessarily the cosmology that comes with certain parts of Jewish mystical tradition, specifically within Kabbalah. That is part of the reason also why I am a vegetarian, because I believe that in different degrees there is sanctity in everything. One can never be absolutely reverential of all sanctity to every single degree—one has to find a balance somewhere. But the more one is conscious of the divine in everything, the more one is able to both ennoble oneself and one’s society. Again, there is a danger of course, especially with regard to vegetarians—there are plenty of people who care more about animals than they do about human beings. It has always got to be done with a certain telos, a certain teleology in mind. Those who accuse people of speciesism are actually being immoral. If you put all sentient beings on the same level then you are going to be at some stage inadequately sensitive to the needs of human beings. This is not a new idea. This is in the writing of one of the great Jewish philosophers, Joseph Albo, a mediaeval philosopher. Therefore for me ethical vegetarianism actually is in its most potent and valuable when it takes place with an understanding of a hierarchy of life in which human life is more sacred than animal life. In my opinion that is where vegetarianism is its most ethical. Where it is seen that all sentient life is of the same order, then it is dangerous, because then you can lose the necessary sensitivity towards human life.
Lynch: Yes I think I agree. I am also a vegetarian. Coming back to this disconnect between the power structures and the spiritual life of people, you must have given some thought about how to make that disconnect a little less disconnected, and to build some bridges between these two worlds.
Rosen: It is not a matter of just thought—it is a matter of what I do in my life. It is really what I do. In order to do that, I have to be able to speak many languages. Even as I am speaking English or Hebrew in the course of the day, I have to speak many languages because I have to connect to people where they are at. Very central to my work is a belief in the power of the human encounter. I agree with you that most people want to be a blessing. From this point of view, this is a big difference between Judaism and Christianity, of not seeing the human being as essentially flawed. From a Jewish perspective, if anything, we are born with original virtue. It is only social factors that can corrupt us and lead us astray, or these fears that I spoke about before. The more that we can therefore bring people to overcome those fears and those suspicions and overcome those stereotypes and prejudicial preconceived perceptions, the more we can enable their inner spiritual life to be expressed in the way they relate to others and in the issues and initiatives that they able to contribute to and come to. I see myself very much as a mediator in that. Certain things for example, like bringing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel out of its cocoon, have been facilitated by external factors, not least of all the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in the year 2000, which developed the opening for the Committee of the Chief Rabbinate for Dialogue with the Vatican. For those involved it is significant, and even for those not involved it begins to lead them to start questioning as to whether their narrow perceptions are fair. We had another moment at a discussion on interfaith relations at - a conference of Orthodox Jewish leadership that has just concluded. Most Orthodox rabbis unfortunately, and I say this as an Orthodox rabbi, tend to be rather insular. This once again reflects their fear and lack of comfort with the world outside. On discussion of interfaith, of course I was very passionate about its importance. One of the reservations expressed by one of the rabbis, is the fear that this would therefore lead to intermarriage and undermine the integrity and therefore the continuity of Jewish identity and of the Jewish peoplehood. I give that as an example of the kinds of fears that one has to be able to contend with. You need to be able to argue with them constructively, both by giving them empathy for what their fears are, of being able to suggest to them that there is actually more to gain than to lose, and to be able to introduce them to the opportunity. You cannot always do it. In many cases it is not possible. One just has to keep on trying as much as one can.
Lynch: The initiative that you are involved with, with rabbis and imams, this world council, is this involving rabbis who represent a broad spectrum of rabbinic thought in Israel?
Rosen: In Israel, yes. There are all kinds of internecine problems, similar to the problems that you will not be able to get major Sunnis if you have Shi’ites there, or if you have Sufis there, and certainly not if you have Baha’is there. Unfortunately most of my Orthodox colleagues, unfortunately—while they are certainly open to meeting Muslims and to a lesser degree meeting Christians—the ones they fear most are other kinds of rabbis from the liberal strands of Judaism. Basically in their eyes they see those as heresies. They see them as more threatening heresies because they threaten to undermine their own power base. One of the things we have to decide with regards to the imams and rabbis is who are our target groups. If your group encompasses the total spectrum, then you will not get the spectrum, because by having the presence of one you cannot have the presence of the other. Our need was to get to the most intensely rooted—and in a way you might even say insular elements, within both communities. In Brussels at the first conference the spectrum of Israeli Jewish orthodoxy was amazing. We had an amazing spectrum of rabbinic representation. Many of those had never met a member of another religion ever before, let alone a religious leader. It was a very important opening for them. I would say it was the same in many senses for Muslims as well. In order to be able to get that spectrum of Orthodoxy it meant we had to have only a sprinkling of non-Orthodox rabbis, and then almost under wraps in order to get the more fervently Orthodox elements to participate.
If you are involved in trying to take spiritual values which are animated by one’s own personal inner spirituality and moral convictions—and to bring these to an area where people, because of their fears, misunderstandings and insecurities are less able to give full expression to this inner life—then you have to work out all kinds of stratagems and tactics that are seeking certain creative options, but are always making certain sacrifices at the same time. Inevitably this involves some form of moral sacrifice in the process. Just not to invite people who represent other communities is in a way a moral sacrifice.
Lynch: That is where the importance of having a trusting relationship becomes paramount, does it not?
Rosen: Yes it is very important but it is important that that trusting relationship—and this is very germane to your central thesis—comes from your own inner spirituality in relation to the Other because intellectually and strategically, because in a way you are being dishonest. When I meet with colleagues from the most fervent Orthodox segments of society, and yet I know I want to bring some of my Liberal colleagues to be able to be there, I have to some extent to deceive them. Now I will try to do it in a way that is as tolerable for them as possible, and obviously be conscious not to put them in an embarrassing position. While I am to some extent deceiving them on a strategic level, what I must never do is deceive them in terms of the inner spiritual content. In other words the sincerity of what I am doing and what I am saying must come across to the other individual. As long as the other individual feels I am sincere, he or she might discover that things were not exactly as they had fully planned—or there might have been things that were even a little uncomfortable—but within certain bounds they will be able to tolerate that if they feel that the motive is totally sincere. But it is a delicate balance.
Lynch: I am trying to put myself in their shoes, imagining what it would be like. It is difficult, because I was not raised in that strand of thought. I am trying to imagine what it would be like from their perspective to be with people they have never met before, and to be an authentic, Orthodox Jew and to meet with an imam.
Rosen: That is much easier for them than to meet with a reform rabbi, especially with an imam. As far as Orthodoxy is concerned, Islam is pure monotheism. Christians are a little more of a problem, because there their perception of Trinity and incarnation poses certain questions. They have to be able to hopefully get into position where they can understand that maybe the way Christians understand these concepts is not exactly the way they think Christians understand them. Of course that is one of the most important guidelines of interreligious dialogue—to be able to understand the way the other understands herself or himself, and not the way you have necessarily conceived of the Other’s beliefs. But for their perception, a Jew has to observe a Jewish way of life the way they understand it. Therefore a Jew who seeks to understand a Jewish way of life in a different way, or even propound it in a different way, is far more problematic than a Muslim leader, who is a pure monotheist. You also have to remember that from a Jewish perspective, however this has developed, there is not a universal imperialism—you do not have to be Jewish in order to be loved by God. God loves you as a good Muslim, and I would say also as a good Christian, and I would say also as a good Hindu. From their perspective, certainly God loves you as a good Muslim because their perspective is that Islam is pure monotheism. Their dialogue with the Muslim is actually theologically the easiest thing for them to do. The problem for them is because of the political reality, in the conviction—which unfortunately is on both sides, both the Muslims and Jews—that the other side is out to get them, or to do them in, or to get rid of them, or to undermine them, or to deny their dignity or their attachments or one thing or another. The relationship has been vitiated in the last hundred years by politics—intensely so—but of the theological relationships, it is the easiest one for them.
Lynch: To have a Rabbi Fruman show up at a Hamas rally in Gaza, having met monthly with Sheikh Yassin in prison I understand. . .
Rosen: These things get exaggerated. He met with him I think only twice.
Lynch: Is this something that you attach some significance to?
Rosen: Actually Rabbi Fruman invited me to go along to meet him when Yassin was released, thanks to Netanyahu. Of course it was Netanyahu who brought Yassin back to Gaza, because of his botched attempt to try to assassinate Mashal, and therefore this was the price he had to pay to King Hussein. When Yassin came back to Gaza, Rabbi Fruman called me up and said “would you like to go with me? ” I said “there is a limit.” I am willing to reach out to anybody who is willing to be able to at least seek to live with me in some form of peaceful accommodation, and even if that person says there are these conditions, 1, 2, 3—but somebody who is openly advocating murdering me, my children, and my family at the same time, it seems to me to be a rather rash thing to do. It seems to me that there you are behaving irresponsibly with regards to your own community because you are undermining their well-being. Now, Hamas is not the way many Israelis think, a totally monolithic structure. There are different elements within it, like within the Islamic Brotherhood, or like the stupidities you hear in America with regards to Wahhabism and Salafism as if it is all somehow totally inimical to the very existence of anybody else, and totally destructive. I personally think that is totally counter-productive. There are within all those communities the possibilities of finding individuals who are open to dialogue, and who could become interlocutors. Looking to the possibility of finding elements within Hamas with whom you could dialogue I think is a wise thing to do. It depends who does it and how it is done, because you do have other factors to take into consideration, of the ways in which it can be exploited and misrepresented and can do more harm. In principle, I am not against it, but I think it requires a very very cautious and careful approach.