Interfaith Insights B

Interfaith Insights 1

Anthony Macisaac
Anthony MacIsaac

Welcome to our first “Interfaith Insights” conversation. Over the coming weeks Anthony MacIsaac will have conversations with fellow students of different faiths.

Catholic Theology Student Anthony MacIsaac interviews fellow students of other faiths.

Interview 1 Abigaëlle Chalom – Jewish student

Anthony: Hello Abigaelle, thanks for agreeing to discuss some elements of your faith with me. It’s good to have the chance to talk about your faith and theology. To begin with let me ask… Is belief in God important for you? What is God in your opinion? I know that is a big question to start off with!

Abigaëlle: Belief just isn’t Jewish core material. God is self-evident, the very starting point of any thought, sensation, emotion or perception. It’s in the very Name, the Tetragrammaton,(YHWH) which is related to the verb “to be”. So if something “is”, it’s God, period. So, believing or not believing isn’t really the question, ever. Life, and how to conduct one’s life, that’s the central matter of Judaism, to me. Furthermore, by definition, no person could embrace God’s point-of-view, so to speak. This means that God isn’t a theory or an addition of principles. Instead, God is the very essence of being. For us, being is not only mere action, but also questioning our own acts and motivations, our desires and needs. Not once and for all, not when so inclined, but as a way of life.

Anthony: What impact does Scripture have on your faith?

Abigaëlle: Since Judaism is not dependent on faith, as far as I am concerned, the Scriptures impact me as would a machine that could travel in Space and Time. Scriptures are a millennia-old writing process, enacted through so many civilisations – all of them born, all of them grown, and all of them eventually lost – sharing the tales of God’s unending diversity, and at the same time God’s breath of constancy.

Anthony: Do you consider Scripture as literature, or as something more?

Abigaëlle: I consider the Scriptures as a powerful generator of symbolism, and as one of the oldest relays of one simple but essential fact, life is hard and confusing, it has been, it will be. Beyond literature, it is the most ancient testimony of our shared struggle and responsibility.

Anthony: What about rituals? Are these important for you?

Abigaëlle: I do believe rituals are at the essence of Judaism, creating a bridge between spirituality and life. Like bridges, we must worry if everybody walks on them at the same pace, and all at the same time, for the bridge will collapse. A Jew remains a Jew, but his identity in Judaism intrinsically demands that he question everything about Judaism. Some Jews will study exclusively, some will maintain a few traditions, some will do both, there are as many variations of Judaism as there are Jews, even an Jewish atheist is still Jewish.

Anthony: In Catholicism, we have the Sacraments. These are centred on worshipping God, but also on our relationship with God. They tend to touch each person emotionally, as they associate all of this with music, art, and even theatre. Do the rituals of Judaism have a similar impact? Do they touch the individual in the same way?

Abigaëlle: I think they do in a way that has been progressively enhanced by successive diasporas. First things first, Judaism excludes images of God, this extends to a complex definition of idolatry. As we said before, God is “to be” but experiencing being – this is human. The depiction of God’s interactions with humanity has always been focused on the human point-of-view in the Jewish Scriptures, and the Jewish arts play with that limitation.

Anthony: Perhaps we can also talk about prayer? One form of prayer is contemplation. In the Church, this is often accomplished by asceticism, the monastic life, and even hermitage. This can also be achieved to a degree in the ordinary devotion of a life well-lived. Is contemplation important for you?

Abigaëlle: Judaic prayer tends to put each thing in its place, to actively celebrate life. Even the austere aspect of some Jewish Orthodox communities contains a constant flow of feasts and celebrations squared by prayer as a conscious rest and focus. So, as a consequence of having no proper eschatology (theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind), Judaism does not seem really “contemplative” to me.

Anthony: As I understand more traditional forms of Judaism, I thought there was some eschatology, even if not well defined. Within the Kabbalah, is there not the idea of Tikkun Olam, that is of repairing and restoring the world to what it should be? Is there not also a world to come in Jewish prayer?

Abigaëlle: One of the most structural ideas in Judaism revolves around the end of times as an undefined and undefinable perspective. The end of time marks a partition between the Olam Hazeh and the Olam Haba – Olam Haba as the continuous here and now, the strictly absolute future. Since potential and realisation are mutually exclusive, human expectations are paradoxical, as shown in the few pages of the Talmud’s Sanhedrin that debate these issues. To act or to wait is the messianic question with the most discrepancy in Judaism.

Moreover, since the end of time is an absolute, nothing is to be humanly said about it and the very question of trying to put a date on it is rejected: “let their breath be taken away, those who try calculating the end of time” say the masters. However, those masters had to manage expectations raised by fears and hopes. To this end, the Talmud refers to the “messianic time”, as a transitional era between our world and the one to come, an era we can discuss to drive our expectations forward. During this era, changes are to occur, but once more, nothing can legitimately be said about the world that is to come because it is within God’s plan and as such, an absolute.

“All the prophets, without exception, prophesied only for the messianic times, but as for the world to come, the reward is not quantifiable, as it states: no eye has seen it except You, Elohim, who will act for him who awaits You.” (Sanhedrin) 

As to Tikkun Olam, I understand it as a goal to target, but not to reach. To me, the idea of a perfect world or a perfect experience is contradictory with humanity. Instead, it is God’s field of existence, while ours is relative, complex and imperfect.

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Demonstration Passover Seder

By Joseph Sikora, Secretary for Interreligious Dialogue

In April, Duncan MacLaren and myself attended the demonstration Passover Seder at the Glasgow Reform Synagogue in Newton Mearns.

Lead by Rabbi Pete Tobias, we were, along with a number of other guests representing various faith traditions and local civic society, taken through the rich symbolism and meaning of the Seder.

As a teacher of Religious Education for 30 years, I had often taught my students about the story of the Exodus and Passover but every day is a school day and I learned so much just from being with Jewish community and Rabbi Tobias.

The celebration of the Seder itself is based on one simple line from the Torah “And you shall tell your children on that day ‘This is what the Eternal One did for me when bringing me out of Egypt’”. In this short verse we find two of the most important elements of the Seder.

Firstly, that it is meant to be told to Jewish children by their parents so that they understand the importance of the that led to their ancestors being freed from slavery and secondly, that the struggle for freedom continues and that it is a responsibility for every generation of Jews.

With insight and humour Rabbi Tobias, ably assisted by members of the synagogue at the various tables, took us through the symbolism of the various food that are found on the Seder plate, the somewhat odd custom of leaning to the left to drink the cups of wine, and the various ‘tricks’ that are used to keep the children focused on the meaning of the celebration and the important messages that the Seder holds for the whole community.

A truly joyful occasion somewhat bizarrely rounded off with the singing of a song about the Matzah unleavened bread to the tune of Mama Mia. I didn’t see that one coming.

A grateful thanks to the community of the Glasgow Reform Synagogue for the invitation and a lovely evening.

The photograph above shows Rabbi Pete Tobias extreme right talking to some of the guests. Duncan can be seen at the rear centre of the photo and Joseph is to the left, back to the camera.

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Advent Reflection

A guest blog by Jenny Ramsden
For Christians, it is the season of Advent – a period of expectation and reflective preparation in which churches make themselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which many Christians would call the ‘incarnation’. The incarnation is the Christian belief that God took human form by becoming Jesus and became fully immersed in our world, with all its joys and challenges. Advent, and the incarnation, will hold different meanings to different Christians, but I particularly love this interpretation: “Advent invites us to pause amidst the bustle, to look at the challenges of our world, or our lives, full in the face; and then open ourselves to the possibility of a better, more compassionate, more equal and just world, and how that might be born in us this Christmas”.

This Advent, I am remembering my recent visit to Israel and Palestine as one of a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims participating in the CCJ Study Tour, and I’m finding myself reflecting on the quote above in light of our visit. One of the holy sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has been venerated for centuries by Christians of many denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. During our tour of the church, our guide, a member of the Syriac Orthodox church, recited the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic. From a personal faith perspective, hearing that prayer said in that place in the language in which Jesus would have spoken was profoundly moving.

And yet …

The overall purpose of our Study Tour was to look at the deep and complex challenges facing Israel-Palestine “full in the face”. There were times when for all of us that felt overwhelming.

Were there signs, then, of “the possibility of a better, more compassionate, more equal and just world”? Yes.

They were there in my fellow participants, who were willing to put themselves into spaces in which they felt physically and emotionally vulnerable to truly listen to a perspective they might not have had the opportunity to hear before. They were there in the inspirational teachers we met at the Hand in Hand ‘shared school’, educating Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian children together in a safe and nurturing space. They were there in the Jewish and Palestinian fathers we met, both of whom had lost teenage daughters in the conflict, and yet who had formed a deep friendship that enabled them to share with others their heartfelt desire that the conflict will end. They were there in all the Israelis and Palestinians we met who were determined to find a shared humanity that transcended any religious or political difference.

My hope, this Advent, is that all that we heard and learned, and the relationships we formed, in some small way, will bear fruit for the work that we are each called to do in our own communities – towards building that compassionate, equal, just and peaceful world.


Jenny is Inter Faith Adviser for the Bishop of Leeds. Alongside this role Jenny works as a ‘Women’s Project Coordinator’ for the Religions for Peace UK Women of Faith Network, with a particular focus on challenging gender based religious violence

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What if?

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

Sr Maureen Cusick

There are some events in life that are of such significance that we can’t help asking ‘what if that had not happened?’ How differently would things have turned out. Such an event was a 20-minute meeting that a Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, had with Pope John XXIII in June 1959 that changed forever the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Jewish community. This changing relationship is a story of hope and transformation spelled out last week for the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue at their annual seminar, entitled ‘A Tale of Two Sisters: Church and Synagogue’ which was led by Sister Maureen Cusick, a Sister of Our Lady of Sion, a religious congregation that is committed to witnessing to God’s continued and faithful love for the Jewish people through education and dialogue.  

synagoguaWe began by reflecting on a series of illustrations of statues found in many medieval cathedrals around Europe, sometimes carved standing side by side, sometimes standing on either side of the entrance They depict two women. One is weak and drooping, blindfolded and carrying a broken lance with Torah scrolls that are often seen slipping from her hand. The other is strong, often wearing a crown and looking to the future with confidence and open eyes.  The blind woman represents the Synagogue, blind to the truth and now lost to salvation because the Jews rejected and crucified Jesus. The confident woman represents the Christian Church upon whom God has bestowed the promises God originally made to Israel so that Christians now possess the truth of salvation and have become God’s chosen ones, the new People of God.  One particularly horrendous statue is found in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris where the blindfold over the ‘Synagoga’ statue is in fact a snake with the implications that has for Judaism being under the sway of the devil.
These statues reflect the attitude of the Christian Church to Jews in medieval Europe and are indicative of a theological approach called supersessionism or replacement theology which is a belief that God has rejected the Jews because they rejected and crucified Jesus. God has now bestowed the promises he made to Israel on the Church that now becomes the New People of God. This theology is very influential. It can affect the way the Christian scriptures are interpreted. For example, in stories such as the wise virgins – the ones who are alert to the coming of the bridegroom are taken as representative of Christianity and the ones who slept and missed his coming taken as representative of Judaism. It influenced the prayer in Catholic churches on Good Friday which prayed for the conversion of the perfidious Jews. It influenced the tradition in the Sisters of Sion who daily prayed that God would forgive the Jews for the death of Jesus for they knew not what they did. It influenced the various pogroms and sermons forced on the Jews over the ages. It influenced the whole history of Christian antisemitism which the Vatican acknowledged was the seed bed in which the hatred that resulted in the Holocaust was able to flourish. It influenced the belief of some Christians that the State of Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. It is, I suspect, something that is deep in the psyche of both Christians and Jews and influences some of our interactions and maybe needs to be addressed at some point. Is there perhaps an incipient suspicion of Christianity on the part of Jews and an incipient superiority on the part of Christians?

Thank God that this attitude to Judaism and this theological approach has been acknowledged, dismissed and disowned by the Catholic Church in the Vatican II document on the Churches Relationship with People of Other Faiths. And it all came about because of that 20-minute interview that Jules Isaac had with Pope John XXIII.  Jules Isaac was a historian and educationalist who sought to understand the roots of antisemitism when he experienced the Nazi occupation of his native France. He wrote a book on Jesus and Israel as well as one on The Teaching of Contempt in which he showed that antisemitic interpretations of the scripture were a wrong understanding of the Gospel. It was the meeting with Pope John XXIII that led the Pope to put the Churches relationship to Judaism on the agenda of the Vatican Council and eventually led to Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Churches Attitude to Non-Christian Religions which was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in October 1965, two years after the death of Jules Isaac. Section 4 of the document which declares,” in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” brought about a profound change in the Church’s relations with Judaism. Indeed, Rabbi David Rosen says he knows of nothing else in history that has brought about such a profound change.  

And that brings us back to our original question. What if Jules Isaac had not visited Pope John XXIII? Would we still be promoting a replacement theology? What if Jules Isaac had not been for a walk when his wife and two children were taken by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz? Would the Church have reflected on its teaching of contempt and still be antisemitic? Who knows. But we can be sure that Jules Isaac’s escape from the Nazis and his visit to the Pope were of such significance that they have changed the history  of Catholic – Jewish relations, hopefully forever. 

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Saving St Mungo’s Museum

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

On 17th February Glasgow City Council announced its budget for the forthcoming year and plans for post-covid recovery. Included in that budget is the statement “ As well as confirming the funding to keep all local libraries open, it will also allocate more than £1 million to reopen community centres and public halls, and £650k to reopen the much-loved St Mungo’s Museum and Provand’s Lordship”  This feels like a victory for all those who campaigned tirelessly for the council to keep local libraries, museums and community centres open. Was this part of the budget the result of that campaigning, did Glasgow City Council listen to the voices of its citizens and realise how committed people were to their cultural and community centres, recognising the value they have in the ethos and development of a city.


I was involved in the campaign to save St Mungo’s Museum or Religious Life and Art so that it would keep its interfaith and multifaith focus. Glasgow Life had indicated that its plan was to enter into an agreement with Historic Environment Scotland who own Glasgow Cathedral to revamp the Cathedral precinct to attract more visitors to the historic centre of Glasgow. This revamp would include St Mungo’s Museum and could mean a change in its focus to link more clearly with the history of the Cathedral. This has not yet been resolved but it is surely in keeping with the Christian origins of Glasgow to show its growth as the multifaith city, committed to social and interfaith harmony, that it has become.

The idea of a Museum of Religious Life and Art was the brainchild of Mark O’Neill, at that time Senior Curator of History with Gl. Museums. From the outset it was developed with a socially driven purpose, expressed in the mission statement:

to explore the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives across the world and across time, aiming to promote mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths and none.  

Mark and his team were convinced that if the museum was to live up to this vision stakeholders would have to be consulted and included in the museum’s development – even in the decision to call it The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. The stakeholders were the various faith communities in Glasgow as well as the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths, the first and, at that time, only interfaith group in Scotland.  All these groups were approached and involved – donating artefacts and giving suggestions about the layout.  Once opened the museum became a centre for interfaith celebrations and dialogues and because of the involvement of faith communities from its inception the Museum felt very much like a home from home. It did indeed become a much loved venue and the thought of it closing was like a bereavement and loss of what was considered a safe and neutral space to conduct what were sometimes difficult dialogues.    

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The Museum opened on 4th April 1993, one of only two Museums of Religion in Europe. Now there are more and many of those setting up similar museums came to Glasgow to learn from the St. Mungo experience. For these interfaith friends the thought of St Mungo’s closing or even changing its focus seemed incredible and many of them added their voices of protest to those of Glaswegians and the thousands of people who signed the petition instigated by Interfaith Glasgow. 

This is not the first time that there have been plans to close St Mungo’s Museum, nor the first time it has been saved. It’s as though Glasgow Council needs to be reminded from time to time of its significance and the important contribution it makes to good community relations. Hopefully that no matter what future developments there might be stakeholders from Glasgow’s diverse religious communities, interfaith organisations, and anti-sectarian organisations will be consulted.   



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Golden Threads

Golden Threads


Weaving a Legacy

A group of amateur tapestry weavers in Edinburgh have together created this tapestry

 Background The tapestry uses golden threads collected by Hedwig Philip which had not seen the light of day for 70 years. Hedwig was a German Jew. She and her husband narrowly avoided the Holocaust. They left Berlin in 1941 and travelled to join family in Pennsylvania.

A skilled needlewoman, she collected golden threads and embroidered a Torah Mantle for the local synagogue. In 1951 she travelled with all her belongings to Britain to join her daughter in Newcastle. Hedwig died not long afterwards. Her box of golden threads remained unopened, passed down to her daughter and then to her granddaughter, Cathie Wright.

Golden Threads

Weaving the tapestry This group tapestry pays homage to Hedwig’s story, but the quantity and beauty of the threads, the heritage and the journey travelled, called for something more. The result is a modern, secular tapestry incorporating these historic golden threads. There are 16 panels, each one designed by the weaver, drawing on the themes of Jewish heritage, refugee travel and survival, conflict avoidance, building bridges and seeking a better world with hope for a brighter future.

As Cathie has said, ‘This is a community enterprise that takes the threads from one spiritual tradition to universal themes that celebrate life and survival’.

The tapestries are woven with contemporary materials (wools and cottons) supplementing the old golden threads. They are joined with an overlay of golden braid which also came from Hedwig’s box. The overall size of the composite tapestry is 30 inches square.

For more information please contact Project Leader Jackie Grant     jackieclairegrant@gmail.com

Photo © Geoff Gardner Photography


Supplementary information

A photo of Hedwig and the contents of her box not opened for 70 years


The Weavers and the Names of their Tapestries 

Anita Nolan


Sandra Carter

 Into the Light

Joan Mclellan


Sarah Clark


Lindi McWilliam

 Breaking through Barriers

Judith Barton

 From the Ruins

Elspeth Hosie

 Journey’s End

Francesca McGrath

 From  the Darkness

Hilary Watkinson

Glimmer of Hope

Barbara Clarke

 Ode to Joy and Peace

Jackie Grant

 Tree of Life

Kirsteen Shaw

 Return to the Light

Irene McCombe

Trunk of New Beginnings

Serena Naismith

Linking Communities

Joan Houston

New Life Sycamore

Ann Smuga

Dove of Peace

Stitching and assembly of the composite tapestry by Sylvia Davidson

 Grateful thanks to Cathie Wright for giving us the threads and encouraging the project, and to professional tapestry artists Joanne Soroka and Jo McDonald for their invaluable advice and support.

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Jesus the Jew

By Sr Isabel Smyth

This is the season of Advent, the season when Christians prepare for Christmas and reflect on the significance of Jesus for themselves and the world. During these four weeks Christians will be singing advent carols such as ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ with lyrics that talk of “captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here. It calls on Jesus to “free thine own from Satan’s tyranny, from the depths of hell thy people save”. What would it be like to sing these words in the presence of Jews, how would they feel to hear themselves described as captive to Satan’s tyranny? Unfortunately, these words reflect Christianity’s attitude to Judaism over the centuries – Jews were seen as bound by a legalism that Christianity had been freed from, they were in the thrall of the devil because they had not accepted Jesus as their saviour, and this was because they were spiritually blind. Tragically this negative attitude led to violent and horrific anti-Semitism over the centuries. Jews were subject to pogroms, expulsion and violence, resulting in the murder of 6 million Jews in the Nazi death camps.

Thank goodness this attitude has changed and in the Catholic church there is a much more positive attitude towards the Jews and Judaism. One of the reasons for this change of heart has been the recognition that Jesus, his mother, his disciples were all Jews and that we Christians have a familial relationship with Judaism.

It’s sometimes difficult for Christians to truly take this on board but if we are to truly know Jesus, we must know something of his context. Jesus lived in Galilee, in what is now northern Israel. It was not a backwater. It was cosmopolitan, situated on the silk road route and people living there would have encountered other cultures and beliefs so that it is possible that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The country was under Roman rule and the Jewish people longed for liberation. They looked forward to someone, a messiah, who would bring this about. Jesus is likely to have engaged in discussions and debates with other Jews, including Pharisees, as to how and when this might happen as he would have debated how best to live a good Jewish life. And he did all this as a faithful Jew. Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew. He never rejected or denied his religion though Christians have so underlined the importance of Jesus’ divinity and uniqueness that they have misunderstood the gospels and interpreted them as Jesus, and even God rejecting Judaism.

This is not accurate. Jesus loved his faith and lived it faithfully. He loved the Torah, which is the spiritual guidance at the heart of Judaism. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that he had come, not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. At the time there was a lot of debate among the various groups and teachers about what it meant to be a good Jew and how to keep the Law in an occupied land. Questions, such as was it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes, were not a challenge to his authority or an attempt to undermine him but the kind of dilemma facing Jews at that time.

Jesus kept the law, he ate kosher food, he was circumcised like all Jewish boys, he went to the Temple in Jerusalem, he attended the synagogue, he read the Jewish scriptures and would have prayed and even sung the psalms. He would have prayed three times a day wearing phylacteries, he would have worn fringes on his outer cloak.

He kept the Sabbath. There is an incident in the gospels when Jesus’ disciples plucked corn on the Sabbath because they were hungry and when Jesus was challenged about this he said, “the Sabbath is made for man not man for the Sabbath”. Some biblical commentaries suggest that this is a sign that in Jesus the age of keeping the law had been replaced by the age of redemption. But Jesus was not encouraging a breaking of the law because we now know that such an approach was not unknown in the Jewish tradition and that the law was to enhance life. What Jesus was doing was offering one interpretation of the law.

We know that Jesus had a deeply personal relationship with his father, calling God Abba. This is often, maybe even always, interpreted as Jesus having a more intimate and personal relationship with God than the Jews of the time who would always address God in more formal terms. This is not so – there are many examples of Jews talking to God as Abba and once again Christians have tried to make Jesus more unique than he was.

What Jesus is doing in the gospels is teaching his disciples how to be good Jews, how to live by the spirit of the law and respond from the heart. It was one way of being Jewish among others. Often conflicts in the gospels are not reflecting the time of Jesus but the times when the gospels were written and reflect tensions between the synagogue and the growing Christian community, not between Jesus and his contemporaries, including the pharisees.

Christians are followers of Jesus and live according to his understanding of faith and religion but how tragic if in doing this we interpret the scriptures in anti-Jewish ways and fail to respect the religion that Jesus loved and honour a people that Pope John Paul II described as our elder brothers and sisters in faith.

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Common Ground in Dialogue

A Blog Post by Sr Isabel Smyth, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue

Last week I was introduced to the work of Dr Peter Admirand who is the Director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University. Dr Admirand was the keynote speaker at a colloquium on ‘Interreligious Dialogue in the Time of Pope Francis, organised by the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for interreligious Dialogue.

While acknowledging the change and development in the Catholic church’s attitude to interreligious dialogue and the strong bond of friendship between the Pope and Rabbi Skorka, Dr Admirand widened our understanding of dialogue to include not just believers but also those who, as atheists, do not believe in God.

Dr Admirand’s most recent book is an account of such a dialogue, his own with Dr Andrew Fiala, the Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Ethics Centre at California State University, someone who has an interest in religion but is a declared atheist. The dialogue contained in their book Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist-Theist Dialogue is refreshing in that, like so many of these kinds of dialogues, it is not polemical with one side or the other trying to prove or disprove the existence of God.  Rather it focuses on the common ground of a set of virtues which allows for an honest conversation and a common search for understanding without suspicion and resentment. 

 Having learned something of the faith journey of each of the writers, the rest of the chapters focus on a virtue, suggested by one of the writers and then responded to by the other. There are seven virtues in all – harmony, courage, humility, curiosity, honesty, compassion and honour.  While the writers explore each virtue from their own perspective there is a learning for all of us in considering their role in interfaith relations.  Some, it would seem to me,  refer to the attitudes necessary for dialogue – a desire for harmony so that we are willing to set aside, at least for the time of dialogue, judgements and prejudices; a humility in listening to the truth as another sees it while recognising and acknowledging the terrible consequences of the failings of religions and ideologies; a compassion that recognises our shared humanity in its seeking for truth, even if we come up with different answers; an honour that  respects and values the integrity of the other and an honesty that allows us to see how others might interpret and understand our words and actions. Recently Pope Francis, a great advocate of dialogue, found himself challenged when he suggested that the Torah does not offer fulfilment but is in fact a journey that leads to an encounter with Christ, seemingly undoing advances in Catholic – Jewish relations from the days when Christianity was thought to supersede Judaism and render it irrelevant.  Now the Vatican is having to clarify that the Pope was speaking within the context of Christian scripture and stating “the abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews.”

When such a thing happens to a Pope it is newsworthy, but such misunderstandings can happen in dialogue to all of us though if the dialogue is based on friendship, as is the case with the Pope’s relationship with the Jewish community, the upset can be talked about openly and be a moment of learning for everyone.  But it is fear of such incidents that can keep some people from engaging in dialogue. Courage is then needed to break out of our sense of self-sufficiency and comfort and enter the world of another. For those of us who have done it, the journey is transformative and enriching but taking the first step can be difficult. Perhaps it is at that point that curiosity is something to be valued as a motivation for setting out on what is truly an adventure.

At our colloquium Dr Admirand highlighted curiosity as the value he hesitated over and some attending the event agreed with him. He noted that the Catholic tradition, based as it is on the certainty of Revelation, was suspicious of curiosity believing that it could undermine religious belief and, in their book, Dr Fiala states his belief that progression in science, psychology and other disciplines has done just that, especially since the Enlightenment.  It certainly has taken many people beyond what Fiala calls naïve religion and that surely must be a good thing. There is of course a dangerous curiosity and today we are aware of the dangers of the internet, experimentation with drugs and other substances for example that can lead young people to play with fire – metaphorically if not literally. Pope Francis has warned against idle curiosity that is empty and superficial, but he has also said “the secret to joy: never suppress positive curiosity; get involved, because life is meant to be lived”.

Within the context of interreligious dialogue curiosity is surely a value which, if strong enough, gives us the courage to enter into the world of others and come back to our own changed and enlightened not just about the other but also about ourselves, our beliefs and the world we inhabit.

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Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year Holiday, Honey, Apple, Pomegranate, Hala

Rosh Hashanah: In the Presence of the King

Guest Blog by Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts in the evening of 6 September this year, and lasts till the evening of 8 September. It ushers in the Ten ‘Days of Awe’, which continue until the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and constitute the high point of the Jewish year. They are a time of reflection, of soul-searching, and repentance, when even the least observant Jews try to get to synagogue for part of the long, elaborate services with their evocative music and solemn atmosphere.

Rosh Hashanah itself marks ‘the birthday of the world’, the anniversary of Creation (whether understood literally or metaphorically), and is thus a universal festival that celebrates God’s absolute sovereignty and power. The liturgy for the day speaks of God as Monarch, and imagines the Jewish people standing in the heavenly court, paying homage to God and enacting a ‘coronation’, with our prayers serving as a crown. Though the services are lengthy and intricate (a traditional Rosh Hashanah morning service can take five hours!), the magnificence of the mediaeval poem-prayers and the special melodies that are only sung at this time of year combine to create a sense of awe and solemn celebration, culminating in the piercing call of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown as part of the service. Its raucous shriek summons us to repentance, to consciousness of the urgency of the day, and simultaneously recalls Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, cancelled at the last moment by God’s mercy, and replaced by a ram.

At the other end of the Days of Awe stands Yom Kippur. Though closely linked to Rosh Hashanah, it is also its exact opposite: where Rosh Hashanah is universal and combines solemn joy and awe, Yom Kippur is intensely individual: each person stands alone in front of God, and tries to repair their relationship with the divine, conscious of their failings. Where Rosh Hashanah includes festive meals, starting off with apples and honey to express our wishes for a sweet new year, Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast, freeing us to focus on the most intense and important aspects of our lives. Together, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the twin poles of our spiritual lives—God and our individual souls—tying them together in love, majesty, and intimacy.

With thanks to CCJ – https://ccj.org.uk/blog/RoshHashanah 

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Guido Reni St Joseph With The Infant Jesus Wga19304

The Father in Abrahamic Religions

By Anthony MacIsaac

Inter-religious dialogue has often touched upon the topic of Motherhood, and there has been a wealth of reflection on this, even unto the apparently radical idea of God as Mother. Not so often, it would seem, has Fatherhood been discussed in this way. In this “Year of St. Joseph” – inaugurated by Pope Francis, and ending this December – it seems pertinent to consider what Fatherhood means more deeply. 

To begin with St. Joseph himself, Christianity generally considers him the “Foster-Father” of Jesus Christ. In a certain sense of analogy, the Holy Family resembles the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ as the Son, Mary as the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph as the Father. Alike to the Father – St. Joseph remains in the background, and is an unseen presence. His position within Christian piety has fluctuated. In the medieval period, he was often seen even as a cantankerous nuisance – caricatured as such in the carnival performances, which sought to emulate the key elements of Christ’s life, usually on Shrove Tuesday. It is difficult to say how this unfortunate image grew, but it seems to have been culturally rooted in the time. Many may have considered him an unequal spouse to the Virgin Mary, and the role of step-father may have been thought of in negative terms. Yet, it could be that the humour regarding St. Joseph was in good natured spirits too. Whatever the case, his cult soon grew, especially with his role as Patron of the “Good Death”. Since he disappears from the Gospel early on, he is considered to have died during Jesus’ teenage years. By the 19th century, he was seen as “The Worker”, and a Patron to labourers everywhere. His popularity continued to increase, and in the 20th century his role began to emerge anew as a Father-figure. He was invoked in particular as a Saint of family life. With the “Year of St. Joseph”, his status might be at its apogee, and it would seem the Catholic Church is calling her members to a greater consideration of this holy man. In short, his role as a Father-figure carries with it many connotations. Even if he wasn’t perfect, his hard work as a carpenter and his devotion to Mary provided a safe and secure environment for Jesus to grow. Himself taking on the carpentry that St. Joseph no doubt taught Him, Jesus became a man probably quite like St. Joseph, doubtless also in His tenderness and care for those around Him. It is also notable that the Jews of this time saw Jesus as the son of Joseph, to the extent that the genealogy of Jesus refers back to King David via him – even if Mary’s genealogy is actually used in one of the Gospels. 

 The place of the father within Islam has certain similarities to that of St. Joseph within Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Aminah fell pregnant, her husband Abdullah left for a trading trip. Tragically, during his time away he fell seriously ill, and died without ever meeting his son. The aged figure of Abd al-Muttalib, the father of Abdullah, then took Muhammad under his protection. Despite being Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib raised the boy as his own son, and exerted a formative role in the boy’s growth. His place within the Islamic tradition is interesting, in that his earlier life is characterised by an adherence to the “old ways” of monotheism, before the coming of Islam. One episode in particular is striking, in that Abd al-Muttalib almost sacrifices his son Abdullah, alike to Abraham and Ishmael – in Islam it is Ishmael and not Isaac who occupied this place. The familial descent of Muhammad from Ishmael comes through the line of Abd al-Muttalib, whose own great-grandfather was Qusai, the King of Mecca. The parallels with Jesus’ descent from the King of Israel, David, and the preceding Patriarchs are clear. Dying when Muhammad was eight years old, one of Abd al-Muttalib’s other sons took on the role of foster-father to Muhammad, Abu Talib. The relationship between Abu Talib and his nephew was always one of warmth, but there is controversy as to whether he accepted Muhammad’s claims to prophecy – and he thereby remains a difficult figure in Muslim tradition. In any case, he helped his nephew secure his place within the Meccan community. Over time Muhammad himself became a father, and many Muslims today trace their ancestry back to his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There are certain Sufi litanies that invoke these individuals, in prayer to God, and these reflect a veneration for Muhammad as father to the Ummah (Nation).

In Judaism, certain figures are likewise considered as fathers to the Chosen People. Abraham – venerated as “Father in Faith” by Jews, Christians and Muslims – represents the first among these, leaving asides the legendary Noah for now. Recently Pope Francis visited Abraham’s place of birth – the ancient city of Ur, in Iraq. This choice was made because of the unifying significance to the life of Abraham, whose role as father is key to God’s Covenant with him, that promises descendants as numerous as the stars. God even introduces Himself to Moses as the God “of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. With Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve Tribes of Israel are evoked – and the Nation of Israel proper takes its foundation from these twelve Tribes. To take a brief glance back at Noah, his position as proverbial father of Humanity has also been used somewhat within Jewish apologetics to underscore the reality that we are all called to some share in God’s plan. There is much more that could be said here; however it seems good to highlight the role of fatherhood within mainstream Abrahamic religion as a creative, nurturing and guiding presence.

(Our Feature Image is Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Renic. 1635)

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