Rosh Yeshiva of Pardes Goes to Amman

Hi,

I got this in a Pardes email and thought it was really interesting. The Rosh Yeshiva of Pardes went to a trialogue conference in Amman, Jordan recently and wrote about his experiences. A few months ago, Landes also was part of a panel discussion about religious responses to the Rav Kook tragedy.

I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Landes on many levels. Not only is he a smart guy but also he has the ability to connect with people whether they are students or Pardes donors. I also know that without his traipsing about the U.S., Pardes wouldn’t be as well supported as it is.

Enjoy the article…

Sunday, May 25th

After a wonderful Shabbat, I saw my son Isaac off very early Sunday morning as he returned to his combat unit that surrounds Nablus, a seething hotbed of Islamic radical fundamentalism, to guard four Jewish settlements (several of which have their own brand of fundamentalism). It usually takes me a few hours to fully get a grip on myself, but I was off on my own “mission” – to participate in the International Scholars’ Abrahamic Trialogue, this year held in Jordan. The thrust of the conference would touch on peace. So whatever my own personal politics (as most of the Israeli electorate, it tends to veer; now keeping my son’s unit safe seems to exert a great force – again like most of Israel), we always have to work the peace side. That much I know from my study of Judaism.

Instead of flying, a group of us drove. In the van was my old friend R. Abe Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who arranged for my participation, the distinguished thinkers R. Yitz and Blu Greenberg (Yitz had a significant impact upon Abe and me when we studied as undergraduates with him at Yeshiva) and a wise and witty religious Israeli businessman from the neighborhood who spends a lot of time in Arab countries and is best left unnamed. The trip up was a good idea – going through the dry and dusty Beit She’an Valley provided a transition, until we arrived at the bridge that crosses over. The normal bureaucracy was complicated by the fact that we had entered Jordan through the wrong bridge – our visas at the van on that side were not waiting. However, frowns were soon enough (some delay) smoothed over with smiles, chuckles and the application of the universal lubricant for getting the wheels moving. 

As we entered our newly assigned van, the driver and the other officials fairly begged us not to wear our kipot.It makes trouble.” We were off and headed for the next two hours up a series of winding, bumpy mountain roads across a scenic but rather barren countryside. We passed through some villages but it all was somehow familiar. It dawned on me that it felt like Israel 50 years ago. We are on the mirror side. A rock thrown against the side of the van by a skinny teen with fierce eyes reminded us to mind our manners. We did stop to see the ancient and rather spectacular city of Jerash – masses of colonnades down its Cardo, amphitheaters and temples. A distant glory, for Amman itself is fairly pedestrian, poor and crowded – the recent 3/4 million Iraqi refugees do not help matter.

Monday, May 26th

The conference is made up mainly of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars from around the world. Only Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein and I are from Israel. There are a few other Israelis – the aforementioned businessman, a journalist, the new president of the Israel-Jordan Chamber of Commerce and a few doctors. The doctors are important, for this conference is adopting a new program to help indigent Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian youth who are hearing-impaired. A conscious border-crossing (or border-ignoring) process, the conference has invited some significant international businesspeople to help get it going. The point is to do some good, create a small peace impetus, and to engage business with religion. Hard to oppose.

But what’s the real issue? The conference organizers, I believe, would answer something to the effect of Tikun Olam – getting the world in a better place through the religious knowing and respecting each other. For me – perhaps I am small-minded – it’s putting the Jewish people, and especially Israel, in a safer place. Religion and business have a power, especially when combined. It makes sense to be where these types of discussions are taking place.

So how is it going? I am surrounded by a group (some 70) of very sophisticated scholars, thinkers, organizers and tycoons. They are impressive and all are shaped by their own faith commitment. They are certainly committed to improving the world, and I don’t believe that there is an anti-Semite among us (even in the closet). But it is also clear to me that only a few really understand the difficult and dangerous place that Israel finds itself in. The few who do, really do understand. God bless them. It has been the job of the committed Jews here to directly and “testify” to the others what our concerns are. There is nothing like doing that in person over a few days in many forums and venues.

But there is another way of viewing what is going on here. The conference is sponsored by HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal (the brother of the late King Hussein and the uncle of the present King Abdullah). He is an extraordinarily literate and accomplished person (jet pilot, 8th degree black belt, author of many books and recipient of a wide range of prestigious degrees and awards). He is a Muslim leader in his country, which, to say it mildly, is squeezed in by some tough neighbors and has few natural resources. He is not the power, but his powerful role nonetheless lets him consider the need not only for science and education but for tolerance and openness. This means openness to Israel and to Judaism. He has figured out his own reasoning and narrative for an open and tolerant Islam. Other Muslim leaders and thinkers, especially but not exclusively Arabs, need to do the same.

We need them to create their own models in which we can co-exist and even properly interact with them. It must be done on a variety of levels, and religion is one of them, along with the doing of shared good deeds.

My teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik – the Rav – opposed theological dialogue for fear that it would lead to homogenization between faith commitments. This dialogue (trialogue!), however, follows his model for discussion on pressing social issues. This trialogue qualifies. I don’t need the Christians and Muslims to become “somewhat” Jewish. I just need them to allow us to live with them in this world in peace. If that means that I need to meet with them openly and honestly and to have a hard talk and to perhaps learn from them, I’m ready. In the meantime, my daily havruta sessions at Pardes have been a great preparation for these earnest and real conversations.

Wednesday, May 28th

Two days later, as I return home to Jerusalem, I think to myself that Jordan is a tense country and it provided the context and not only the location for this conference. The attempt to create a chessed component for trialogue through the hearing aid project proved to be valuable. It tests a country which always seems on the verge of really opening itself to Israel to take one more step to that promise.

Why can’t it? In brief, there are three spheres of power in the country. The first is the sphere of the royals and the government. The second is the parliament and the third are the unions (everyone in every profession belongs to a union). The royals and the government understand that their salvation lies with the West and the best way to the West is Israel (which for them, in many ways, is the West). The parliament is divided and often as useless as many other legislative bodies, but sometimes capable of doing some good. The unions are the problems. They are violently anti-West and that, of course, means anti-Israel (and vice versa). They are also infiltrated with many extremists and moderates are intimidated.

Nonetheless, there is a movement to create many joint business ventures between Israeli companies and Jordanian ones. They are in different stages of development and most are (frustratingly) hidden. But they are being pushed ahead. The hearing aid work is an example, and hopefully can become a paradigm. It is supposed to be launched officially and publicly. Since, as it turns out, the greatest beneficiaries will be the poorest from Jordan and especially those children with unclear national status, it is crucial that Israel’s doctors and Jewish investment be properly known.

Again and again in the conference forums, the Jews articulately presented that security for Israel is a religious demand and that one cannot get to the Jew without accepting him as a Zionist. One would have thought that that point would be clear to non-Jewish theologians. It is to some, but it is far from clear to others. They were engaged with honesty, humor and persistence. That and a little Jewish charm can go a long way. Since many are opinion makers in the 20 countries they hail from, this has a reverberance. In many of these countries, religion is dominant, and if some of their religious leaders can figure out a way of living with Jews – who are Zionists – this will eventually be of great help to them, as they exit the cycle of hatred, repression and destruction.

In the meantime I learned a great deal from stellar figures – from a team of businessmen who are board members at the Union Theological Seminary and professors who are part of an audacious End Poverty Initiative and are about to acquire thousands of abandoned apartment buildings in New York for the homeless; from a Sunni theologian who has organized a network of liberal Islamic organizations in Indonesia and is battling for legitimacy in the face of the radicals; and from a brilliant Romanian priest who has “discovered” the Holocaust and spends much creative effort (he is a Hebrew bible expert) in re-understanding his religion and educating his seminary students in that light. They and others I expect to find one day spending some time in our Beit Midrash.

Danny Landes

Director and Rosh HaYeshiva

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