Jewish Co-chair's Report
At the February AGM last year, I said that I believed that interfaith and multifaith conversation, dialogue and debate was vital in a world which is increasingly riven by fear and lack of understanding of the Other. I have been amazed, over the past year, to recognise even more, how much the lesson of this early part of the 21st century is, contrary to what I and many others much wiser than I, thought, religions and faiths have come to occupy a central role in our understanding of the political and cultural life of our world.
If the theme of the late 60s and 70s was that God was dead, the theme of the 21st century is that God, how ever we understand that term, is very much alive in the hearts and minds of billions of the world's inhabitants and that we can have no peace unless understand and embrace that reality. More importantly, we must begin to live with two seemingly contradictory notions in our heads. That no matter how vivid or how hazy is our own conception of God and of the faith we practice to establish communion with God, other people will have an equally powerful and different understanding of God to which they adhere with the same or more passion; that those differences between us actually matter and that, paradoxically, they can actually bring us together.
This year, the world conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which will be held in Sydney in July is choosing the theme; "Healing a broken world: the faiths working together". It would be easy to dismiss the ambition of this theme as a bit of publicity hyperbole.. But it is important to see that there is something aspirational about the confidence that theme expresses about the importance of people of different faiths working together in the cause of Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam is the Hebrew term for "repairing the world" and that theme should energise our thinking about the role of this organisation and its potential to make a difference.
This year we saw a major organisational success in the completion and registration of our constitution. We are now an incorporated body. Last year we shaped a vision for our organisation. This year we have developed a leaflet which expresses that vision and seeks to increase our membership and we are developing a list of email addresses and other contacts which we hope to use to expand our activities in the future.
This has been a year of sad losses and departures. There was of course the loss of our patron, Mrs Hilde Hines, to which I have just referred. There was the departure of Evan Zuesse to Melbourne,. Both of these individuals in their different ways have been towers of strength in the past decade and those of us who carry on their legacy are well aware of the gap they leave for us to fill.
This year has been significant for our attempt to reach out beyond the council to a larger audience in a series of public meetings. If our organisation is to expand to accomplish even a little of its significant task, it must reach beyond us. And I believe there is a receptive audience out there which wants to participate in interfaith activity.
Our first presentation was by Evan Zuesse and Michael Trainor, who discussed DABRU EMET: a Jewish statement on Christians and Christianity and the 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission: "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures and the Christian Bible. Both of our speakers have a reputation for intellectual acuteness and a fine understanding of the issues involved in interfaith dialogue and demonstrated open-hearted mutual respect and provided a fascinating evening.
The first of our more public events this year was a very stimulating and fascinating presentation by Geraldine Hawkes and Kathy McEvoy of their experience in visiting Israel/Palestine in the company of Rabbi John Levi and many other lay and ecclesiastical Christian representatives and activists. This talk was preceded by a welcome tour and introduction to Jewish practice by Kath Cozens, one of the most active young people in our community, who has sadly now gone to Melbourne. The presentation was held in the sanctuary of Beit Shalom and run in an informal and very sharing way by two experienced presenters. It gave us an insight into the powerful attractions and the deep contradictions in Israel. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of this tiny geographical space in the desert is that it is considered holy by three of the world's most influential faiths.
Our next public meeting was held at my much respected co-chair's ground at the Brighton Uniting Church and I must say, cause me a great deal of angst. The topic was fundamentalism and the speakers were Dr L. Lee Levett-Olsen of the ACD and myself. When we planned the event, we thought it was important for us to explore the issue which is so live in all religions. It must be admitted that in the past it has been the tradition amongst the Jewish members of our Council to rely on the encyclopaedic knowledge of Evan Zeusse or the religious training of our Rabbis. But our aim was to explore the personal impact of fundamentalist forms of our two faiths. Lee spoke with both a wealth of personal and theoretical understanding of the issue and set the historical and theological ground. I spoke of the impact in my own life of the fundamentalist beliefs and practices which formed the background of my parents, and in particular of my mother's life. A life I depicted in poetry. I wanted to raise the contradictions that we who practice progressive and even liberal forms of faiths encounter in our interaction with the hard line of the scriptures and the struggle we have in maintaining the integrity of a Judaism that differs vastly from the more traditionalist forms.
Our next public meeting was a fascinating and very popular talk on the archaeology of the Temple Mount by the eminent Biblical archaeologist Dr Leen Ritmeeyer. This was held at the ACD and attracted a record audience. Dr Ritmeyer is a very practiced presenter and has a fascinating tale to tell and he told it to a crowd of about eighty in more or less standing room accommodation.
Our final public meeting of the year was with Stephen Watkins of the ABC program FOR THE GOD WHO SINGS. He presented a most engaging paper with the title: Transcending the Story – informing and reflecting our diversity: breaking a good story is a journalist's dream, but is the story all we need from today's media? This presentation included the story of Stephen's life in the media; and addressed the ways in which how speakers, topics and materials are chosen and sourced. For various reasons, mainly to do with hurried publicity, this talk was not as well attended as the quality of the speaker merited, But the small audience allowed a very lively question time and a discussion in the audience about the topics Stephen raised . Certainly, a conversation about the media and its depiction of religious issues and interfaith activities could well be a topic in which we might invest some more time and effort this year
Two other evens this year depended on the hospitality of our Secretary, Merrilyn Ades, who has made her house and her culinary skills available as a way of bringing council members together in an informal gathering over a meal.
Our first meal put the finishing touches on the acceptance of our constitution. Our second, and the final meeting of the year was when 13 of us met to share food and to watch the DVD of the film "Keeping the Faith." My co-chair David Houston facilitated the viewing of the DVD and led a discussion of the film and its nuances as opportunity to explore inter faith relationships and a respectful discussion of the differences between our faiths and the cultures that their practice engender.
These public meetings demonstrated, in their own ways, what we have to share with each other – a rich tradition of ethical, philosophical, liturgical and artistic practice interpreted through our own different lenses
One issue that we will need to deal with this year is how can find a balance between an increasing number of public meetings and those times when we, the members of the Council can come together and consider issues which may impact on our activities. I believe that our public events are very useful. What I feel now is that we must seek to find the time to do the small bits of business and perhaps the larger bits of planning and directions that come our way. This year, we will strive to even that balance.
For me the great lesson of this year was the way in which interfaith activities hold both the danger and the blessing of walking on eggshells. We speak a little too glibly about respect and tolerance. The skill of interfaith activity is the ability to know the sensitivities of the Other and see oneself as the Other sees one. In our politeness, we sometimes gloss over difference. It is in our differences that we most interest and frighten one another. It is difference that makes us most truly ourselves. It is how we encounter difference, how we deal with difference not by ignoring it, not by discounting it a false kind of universalism, but by delighting in that very otherness that is the aims of interfaith activity.
I would like to end my report with an expression of my thanks to you all and to my colleagues in the executive members for your support in this journey.. I hope that this year we may continue to shape an organisation that advocates for the virtue of interfaith and multifaith activities and that we continue to reach out and provoke discussion in the community of the values that our organisation holds dear.