3 September 2012

Words, Concepts, Deeds. Peace as a way of living

Rabbi Adi Cohen
Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation
The 2012 Annual Peace Lecture Otago University, Monday 3rd September 2012 5.30pm

So first of all I would like to thank the interfaith group of Dunedin for bringing me here to this beautiful place and  the Otago  University which  supports this enterprise of interfaith. I think that the combination between faith and university is something that we need to encourage more and more.

Peace. Ok.   I would like to put peace in a Jewish framework, and then I would like to tell you that I don’t like the concept of the word ‘peace’. Now is the time you should move uncomfortably in your chairs. Great. Ok. So let’s talk about peace. Peace in the Jewish tradition. When we read in the bible the story about Moshe, Moses, maybe the most magnificent, the greatest prophet in Judaism, who took the Israelites out of Egypt, walked with them in the desert for forty years, and then could not enter the Promised Land. We ask ourselves ‘why’? And the answer is very simple according to the Bible.  It was  because he didn’t do what G-d told him to do. He was supposed to talk to the rock and instead of talking to the rock, he hit the rock. And that was his punishment, not to enter into the Promised Land. However, we read another thing – that G-d changed his mind because of Moses. As the Israelites were about to travel into the Promised Land, through the desert, G-d told Moses “lead your people and engage in a war, with a certain city.”  And Moses scratched his head and said “mm, I have a better idea”. Instead of getting into war with this city, he went there in  a peaceful way and asked them for permission  to walk through their property. And surprisingly enough, the answer was: “Yes, you may”. And when we read the later rabbinical literature,   it  tells   us  that the Jewish law to engage in war before you attack a city, is to first, to  have a dialogue. So something odd happens in the text. Either you do what G-d is telling you to do, or you don’t. And if you don’t, shouldn’t you be punished? And if you are not punished, but being praised for what you have done, there might be something behind it.  Peaceful ways. That is one example.

Now, in Judaism, there is something very odd.  We don’t use the name of G-d. We don’t write it, we don’t use it...we sanctify the name. And in ancient times, there was only one time a year, that one person, after three days of purifying himself said this name out loud. It was the high priest of the temple on  the Day of Atonement at Yom Kippur and then when he said the  name all the Israelites were bowing down, not looking at his face- it was a really emotional moment. So you can understand how significant it is for us in the Jewish tradition. However, returning  to the bible we find a very unique story that we call Parashat Sota, Isha Sota. If a husband thinks or suspects that his wife if cheating on him, he cannot do anything about it publicly. He needs to go to the high priest. And then the high priest takes a piece of parchment and using  a special ink,  writes on it  the specific name of G-d.  Once it is written he puts the parchment into   water until the name is  erased.  He adds then  a little sand to the water and asks the woman, his wife, to drink the  water. Now, if she cheated on her husband, according to the text, she will have this twitch in her stomach and she will die immediately. And if not, then the husband was publically humiliated and he must  go home and apologise to his wife. Now there are two things that we learn from this story. One, I don’t believe that any woman who drinks a little ink will die, which basically means, if you suspect that something had happened with your wife, talk to her. And it’s a very important lesson. The second lesson is that even the most holiest of the holiest in the Jewish tradition, the name of G-d, G-d is willing that it be  used in order to bring peace between  a couple, to maintain peace.

Now  we  make a jump of a few hundred years to the days of King David. King David really really  wanted to build a temple. A temple where G-d could  dwell. But he couldn’t. What was the reason? Yes, he had enough money. Yes, he had the right connections. What was the problem? The problem was that King David was a man of war. His hands shed blood. So he wasn’t entitled to even start building this house, building the temple. The one to build it would be his son, King Solomon, Shlomo. And then we go into the prophets, and the prophets are telling us about this very beautiful day sometime in the future after the day of judgement,  Armageddon in Christian  eschatology, after the whole world is  destroyed. The world will be destroyed, then the righteous ones will leave in peace. And why do I mention that? Because I think it’s very similar to what happens  today when we talk about peace. Peace is something that comes after war. It  is  the quiet days after the storm. And this is when I move a little uncomfortably in my chair; when I think about the concept, ‘peace’.  What are we talking about today?

I would like to leave the Jewish framework aside for a second and talk with you about Emanuel Kant. Now I know that we have a few Professors of Philosophy here. I have to admit that I’m not even beginning to understand Kant. I  have read some of his essays a few times in my life. I struggled with them.   He is  a great philosopher to struggle with.  I’m not sure that I completely understand him but  I do understand a few things. In his “Critique of Pure Reason”  Kant  is talking about three things that human intelligence is struggling with or is being directed to. One of them is to ask ourselves: what can we know? What is the limit of  human knowledge? The second question will be: what can we do with that? What can we do with the knowledge that we have?

Now I know that it will be shocking for most of you but even the Professors in the University go home in the  evening  and make dinner. Right? Do we need all the knowledge for that? Kant says no. So what can we do with the knowledge? We can do whatever we want to do for good or bad. It is up to us to decide. The third question I find the most interesting is: what can we hope for? Not only as individuals but also as humanity. We have knowledge. The knowledge keeps on growing and growing and now the question is: what can we do with that? My son is almost three years old.  He knows how to operate the ipad almost as good as I can. When I grew up, when I was fourteen,  I got my first computer. It was an Amstrad  CPC 128k. Kilo bytes. And I was the first one in the neighbourhood to have a computer. The world is changing. I think that our hopes should also  change. So that’s from the Critique of Pure Reason, and then he writes another work,  Emanuel Kant that he calls something with the metaphysics –I’m thinking in Hebrew and translating into English simultaneously, so forgive me about the names of the  writings.  In this work, about the metaphysics, he talks about the dogmatic metaphysics. And I won’t go into it too much, I will just say that one of  the problems that he’s pointing to, and it’s very important for our discussion, is that you cannot filter belief through the logical system. Beliefs cannot be proved. God, the immortality of the soul, are wonderful concepts that we cannot prove. And the problem with that is that if we cannot prove it, then we can say whatever we want to say about them, and everything we say will be right. What I say I will consider to be  right and what you say, I will consider  wrong. Which reminds me of my grandmother (rest in peace) who used to say that religion  is what I have, superstition is what you have. Right?  But  the one who stands in front of you feels the same thing. They have the religion, the real religion,  you  are  holding the superstition. So where do we go from here ? What can we do about it? So,  is there any hope for interfaith dialogue? No one can prove that he or she is right. Every religion is based on faith. What can we do with that? I think especially when we are talking about Islam, Christianity and Judaism,  we  need to ask ourselves two questions: what  can we agree upon?  And are we allowed to disagree? Having a dialogue. And I want to address those two subjects. One of them is what can we agree upon and I think all three religions agree that each and every human being in the world was created in G-d’s image. I’m not saying that G-d has a nose and a tongue and hands and   anthropomorphism of God, I’m talking about the divine spark  that each and every human being possess inside, the spirit of life. So when I’m looking at a person, I’m talking to a person.  Do  I ask myself am I talking to a Muslim at the moment and are  we  having an interfaith moment? And my answer will be: I don’t think so. That’s not the right way. And  why ?  I was trying to google faith before, trying to find faith in facebook, there’s no such thing ;  a dialogue between faith, a dialogue between religion, religions. A dialogue is something that happens between people. Between human beings when we talk to each other. And we talk to each other, I talk to a friend. I talk to another person. Do I? I think that in the last two thousand years what we actually did was  not  to talk with, we talked to. We talked  to the other. We needed someone there to reaffirm who we are. I am not a Christian. I am not a Muslim. I’m not Catholic. I’m not Protestant. I’m not Sunna. I’m not Shi’a... you name it. Inside each religion and between religion. And it’s very human to think that way. It’s much easier to think or to build our identity by defining what we are not than to ask ourselves really hard questions. What are we? What do I believe in? Not what I don’t believe in? What do I believe in? So that’s a good start to acknowledge the fact that the one standing next to me is different - and to respect it, and I need this person to be different. Just as this person needs me to be different for him. And then let’s take it to the next step. Am I talking to a representative of a religion? No. He’s twelve years old and learning in the same classroom as my child. Yes, he’s Muslim, but guess what? They both like to drink coke together. Too much coke. And then they get crazy because of the sugar. He’s not a representative of Islam. He’s a twelve year old child called Aramand. That’s it. And it sounds very funny you know when we talk about kids. But what happened when we talked about ourselves? I am a Rabbi with a very ancient surname, Cohen. One of the most  ancient names of the world. And yet, I go home, I brush my teeth, I do the dishes, I cook pasta for my kids, I get angry at them that they don’t eat enough vegetables, they do eat more than enough ketchup, right? You’re all laughing,  you all know what I’m talking about. And I think that this is what we’re talking about when we talk about interfaith.  To see the humanity, the human being,  in the person that I’m talking with. To relate on a human basis. To know that the person that I’m fighting with  at the moment  in the middle of a very enthusiastic debate is also a father and a son and a brother and he had a very bad day yesterday because he went to the dentist (I hate dentists, sorry). But hey, suddenly there is a narrative behind a person. There’s a human being behind this Christian guy.  I don’t know why he’s yelling at me, or why I am yelling at him. When we are talking religion, we are usually talking holy texts, scriptures. But aren’t each and every one of you a holy text? You have a beginning, you have a plot, and we will all have an end. I think that according to Plato we are stories. Right? So let’s start by considering each other as holy texts. And you know what? When the book ends, when we will write the last page of this book, our story will keep on being told in other peoples books. How do we want to be remembered? I don’t want people to remember me for being a Rabbi. It’s more important for me to be remembered as a father, as a Dad, as a husband, as a human being. A good one. There’s an argument  between two rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud – what is the essence of Judaism? If you could summarise Judaism in one sentence, what will it be? And one rabbi says you need to love your friend (in Judaism it is friend, not neighbour, cause you might not like your neighbour, a friend is closer). Love your friend like you love yourself. Great, it’s a great start. And we  quote it all the time. But I think that the response is even better, because then the other rabbi tells him, you know what? It’s a great sentence but I think that “each and every person was created in G-d’s image”  is better. Now it’s a win win situation. But as I said, I don’t think that love is enough. Because if I don’t love you, if you are not my friend, does it mean that I don’t need to be polite? I don’t need to show some respect? He’s not my friend, why do I care? I think that  in the second sentence we are obligated to something much more profound. We are very very different, but we are both humans. I may be sixty eight and have a Professorial title,   and he is seven years old, but we are two human beings . Just the same. 

Taking it to a different angle. It is not politically correct today to disagree, to say that I believe that you are wrong. Why? What happens when we keep all this inside? Eventually it will explode. I think that when we are talking about peace or talking about interfaith, one of the most important things we can do is to establish a framework or a language that will legitimise disagreements. I have all the right in the world to believe in what I believe in. It doesn’t mean that I am denying you from having your beliefs. Let’s talk about it in a civilised way. Let’s disagree in a civilised way. Disagreements are part of  what is  driving humanity forward. Imagine science without disagreements. Modern medicine, no one is questioning the knowledge of the past. It’s University. One of my Professors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem used to say that a student that will not, throughout the term, a student that will not make him think twice about what he has just said, will not get a straight A in his course. He said that the students’ role  in the University  is to  challenge what the Professors teach. I agree with him,  as long as I am not the Professor!  So is it good to disagree, or not? About fifteen or twenty years ago, the Russian Prime  Minister  Mikhail Gorbachov ,  said, you know with all the  Perestroika  and  Glastnost and the Cold War with Russia and the States, he was interviewed by one of the Russian newspapers and was asked why do you need all of that?  You can just press the button and that’s it. Why do you need to go back and forth to the States and have public discussions, and perhaps have bad publicity about it? He said something very wise. He said “it is better to argue for hours than it is to plan how to destroy the world.” It’s just like two boxers in the ring, but we don’t use our fists, we use our tongues. We just need to make sure that we’re not hurting anyone in the  process ; there are ways to do it.

And what is the last thing that I have to suggest? We are talking about interfaith. How can I be in a dialogue with someone from another faith? And I think that one of the most important things that we need, is to have a firm identity of who we are. And in order to achieve that we need to start dealing first with the domestic problems. We need to start to have a dialogue between our own denominations in our own religion. Whether it’s Judaism between the Orthodox and the Reformed and the Conservative and the Renewal and the Reconstructionists, you name it. I won’t even start to count all the denominations in Christianity. If it’s Islam, Sunna, Shi’a, name it as well. You all know what  I am talking about. But it’s very  easy to say I don’t want to deal with that, let’s talk with them, let’s keep it away. I’ll talk with the Christians. I’ll talk with the Muslims. They are not a threat to my identity. But you know what? When my fellow Jews are not a threat to my identity, I will find it much easier to talk to Christians, or to Muslims or to any other religion. I know who I am. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to be. I don’t need to tell anyone else what to be. But it starts at home with who we are. And why do I talk about home? Once again, going back to the foundations. If we were all created in G-d’s image, I think that this is what we need to sanctify. Humanity.  Faith.  And if we want to talk to each other, if we want to coexist  one next to the  other, we need to understand that religion comes second, humanity comes first. Because religion is the way that we practice our faith. But if you practice your religion, your faith in a way that hurts other people, then you are practicing a religion that has no faith. Are we entitled to hurt someone just to make us feel better? Maybe until we are four years old. But what happens next? We spend about twelve years of our life at school to learn mathematics.  I believe that in the twelfth grade we already know that two plus two equals...  it’s not a test, relax...  but when we talk about faith and we talk about religion, most of us still hold the same concepts of faith and religion that we were taught in Sunday school or at the kindergarten. Maybe we need to re-think, to re-define concepts. Faith, G-d, religion, peace, the world has changed. As a spiritual leader, as a religious leader, today I won’t tell people how to live their lives. I’m not entitled to do it. And you know what? They won’t listen anyway.  I am there to guide. I am there to teach. I am there to be some kind of “Jimminy Cricket”,  a moral compass. But it reflects in the language I use, the way that I talk to people, and they don’t learn just from me. They learn me. So once again talking about interfaith, talking about a dialogue between religions. It starts here, in the individual talking to another individual, making a human  framework that I can talk about – the children, the economic system, the weather. And only then, let’s talk religion. And it’s no secret that today, there’s just not enough time. If I have thirty kids coming to a Sunday school for two and a half hours, trust me, they are ignorant enough about Judaism. I just don’t have the time to teach them about Christianity or Islam. And I believe it is the same thing in other places, whether it is the Sunday school in the mosque, or other places. But if they will talk together, if they will play together, if we will have lunch together, they will have the time to talk, to get to know each other. A few years ago, about fifteen years ago, Billy Joel wrote a song and he described the history of the twentieth century –  “We didn’t start the fire”.  I see some people are already starting to sing it quietly. And the words he is using are  “we didn’t start the fire, it’s always burning since the world been turning, we didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.” Did we? I don’t think so. We didn’t try to fight it, because we needed this fire to define who we are and I think that we need to grow from there.  To say this is who I am and this is who we are. I won’t try to change you. Don’t try to change me. Let’s talk about it. And I believe that this is where we find interfaith. This is where we find the real dialogue.

The last person that I would like to quote is a philosopher and a poet from the thirteenth century Jalal Ad In Rumi who was one of the first prophets of the Dancing Dervishes.  He said that the world is echoing what we are saying,  and if you think that you have said something good but the world echoes back something negative, don’t try to explain it in beautiful ways. When a bird sings, this is what you hear. And if you said something and you heard a crow or you hear the sound of a donkey, ask yourself, what message did you send to the world? Was it the right message? And I think that so far, we are not  birds. But we can be. We can send the right message. We can agree that the dialogue between us starts by recognising the fact that we are all not the same. And then it continues by recognising the fact that not only are we not the same,  but that each and every one of us is a unique human being. And from then on we can share a common ground; we can talk about the differences.

In a few weeks time, according to the Jewish calendar we are going to celebrate Sukkot. And during Sukkot we need to a few things. We need to gather together leaves for a roof, pillars of wood to build a framework, and we build a temporary wooden house, a  Sukkah,  in which we sleep during Sukkot. And one of the things that we are not allowed to do is to  put a door and a lock on  the Sukkah.  Sukkot comes right after Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year and after the day of repentance. And by sleeping outside in the Sukkah with no door and no lock, what we are actually being commanded to do is to show the public that we put our trust in them not to hurt us. The other thing that we are commanded to do is to invite guests to eat with us in the sukkah. We have trust in you that you will not hurt us but we also invite you to share our food with us here. And I think that we need to drop our shields, we need to be secure in who we are in order to drop those shields. After the 9/11 the world went  crazy with Islamophobia. Why? Because we needed someone to take the role of the other. We had Russia for that,  and then we had Korea for that. But they are no longer there so we needed  someone else to be there for us, to be  the  other.

I would like to end, to wrap up with one last story and then we’ll open up for questions. This  is  a  story about a couple who got married and after a few years of marriage, things were  not  great between the two of them.  And they started yelling, and shouting, and actually not talking the way they should have to each other. One day,  night came, and they were turning and tossing in bed and they couldn’t fall asleep. Each one of them thought, what can we do to make things better? They heard  that there is a wise old man who lives up in the mountain and he might have an answer. So each one of them without the other knowing went to see this person and knocked on his door. They told him their story with tears in their eyes and he gave them each a bottle of water. Not just water he said, special water, magical water, blessed water.  This is what  you need to do. Each time you feel this rage, you feel this fury, you feel like you have to say something to your husband or to your wife, you take a sip of water……. and that’s it. Now that you are relaxed you can swallow the water, and that’s it. The  holy water will contain every curse, every yell, every negative thing that you have to say, the water  will absorb it,  they  will disappear. That evening when the woman came back home the house was in a mess. You know, the socks, the clothes, I don’t have to tell you about all those things.  She was just about to shout at her husband and she remembered the water,  so she took the water, took a sip and...[mumble mumble  mumble]...and said good evening. Then they sat at the table and the food wasn’t that great. He did his best, he tried to cook but...[mumble  mumble  mumble]...and once again she’s...[mumble  mumble  mumble]...and with the water in her mouth then gulp, saying it’s lovely that you tried to cook and he was so pleased with the compliment. But he was pretty angry with the fact that she was away all day long so he took the water and ...[mumble  mumble  mumble]...and swallowed the water and asked her,  “Did you have a nice day?”  And she said,  “Yes”.  And for about two weeks this is what they used to do whenever they felt this urge to say something nasty, they took a sip of water and swallowed it. But after two weeks, the bottles were empty. What do you do now? They went once again up the mountain to the old man, tears in their eyes asking for more water. And the man took the bottle, opened the tap, filled it up with water and handed them the water. And they looked at each other, looked at the old man, asking each other, why did you come here? Why did you come here? They explained to each other we just wanted to make things better. Then the turned to the old man asking, “But you said that this  is  holy water!”. And the man smiled and said,  “ Yes, this  is  holy water. This  water  has  returned the holiness into the relationship in your house. You don’t need me and you don’t need the water to have a dialogue. What you do need is a way to control the words that come out of your mouth.”

I think  that each one of you can take whatever you want to take from this story. Even the fact that I’m standing here in front of all of you coming from  a  variety   of religious, beliefs, different religions, is not yet a dialogue.  So far  it’s a monologue,  but you will have your chance.  It’s a step in the right direction. It means that we have an open channel. It means that we are not screaming at each  other.  We are not trying to convince each other that we are right and they are wrong. But I would like to see it happen, not between groups, not between religions, not between faiths. Personally I would like to see it happen between Adi and John and Leithia........  between people.  Thank  you.