Rabbi David Rosen is one of the most prominent Jewish interfaith activists in the world today. He is the American Jewish Committee's International Director for Interreligious Affairs and is on the Board of Directors of KAICIID (King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious Dialogue). He is also the President of the International Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology Society and is an honorary advisor of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Interfaith Relations. Rabbi David was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his extensive work in promoting interfaith harmony and received a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory for his contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations.
Rabbi David, you have worked tirelessly to bridge religious divides. Your work has taken you across the globe. Based on your encounters with those of other faiths, what have you learned about fear of the other?
“Fear of the other” can be motivated and sustained by different factors; but what enables such fear (and as a result, hostility) to flourish, is ignorance and lack of true knowledge of one another. It is actually Islam that has an explicit Scriptural injunction in this regard. This of course is the famous verse in Al Hujurat 49:13, “O humankind, We have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another…” Now why is it so important to know one another, with Allah Himself declaring this to be humanity’s raison d’etre?! Because it is not possible to promote the religious goal of peace in society if we are ignorant of one another. Ignorance breeds prejudice and bigotry, and feeds fear, hostility, and violence. But it is not only peace that is promoted through respectful encounter with the other and his/her heritage; it is in fact the greater love and appreciation of God Himself, who has created us in all our wonderful diversity, which includes the different ways and traditions of worshipping and coming close to Him and His Attributes.
In February of 2020, you traveled to Saudi Arabia, making you the first rabbi to be greeted personally by a Saudi monarch. This trip is a testament that what we refer to as a pipe dream can actually manifest into reality. What steps, albeit baby ones, were taken during this historical visit?
Allow me first to mention what facilitated this visit. This was the fruit of the initiative of the previous Saudi monarch, the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who first convened a conference in June 2008 in Makkah of more than 500 Muslim scholars from around the world for the purpose of promoting dialogue between the Muslim world and other religions and cultures on earth. With the backing of these Islamic authorities, the following month King Abdullah together with King Juan Carlos of Spain hosted a three day World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid in which Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Jewish leaders, joined their Muslim counterparts.
The end product of this initiative was the establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) by Saudi Arabia, together with the governments of Austria and Spain, and supported by the Holy See. KAICIID was set up in Vienna, but its programs are truly global, ranging from training and ensuring future generations of religious practitioners of dialogue from all religions, to addressing religiously motivated or connected conflicts in our world.
While it is established as an inter-governmental institution as mentioned, it is directed by a Board of nine religious leaders – three Muslims and three Christians; the Buddhist and Hindu representatives are women leaders in their communities; and I was appointed as the Jewish representative. You will appreciate that for Saudi Arabia to have approved the appointment of a rabbi from Israel to the board of an institution that it had launched was not a small thing. I would also like to point out that it was not King Abdullah’s idea to name the center after him, but the desire and request of the Board recognizing that aside from the institution’s uniqueness as an intergovernmental institution directed by a board of religious leaders, its provenance made it a unique force within and from the Muslim world. Indeed, I believe that even though the name has posed challenges, it highlights its credibility even within some of the most conservative elements in the Muslim world. It was also clear from the beginning that Saudi Arabia’s entry into the field of interreligious dialogue would have to be a gradual one and that not all expectations could be met immediately. Thus we understood that meetings of the Board (which mostly took place in Vienna, but also in Madrid and Rome) might not be able to take place straight away in Saudi Arabia itself. However the hope was openly expressed that this would come to pass. About half a year ago we were informed that the Board had been invited to hold its next meeting in Riyadh. Such an invitation from the Saudi Kingdom’s authorities to a multifaith delegation would have been unthinkable in the past, and it is a mark of the significant changes in recent times that it was extended at all. To our happy surprise, when we arrived we were informed that we would also be received by His Majesty King Salman at the royal palace. To be the first rabbi ever hosted by the Kingdom and to be received by the Saudi King was a great honor and, as I say, was an exciting sign of the times. Obviously, there are many issues that Saudi Arabia still has to address and there is a long way to go, but this was a momentous event. The conversation with the King was particularly fascinating. His main purpose, he indicated, was to thank us for our engagement and support of KAICIID and to express his own commitment and that of the Kingdom to KAICIID’s work. But he added some fascinating insights into his understanding of the importance of interreligious understanding and cooperation, and about Saudi Arabia’s own history in that regard. He told us that Islam in his land was originally tolerant and embracing of religious diversity, but that political factors had led to a insularity and exclusivism. I assume that he was referring to the rise of extremist ideology and violent fundamentalism. Now, he declared, we are returning to the original tolerant and embracing authentic Islam, and KAICIID is a symbol of this direction and commitment.
Whether one accepts the King’s analysis of history or not, the vision articulated is a very encouraging one. One of the most exciting moments during our visit was meeting with some sixty or seventy young Muslim men and women, most of them university graduates and professionals - all fluent in English - who were graduates of the third Salam program for the promotion of multicultural dialogue in Saudi Arabia. The opportunity to meet with these young people was as exciting for us as it seemed to be for them, and they saw our presence there as a testimony of a new era of increasing openness that they were part of.
Pursuant to this and on the occasion of the forthcoming G20 meeting that is due to take place in Riyadh in the fall, KAICIID will be organizing a multi-faith event in Riyadh. If we are still restricted by the impact of the Corona pandemic, then this will have to take place virtually; but I do hope that we will be able to participate in this event there in person.
Many people tend to seek historical and scriptural knowledge from scholars and experts in the field. This can narrow the scope of interfaith outreach programs. Is there a way for non-scholars to be taken seriously in the promotion of multifaith understanding even without expertise?
Actually it is critical that interreligious outreach is not restricted to scholars and religious leaders, but must take place at the grassroots of societies. There are many forms of dialogue and one of them is often referred to as “the dialogue of life.” Just getting to know one another at a very basic level—what a late colleague of mine used to refer to as “tea and sympathy”— is not to be sneezed at. Discovering the world of the other, celebrating the similarities and respecting the differences, is of enormous importance. If one is blessed to live in a multi-religious society, then one can go out and encounter others directly or through interreligious and intercultural organizations in those societies. If one lives in a homogenous society where such opportunities are very rare or even non-existent, today we are blessed with the technology to enable us to encounter others in ways that were not possible before. So people must be encouraged to discover the world of others as they understand their worlds themselves. This incidentally is one of the three golden rules of dialogue that were articulated by the late Bishop of Stockholm and former head of the Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl. In addition to understanding others as they understand themselves, he also urged us to always view the other community through the best within it, and not to judge it by its worst members; and his third point was that we should always leave room for “holy envy.” By this he meant that we should see nothing disloyal to our own faith tradition in being able to see something special and admirable in another faith tradition. So we need to encourage all people in our respective communities, to make a sincere effort to get to know the other as honestly and authentically as possible, directly or electronically. As mentioned earlier, for Muslims this is a Quranic imperative, but it must be a moral and spiritual imperative for us all.
In addition, let me add that where people from different backgrounds can work together on projects, especially those that seek to alleviate pain and suffering and provide health and security for the needy, the promotion of friendship and mutual respect and knowledge can be very powerful indeed.
Lovers of God recognize the oneness in all divine scriptures. What are some qualities you notice in lovers of God?
Judaism declares that the most important of all the precepts in the Torah is the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18.) Moreover, our sages teach us that we cannot truly love God, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 6:5, if we do not love others—all created with the Divine spark.
Thus, a true lover of God is a lover of humanity and will always encounter others with graciousness. Being conscious of the Divine presence in one’s life, and in others and in the world around us, should also make us aware of our limitations, vulnerability, and transience. This means that a true lover of God cannot be an arrogant and egotistical person; and therefore will always possess true humility.
I do not mean self-abnegation and putting oneself down; on the contrary, that would be disrespecting the Divine within oneself. But we should always be conscious of our temporariness and our limitations. To live in such a way should be a goal for all of us and most of us never achieve it anywhere near fully, but we must strive to do our best in this as in all things.
How can we ascend from the realm of ego when we are sometimes conditioned for exclusivity?
I think my previous comment provides a significant part of the answer to this question. Whatever one believes one is chosen to do or be, whatever gifts one has been blessed with, one should always see these as God given opportunities to serve—to serve those closest to one and also those as far away as you can reach.
Such humility is not only a personal quest; theological humility is crucially important too. It should be obvious to us—but evidently it isn’t so to all!—that if God relates to all of us -His Creatures – in all our diversity; there must be diverse ways of relating to Him. The idea that any one Tradition can totally encapsulate the Divine is ridiculous. Indeed, it is a heresy, as it seeks to limit the unlimited Omnipresent Divine. God is more than any one religion! When we understand this very basic and, as I say, obvious truth , we will not allow exclusivism to limit our conduct and comprehension. Exclusivism is often a reaction to persecution and disparagement: we know the proximity of a “superiority complex” to an “inferiority complex.” However, ultimately exclusivism is a reflection of a deficiency of imagination and love.
Rabbi David, you have risen above the tragedy of antisemitism. Any tips on how to sidestep phobia and work from a place of faith?
Thanks to God’s grace, I have been very blessed in my life in many ways, not least of all in that I grew up in a home that was deeply rooted within my own heritage of Jewish Orthodoxy, but at the same time a home that inculcated in me with a sense that I was a child of the world as a whole and of its culture and science. I, therefore, did not grow up feeling threatened in any way. I don’t think I even really knew what Antisemitism was until I was a teenager (interestingly in the fifties, the trauma of the Holocaust was still so intense that it was rarely spoken about even within the Jewish community itself); and I never really experienced it personally. Of course I did encounter antisemitic epithets as an adult, but generally these were the result of people disagreeing with me, particularly on political or ethical issues such as my open opposition to apartheid in South Africa when I was rabbi of the largest Jewish congregation there. As a result, I think it fair to say that I was never “wounded” by Antisemitism and feel myself to be free of the legitimate hang-ups that are widespread among very many of my co-religionists.
But I think above all, as mentioned before, if one is conscious that one is the creation of God and loved by Him accordingly, and that others are also creations of His and also loved by Him, no matter how much they may stray and corrupt their souls, then one is far more capable of overcoming the adverse behavior of others.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that never before in history has there been more cooperation in the field of interreligious understanding. Can you elaborate on that?
One should not really need to elaborate on such a statement, because it is a simple fact that there have never ever been so many multi-religious organizations and initiatives as we have today. This is an exponentially growing “industry” and, as a result, there is more communication, collaboration, and understanding between people of different religions than ever before. Of course this is still a very small proportion of humanity that is engaged in such activity. But as I say, it is gigantic in comparison to any and every age before. However, many if not most people are unaware of this reality. Why? In no small part it is precisely because it is good news. We are far more fascinated by negative, sensational, and violent actions, and these are the things therefore that get media attention, boost TV ratings, and serve to increase sales. Moreover, as modern technology enables us to discover news from around the globe, we become overwhelmed with information about all the destructive things going on in our world. But the truth is that there is far more positive activity than we have ever known as well, and in terms of intercultural and interreligious cooperation, we are actually in a golden age. Of course, it is always easier to demolish than to construct, but I am inspired by the enormous amount of collaboration and joint initiatives between both leadership and the rank and file of diverse peoples, cultures and religious traditions in the world today.
As the president of the Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology society, you show the world that spirituality encompasses all aspects of living. As a matter of fact, you are a vegan. How did that come about?
Authentic religion should be “a way of living”. Thus it should not only concern our personal connection with the Transcendent, but our connection with society, humanity, and the creation as a whole. Indeed, anyone who believes that the natural world around us reflects the Divine Presence—which we describe as the Divine Creation—must surely consider it a religious duty to preserve and protect that Creation, as we are commanded in the Hebrew Bible at the beginning of the book of Genesis.
My religion, like many other religions, has teachings which accordingly not only forbid waste and wanton destruction, but are also against causing cruelty to animals. While the consumption of animal products is allowed, and probably was necessary in many times and places where people might not have had access to a nutritious plant based diet, these are allowed under severely restricted conditions (the laws of kosher foods) that are, inter alia, designed to cause minimal animal suffering. Nevertheless, it is clear from our texts that these are concessions to human need and weakness, and not an ideal. The Garden of Eden is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as an ideal society and is one in which the first diet of humans is a plant based one, involving no exploitation of animal life. Moreover, the Messianic vision of the future ideal society is one in which all creatures live in harmony and “none shall cause any harm or destruction”—to quote the prophet Isaiah.
Today we are able to live a very healthy plant based diet and there is no need to cause any animal suffering for our benefit. However, the modern Western diet actually involves flagrant transgression of the prohibitions that Judaism teaches regarding the consumption of kosher (appropriate) food, as the livestock trade today involves terrible cruelty that was not even envisaged, let alone practiced, in the past. This is all in order to satisfy mass human indulgence of animal products. Moreover, because of this mass production, animals and fowl are injected with hormones and antibiotics on a massive scale, all of which are retained in the flesh that passes on into the humans who consume it, causing serious consequences for human health which loses its capacity to resist disease and infection and generates superbugs, viruses, and pandemics of various kinds such as we are currently experiencing. All of this transgresses the religious injunction in the Hebrew Bible (in the book of Deuteronomy) to protect and take care of our own health. In addition , the enormous livestock industry not only involves massive waste of water land and vegetative resources, but has also caused widescale deforestation, the destruction of human and animal habitat and species, environmental degradation, and global warming that threatens our whole planet. Adopting a plant based diet and a vegan way of life today should be an imperative for every religious and spiritually sensitive person who cares about the wellbeing of him or herself, other humans, animal life, and the natural environment around us that all reflect God’s handiwork, His Creation, and His love.
And finally, Rabbi David, what is the role of our heart in bringing communities together?
Obviously when you refer to the heart, you are not referring to the muscle that pumps blood to the various regions of our body, but to the heart as a metaphor. However, in Jewish sources, the heart is used a metaphor for many impulses and attributes. It is used to refer to the mind, intelligence, and moral discernment. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is referred to as the seat of emotion, but not only in a positive sense. I assume that you are using it in the sense of positive emotion. In that sense, it is synonymous with love. As already mentioned, love of God and love of fellow human beings are the essential foundations for religious life and for bringing about what we call the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—i.e. an ideal society. So in the sense that you are using the term, one may say that “the heart is the key.”