Israeli interfaith scholar provides insight about his spiritual journey.
Yossi Klein Halevi is an Israeli author, Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Co-Director of the institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, where he discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with young Muslim Americans. He will be speaking at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills on Monday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. about his spiritual journey into interfaith relations, especially Jewish-Muslim relations.
Your most recent book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. What inspired you to write this book?
It’s an outgrowth of several things. One is the experience that I have co-directing MLI. MLI taught me a language with which to speak about Israel and Zionism to Muslim leaders. Unfortunately, there are very few people in the Jewish community who have had the direct experience of engaging with the Muslim community, specifically on Israel. Usually, the way that interfaith works is that American Jews and American Muslims agree tacitly or explicitly not to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in my experience, there’s no avoiding the conflict. If you do try and avoid it, sooner or later it will come back to haunt us.
And so, through MLI I learned a certain expertise from my students — they became my teachers. They taught me how to approach the delicate subject of Muslim-Jewish relations. So as a result of MLI, I developed a language for speaking about Israel and Zionism to Muslims, which I decided to apply in this book and speak directly to my Palestinian neighbors. And the second inspiration for the book was a journey that I took 20 years ago into Palestinian Islam and Christianity.
What lessons have you learned by branching out into different faiths?
The first lesson I learned is that we have an opportunity in this generation to take interfaith encounters to a deeper level. Much of interfaith remains on a superficial level — let’s all be nice to each other, let’s not hate each other, let’s not kill each other — and that of course is far preferable to the alternative, but it’s still not going deeper.
What I am proposing in my work is a model for how Muslims and Jews can take a much riskier encounter, with the potential payoff of a much richer relationship. And so, I base my approach on several points. One is the need to face the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forthrightly and to prepare ourselves for a respectful disagreement over irreconcilable differences, but where we at least begin the process of listening to each other’s concerns, narratives, hopes and fears.
The second approach is to experience something of the other’s relationship with God and of the other’s experience with prayer. On the journey that I took into Palestinian Islam and Christianity, I joined the Muslim prayer line. I went into mosques; I went into monasteries and I participated actively in the prayer life of the communities that had invited me in. While shared social action or sharing holiday meals together is an important way to experience interfaith relations, I’m trying to push our communities to go a little deeper.
Why do you think it is so important to understand and dive into each other’s faiths?
We’re living at a time where we can no longer barricade ourselves in our separate religious traditions for a very simple reason. The emergence of secularism has turned all religious people, regardless of what religion we belong to, essentially into one camp of religion. In the pre-secular era, people identified themselves against each other based on the differences of faith. Today with secularism, all believers in God, regardless of how we express that belief, really belong in some sense to the same religion. We belong to the same cap, the cap of those who believe in God, the cap of those who believe that the unseen world is ultimately more real than the seen world.
The religious position has always been that what is eternal, even though we can’t experience what is eternal with our five senses, is ultimately more real. Now, that’s a very powerful position that all religious people, regardless of what faith we’re in, share. And so, that gives me a common language with people of different faiths.
Now, there’s a certain irony or complexity here for me as a Jew, because on the one hand, as a member of the Jewish people, I have something in common with fellow Jews whether or not they believe in God. A Jewish atheist is as much my brother or sister as a Jewish believer, even though I’m a religious Jew. And yet because I’m religious, I also function in a kind of parallel identity, which connects me to believers of all other faiths. And that’s something that didn’t exist in the pre-secular era.
What are the topics that you will be discussing at your lecture?
I am going to be speaking about my journeys into other faiths — into Islam, into Christianity, into the Palestinian narrative and my experiences with American Muslims. All of these different facets of my outreach work over the last 20 years will be discussed with the audience.
What do you hope people’s takeaways will be from your lecture?
Do not be afraid of the deeper interfaith encounter. That means taking risks, making oneself vulnerable and listening to opinions that may be difficult or hurtful on all sides. This may be hard for some people, but the reward is worth it.
This free event is presented by the JCRC/AJC, Temple Beth-El, Interfaith Leadership Council, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the ADL.