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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Opens Congregational Conversations Series

What causes religious violence? How can we use our faith as a positive force for change? These questions lie at the heart of our second year of Congregational Conversations, “Not in God’s Name: Our Jewish Identity in an Age of Religious Violence.”

On Thursday, November 12, our conversation opened with a discussion between Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and a prolific author on interfaith dialogue, and Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary Islam.

In front of an audience of over 400 people, Rabbi Sacks and Ambassador Ahmed explored the concepts outlined in Sacks’ new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and what we can do as a community to facilitate the kind of dialogue that leads to change.

“When conversation ends, when words fail, violence begins…words allow us to recognize the humanity of the other,” said Rabbi Sacks, “and conversation between one another is as holy as the conversation between us and God.”

Ambassador Ahmed continued, “We’ve reached a point when just a simple discussion between two friends is enough to give hope – that is also symptomatic of how low we have sunk. When…for long periods [Jews, Muslims, and Christians] lived together, created together, and prospered together.”

Looking at the phenomenon of sibling rivalry and violence in the Hebrew bible, Rabbi Sacks drew a comparison between the three Abrahamic faiths as brothers. He noted that the similarities between our faiths have the power to draw us together and make our conflicts more volatile.

“Do we think that God’s love is in such scarce supply that to love me, he has to hate you? That to choose me, he has to reject you?” Rabbi Sacks asked. “Surely, that is not what God is about at all.”

Religious fundamentalism, a topic of great importance with ISIS’s recent attack on Paris, was a central focus of the evening, as Rabbi Sacks and Ambassador Ahmed focused on how religious texts are exploited in the pursuit of power.

“Fundamentalism is the attempt to move from text to application without interpretation. And [if] you read any text literally, you’re going to do violence to that text,” said Rabbi Sacks. “When you start doing violence to religion, you end by doing violence to people.”

Ambassador Ahmed added that the marginalization of Muslims through the proliferation of Islamophobia has contributed to the spread of fundamentalist groups. By pushing young Muslims into a corner, stripping them of opportunities, and leaving them with nothing to lose, has created an ideal climate for recruitment to these extremist groups.

To combat the pattern of marginalization, Ambassador Ahmed emphasized the role organized religious communities and religious leaders can play in facilitating conversation between faith communities.

As an example, he pointed to the first Abrahamic summit, an initiative he launched with Rabbi Lustig and Bishop John Chane at Washington Hebrew Congregation following the attacks on September 11. Having representatives from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together on one stage changed the direction of the conversation in Washington, DC and laid the groundwork for the strong interfaith relationships that exist in our community today.

Ending on a note of hope, Rabbi Sacks urged the audience to use social media and global communications channels to demonstrate that Jews, Muslims, and Christians can come together in mutual respect and understanding. By making these images of love and hope viral, he believes we can combat the evil happening in the world today.

Rabbi Sacks added, “Reach out in friendship to someone who is not like you, and you will discover that they are human like you.”

In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue our Congregational Conversation in monthly book-club-style Conversations and Keynotes as we strive to reach a greater understanding of the themes discussed by Rabbi Sacks and Ambassador Ahmed at our opening event. Register to join us by visiting whctemple.org/CongregationalConversations.

Our next event is on Wednesday, December 2 at 7:00 pm when Bruce Feiler, best-selling author of Walking the Bible and Abraham and a widely recognized thinker, writer, and speaker on the role of religion in contemporary life, joins us at Temple for a Keynote focusing on “What I Have Learned from the Abrahamic Journey.”

Click here to view our photo gallery from the opening event. You can see more coverage in the National Catholic Reporter and the Huffington Post.