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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Dialogue in Germany

I’ve just returned from a week reading Psalms with German Christians. (How exciting my life can get!). But you’d be surprised what can happen when a group of 130 Protestants, Catholics and Jews -the Jews always in the minority - gather together annually to share study and prayer, good wine and good conversation, jokes, dialogue, creativity and the aspiration to live out Martin Buber’s belief that “All real living is meeting/encounter – Begegnung “.

The 42nd Jewish-Christian Bible Week took place in its regular venue of a Catholic centre in Osnabruck – it migrated some years ago from its original home in Bendorf, on the Rhine – and it has become a regular place of pilgrimage in my working year. Bible Week was the brainchild of Rabbi Jonathan Magonet - amongst others , including Rabbi Lionel Blue - and has always striven to find ways of bringing together Jews and Christians around the Biblical texts these two traditions believe, in different ways, they share.

The genius of the creators of this event was to recognise that dialogue between faiths can take place on many levels. There are many national and international conferences and seminars dedicated to the exchange of academic and theological understandings of different religious traditions, where set positions are debated and defended, information is exchanged, truth-claims are made or refuted...and people return home perhaps a little more knowledgeable but relatively unaffected by the discussion and exchange of ideas. But this Bible Week is rather different, for it places the shared text at the centre and helps people meet it and each other as equals, as partners in a process of personal discovery of what the Biblical texts mean to us today - as well as what they have meant to each faith in the past, and what directions they might point us towards for the future.

In the many years I have been going I have seen a transformation in what takes place in the daily study groups. When I first started to attend, at the end of the 1970s, the Jews (some of them at least) had access to the original Hebrew of the texts, but the German participants could only rely on translations. This meant that dialogue was an asymmetrical process. There had been a post-Shoah revolution in Germany in the Protestant Church’s attitude to Jews and Judaism - and this dovetailed with the final abandonment (in Vatican II) of the Catholic teaching that the Jews were guilty of being Christ-killers. This meant that Christians came to the conferences filled with shame and guilt, and seeking forgiveness from Jews on a personal level, as well as seeking to understand the traditions and texts of those whom they had persecuted for centuries. In those days the Jews would ‘explain’ the texts to the Christians, who had to learn to cast aside a range of prejudiced views about both Jews and the so-called ‘Old Testament’ texts.

But gradually this atmosphere changed and by the end of the 1980s - and it was even more striking when I returned at the end of the 1990s after a gap of several years - there was a whole generation of participants from Germany, young and old (i.e. those who had been around before and during the War and those born in the decades after it), who had patiently learn Biblical Hebrew and now came with their annotated Hebrew texts of the Bible alongside their German translations. This meant they were able to participate in conversations about the texts with a historically unprecedented knowledge of, and respect for, the Hebrew Bible. This was an extraordinarily moving development – and one that I think few Jews, particularly in the UK, have any understanding of even today.

And it was no longer the ‘Old Testament’ we were studying – for that description is of course a Christian one (though one often hears Jews using it too), because ‘Old’ assumes ‘New’, and the phrase ‘New Testament’ has a clear theological message encoded within it: that the Christian scriptures of the Gospels and Acts had come to complete God’s revelation; that the ‘New’ revelation had superseded the ‘Old’ one that was no longer relevant in its own right; that the ‘Old’ was just a stepping stone towards a ‘New’ and higher Truth. But by the turn of the millennium we were studying the ‘First Testament’ – and not only the pastors and theologians but many of the non-professional Christian participants, ‘ordinary’ Church-goers, had a knowledge of Hebrew that would be the envy of many congregational Jews.

The Bible Week has worked, somewhat systematically, through the Bible, and this year we reached Psalms 58-72. It is now a rather thrilling adventure to wrestle together, Jews and Christians on a much more equal basis, with texts that are foundational to both living faiths. Though sometimes the texts can be very challenging.

How do we now understand a psalm such as the one we read together, Jews and Christians, on our opening morning this year, that contains the lines:

The wicked are estranged from the womb onwards,
They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.
Their poison is like the poison of the serpent,
They are like a deaf adder
[what a magnificently strange image!]...
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth...
The righteous person shall rejoice when they see vengeance,
They shall wash their feet in the blood of the wicked

(Psalm 58: verses 3-6, 10).

I won’t reveal here the multiple ways we grappled with this problematic emotional outpouring by the poet-psalmist. But the sharing of thoughts and feelings that this text provoked, the sharing of perspectives on the all-too-human but universal and omnipresent urge for vengeance – this sharing was done by young pastors and teachers working in Church settings, and those in middle age brought up under Marxism in the former East Germany, as well as older group members such as the woman who recalled (as if it was yesterday) her childhood memory of the way a neighbour had been led away during the War in the dead of night, never to return, and the silence around this event. And to take part in this sharing and offer my own perspectives, rabbinic and psychological, is a rare privilege – and it takes me back (and takes me aback with its power) each year.

Anyone can come and all are welcome – you can get further information about the Bible Week at which has an English-language section under the tab for ‘Jewish-Christian Bible Forum’.

This is my last blog for the moment – I will be resuming, inshallah, in September. Thank you for reading this year’s postings - and for your Comments, posted or spoken.