The Three Faiths Forum Middle East (3FFME) convened forty scholars, religious leaders educators, and spiritual chaplains for a unique event at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem in December. We welcomed participants from various organisations, rabbinic institutes, ecumenical councils, and Islamic traditions, as well as our own facilitators, for this special event.
For nine years, the Jerusalem-based 3FFME has worked to promote dialogue between people of all faiths and beliefs. We believe that by providing people with structured opportunities to learn about the faiths and beliefs of others, that trust can be built and a more harmonious society created. We witness an acute need to provide opportunities to engage with questions of religion and culture in Israel. Despite the complexities involved in living in Jerusalem as a multicultural city, there are ways to engage diverse communities even with a multitude of different faiths and beliefs coexisting together, precisely because there is often little opportunity for a real and thorough understanding of each other.
The purpose of the day was to explore the theme of memory in our respective cultural, literary and religious traditions. Our aim was to present memory not as merely remembering information, but as an innate part of our identity. Each of our religious and cultural communities rely upon individual and collective memory as a means of sustaining our heritage, customs, and cultural norms. To this end we distinguished between the information-technology age, which, whilst providing factual information at our fingertips, fails to address what we do with that information and how we use it. We discussed the idea that in today’s age, even when we can look up the answer to any question under the sun within a few seconds, we still need to hold onto memory as a cultural and literary tool for expressing our identities.
We emphasized this point, and encouraged participants to share their cultural and religious memories in a unique inter-faith setting. We used the group dialogue methodology of ‘World Café’ to explore the following questions: What is your first memory in your family? What do you think must be forgotten? Have you ever memorized something off-by-heart? If yes, what? In addition to talking about these questions, we placed large pieces of paper in the middle of each table, with coloured pens and plasticine at the centre. The participants drew and sculpted some of their first memories, and cultural and religious interpretations of memory.
Of the participants, only 10% of them had taken part in an interfaith dialogue before and some had only previously discussed these sensitive and divisive issues in a debate setting. Indeed, one participant was especially surprised at the respectful dialogue during the day, saying “I have never seen Arabs and Jews in this political context, debate so much, with such energy, about what they believe, without it tearing them apart”.
The second part of the day was dedicated to interreligious text study, according to the method of Scriptural Reasoning. We deepened our considerations of memory through exploring the subject in depth in the Qur’anic texts, New Testament and Hebrew Bible and later commentaries. We looked at the story of Noah and its later commentaries from Zohar, Midrash and Mishnah, the Muslim call to prayer and Qur’anic passage, and the last supper and Christian ideas of writing own scripture as a way of remembering.
At the end of the day, a participant in their reflections wrote, “this encounter was direct and honest, and changed my views of peoples of another religion. Everyone should do this”. Each participant left the institute with a multitude of new viewpoints, stories, memories and understandings that brought about a greater thirst for more inter-faith activities and encounters.
So whilst for most in the room this was their first experience in an inter-faith setting, the curiosity that they had about each other’s faiths and beliefs meant it surely won’t be their last.