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Interfaith Dialogue

Bridges between Judaism, Christianity and Islam

JVG_TZI_Leo_BaeckLater this year, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873–1956), one of the most important proponents of German Jewry. Over the course of his life, Baeck strove constantly to combine tradition and modernity within Judaism. He educated young rabbis at Berlin’s “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums” and sought dialogue between Christianity, Islam and other religions. On April 22, 1956, Baeck made his last programmatic speech, lecturing at a Study Day sponsored by B’nai B’rith in Brussels.

In his groundbreaking speech on “Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Baeck set the cornerstones of true interfaith dialogue as “the knowledge and the acceptance of the differences and similarities of religions; in order to understand those, one has to be aware of one’s own religious identity.” Baeck was a pioneer among a generation of Jewish leaders in Germany who had struggled to define Jewish identity in relationship to and in debate with its Christian background, and it is his insight into the value of identity that can serve as an important inheritance for today.

As early as 1949, in his presidential address to the World Union for Progressive Judaism in London, Baeck advocated closer links with Islam: “And now Islam, too, has again moved into the close neighborhood, the inescapable proximity of the Jewish spirit; once more, as in a great period of the Middle Ages, the two are regarding each other. Today they are almost compelled to face each other, not only in the sphere of policy, but also in the sphere of religion; there is the great hope, maybe on turning to some remote future – but mankind lives also on remote hopes – that thus they will behold each other and then meet each other on joint roads, in joint tasks, in joint confidences in the future. There is the great hope that Judaism can thus become the builder of a bridge, the ‘pontifex’ between East and West.”

As a German Jew, Baeck had little contact with Islam, nor were his examinations colored by direct personal experience. He continued to develop the themes of Abraham Geiger (1810−1874), who had asked “What did Muhammad take from Judaism?” The publication of his dissertation in 1833 established Geiger as a trailblazer of modern Islamic Studies. For Geiger, Muhammad was a renovator of the existing faiths, but did not intend to found a new religion himself. Muhammad’s goal, Geiger claimed, was “a reunification of all religious viewpoints for the salvation of mankind.”

Tight bonds

Like the genesis of Islam itself, the genesis of the Koran can be read from the sources of Judaism. The historical truth is certainly much more complicated than Geiger suggested, yet his manner of reading already points to the tight bonds that exist between Jewish and Christian teachings and the Koran in ways that today are uncontroversial.

In his work This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence (1955), Baeck addresses the different historical paths which gave rise to marked characteristics in each people, Jews and Muslims and describes Islam as constant and nondynamic. He explains: “It demands, often in touching words, ‘Islam,’ a deep surrender to faith in the One who has formed and ordered everything, who determines and judges all, in whom all existence is secured. But it does not proclaim this One as the Self of all self, that speaks the ‘Thou’ to man, making him an ‘I,’ a self. It does not proclaim the mystery of man’s being in the image of God, this mystery out of which alone a clear understanding of life can emanate.” “Thus,” Baeck concludes, “the unique strength of the religion ‘of the Prophet’ is the proclamation of a faith, but without the paradoxes and the problems of faith, without the tensions and shattering cataclysms in which the mysterium takes hold of the soul.”

Israel and the Jewish world have been slow to seek the kind of dialogue with Islam that has increasingly become common with the Christian faith. It might be difficult to find Muslim figures who can represent the wider Muslim community, but we do need more efforts to initiate a dialogue with Islam in order to find alternatives to the confrontational political situation. In this sense, Leo Baeck’s contribution to the development of mutual understanding cannot be overestimated.

Photo Credit: Marianne C. Dreyfus

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