WHEN Rabbi David Rosen sat down with the pope, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or the Dalai Lama to explore the scope of shared spiritual interests, he had the satisfaction of tracing his interfaith impulses to their genesis in Cape Town in the 1970s.
“My whole life today has been determined by those five years spent in South Africa,” he said in an interview this week.
Yet, interfaith dialogue – of which Rosen is, today, a pre-eminent global figure – was not his primary preoccupation as a young rabbi in Cape Town.
The bridge to be crossed was the racial schism of apartheid South Africa.
“I started it, not because I was passionate about interfaith initiatives, but because it was one of the few ways to bring together communities across the colour divide. I came to it through a commitment to social justice.”
Rosen was in his twenties and was hired by what was then the country’s largest orthodox congregation, at Sea Point’s Marais Road shul.
Though discomforted at the seeming immodesty of the claim, he described himself as “the pioneer of interfaith in Cape Town”, working with other senior rabbis and clerics from the Catholic and Anglican churches, and the Muslim Judicial Council.
He was “stunned to discover how ignorant other religious leaders were about me and my heritage, yet I reflected that I was part of problem, too, as I didn’t know them and had all kinds of misconceptions”.
He understood that “to be represented correctly, I would need to represent them correctly myself, and I knew, with shared values, we all had an obligation to work together to celebrate the greater sum of our different parts”. He became “totally hooked”.
Rosen’s enterprise was not appreciated by the government of the time, which declined to renew his work permit.
Instead, he went on to greater things, drawing on his South African experience to build an international interfaith network that today spans the globe.
Rabbi Rosen grew up in England, where his father was a prominent orthodox rabbi. After school, he studied in Jerusalem at the Mir yeshiva, where he was ordained as a rabbi. After a stint in the Israeli army as a chaplain in the Sinai, he came to South Africa in the early 1970s.
From Cape Town he went to Ireland as chief rabbi, “which is not a job you can do well if you’re not involved in interfaith relations”.
He was drawn into building relations with the Vatican. This intensified when he returned to Israel, playing a key role in the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 and the subsequent dialogue between Israel and the Vatican.
At the time, “much of Israel’s chief rabbinate could have been described as being pre-modern orthodox. They didn’t have a dialogue with other kinds of Jews and had never thought of having a dialogue with other religions… but when a pope asks, it’s difficult to say no and they needed an orthodox rabbi who knew what he was doing”.
He became involved in interfaith initiatives in the Middle East, “where it is almost more important”.
“Any society’s character must be assessed by how it treats minorities, so the existential importance for Israel’s future is how Muslim and Christian communities can flourish in its midst.”
While he subscribed to dialogue for its own sake, it was also a means to achieve interfaith co-operation on “concrete issues” relating to human dignity and human rights.
“Sometimes people are so caught up in their own narrow issues... they may not feel capable of moving beyond that. We have to respect and be compassionate for that, but not allow ourselves to be limited by it.”
This cuts to the heart of Rosen’s role as, among other things, the international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and international president of the World Conference of Religion for Peace.
In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made Rosen a knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great for his contribution to promoting Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and, in 2010, he was made a CBE by Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
He is one of nine board members of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, with representatives from the Vatican, the Church of England, the orthodox church and Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran.
Rosen noted that “for a Saudi king to have endorsed an Israeli rabbi to be on this board is not insignificant”.
The rabbi is visiting South Africa in part to join celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate declaration, a commitment to good relations with other religions which formally ended centuries of prejudice against Jews in particular.
Rosen said: “The global message is that if such a chronic relationship can be one that’s so good today it means there is no relationship beyond the capacity for transformation.”
One of the ironies was that while Islam “never demonised the Jew in the way the Christian world did, the Christian world has to a large extent purified itself of the canards and prejudices towards Jews and Judaism, while in the modern Arab Muslim world you hear some of these ideas, once foreign to Islam, but which have become part of the almost normative currency due to politics, which is very sad".
That said, “because it’s not fundamental to the character of Islam it means where a political way can be found to move forward”.
While acknowledging the view that religion itself was “often the problem”, the solution was not to “ignore” an element of life that “relates to people’s most deeply held attachments, sense of belonging and aspiration to transcendence and higher meaning”, but to make these qualities a “part of the solution”.
The challenge was to reach beyond “tolerance” and to “celebrate one another”.
The division was often less between different religions than between those within them who had “an expansive, embracing world view and those who are insular and narrow-minded”.