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Hebrew Bible, Human Rights, and Interreligious Dialogue

 The second Oasis in the City event hosted at the Lay Centre this year featured a presentation by Rabbi Jack Bemporad on the topic The Hebrew Bible, Human Rights, and Interreligious Dialogue. Among his 30 years of experience in international interreligious work, Rabbi Bemporad is the founder and director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Englewood, NJ, and has been a visiting professor of Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical Angelicum University for 13 years. He has been invited by the Holy See to speak on matters of Jewish-Catholic relations, and met on several occasions with Pope John Paul II personally.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad

During his comments to the Lay Centre residents and community guests, one of the points Rabbi Bemporad raised was the tremendous work of the Catholic Church through Vatican II and especially the efforts of Pope John Paul II with respect to the Jewish community and the relationship of the two religions. Despite the wealth of documents from the Church, he said, especially the USCCB document, God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation on Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching, the international Jewish community has yet to examine its own long-standing description of Christ and Christianity at the same level.

The Hebrew Bible is primarily an account of monotheism directed at those who are not yet monotheists. Further, the revelation of monotheism is integral and necessary for a truly peaceful vision of the world and for the development of the concept of human rights.

“One God implies the possibility of a world of peace and justice. As long as there exists the battle between the gods and the plurality of gods as embodying separate forces of nature, then there is no sense of a world at peace. One God implies one world and one universal goal of justice and peace embodying the greatest possible realization for each individual.”

Six key themes or aspects of the Biblical message highlight the origination of human rights in the Hebrew Bible:

Equality in the Bible does not refer primarily to those of the same rank or class, but indicates a positive action of bringing up those who are weaker than oneself (widow, orphan, stranger, the poor and the slave).

The holy and ethical are inseparable. The prophetic tradition, with Amos as the first clear example, claim that social injustice –not simply idolatry or non-orthodox worship – will bring about national ruination. The value and destiny of a nation is dependent on how it treats its most vulnerable members. This social concern for the vulnerable can be traced back to Israel’s enslavement in Egypt.

The Biblical condern for the stranger and sojourner is essential. Love your fellow human being – not “as yourself” as is often translated – but “because he is like you”. There is but one law for you and for the stranger – a concept still foreign to most nations today!

Sabbath as an institution, which allows even the slave and the stranger to rest and be master of their own time for at least one day a week. By extension, the sabbatical year and the Jubilee year remind us that we are not owners of the land or of property, but stewards only. Poverty and wealth alike are only temporary.

A king is subservient to the law, not the law unto himself. The messianic king will be unlike all other kings, rather than to make war, he will make peace.

Finally, two elements that separate Judaism from the black-and-white view of “our religion is the true one, and all others are totally false and therefore evil”: First, the establishment of the Noachide as a status that taught that one did not have to be an Israelite to be saved. Second, the Tosephta enunciated that “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” an idea now nearly universally accepted in Judaism.

The questions of interreligious dialogue, and our common work in support of human rights, remain: “How can I be true to my faith without being false to yours?” and “What is the place of the other religions I our own self-understanding?”

In the States, according to Rabbi Bemporad, it was the civil rights movement that joined Jews and various Christians to working together, and so we must continue to dialogue to discover the “common moral and ethical elements that are constitutive of our religions and try to unite on a common ethic independent of our theological perspectives.”

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