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Council of Christians and Jews fails to impress

When a blog post starts with a disclaimer you know it is going to be bad.

It is not my intention to offend anybody, or to do harm to the interfaith efforts of the Perth Jewish community.

However tonight I attended a presentation by the Council of Christians and Jews called the Authority of Scripture. I thought the construct of the evening was poor and the objectives of the topic could at best be considered a missed target, and at worst a meaningless and disjointed diatribe, complimented by a nauseous conclusion of self congratulatory plausive approbation.

Too harsh? Allow me to elaborate. I approached attending with some trepidation, as my experience in the past with interfaith dialogue has not been positive. Recently there have been Jewish leaders in Australia questioning the value of interfaith dialogue altogether. I do not consider my view to be in this camp. I believe there is a role for interfaith discussion and that the motives of those involved are well intended and genuine. If the objective is to understand each other and to engender respect and tolerance then this has to be commended. If the objective is to challenge topics of common interest, and even points of theological difference and departure, this too must be respected. However the topic, format and tone of presentation tonight did not in my view allow such objectives to be achieved in a sincere manner that was either knowledge or principle based.

The key failing of tonight in my view was that the topic was cast too broad. Under the title “The Authority of Scripture”, there were four speakers. Each had a perspective that only addressed one element of the topic in part. Each had a presentation that had no connection or integral link to the other. Some of the comment was incomprehensible and far from inspiring.

Rabbi Marcus Solomon spoke with the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint that interpretation of biblical text cannot be undertaken in isolation to the oral tradition and brought allegorical examples of this. He was followed by Dr Tony Nichols who expounded the relative morality of an authority of scripture into an authority of society, in the context of regulation and law and ultimately into the definition of his messianic faith.

Ken Arkwright, you will not be surprised to see me write, debased Judaism and in the process failed to address his topic. He contended that Judaism is a noun and that whether it is preceded by an Orthodox or Progressive badge, it is the noun that remains common. On this alone, I take issue. I would rather consider Judaism to be a verb. Judaism is a religion of action, not of definition. The name Yisrael means “struggle with G-d” and it is the action of struggling itself that is the very essence and title of our people. This point aside, I was appalled at the chutzpah by which this man, who is on record as stating he believes the Torah is of human authorship, and who is on record as dismissing the validity of Oral Torah, drew from the sources of Torah and Talmud to put forward incoherent ideas. He talked about the Shema, saying that bchol levavchah is an interpretive dilemma as he thought it alluded to the intellect, not the heart. Maybe he didn’t notice that the very next words of the Shema are in fact bchol nafshecha. Maybe he didn’t notice the Meforshim that deliver an interpretation of the relationship between heart and intellect. (So too was the similar irony by which the following speaker William Loader also drew on this source to define bchol meodecha as “with all your strength”, – the Jewish interpretation of this attribute is one of material possessions and wealth, derived through the Rabbinic authority of scripture). Ken ended his diatribe with the absurd suggestion that there was an interpretive dilemma for Christianity due to the Davidic dynasty of Megillat Ruth being a son of the house of David, thereby negating the possibility that a Messiah could be a son of G-d. Put simply, it is of no relevance to Jewish scholarship what the Christian definition of divine Messianism may be, as it cannot be reconciled to that of Jewish Messianism so long as it envisions a physical manifestation of the Divine. In this context, it was insensitive, perhaps offensive, of Ken to raise this point. It was also offensive for him to label the prophets of Israel, Ezra and Nehemia as racist as they give a definition to the status of Jewish identity through their canonisation of biblical text.

The final speaker of the evening was Rev Prof William Loader, who chose to use examples of sexual orientation to draw out interpretive progression of scripture relative to societal values. This led to the most colourful discussion of the night, leading me to note with great pleasure that David Solomon is back in Perth, and has made his presence and clarity of expression immediately available to the benefit of all.

I dislike posting negative remarks, but feel the need to be honest. The presentation tonight was troubling on many fronts, least of which was that the “Authority of Scripture” is an important religious topic that was not extended the due consideration it deserved. I would have liked to have seen more discussion about the role of homiletic and interpretive devices of each faith to transform scripture into religious dictum. I would have liked to seen some interactive discussion relating to examples of translative definitions that impact resulting beliefs and customs. Maybe I expected too much?

There is one further and final observation I would like to share. It is a comment about religion in general. I noticed that for the most part the audience at tonight’s presentation was decidedly elderly. There was one exception and that was a group of young people from the Jewish community that had an interest in being present. In general terms I think religion (a standard of faith and belief that translates to a higher level of moral aptitude and conduct) is important to Australia. Yet I think that religion as a whole is not considered to be relevant by the more youthful generation. I can well understand why. The way in which religious belief is discussed and communicated, as demonstrated this evening, is of no attraction. I was not intellectually challenged and was not educated with knowledge and insight as a result of this evening. I was lectured to, with material that was, for the most part, boring.

Judaism is however the exception to this trend. Young Jews identify strongly and proudly. This is because there is a stretch of knowledge, an active and meaningful tradition, and an opportunity on both an individual and communal level to be involved in something that represents far more than simply the acceptance of an idea. The contemporary flourishing religions of the world (of all faiths) deliver exactly this to their disciples – an ethos, a lifestyle, a mode of conduct, and an activity based experience by which to connect to their ideology. Which brings me back to the starting point of this post. Judasim is a verb, not a noun. The Authority of Scripture is about naaseh vnishma – acting first, and as a consequence generating an understanding of the text through deed. The Authority of Scripture is about moderating behaviour, not looking in dictionaries or dealing with an emotive form of faith that has no possibility of being translated into a form of applied action. It is this point that was sorely missing from my experience tonight.

I mean no discouragement to the officers of the Council of Christians and Jews, as there is an important role for this body to fulfil. However if future events are cast along similar lines to the presentation this evening, then I will not be motivated to support them. There is a way to bring scripture to life, but unfortunately this was not the type of presentation that allows this to be easily achieved. I hope that we will see more interfaith activities, but that the format, structure, content and objectives will be reinvented for greater appeal.

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