As bullets fly over Gaza, academics at Cambridge's Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations are focusing on spreading a message of religious tolerance. Anne Sebba reports.
Prince Hassan of Jordan may not be the obvious choice of speaker at Cambridge's Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, particularly given the situation in the Middle East, but there could hardly be a more appropriate time for preaching the message of religious tolerance.
Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein and a long-standing supporter of the CJCR, delivered his lecture at the new faculty of divinity building last month. He stressed that British academics can play a vital role in rebuilding peace in the Middle East once the latest round of killings stops. The peace process, he believes, is not dead, but it is at a critical impasse.
"I feel that in this country in particular, academia with its wide variety of different disciplines, such as psychology, medicine, anthropology and religious studies, has an enormous amount to offer in presenting people of the Middle East not as victims or martyrs but as human beings. Academics can put the text back into context," he says.
Hassan sees an important role for academics in writing the briefing papers, scripts and documents that would form the basis of a lasting agreement.
The prince, who in his capacity as moderator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace recently visited Auschwitz, notes that "if Jews expect Arabs to internalise about their tragedy in the 20th century, then Jews, too, must internalise the deep pain and sense of loss and bereavement many Arabs feel about Israel".
Hassan, who studied biblical Hebrew and Oriental studies at Oxford University, emphasises that one area in particular where he thinks academics can make a contribution is over the status of Jerusalem. "The study of divinity and the Orientalist tradition goes a long way in developing comprehension, and people-to-people comprehension precedes agreement. Academics might be able to play a complementary role to politicians through their moral authority."
Hassan first met Edward Kessler, founder and director of the CJCR, five years ago at a conference in Amman. Kessler says: "He seemed to like my ideas. It is great for theology students at a Jewish-Christian centre to be addressed by a Muslim prince because here is a man genuinely committed to inter-faith dialogue, whether between Hindus and Sikhs, Christians and Jews, or Jews and Muslims, and what he says needs to be taken seriously."
The centre offers the United Kingdom's first MA in Jewish-Christian relations. Kessler believes firmly that religious tolerance can be taught and that the course is not simply "a question of preaching to the converted".
"There will always be pockets of intolerance in the world," he concedes, "but we have to make sure they remain just pockets and do not grow. If we take it for granted that we can do nothing, we are fools. Every generation must constantly hammer home the importance of tolerance. Education is the key to that."
Kessler, who launched the centre in September 1998, has 50 MA students - 14 on site and 36 on distance-learning programmes - as well as two MPhil students, one of whom has just celebrated his 80th birthday. "This is terrific growth in two years. We've had much greater interest than we thought."
The programme is enriched by contributions from visiting fellows from Israel, Australia and Russia. Next spring, the centre will announce two full-time fellowships in religious tolerance, named after the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn. One fellow will be Christian and the other Jewish.
Kessler says that tuition at the CJCR focuses on understanding another religion and tradition while remaining within one's own. "It is definitely not an attempt to fudge or merge," he says.
"But you cannot understand Christian identity, history or theology without considering it in the context of Jewish-Christian relations. It is the same from the Jewish end."
In practical terms, what this means is that you confront, rather than ignore, difficult texts in both religions. Kessler identifies some of the thorniest texts for New Testament scholars as Matthew: xxv-xxvii, the story of Judas Iscariot and the crucifixion, and Matthew: xxiii, the text commonly referred to as "The Woes", which laments the role of the Scribes and Pharisees.
"These texts continually cause concern. What are ordinary people meant to think when they hear them?Unless these passages are handled sensitively within the context that they were written, they will go on causing difficulty. One of the things to point out is that the New Testament is written about a Jew who was born, lived and died a Jew. This is an internal Jewish document never intended as a Christian document against Jews." On the Jewish side Kessler identifies difficult passages as Deuteronomy: xx:10-18, which calls for the slaughter of seven peoples, and Psalm 137, aspects of which are 'inexplicable'.
"We all have these problematic texts. It is no good pretending they are not there. What we can do is neutralise them by developing a whole series of guidelines about how to reinterpret them."
Although not part of Cambridge University - the MA is validated by Anglia Polytechnic University - the CJCR is fully supported by the many Cambridge University resources. Julius Lipner, shortly to be acting director of the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies, already looks forward to a much closer working relationship with the CJCR, which he says has done pioneering work in the field of inter-religious understanding.
"I hope we can use the CJCR as a vehicle for broadening religious tolerance on a number of fronts, not just confined to Jewish-Christian relations."
Lipner, a Hindu-Catholic who believes hyphenated identities are increasingly necessary to reflect the world we live in, explains: "A faculty like ours can give practical, not just theoretical wisdom, for example, to overcome unthinking fundamentalism of any kind. As academics, we must be accountable for what we do. I believe our job is not only to teach according to the highest academic standards, but to function as the thinking soul of the country."
Kessler took his first degree at Leeds University, followed by a masters at Harvard University. While in the United States, he noticed a number of institutions offering courses in inter-faith studies. On his return to the United Kingdom, he took an MBA and, in 1995, completed his PhD at Cambridge on Jewish and Christian interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac.
"It was at this time that I realised that you had leaders of all the main religions talking about the importance of education and tolerance and all this stuff about improving relations, but, when it came down to it, what was actually happening? No one was implementing any changes, and when I looked at the curriculum for ministerial formation nothing had changed in years."
With the key support of colleague Martin Forward, academic dean at Wesley House, Cambridge, who is a Christian-Muslim scholar, he decided to try to put his vision into action. Much of the initial funding came from retailer Marks & Spencer, a company founded by a Jew and a Christian.
The CJCR is continually introducing new modules. Director of studies Melanie Wright has devised a popular course looking at how Jews and Christians have been perceived in literature and film. "Shylock and Fagin, for example, have almost taken on a life of their own and shape other people's images of what a Jew is. This course is about dispelling myths and stereotypes," Wright says.
She explains that although most of the MA students intend to be teachers or religious leaders and will pass on directly what they have learnt, others come from the healthcare or other public sectors where they might already have had direct experience of how sensitive inter-group relations can be. Several are recent graduates still deciding on a career choice who have commented that the skills they have learnt here about identifying bias and perspective in sources is something they did not learn as undergraduates.
What of Kessler's plans for the future? He would like to see more courses on the subject of Christian-Jewish relations at all levels, including schools. "This should be reflected in the national curriculum, but also part of any undergraduate degree in theology should be Jewish-Christian relations. It is as important in a Jewish seminary as in ministerial formation.
"I do not have the resources to do more at the moment, but this is not just a passing fad. If the churches and synagogues call for better relations, then they must take this seriously by implementing something, not just uttering a few nice words."
Further information at www.cjcr.org.uk