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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Jonathan Guttentag
Reaching Out for the ‘Other’ in the Midst of a Conflictual Situation


Man has an ego, he has ambitions, he has dignity and worth. He strives, he desires. Without desires and inclinations, man would not get married raise a family, build a business, make the world a better place. But those strivings, when they intersect with the similar strivings of other people, generally occasion conflict. And yet without conflict life would be boring for conflict is the essence of drama. And yet if conflict if is allowed to get out of hand, it destroys, it buries, it can bring starvation and disease. How are we to educate protagonists to put a curb on their own ambitions, to find a place for the other on this earth? How indeed are we to reach out for the other in the midst of a conflictual situation? In responding to the invitation and the challenge of the esteemed organisers of this important Congress, I want to share with you some thoughts from the world of Jewish thought, which, I believe, can be helpful to a world which is in search of peace from conflict.

The First Conflict and its educational aftermath

When we open up the book of Genesis we already have the first conflict; between man and his brother. “And it was when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him”. (Genesis 4;8) What was the background to the conflict? The text of the Bible is silent. The Medrash adds the basis of the conversation: “Come”, they said, “let us divide the world” One took the land and the other took the movables. The former said, “The land that you are standing on is mine”, while the latter retorted, “what you are wearing belongs to me”. One said: “strip”, the other retorted: “fly”

Out of this quarrel, Cain rose up against his brother Abel.

The world is barely a few pages old and conflict has led to the first murder, a considerable ratio of the world’s population had been wiped out. Could the world continue to exist? The Bible gives the response: A next generation is born: Cain has a son whom he calls Enoch, chanoch; he builds a city and calls it Enoch. Enoch is the Hebrew Chanoch which means education. A son called education and a city called education? Indeed the first man in history who got into a conflict ending in bloodshed has learnt his lesson. His legacy is a son and a city called ’education’. For if mankind is to survive we need to be educated to learn to live with each other, and not to let natural rivalries escalate into conflicts that result in bloodshed.

Reaching Out for the Other

A distinguished American political scientist tells of the time his parents moved with their five children to a new area in Washington, D.C., a white enclave. Stephen Carter’s father worked as a lawyer for the federal government, and he was moving to an area where the other lawyers and government people lived. The only trouble was that they were white, and he wasn’t. So the children sat of the front steps as the removal men carried in the furniture. Cars passed the house, slowed down took a look; people passed by but nobody spoke to them. The young boy knew they were not welcome there. And all at once, a white woman arrived home from work at the house across the street. She turned and smiled with obvious delight and waved and called out, "Welcome!" in a booming, confident voice. She bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that. We were strangers, black strangers, and she had gone out of her way to make us feel welcome. This woman’s name was Sara Kestenbaum. (The Etiquette of Democracy Stephen L. Carter This moving story of the way Sara Kestenbaum reached out to the ‘other’ in that situation of uneasiness and alienation, can perhaps serve as model for our topic this afternoon, reaching out to the ‘other’ in the midst of conflictual situations. For the question arises: from where did Mrs Kestenbaum’s act of reaching out come? What was it that made a white American reach out to a non-white American in the 1960’s? I did not know Mrs Kestenbaum, but I believe that Mrs Kestenbaum was drawing on the deep wellsprings of Jewish tradition and Jewish religious faith.

Recognising the Divine spark in a fellow man

Mrs Kestenbaum’s act was one in fulfilment of a Biblical mandate – (Leviticus 19;18) “And you shall love your neighbour like yourself”. This well-known biblical verse does not, however, end there; there are two further words: Love your neighbour like yourself I am G-d. What is the significance of that extra statement? “I am G-d” is the rationale behind the obligation to reach out to the other. It is the means by which people can learn to reach out to the other, and thus promote harmony and reduce conflict and ultimately prevent it. Inside every human being there lies a fragment of the divine presence, a bit of G-d Himself. That other person over there, he is not simply flesh and blood, bones and sinews, he has a spiritual soul within him, that spiritual soul is portion of the Divine Above (chelek elkah mima’al). Man who was created in the image of G-d, is man who possesses within him a fragment of G-d’s presence. And therefore of course – teaches Judaism - there is an obligation to reach out to the other, to love him, to be kind to him, to do good to him, to seek his welfare. For if he contains an aspect of the Divine within him, that will of course, be my attitude, one of love and respect. Let us review the most basic statement about mankind, the description of his creation, the words, we believe, of the Creator Himself: And G-d created man in his image; in the image of G-d he created him, male and female he created them (Genesis 1;27). That image of G-d of course does not mean, physical image – because at least according to Judaism, G-d is incorporeal. It means that an aspect of divine spirituality is incorporated into each human being. And so when we look at a fellow human being we are to see not just a physical frame, but residing within that frame a spark of the Divine. The Jewish tradition had trained Sara Kestenbaum to see in the new arrival in her street, not a stranger, not a threat, not someone possessing a visibly different outward appearance and skin colour, but simply a fellow creature, like her own self, created in the image of G-d, and containing a fragment of the divine.

Refraining from striking out the divine image in the other

Interestingly we find that the same applies in the converse. Man is commanded to refrain from reaching out to the ‘other’ in hatred. The first statement in the Bible of the prohibition against murder is stated in terms that bring G-d into the equation. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of G-d He made man. (Genesis 9;6) To take someone’s life away is to the snuff out the divine spark. Committing murder constitutes as it were an attack against G-d Himself whose divine presence resides within that human being. Murder is indeed the ultimate blasphemy. But there are societies, and there have always been, where the taking of life is viewed with less severity, where life is apparently not held to be so sacred, where man reaches out to the other, amidst a perpetually conflicting situation and strikes him down. Let us examine three of these, two from antiquity through the eyes of the Bible, and one from more recent times. What characterises all these situations is, I believe, something that we can term the dethronement of G-d, the removal of the divine from the equation.

A culture of Infanticide

The first one is the regime established by the Pharaoh at the beginning of the book of Exodus – enslavement of the Israelites, and then a plan for genocide. All the baby boys are to be thrown into the river: When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you are to kill him, and if it is a daughter, she shall live. (Exodus 1;16) The thought is sickening – the murder of innocent defenceless children, infanticide. Didn’t Pharaoh understand that a baby is a miniature human being created in the image of G-d; containing the spark of the divine? But G-d remained unacknowledged in the life of Pharaoh’s society and nobody was safe. Except for one group for whom G-d was in the equation. For whom sanctity of life represented a overriding value, deriving as it does from G-d Himself: But the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live (Exodus 1;17) There is no fear of G-d in this place and they will kill me. The G-d fearing midwives were acting on an earlier precedent (Genesis Chap 20). When the patriarch Abraham enters the kingdom of Avimelech he is scared for his life, and he is forced to resort to telling people that Sarah is his sister not his wife – to prevent the citizens killing him in order to take Sarah to the king. G-d intervenes with Avimelech, and Sarah is restored to Abraham. Abraham explained what he saw in the society that made him worried; “There is but no fear of G-d in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.” (Genesis 20;10-11) A 19th century European Bible Commentator Rabbi Malbim uses this statement as the starting point of an essay on what is considered a safe society.

Ethics without the Divine

It is, he argues, the fear of G-d that needs to be the apex of all values in society. A society where people have a reverence for G-d, whom they believe is watching over and scrutinising their moves is a safe society. You know governments all over the world have introduced cameras onto roads, as a means of enforcing speed limits. Now although they are not necessarily popular, they are quite effective. Because people know that they are under scrutiny. A nation where people are conscious of G-d inspecting their deeds in real time, is a safe society. But where you have a society even though it is law abiding - it may even be just and charitable - but those laws and the system of ethics does not place G-d at the apex, and the people have no concept of a G-d scrutinising their deeds, then that society can not be relied upon not to do evil. Where G-d has been dethroned and replaced with man, then there is nothing to prevent him reaching out to his fellow man in aggression and striking him down.

A prophetic warning to 19th century Europe

The words of this mid 19th century scholar were somewhat prophetic. All around him he saw the development of a society where G-d had been dethroned and divine wisdom had been replaced by human reason as the source for ethics. And within a few decades, European enlightened society, Germany the county of ethics, politeness, Beethoven and Goethe, had spawned the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, as 6 million Jews were systematically reduced to ash in the Nazi Holocaust.

The Dethronement of G-d and the Dehumanisation of man

Auschwitz has been described as the kingdom of death; millions perished there, 90% of them Jews. I have visited there twice. There is a gas chamber that you can walk through. About 14 ft wide, and some 40 ft long, you look up at the ceiling, and see five or six, rectangular skylights. Up on the roof, those sky lights have removable lids, through which deadly substance was dropped when the chamber below was full of people. In the next parallel room, through a door, there were ovens, four horizontal ovens, with trolley tracks enabling the bodies to be loaded straight from the gas chamber into the ovens. And arising from the wall on the outside is the tall brick brown-brick structure of the crematorium chimneys, from which the ashes of my brethren soared towards heaven. A few dozen yards away from that gas chamber, lived the infamous Rudolf Hoess, the founder and the commandant of Auschwitz. After a day's work in the gas chamber he went to his comfortably furnished home. How was that man able to butcher thousands of people per day, and then go home and play with his children? Of course one human being can not do that to other human beings. One human being can only to do that to those that he has ceased to regard as human beings. That indeed was the goal of the deadly Nazi propaganda – to turn the Jews in the collective mind of society into a sub-human species. Not humans but animals, vermin. Once they had internalised that view of Jews as sub-humans, then the natural consequences were that they were able easily to rob millions of Jews of their dignity and butcher them as animals.

Such is the natural consequence of the dethronement of G-d. If you teach that it is acceptable not to believe in G-d, then you lose the opportunity, the precious opportunity, to see the ‘other’ as having been created in the image of G-d, as possessing a fragment a spark of the divine presence within his human frame. Once G-d has been dethroned from the heavens, then He also becomes dislodged and unseated from inside every human being. This opens the way to the viewing of other humans as nothing more than two-legged sub-humans, who can be killed for whatever reason.


Conflict is a part of the human condition and conflict between groups appears likewise to be a natural part of the group human condition that we call society.

At the same time, peace is one of the great holy values of Judaism. The Hebrew term shalom, is, according to Jewish tradition, one of the names of G-d Himself. There is no greater blessing than peace, and therefore every human effort should be expended on bringing peace and promoting peace, and that is why occasions and efforts such as this are valuable and important.

And yet I believe that we must be careful not to raise expectations. The biblical prophets give us a glimpse of a world in which “the wolf lies down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11;6), and in which conflict will cease They will neither injure or destroy… for the world will become full of knowledge of G-d like the waters that cover the seas.”
(Isaiah 11;9)

But the Jewish view of things is that such an era belongs to the messianic future. It represents an ideal, but an era to which we have not as yet merited. And in the current era there are going to be conflicts.

What should we do until that time? We have to keep working and striving towards it: “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you a freeman to desist from engaging in it” (Ethics of the Fathers 2;21).

And if, in response to our thesis - that religious values can be a source of the promotion of peace – it shall be argued, that our world is beset by conflicts which have their roots in religion, then I would respond:

I believe that the civilised community expects religion to be defined by its adherence to the promotion of the sanctity of life of man as created in the image of G-d. If there are versions of religion that do not conform to that basic definition, then I believe that they will have to account to their fellow man, as well as to the Creator of all life, for their mistaken actions.

Men and women of knowledge, people of goodwill, leaders of the world, opinion formers, faith and cultural leaders, in societies across the world, it is their duty, our duty, to teach civilised conduct towards the other, to promote and encourage the need to reach out to the other. For within the other lies a fragment of the Divine – G-d Himself.

When we remember that within every human being of whatever colour or creed there rests a fragment of the divine presence – then we will learn to have a healthy respect for one another. That way, in conflictual situations, we will find it easier to reach out for the other – for in the other we will find the Creator Himself.

Thank You

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