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Where no rabbi has gone before

Interfaith activist to speak at brotherhood breakfast

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Rabbi David Rosen meets with King Abdullah as part of an interfaith delegation at the royal court in Saudi Arabia.

Rabbi David Rosen brings a unique perspective when it comes to evaluating Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah.

Abdullah’s supporters note that in the 20 years that he led his kingdom, he sided with America against Al Qaeda, proposed a peace plan that would recognize Israel, and let women serve as supermarket cashiers.

Detractors note that women in Saudi Arabia still can’t drive, Christianity is banned, and the kingdom flogs wayward bloggers.

Count Rabbi David Rosen among those praising the Saudi glass as half full.

As the international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, he was among the Jews – and the sole Israeli – invited to the unprecedented interfaith meeting Abdullah convened in Madrid in 2008.

And when Abdullah institutionalized his interfaith dialogue with the formation of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Rabbi Rosen was named as one of its nine board members, serving with representatives of the Vatican, the Church of England, the Orthodox church, and Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iran.

“For the King of Saudi Arabia to have an Israeli rabbi on its board is very significant,” Rabbi Rosen said – Saudi Arabia, after all, is home to Islam’s holiest places. “What was remarkable about Abdullah’s interfaith initiative was precisely that it came from the ultraconservative Muslim heartland and made dialogue kosher, or halal, in the Muslim world.”

Rabbi Rosen will be the featured speaker on Presidents Day at the annual Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood/Sisterhood Breakfast, which brings together eight faith communities. This year, the Jewish community is hosting.

Rabbi Rosen said that the Saudi interfaith initiative had one of its most important moments late last year, when it brought leaders of Sunni and Shiite Islam together with some leaders of the Yazidi, a religious sect that had been targeted for genocide by ISIS, and issued a joint declaration condemning Al Qaeda and ISIS and the abuse of religion.

“It’s very important psychologically for the minorities to have that kind of support,” Rabbi Rosen said.

He acknowledged that “there are always problematics involved in cooperation with countries or religious communities that might not fit our standards with civil liberties. But it’s better to take the hands that have been stretched out. I saw an opportunity for progress.”

Rabbi Rosen grew up in England, where his father was a prominent Orthodox rabbi. After high school, he studied in Jerusalem at the Mir yeshiva, where he received rabbinic ordination. But he left the charedi yeshiva to enlist in the Israeli army. For a time he served as an IDF chaplain in the Sinai. Then, in the early 1970s, he went to South Africa. He was hired to be a campus rabbi – and then South Africa’s largest congregation, an Orthodox synagogue with ten thousand members, hired him.

It was in Cape Town that Rabbi Rosen discovered interfaith cooperation.

“I came to it from a commitment to social justice. It was one of the few ways to bring people together across racial separations” during the apartheid regime, he said.

His activism made older congregants nervous. It also brought death threats against him and his children. And it led the government not to renew his visa.

A stint as chief rabbi of Ireland introduced him to the world of Catholic-Jewish relations. “You can’t be chief rabbi of Ireland and not relate to other faiths,” he said.

Based in Jerusalem, Rabbi Rosen has represented both the Israeli government and the chief rabbinate in interreligious dialogue and in the negotiations leading up to the Vatican’s recognition of Israel.

Last week, he was in Davos, Switzerland.

“The World Economic Forum understands that religion has consequence for religious and economic interests,” he said. He appeared on a panel about religion and violence with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the archbishop of South Africa, and the founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, the first Muslim liberal arts college in America.

Rabbi Rosen points to “the enormous advances in the constructive use of religion. You can see the enormous advances in interfaith cooperation. There is in fact less conflict today than in the past.

“What’s striking in interreligious work is that the divisions are often not between religions as within religions; they are instead between those who are open-minded, embracing, welcoming, and those who are insular, isolationist, and only inward looking,” he said.

Rabbi Rosen said that he is optimistic about prospects for interreligious dialogue with Muslims.

After all, he said, “the greatest interfaith success of our time is probably the transformation with the Catholic Church.” But for Jews, “that was probably the worst religion historically.

“We never had as bad a relationship with Islam as with Christianity. Islam never taught that God has spurned the Jewish people and replaced it with another, cursed the Jews to wander forever, and in effect said we were in league with the devil. That’s what the church taught. The pope rejected Theodor Herzl, saw Zionism as anathema for rejecting the doctrine that Jews had to wander forever,” he said.

Now the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism is such that Rabbi Rosen has been named a knight of the church, was invited to the installation of Pope Francis, and has hosted a Shabbat dinner inside the Vatican, where cardinals sang Shabbat zemirot with a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee.

“If we can transform that relationship into such a positive one, there should be no relationship that is beyond transformation,” Rabbi Rosen said.

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