“The Dignity of Difference”
By Daniel P. Bennett
Head of Religious Education
St. Mary’s School, Cambridge

With additions from Dr. Amineh Hoti
Society for Dialogue and Action
At Lucy Cavendish College
Cambridge University
Cambridge, UK



Cambridge University

Lucy Cavendish College: The Chief Rabbi inaugurated THE DIGNITY OF DIFFERENCE - the theme of the first of three Cambridge inter-faith festivals that are organized by the Society for Dialogue and Action or D&A. In chronological order, the second will be hosted by a senior member of the Christian faith and the third by a Muslim. The Society for Dialogue and Action aims to focus on increasing understanding and mutual respect among the members of the Ahl-e-kitaab or the Abrahamic communities with a special emphasize on the participation of women and young people. In summer, D&A organized scholarly seminars and visits for more than eighteen women to the synagogue, Church and mosque.
The main seminar hall at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University’s mature women’s College, was packed with more than eighty people from all ages and from all backgrounds, including: The High Sheriff of Greater London, Dr. Khalid Hameed, Councilor John Hipkin, the former Mayor of Cambridge, the present Mayor of Cambridge, representatives from inter-faith organizations: Alif-Aleph, the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Jewish Relations, Cambridge Inter-Faith Program, East of England Faiths Council, The Islamic Academy in Cambridge, The Three Faiths Forum. Among the participants in the room were also RE teachers and eight students from the over 50s class: 'Jews, Christians, Muslims and the Middle East Today’ – at the University of the Third Age; the secondary school students were from Cambridge schools, such as The Perse, King’s and St Mary's.
Chairing the event was Reverend Dr. Andreas Loewe, from Cambridge’s principal Church, Great St Mary’s, which is also the University Church. Dame Veronica Sutherland, President of the College and previously a distinguished UK Ambassador welcomed the initiative and talked about the importance of the work of building bridges. Dr. Amineh Hoti, a Muslim female scholar who is running the Society for Dialogue and Action, introduced the Chief Rabbi, and referred to the two alternative approaches that dominate our time – the clash or the dialogue of civilizations.
She said she had chosen the theme of the inter-faith festival from the Chief Rabbi’s book: The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid a Clash of Civilizations (2002) which encourages us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation and is one of the most profound themes of Biblical and Qur’anic teachings. Because it addresses one of the oldest human problems, which is how to rise to live peaceably together against the background of human conflict and how to prevent differences from turning into a source of strife- or clash!
For Dr. Sacks, humanity’s problem in resolving this choice is rooted in an inherent difficulty with learning from the past and its mistakes. Humanity’s trouble, as Dr. Sacks put it, quoting Richard Weaver, is that we “haven’t read the minutes of the last meeting”.
Humanity may also be being caught unawares by a revolution in communications technology which will change the world.
Dr. Sacks identified what he considered to be three previous ‘revolutions’ in the history of civilization.
Writing gave rise to the birth of civilization, as it enabled the accumulation of knowledge beyond the living memory. Secondly, the alphabet gave rise to the book and thus the people of the book. We became a “kingdom of priests”, a kingdom of lettered people, a people of universal literacy with “no cognitive elite”. The development of the printing press gave rise to the third revolution (or revelation!), Luther’s reformation. With the possibility of reading a book in your own room came an individualism that would lead later to nationalism.
So, we find ourselves living in the midst of Dr. Sacks’ fourth revolution, instant global communication, which is, or will be, changing everything. Global communication, he suggested, abolishes space and distance. It gives rise to the fragmentation of the nation state and invites segregation, as the distant become close and vice versa. If modern communications mean we are no longer necessarily living close with people like us, how do we live with difference? This question of how we live with those who are unlike us will shape the 21st century.
The clashes of our time will not be resolved by a secularism that seeks to ignore them, but by meeting, talking, friendship and returning to sacred texts to hear what God is saying now. For the Chief Rabbi, the key is the realisation that we are different and therefore each has gifts that the other lacks.
Genesis 11 (The Tower of Babel) became an illustrative text in this regard. Dr. Sacks described it as the ‘hinge’ passage standing between Torah’s general archetypes, Adam and Eve, and its particular individuals, Abraham and Sarah.
The people of Babel speak one language, they have a shared vocabulary. They invent brick and decide that they will become gods, building a tower to reach heaven. With divine irony God ‘comes down’ to survey their handiwork. It is, Dr. Sacks suggested, a critique of universalism (in a similar vein to Aristotelian criticism of Plato’s Republic). The people unite in a project, and that is a positive development, but then comes the danger of imposing that unity on all – an imposed unity leads to totalitarianism.
Universalism must modulate into the valuing of the individual and the particular in the community. We have things in common, but our differences enlarge us all. It was said that if we are completely different we cannot communicate; if we are completely the same we have nothing to say.
On the afternoon following Dr. Sacks’ address, I was delighted to welcome a panel of speakers to continue discussion of these ideas with sixth formers at St. Mary’s School in Cambridge, as part of their Philosophy, Ethics and Religion course. Three of the students had been present at the Chief Rabbi’s talk. The six members of the panel, most of them Muslim women (some in hijab) chaired by Dr. Amineh Hoti, had all been involved in Inter-faith Dialogue in Cambridge; some of the contributors had taken part in the recent interfaith course for women. Many of these women, for the first time in decades, received and offered hospitality to and from Christians and others. The seminar began and ended with reflection on the Qur’anic verse that God has made humanity into nations and tribes so that we may know one another, and the Jewish blessing quoted by Dr. Sacks: We give thanks to God for creating many different souls and their deficiencies.
Drawing on personal experiences and ideas from the panel, and contributions from a number of the students present, we explored ideas of difference, of hospitality, of understanding, integration, religious freedom and expression, multi-culturalism and strength in diversity.
As with some of the questions to Dr. Jonathan Sacks at Lucy Cavendish College, there was an acknowledgement that inter-faith dialogue appears to be most crucial in parts of our world where there is lack of peace and people feel aggrieved by oppression and injustice. At both events, however, there was a realization that religious leaders and, importantly, people on the ground are more likely to be able to come up with the ingredients for peace than the politicians. Individuals can cross divides. Communications technology can become part of the solution as well as the problem, as illustrated by the project supported by the Chief Rabbi in Israel/Palestine, enabling the young of communities separated by ancient distrusts and conflicts to ‘meet’ their different neighbor through the electronic media.
Another issue raised again at Lucy Cavendish College concerned how we draw to the inter-faith discussion those for whom it isn’t a matter of immediate concern or interest. The message from both events was that this understanding may arise incidentally through being alongside each other - perhaps as faiths work together to tackle hunger, disease and poverty. To paraphrase Dr. Sacks, as well as face to face conversations we have side by side issues with which we can all engage.
Our sixth form students are, I hope, examples of those who will be able to go out and cross those divides at a grassroots level. Their contributions to the seminar and responses to the speakers gave hope that, as they expand their horizons in university communities or traveling the world, they will be willing to engage with the otherness of those they encounter and thus be enriched by the dignity and blessing of difference.
For, as the Chief Rabbi concluded, in reaching out to the human other we are reaching out to the divine. And so we will find the trace of God in the face of a stranger.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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