Jerusalem Interfaith Conference: Ecumenically Correct, Intellectually Dishonest

“When Buddha Met Abraham” was the byline chosen for the Interfaith Conference hosted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry from September 11 to 15 in Jerusalem. It was the first indication that this religious outreach was not global, but rather between Judaism and Asian religions.

Sure enough, the invited guests were “20 spiritual leaders of the major East Asian faiths (Hindu, Buddhist, Taoism, Sikh, Jain, Shinto, Zoroastrianism), among them some of the most senior spiritual personalities in Asia.” Representatives of the Jewish faith were identified only as “rabbis from all the streams of Judaism” along with “leading intellectuals in the fields of interfaith dialogue and Jewish thought.” The Asian guests had the option of meeting with leaders of Israeli Muslims and Christians outside the Conference framework.

A survey of the Conference organizers, however, raised interesting questions. This religious gathering was hosted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, not Religious Affairs. Even more strange, Jerusalem’s dialog with Eastern spirituality was sponsored by groups from the US rather than Israel, some of which are not connected to Judaism… or even to religion. Conference sessions were held at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, a conflict-resolution organization located on the Hebrew University campus but founded largely by Americans. Other partners were the ecumenical World Council of Religious Leaders (WCRL), headquartered in New York City; and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), also based in the USA.

The physical and/or spiritual distance of these organizations from Jerusalem would suggest Manhattan or Washington DC as a more logical venue. Instead, they chose a city whose only significance is derived from Biblical history, to host an affirmation of Biblically forbidden teachings.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government enthused about the Conference as a history-making event. That being so, it was odd that the interfaith implications received almost no attention, even from its own organizers.

The WCRL was presumably the most sympathetic religious player. This obscure organization has been trying to merge Jewish and Hindu faith in past years, and its General Secretary was present at this gathering long enough to make a statement. But this “first-time” Conference did not even make it into their calendar of events. The politically-oriented Truman Institute likewise did not mention the Conference taking place in its halls, either beforehand or afterward.

The Jewish sponsors considered the religious exchange as just a platform for mutual political-cultural support. The AJC reported it as an opportunity to give the non-Jews “a deeper understanding of Judaism and Israel, and to promote global interreligious awareness” for a more “peaceful world.” According to the Foreign Ministry, the hot items on the agenda were “the purpose of religion in modern society, safeguarding the planet, the rights of the individual and a just society, [and] the place of religious leadership in advancing peace and the global welfare.”  The meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was published as a photo-op.

In the rare cases where faith-based aspects of the gathering were touched on, political correctness prohibited any real dialog in comparing the God of Abraham with Eastern religions. The remarks of Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to Conference participants included a reminder of the September 11 terror attack on New York as “a disaster created directly by distorted religious belief”; an appropriate comment, even if he was unwilling to name Islam as the common threat to all the religions represented. But Mr. Rivlin went on to suggest that “our traditions have much in common; we all share a deep concern for human life and dignity…” which set the stage for dishonesty on all sides.  

The ecumenically correct diplomacy of President Rivlin, in proposing joint “prayer and meditation, for a better and healthier world, and for a peaceful and tolerant global society”, was answered by similarly warm wishes for “world peace and harmony” from leaders of the (Indian) Hindu and (Chinese) Buddhist communities. Aside from the heartwarming expressions of mutual tolerance, the impression was one of “Abraham” seeking Asian cooperation in supporting Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and “Buddha” offering to share the Eastern secret of how to live in harmony with the rest of the world.

Not only did this encounter fail to proclaim the Jewish message of world peace and harmony under the rule of YHVH, the one and only God; it allowed these Eastern religions to claim a spiritual superiority which they have yet to demonstrate in practice.

Hinduism has a long history of disdain for human life and dignity, embodied in the caste system, which one native of India says has been adopted by the Sikhs. And the Hindus are as far from “peace and harmony” with the Muslims as the Jews are; perhaps even farther, since there is nothing in Israel comparable to the religious riots in India. The Jains likewise have fought bitterly with the Hindus over holy sites in India, which would imply that Israel’s handling of the holy sites under its care might be a more apt model for a “tolerant global society”.

Shinto is focused on Japanese traditions for placating demons, it boasts of having “no absolutes”, and it denies the existence of human evil… which makes that faith irrelevant for addressing issues of social justice and human rights. Taoism (Daoism) is a Chinese moral code that applies only to the individual; since it discourages human intervention to stop evil, and teaches that man is “not obliged to make the world a better place,” the high priority placed on both by Jewish faith is definitely not a “shared concern” for Taoists.

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that originated in pre-Islamic Persia and closely resembles Judaism and Christianity, with conflicting theology but similar ethics and values. It has less than 300,000 followers worldwide at best, most of them Iranians, Indians and Kurds. Since this faith has no central leadership, it’s not clear how the (unidentified) participant was selected as a “leader”.

Last but not least is Buddhism, marketed as the most compassionate and tolerant of all faiths, which nevertheless has various sects condemning one another. The religion is united, however, in its private prejudice against non-Buddhists. Added to that is the unsavory partnership of Tibetan Buddhists with the Nazis during the Holocaust, and the ease with which today’s Dalai Lama keeps company with the Hitler-worshipping mystic Miguel Serrano. (The Dalai Lama was not invited to this Conference, probably for political reasons; but he is welcomed to Israel separately every few years.)

The President of the Buddhist Association in China went so far as to claim, “All these five major religions [recognized in China: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism] emphasize mercy and compassion, peace and freedom; we can exist peacefully.” This was a bold denial of the fact that China is flagged for persecution of Christians (even “government-sanctioned” churches) as well as certain Buddhist and Muslim groups.

The slogan “When Buddha Met Abraham” was presumably meant as a welcoming gesture to the leaders of the Asian religions. In cultural terms, we might assume that the descendants of Abraham were trying to emulate his reputation for showing hospitality to strangers (a Jewish tradition based on Genesis 18). In terms of geopolitics, Asian religious leaders do have an interest in mutual cooperation, particularly in a united stand against Islam, the system of political-spiritual conquest that masquerades as a religion.

But the common ground ends there. Like the imaginary meeting of Abraham and Buddha, the shared spiritual values that were proclaimed between the two faiths is pretense.

There are light-years of distance between the message of Abraham the first Jew, who was pronounced righteous because of his trust in God (Gen.15:1-6), and the message of Siddhartha the Buddha (“enlightened one“), who proclaimed his attainment of salvation by superior self-effort. The Ten Commandments, the cornerstones of Judaism, begin with two prohibitions that negate the Eastern religions: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them….”

Even rabbinic tradition implies that if Abraham had ever met Buddha in real life, our forefather would have tried to persuade his guest to embrace the one true God, El Elyon, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Until our nation returns to the faithfulness of Abraham towards God, our spiritual dialog with other nations will continue to be crippled by the dishonesty displayed at this Conference, which sacrifices eternal truth for temporary acceptability.