When Rabbi Daniel Roth was a teenage yeshiva student, he heard a joke that would trouble him through the years. "How do you know the prayer book has a sense of humor?" his neighbor asked and snickered when pointing at the expression "Torah scholars increase peace in the world."
Two decades later, as a response to the widely held belief that religion and peacemaking are incompatible, the 36-year-old Jerusalem-based Talmud expert and Israeli court-certified mediator has launched the world's first international center to teach Judaism and conflict resolution.
After creating Israel's first semester-long class in Judaism and conflict resolution three years ago at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Roth remained frustrated that "there is only a handful of people involved in Judaism and conflict resolution," he said. "A true global network of [Jewish pursuers of peace] would not only benefit the Jewish community but also establish strong connections to parallel networks in other religions and cultures; there is a growing need and opportunity for increased citizen diplomacy to assist national diplomacy efforts."
In late December, The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution expanded its Jerusalem programs and opened classes in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Online classes have attracted a wide range of students - beyond Jewish participants - including a Christian cleric, university conflict resolution professors, and international students from Afghanistan, Albania, Cameroon, Gambia, Nigeria and Rwanda.
Online students from West Africa said in e-mails that that they did not have the opportunity in their own countries to study conflict resolution and religion and found the subject matter, including Jewish texts, inspiring.
Tata Edwin Fondzenyuy, a 39-year-old Christian school teacher and father of four in Maroua, Cameroon, said his studies so far have helped him mediate between fighting couples and families, and that he is looking forward to learning new ways of being a "peacemaker" in a community characterized by "family conflict and religious and political conflicts."
"Our mission in the work of conflict resolution and peacemaking transcends our subjective religious convictions," Fondzenyuy said.
Retired Muslim Nigerian foreign service officer Muhammad Kabir Ilyasu, 64, who is temporarily studying Arabic at the Open University of Sudan, said that "whatever insight is available [in Judaism] that would promote and consolidate peace is welcomed by me. The world, especially my country Nigeria, is facing all sorts of challenges - importantly, security essentially built on sectarian beliefs. There is therefore the need to understand how to situate these challenges to our times. Understanding Judaism makes Christianity easier to comprehend."
The online participant from Afghanistan, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, could not be reached for comment.
Jewish and non-Jewish texts
Through the online and on-site programs, 300-plus participants, mostly from North America, have studied conflict resolution theories alongside traditional Jewish text - Talmud, midrash and rabbinic literature throughout history - and occasionally texts from Islam and other religions. Subjects include constructive conflict, ethics and non-threatening communication. Students also meet Jewish and Muslim role models in peacemaking, and have options for tracks tailored to professions, such as for teachers, rabbis, leaders and activists. The center, teaching thus far only in English, hopes to also add courses in Hebrew as its grassroots funding increases.
A student in the United States, who asked not to be identified, said that she had heard "peacemaking" characterized as a Christian practice until "this curriculum helped me see how to reintegrate my personal commitment for peace-building and conflict resolution back into my Jewish identity."
In-depth teaching of conflict resolution alongside the study of Judaism is indeed quite rare. Most Western universities do host conflict resolution departments, and, increasingly, universities also have centers for conflict resolution and religions, but none focus on Judaism.
Robert Eisen, director of the religion department at George Washington University, said that there are a few dozen rabbis and Jewish academics interested in Judaism and conflict resolution, but that almost none have Roth's "breadth and depth of knowledge in the discipline of conflict resolution with his command of classical Jewish texts."
Roth, raised in the United States through age 14, drew inspiration to develop the field a decade ago in the English-language writings of Jewish and Arab conflict resolution experts: Rabbi Prof. Marc Gopin, head of George Mason University's Center for World Religions, Citizen Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution; Prof. Gerald Steinberg, founder of the department of conflict management at Bar-Ilan University; and Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer of American University's peace and conflict resolution program.
Gopin, who has been a primary adviser and occasional co-instructor, calls the center "revolutionary" in that it may be "the only place in the world [where] a Jewish center of higher learning [combines] advanced academic conflict resolution theory and practice with the principles of rabbinic approaches to mediation and conflict resolution, examining narratives as well as law, and merging that with training for practice."
Roth's ancient inspirations are what he calls the "forgotten" Jewish role models of pursuing peace, including Aaron in the Torah, first-century rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, and individuals throughout history who were called in Jewish literature "pursuers of peace."
"Ben Zakai was known as a 'rodeph shalom' [pursuer of peace] - the third-century text said a person who makes peace does so not only between [neighbors], husband and wife, family and family, but also between city and city, government and government, and nation and nation," said Roth. "[Religion is] one of the key components of violence and divisiveness from families to intractable ethnic conflicts, so it has to be addressed."
Acknowledging criticism that some conservatives portray conflict resolution as a field promoting leftist ideologies, Roth said that his dream is to have the most liberal and conservative members of society study together and sign his center's "Rodeph Shalom" communications agreement for respectful disagreement and dialogue. The agreement, which will be translated into other languages using text from other religions, has been signed so far by a few hundred community members and has been distributed, for example, to members of J Street and AIPAC prior to a debate.
"Studying and practicing Judaism and conflict resolution is a mitzvah that is said to be of equal weight to all the other mitzvot," said Roth, who hopes to earn his PhD this summer on Jewish models of conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University.
"The midrash ('Avot deRabbi Natan' ) says that, before the giving of the Torah, there was and should be basic ethical behavior, such as the pursuit of peace between people. Studying and practicing conflict resolution is not just a moral imperative; it is a basic necessity for ensuring a healthy and vibrant society. Our culture has become way too adversarial, with many of our ancient cultural traditions of peacemaking being forgotten."
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