The new year is bringing with it a slew of new interfaith news and events. Perhaps the most critical issue involves the nasty political environment in Washington, D.C., and the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton.
A coalition of Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders are strongly criticizing what they say is the deplorable lack of political civility in the nation’s capitol and on television and radio talks shows.
They say that policy debates between members of Congress, political pundits and advocacy groups are sounding "less and less like Solomon and Lincoln and more and more like Jerry Springer and Rush Limbaugh."
In response to what Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is calling the "politics of personal destruction," the Interfaith Alliance is planning a National Faith Leaders Summit on Civility in Public Discourse in Washington on Jan. 26 to decry the downward turn political debate has taken.
"We call this summit because our public discourse has reached an alarming low … it has moved beyond spirited to become salacious," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "This summit is intended to be a response. It seeks to help change the moral climate and public expectations in which political discourse in America will take place."
He is joining Azizah al-Hibri, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an expert on Islamic law, and Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Alliance of Baptists and the Interfaith Alliance.
"The current national debate on impeachment epitomizes the sad state of incivility with which we must now cope," said Rev. Gaddy. "We have abandoned our values of compassion, modesty, repentance and forgiveness,’ said al-Hibri.
A New York City summit is planned for Feb. 9 at Marble Collegiate Church in Midtown Manhattan.
Rabbi Saperstein, a constitutional law expert who has lobbied presidents and Congress on Jewish issues for 25 years, says he has never seen such nastiness in political debate.
He said in the past, one could be today’s political enemy but tomorrow’s friend: depending on the issue. For instance, one could condemn a senator’s opposition to gun control one moment, and applaud their religious liberty the next.
"Sadly, no more," Rabbi Saperstein said. "Today the nasty rhetoric and mean-spirited personal attacks that are coming to characterize more and more political campaigns have begun to seep into and poison political debate in Congress, in the media, and in public life generally.
He quoted the talmudic admonition of 2,000 years ago that "a person who publicly shames another is like someone who has shed blood."
The alliance says it is not taking specific political positions on impeachment or other national issues.
# How do lawyers look at themselves in the synagogue mirror?
After spending their days twisting the truth, getting criminals off, and attacking their opponents, can they practice their faith with a clear conscience?
That’s the question being posed by a two-part interfaith seminar on religious values and the practice of law being co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary; Fordham University, a Catholic institution; and Auburn Theological Seminary, a non-denominational Protestant school. The seminar titled "With God in My Briefcase" will put lawyers, judges and interfaith religious leaders together for dinner to discuss the conflicts between practicing ethics and morals, and the practice of law.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, who is leading the discussion, said, "of all professions law has come under the most attack.
"Lawyers are burnt out, they are cynical, they often see themselves as hapless players in a game, the rules of which they have not written. I want to restore a sense of nobility to a profession that cries out for it." The first seminar is being held Jan. 19 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the law office of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom at 919 Third Avenue. For more information, call (212) 870-3180.
# How do Christians understand the Torah?
That’s one aspect of the fifth annual interfaith symposium being held by Temple Emanu-El on Feb. 4. The day-long program will examine how Christians view the Hebrew Bible, the Koran and the New Testament.
Scholars will include New Testament Professor James Sanders, Yale University History Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, and Pace University Islamic expert Elias Mallon. Father James Loughran, head of ecumenical affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, will moderate.
# Guess who came to dinner?
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the historic accord signed between Israel and the Vatican, Ambassador Shmuel Sisso, counsel general of Israel in New York, threw a reception at his Upper East Side apartment with John Cardinal O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, as the guest of honor.
Sisso noted that Catholic-Jewish relations are better today than at any other point in Christianity’s 2,000-year history. "A faithful friend is a powerful defense and a treasure," he said.
O’Connor quoted Pope John Paul II’s sentiment that Catholics "must always respect the covenant that God made with the Jewish people … [which] will endure until the end of time."
The Israel-Vatican accord was signed on Dec. 30, 1993.
# Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, just came back from Cracow, Poland, where he held meetings with leaders of the Jesuit Society, the socially progressive Catholic group, on how to foster better Catholic-Jewish relations around the world. Rabbi Klenicki reports that Jesuit leaders are concerned that recent historic Vatican breakthroughs concerning the creation of more positive relations with Jews are not known or being implemented in Latin America, Africa or Asia.
A five-day meeting produced agreements to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms and to develop a new theological understanding of Jews that will be taught and preached at the grass roots level, the rabbi said.
A second meeting is planned next December in Jerusalem, he said.