More than 50 leading Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and academics from Bosnia, Cyprus, England, France, Germany, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, and across North America gathered at the Hartman Institute Jerusalem campus for the 24th annual International Theology Conference on February 13. Five days of roundtable discussion and small study groups focused on the theme of “The Good Person” from each participant’s perspective, rooted in his or her religious experiences and understandings. The aim of the conference was not to address this issue abstractly or theoretically, but to learn from lived practices, received wisdom, revealed texts, and everyday insights and outpourings.
During a week of intensive textual study, participants attempted to look outside their own religious community to evaluate who among us is good – and whether “us” is an attribute of their own communities, of religious people, or of all people. The goal of these conversations was to reach a straightforward understanding of the basic notion of “goodness” as an individual virtue, as seen by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, keeping in mind important questions of co-existence and dignity.
“Good things happen when people share texts of their respective traditions not to find common ground or figure out who is right or wrong but to really understand,” explained Reverend Dr. Arthur Holder, Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and John Dillenberger Professor of Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “The focus on a specific topic and texts rather than a list of beliefs leaves room for the diversity of each tradition. There are enough people at the conference to really represent diversity within each faith and here, in the beautiful location of Jerusalem, is the right place to do this.”
The conference opened with a keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, who rooted the theme of being a good person in Deuteronomy 22: 3, the biblical verse that commands “you must not remain indifferent.” Fr. Olivier Thomas Venard of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem led the study and plenary of Christian texts relating to “being good,” while Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Al-Hussaini of the Leo Baeck College in London facilitated study and gave a plenary on the duties of the limbs and the duties of the heart in Islamic conceptions of virtue. Dr. Ronit Irshai of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Bar Ilan University engaged participants in text study dealing with times when the law fails to include goodness. Rabbi Dr. David Hartman closed the conference by sharing a number of Talmudic texts that have influenced his personal religious development and theology.
Dr. Nargis Virani, Assistant Professor of Arabic at The New School in New York explained that there are increasingly fewer safe spaces in which people feel comfortable to express diverse views and take the risk of articulating them. “If this sharing is not encouraged other powers take over. As a first-time attendee of the Theological Conference at Hartman, I feel uplifted to be here, in Jerusalem and within the walls of this campus which provides the space for sharing.”
While most of the conference was open solely to participants, the public was invited to join in the Edward Bronfman Family Foundation Annual Lecture on Religious Pluralism, a panel comprised of Dr. Yehuda Gellman (Israeli Jewish), Dr. Halima Krausen (German Muslim), and Dr. Peter Pettit (American Christian), who discussed their perspectives and answered challenging questions related to how religion can affirm and cultivate goodness in people and what the standards of goodness within a religion imply about those outside it.
“The Theology Conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute is the model for what we emulate at the Graduate Theological Union in terms of interreligious dialogue,” sums up Dr. Naomi Seidman, Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union and an active member of the Shalom Hartman Institute North American Scholars Circle. “From the technical details of how the conference is run to the focus on the sources, how can you be interested in interfaith dialogue without checking out Hartman?”