Volume 19 Number 3
Tending the Garden of Hope
01 June 2006

Andrew Stallybrass meets Rabbi Marc Raphaël Guedj who is bringing rabbis and imams together to work for peace.

THERE ARE PARTS of the world—and of ourselves—that cultivate despair. So hope needs watering. Chief Rabbi Marc Raphaël Guedj is a gardener of hope, with a generous watering can—but with his feet firmly on the ground. Formerly Chief Rabbi of Geneva’s traditional Jewish congregation, he now heads the aptly named Geneva-based foundation Racines et Sources (roots and well-springs).

When we meet in his flat, he’s suffering from flu. If he’s well enough, he’ll fly off tomorrow to Kazan in Russia, where he’s expected for a seminar organised by the Council of Europe. He phones to check that he can get a Kosher meal on the plane—a permanent battle for an Orthodox Jew.

He was born in Algeria just after World War II to a French family of pied-noir (black feet), the French North Africans. His father had fought with the Free French forces during the war and then worked in the French administration. Like tens of thousands of others, they had to leave for France just before independence.

Distance may idealise the ‘good old days’, but there seems to have been an amazing lost world of living together between faiths and cultures. At an interfaith Shabbat meal in Geneva some months ago, Guedj spoke of his North African childhood. The spokesman for the mosque—an Algerian—recalled to gales of laughter how he had earned his first pocket money turning out lights on the Sabbath for the Orthodox Jewish families.

After leaving Algeria, Guedj’s family settled in Toulouse, France. They were not practising Jews, but wanted their son to acquire something of his people’s culture and traditions, so he was sent to do his ‘catechism’. It was as a teenager, at a weekend at a yeshiva (religious school) in Aix-en-Provence, that he experienced a spiritual event that changed the course of his life. At the start of the Sabbath, the rabbi leading the weekend sang a song, which conveyed something of the soul’s thirst for God. ‘That thirst bowled me over,’ says Guedj. ‘I’ve spent the rest of my life searching for that melody.’

Years later, when he was Chief Rabbi of Metz, in Lorraine, he met the rabbi again. Neither of them could remember the song that had been sung all those years before. They agreed that there was something beyond the music, the search for which lasts more than a lifetime.

The young Guedj’s spiritual journey influenced his parents, although he was studying far from home and rarely saw them. Little by little, they returned to their Jewish faith. Today they live in Israel.

Guedj has also lived in Israel. It was there, during his studies, that he met his wife, who is also French, and the first of their four daughters was born. But he felt cramped there. ‘I needed to breathe some fresh air. There was something unreal about it.’

At a time of growing fundamentalism in most traditions, there have never before been so many efforts at dialogue, so many meetings, committees, encounters. We discuss this strange paradox. ‘What’s lacking,’ he suggests, ‘is dialogue with the fundamentalists.’ For example, he feels that Israel will have to engage in dialogue with Hamas sooner or later. And more modestly, in Geneva, he tries to put this conviction into practice.

He quotes one Israeli leader as saying, ‘I will not be the first leader to give up the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.’ Guedj wonders whether such politicians ever consult the rabbis—this is a highly theological question, but the leader in question is a non-practising Jew. ‘Our task is to remove the religious obstacles standing in the path of political solutions,’ he says. ‘All of us need to re-examine our own myths and traditions.’

’Inter-religious dialogue,’ he says, ‘touches on the meaning of life, the universals of mysticism, forgiveness and memory. But it’s also vital because we have to tackle together the problems of our societies and build the peace together.’ His foundation sets out to open up Jewish wisdom ‘to Jews and to non-Jews’. ‘Let us keep our religions to ourselves,’ he says, provocatively, ‘and let us share our wisdom.’ He dreams of creating an international institute for training and research for rabbis in this spirit—’and why not for imams, priests and Protestant ministers too?’

’We Jews make fun of everything,’ he says. ‘We joke about God, which means that we don’t shut up the Holy in an ideology.’ We can’t protect the Holy, he suggests. Real dialogue must include the possibility of disagreeing deeply, and even having a slanging match.

He believes that too many political efforts for peace in the Middle East have wilfully neglected the heart of the problem: religious factors and the resurgence of hanging tightly to identity. ‘We need to talk about where it hurts.’

In June 2003, Guedj attended a conference organised by Alain Michel of Hommes de Parole, an NGO which works to establish dialogue between parties in conflict, at the Initiatives of Change (IofC) conference centre in Caux, Switzerland. There he had the idea of bringing together imams and rabbis. All too often, he felt, religious leaders only add to the divisions. In January 2005, after many difficulties, his dream came to reality when 150 rabbis and imams met in Brussels, prompting 60,000 articles in the media.

A follow-up meeting took place this March in Seville, Spain, site of a remarkable living together of cultures in the Middle Ages. This Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace drew 70 rabbis and 70 Muslim representatives from 34 countries, along with experts, observers and the media. For some the meeting was ‘nearly miraculous’; for others, it was ‘close to a waste of time, because they have so little power’. But all were united against extremism and the misuse of religion to justify violence.

UN General Secretary Kofi Annan sent a message of support. André Azoulay, senior advisor to the King of Morocco, set the scene by stating, ‘Religion has been misused by the fundamentalists, who have taken over religion and made us hostages. They could do so because we were silent.’

When the conference split up into working groups some headway was made on delicate issues such as the role of education in creating and combating stereotypes, and joint groups to oversee each other’s sacred sites. ‘Seen at a distance, this congress might leave room for scepticism,’ said an Iraqi imam. ‘However if the contacts are sincere and sustained one might be wrong in underestimating its relevance.’ A European rabbi said that he would invite his city’s imam to his synagogue. ‘My folk may make faces for a while… It will take courage.’

In their final statement, the delegates pledged to ‘continue to seek out one another to build bridges of respect, hope and friendship, to combat incitement and hostility, to overcome all barriers and obstacles, to reinforce mutual trust, serving the noble goal of universal peace especially in the land that is holy to us all’.

’If we can be sensitive to the other’s values and traditions, then multiplicity can lead to unity,’ Guedj said at a second conference in Caux in 2003, organised by IofC and the World Conference on Religion and Peace. ‘It’s like an artist who belongs to one school of painting nevertheless being able to appreciate the work of a colleague from another school.’

A Geneva newspaper recounted a telling anecdote about Guedj from the Seville meeting. When one imam stormed out of the meeting after a public quarrel with another imam, it was Guedj who persuaded him to return.