Rabbi David Rosen is a man dedicated to a myriad of missions: to further interfaith dialogue, to pursue justice and peace, and to promote veganism and healthy living. And because of his tenacity, he has greatly furthered these causes and influenced many people along the way. Capping a long career of interreligious involvement, Rosen has recently been involved in startling changes in Saudi Arabia related to interfaith relations, and the notable change in the religious orientation of the Kingdom.
Rosen’s commitment to interfaith dialogue started in the 1970s, in his early 20s, when he was appointed senior rabbi of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, the largest Jewish congregation in South Africa, in Sea Point, Cape Town, as well as to the Cape Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court).
Based on Jewish teachings of justice, Rosen was very much opposed to the apartheid system in South Africa. He and his wife contemplated how they could remain in a country whose laws were so clearly inimical to Jewish teachings and to their values in general. They recognised that the biblical message that all human beings are created in the Divine image and the call to love one’s neighbour as oneself was totally contrary to what they were experiencing there, where love, care and compassion seemed limited to one’s own parochial community.
Using his powers of persuasion and enthusiasm, Rosen met with other rabbis, priests, pastors, and imams in Cape Town in an effort to make positive changes. Recognising the need to combat separation through respectful interfaith encounters, he founded and chaired the Cape Inter-Faith Forum, the Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims, becoming a pioneer of interfaith relations.
Unfortunately, many South Africans were not ready for his strong activism for a more tolerant, democratic country. Rosen received death threats to his daughters, and found that his home phone was tapped. After his temporary work visa was not renewed, he and his family left South Africa.
Thereafter, Rosen was appointed chief rabbi of Ireland, while also serving from 1979 to 1985 on the Academic Council of the Irish School of Ecumenism. He enjoyed a high profile among the wider, mainly religious Irish population, with official broadcasts twice a year on state television for the Jewish holidays, and regular appearances on numerous popular talk shows.
His interest in interfaith dialogue had by now developed into a passion, and in 1981 he founded the Irish Council of Christians and Jews, as a national member organization of the International Council of Christians and Jews, the first interfaith organization established in Ireland. The goal of the Council was to promote understanding and friendship between Christians and Jews, and this was accomplished through various activities including interfaith conferences and guest lectures, to which the general public was also invited.
Because Rosen and his wife wanted their children to grow up as Israelis and experience the joy of Jewish life in their own homeland, they returned to Israel in 1985, where he took up an appointment as dean at the Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture in the Old City of Jerusalem, whose purpose was to introduce primarily Jewish secular youth to “the Jewish library.”
He later became professor of Jewish Studies at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. At that time he also served as the ADL’s director of Interfaith Relations in Israel, and as the ADL’s co-liaison to the Vatican. In 1997, he was appointed to the position of director of the ADL Israel office. This was a great fit since the ADL has always placed great importance on interfaith relations as a route to reducing discrimination.
Born in Newbury, Berkshire, England in 1951, in 1973 he married Sharon (née Rothstein), who today is the global director of Engagement with Religions of Search for Common Ground. They have three daughters and six grandchildren. Sharon recalls that after they first met in the winter of 1972, “his trademark eloquence already evident, a gift inherited from his illustrious father Rabbi Kopul Rosen, David dazzled me with his belief in God as a divine, positive force in the world, and with Judaism’s essential beauty — so much so that we were engaged to be married a few weeks later.” (from Interfaith heroes, edited by Dr. Alon Goshen Gottste.)
A diverse career
After being educated in England and Israel, where he received his smicha, Rosen served in the Israeli Defence Forces and was chaplain to the forces in the western Sinai. Rosen’s inter-religious activities are incredibly widespread, so vast that it is hard to believe that one person could be involved in so many:
- Since the spring of 2001, he has been the international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, and director of its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding. Rosen considers this ‘a dream job’ since it enables him to focus exclusively on interfaith activities;
- He was a member of the Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Vatican that negotiated the Fundamental Agreement between the two, resulting in the establishment of full bilateral relations in 1994; he was invited to address the news conference releasing the agreement, where he highlighted its significance;
- He is an international president of Religions for Peace;
- He is honorary president of the International Council of Christians and Jews;
- He also co-founded the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council in Israel in 1991 whose purpose was to act as an umbrella body for networking among 75 Christian, Palestinian/Muslim and Jewish institutions, to harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths and to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence;
- He serves on the Executive of the World Council of Religious Leaders;
- He is a past chairman of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations;
- He is a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, and serves on the Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy Land;
- He has frequently met and has very cordial relations with the present pope, as he had with the two previous popes; in a CNN profile during the pontificate of John Paul II, he was dubbed “the pope’s rabbi”;
- He served as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum’s council for promoting relations and cooperation between the Muslim and Western worlds and as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis;
- He was appointed as the only Jewish member of the Board of Directors of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Relations, founded by Saudi Arabia together with the Vatican, Spain, and Austria. He met with the late King Abdullah twice; and in February 2000 he was the first rabbi, and the first Israeli, to have been received by the king of Saudi Arabia in his palace in Riyadh. This enabled Rosen to be involved in successful efforts to eliminate anti-semitic images and passages in Saudi textbooks, and to the breakthrough in relations between Israeli and Saudi Arabia mentioned above;
- He serves on the board of the World Council of Religious Leaders of the Elijah Interfaith Institute;
- He is a longstanding member of the interreligious Jerusalem Rainbow Club;
- He frequently represents the State of Israel at interfaith meetings;
- He has spoken and written extensively on a wide variety of interfaith issues.
Rosen’s commitment to interfaith dialogue can be summarised by his statement: “Interreligious dialogue is an essential component in facilitating peaceful reconciliation in international relations for the well-being of our world as a whole.”
“Interreligious dialogue is an essential component in facilitating peaceful reconciliation in international relations for the well-being of our world as a whole.” -Rabbi David Rosen
The values and actions that he seeks to bring to interfaith dialogues are “listen, learn, connect, discuss, understand, respect, admire, share.” In this way, he believes, the process becomes a source of inspiration, blessing and collaboration for the purpose of kiddush hashem – sanctifying God’s name in the world.
About Rosen’s extensive interreligious activities, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, author and activist for many years in the fields of Jewish theology, the ethics of Jewish power, and interreligious dialogue, stated: “Rosen has been a pioneer and trailblazer. His contributions have been extremely valuable in moving the world forward. Nor has he shown any signs of letting up or of resting on his laurels. He is a phenomenon and an inspiration to all the people working constructively in many fields.”
Among the many other commendations about Rosen that I received are the following words of Dr. Ahmed Abaddi, secretary-general of the Rabita Mohammadia of Moroccan Ulema: “Rabbi David Rosen has given so much of himself to establish and preserve trust between religious communities around the world. He has built partnerships that, a few years ago, would have been unthinkable; of the kind that, he, an Israeli rabbi, is sitting on the board of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, established by Saudi Arabia, in partnership with Spain, Austria and the Vatican! Just one aspect, among so many other aspects, of his brave, constructive and momentous interfaith endeavours.
“Among what has impacted me the most, in observing and experiencing David’s interreligious work, is that he has elevated these interactions, through his force of character. David has this powerful presence, which he is able to very precisely tune, in accordance with the individual or group before him. His innate emotional intelligence deftly and gracefully guides him, in choosing the degree of softness, or the magnitude of solidity, that is right for any given situation. And, in each and every moment in those contexts, I have marveled at this functional magnificent accuracy, that was and is, so masterfully used by David, for the best means. It has been a great privilege for me to learn from him.” -Dr. Ahmed Abaddi
Because of his extensive interfaith, peace, and justice efforts, Rosen has been the recipient of many awards and honurs. To honour his contributions to promoting Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Rosen in November 2005 a Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great; In 2010, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for his contributions to interfaith relations; and in March 2016 he was awarded the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Hubert Walter Award for Reconciliation and Interfaith Cooperation.
In addition to honorary doctorates, Rosen has received several additional prizes, including the Search for Common Ground Award for Interfaith Dialogue; the Primo Galileo 2000 Award; the Waldzell Institute Life Achievement Award (together with the Dalai Lama and Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb); the Festival of Faiths’ Lifetime Achievement Award; and the Mount Zion Award for Interreligious Understanding.
Rosen’s vision of Judaism as a religion in pursuit of social justice, with a belief that all human beings are created in the Divine image, informs his actions. Based on that belief, he co-founded Rabbis for Human Rights in 1998 in response to violations against Palestinians in the West Bank. In December 2006, he received the Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award from the North American chapter of the organization.
Rosen is also an eloquent supporter of, and advocate for, veganism, and serves as the honorary president for Israel of the London-based International Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology Society. He and his wife brought up their three daughters as ethical vegetarians, which they believe to be the most authentically Jewish dietary lifestyle.
Among his many statements about why Jews should be vegans are the following:
- The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat from such practices as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means;
- Today not only are we able to enjoy a healthy balanced vegan diet as perhaps never before, and not only are there compelling halachic reasons for not eating meat, but above all, if we strive for that which Judaism aspires to – namely the ennoblement of the spirit – then a vegan diet becomes a moral imperative… [an] authentic Jewish ethical dietary way of life for our time and for all times.
Rosen has argued that because of their negative effects on human health and on animals, “most products from animal sources on the market today cannot be considered truly kosher.”
In addition, he asserts that the environmental damage and the waste of natural resources by “meat production” make a compelling Jewish moral argument for adopting a vegan diet. His support of veganism is also based on his recognition that the biblical representation of the Garden of Eden is one in which humans were vegans, and the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook (and notable other Jewish thinkers in other ages), envisaged the Messianic Age as a vegan time, based on the biblical vision.
Summarizing Rosen’s many contributions, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek and of Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy, and author of over a dozen Judaica books, stated: “Rosen is such a powerful moral voice building global interfaith bridges, promoting ethics and menschlichkeit, and advocating for veganism and an end to animal cruelty in such profound ways. He has been a role model to me and so many others in so many ways.”
In summary, Rabbi David Rosen has had an amazing career, filled with many accomplishments, and moving on from his recent 70th birthday, much more is likely to occur, as he speaks out and writes increasingly about the issues he is so passionate about. If his views would become far better known and acted upon, it would produce a world that is far more just, peaceful, compassionate, and environmentally sustainable.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, Author of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism; Judaism and Vegetarianism; Judaism and Global Survival; Mathematics and Global Survival; and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet; and over 250 articles at JewishVeg.org/schwartz