Bahai News - Baha'i Chair at Hebrew University hosts conference on modern religions
Baha'i Chair at Hebrew University hosts conference on modern religions
JERUSALEM, 21 January 2001 (BWNS) -- Some 54 scholars of religion
- Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Mormon and Baha'i - gathered in December at the
Hebrew University to discuss the impact of modernism on their traditions.
The conference, co-sponsored by the Chair in Baha'i Studies at the Hebrew
University's Faculty of Humanities and Landegg Academy, has advanced Baha'i
studies as an independent field of academic study and enriched the dialogue
on the core values common to the monotheistic faiths.
The First International Conference on Modern Religions and Religious
Movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the Babi and Baha'i Faiths,
was held from 17 to 21 December 2000 and focused on common approaches within
Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i Faith toward the philosophical,
social and psychological challenges of modernity.
"Religious studies often deal with the origins or history of religions. For
example we study the origins of Islam or medieval Judaism," said Yair
Zakovitch, Dean of the Hebrew University's Faculty of Humanities. "But the
study of religion in modern times is so relevant, so important to the lives
of people. It was very significant that these scholars, despite the delicate
political situation, were able to gather in Jerusalem to discuss their
commonalities and appreciate their differences. People are generally
suspicious, and the walls of suspicion collapsed."
The President of the Hebrew University, Menachem Magidor, described to the
conference participants his vision of making the Hebrew University into a
preeminent center for the study of religion, with research centers devoted
to each of the monotheistic faiths. "The Chair in Baha'i Studies is the
fist link in this chain," he said.
Moshe Sharon, the holder of the Chair in Baha'i Studies and co-convenor of
the conference, said that the field of Baha'i studies is emerging as an
independent area of academic inquiry and that this was the first conference
convened by a major international university for the study of the Baha'i
Faith and its relationship to its sister faiths.
"Through this conference," said Dr. Sharon, "the Hebrew University has
declared its interest in Baha'i studies and its recognition of the
importance of this field alongside Jewish, Christian and Islamic studies."
The other co-convenor of the conference was Hossain Danesh, the Rector
of Landegg Academy, a Baha’i-sponsored institution of higher education
"The conference focused on fundamental issues that are common to religions,
held in a city and at a time when religious conflict in political terms was
considerable," Dr. Danesh said.
In his keynote address Dr. Danesh reviewed the common elements of the
monotheistic religions that have made them cornerstones of civilizations,
as well as some of the teachings and principles of the Baha'i Faith that
address challenges unique to the modern age. He presented President Magidor
with a volume of fine pen and ink drawings of Baha'i holy places in the Old
City of Acre by the Persian architect and draftsman Hushang Seyhoun.
Other presentations and panel discussions were grouped around themes such
as "Religion in Modern Times: Philosophical, Social and Psychological
Reflections," "Mysticism and Messianism," "Eschatology and Ethics,"
"Tradition, Renewal and Reform," and "Religion and the Realm of Science."
Most of the panelists spoke on aspects of Judaism or the Baha'i Faith, but
there were also contributions on Sufism, the Wahhabi movement, modern Islam,
The participants came mainly from the United States and Israel, but also
from Canada, Denmark, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand,
and the United Kingdom. Prof. Degui Cai from China's Shandong University
gave a presentation on the fundamental principles of the Baha'i Faith and
their relevance to Chinese society.
The final panel discussion, on "Contemporary Meeting of Ultimate
Differences," featured presentations about African Christians in Israel and
about the Baha'i Faith, Christianity and indigenous religions in the Pacific
islands. The panel closed with a presentation by Dr. Amnon Netzer of the
Hebrew University on "The Jews and the Baha'i Faith." A Jew of Iranian
background, Prof. Netzer spoke about the conditions that led as many as ten
percent of Iran's Jews to convert to the Baha'i Faith.
"The courteous talk, in which Dr. Netzer showed great respect for those who
converted, created an atmosphere of interfaith reconciliation for the
audience, which included several Israeli Jews with Baha'i relatives," said
Robert Stockman, Coordinator of the Institute for Baha'i Studies in
Another significant element of the conference was the participation of many
young scholars alongside well-known and outstanding professors and scholars
in the field of religious studies.
"The juxtaposition of youth and experience was very insightful and promising
for the future of religious studies. It demonstrated that there are fine
minds coming up, and this augurs well for the emergence of new insights into
the role of religion in the development of civilization," said Dr. Danesh.
The conference also featured a number of cultural activities. The opening
day closed with a program of classical music by the King David String
Ensemble, one of the foremost chamber music groups in Israel. Among the
selections they performed was a piece well known to Baha'is, "Dastam Bigir
'Abdu'l-Baha," which the composer had arranged especially for the occasion.
Kiu Haghighi, a Persian Baha'i and master of the santour, closed the
conference with a virtuoso performance of an original piece he composed
for the event.
On the final day of the conference, 21 December, the participants made a
special trip to the Baha'i World Center in Haifa and Acre. They visited the
Shrine of the Bab and toured the nearly completed garden terraces
stretching above and below the Shrine on the slopes of Mount Carmel. After
a luncheon at the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, they visited the
Shrine of Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i holy places in Acre.
A compilation of articles based on the proceedings of the conference
will be published during the coming year, and many of the papers will be
made available through the Landegg Academy Web site, www.landegg.org.
The Hebrew University and Landegg Academy have agreed to sponsor annual
conferences of this nature, with the venue alternating between Jerusalem
and the Landegg campus in Wienacht, Switzerland. The overarching theme
of this series of conferences will be "Religion and Science." The next
conference is planned for late January 2002 at Landegg.
The Chair in Baha'i Studies at the Hebrew University was established in
1999 as the first academic chair in the world devoted to the study of the
Baha'i Faith. Other academic centers and programs, most notably the Baha'i
Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland's Center for
International Development and Conflict Management, have been established
to study Baha'i perspectives on and contributions to other academic
"The systematic study of Baha'i religion, history and literature was
introduced into the Hebrew University in the 1990s," wrote Prof. Sharon in
the published proceedings of the dedication ceremonies for the Baha'i Chair,
held at Mount Scopus and at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa in June 1999.
"The magnitude of the material involved, and the vast scope of research
which has already been done in the field persuaded the University of the
necessity of creating a proper framework for research and teaching
designed to accommodate the future development of the field within the
academic vision of the University of forming a cluster of research
centers dedicated to the study of the major religions of the world."
©Copyright 2001, Baha'i World News Service
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