Perhaps every year should be a year of mercy.”
That was the observation of Rabbi Daniel Polish, a speaker at “Mercy in the Scriptures,” an interfaith trialogue marking the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. It took place March 6 at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.
Rabbi Polish is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie and an author and scholar. Also speaking were Father Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, and Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and director of its Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center.
The event was sponsored by St. Joseph’s Seminary and America Media, publisher of America magazine. The moderator was Father Matt Malone, S.J., president and editor in chief of America Media.
Rabbi Polish remarked that no one can say that any of the three traditions is lacking in mercy because of, for example, the Crusades or the Inquisition, or ISIS atrocities, or Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. “All of our traditions are mixed bags,” he said.
He remarked that before the Second Vatican Council, it was common to hear that “the Old Testament was focused on justice, but the New Testament embodied mercy and love.” That inaccurate assertion led to caricatures of Jews as vengeful and unforgiving, he said, like Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
“Let’s begin with the assumption that all of our traditions teach about mercy, and all of our traditions can inspire people to be merciful,” he said.
He remarked that it is common for the terms mercy and compassion to be used interchangeably, but they are different. Mercy, he said, requires positive action.
“Compassion is an emotional response; mercy is expressed in deeds,” he said. “Compassion is empathy articulated, and mercy is compassion in action…Mercy is not what you feel; it’s what you do.”
He noted that in Hebrew, there is a similarity between the words for “mercy” and “womb.”
“Mercy comes from our innermost part,” he said. “It is connected to the powerful emotions that a woman feels for the life forming within her.”
Citing the book of Job, he spoke of God as a God of justice as well as mercy, but added that God’s justice often reveals mercy and care for those in need: widows, orphans, the poor.
“If we take seriously the idea of a merciful God, then we, the image of God, can be no less,” he said. “If I may be so bold, perhaps every year should be a year of mercy.”
Father Ryan gave a detailed analysis of Hebrew names of God.
“Nothing in the Christian tradition can be understood without examining its sources in the tradition of Israel,” he said. “The mercy of God is a constant theme, but perhaps in no place more surprisingly—albeit implicitly—than in the unique name of God.” He noted that God, speaking to Moses at the burning bush, identified himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” but also promised, “I will be with you.”
Father Ryan explained that the name of God in the Book of Exodus can be translated “I am Who I am” or “I will be Who I will be.” God thus defined himself as “One essentially in relation with others in the ancient past, and especially in relationship with the forefathers and foremothers of Israel, our forefathers and foremothers as Christians as well,” he said.
“But God was not only with those women and men of the past; God is also with them and with us here and now and forever: ‘I will be Who I will be.’”
He called for new ways of thinking about God.
“In the Year of Mercy we need to return to a renewed understanding of the tenderness of God, the prodigality of God’s love,” he said. “That tenderness and prodigality of God may motivate us to imitate God in the way we conduct our family life, our love life, our community life, our political life, our economic life, our church life.”
Dr. Afridi spoke of meeting Pope Francis at the interfaith service in which he participated at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in September. She remarked that the pope called for discussion on issues of mercy and justice, and told those engaged in such work that they were “the prophets of the future.”
She spoke of her own thoughts as she prepared her talk.
“I had to think about mercy not just in a theological, biblical, religious sense,” she said, “but in terms of today, and the Muslim world, and perhaps the perception of Muslims today, which is not very positive, as we all know.” She said that she wanted to convey “my complete faith and trust that (Muslims) have a very, very important message of mercy.”
She mentioned the Marrakesh Declaration, issued in January at a conference held by Muslim scholars to address violence in the Islamic world. The declaration calls for Muslim nations “to tolerate and protect religious minorities living within their borders,” among them Christians and Jews, Dr. Afridi noted.
She added that some experts said they doubted the conference would have “lasting impact” because it did not include representatives of extremist Muslim groups. For representatives of persecuted religious minorities, she said, the conference and the declaration “were a hopeful sign that influential Muslim leaders and scholars were grappling with a serious problem.”
Discussing mercy in Islam, Dr. Afridi noted that in the text of the Quran, there is a connection between the words for “mercy” and “womb,” the same connection noted by Rabbi Polish and also Father Ryan.
“Mercy is the mother’s attitude toward the fruit of her womb,” Dr. Afridi said. “When God says in the Quran, ‘My mercy embraces everything,’ this means that God has mercy on the entire universe.”
Concluding, she said, “I hope that mercy can be seen in different ways within Islam today…I think of the Muslim heroes who rescued Jews and Shias and Kurds, who have…protected Yazidis, the Muslims in Asia who formed a circle of peace around churches in the face of genocide and persecution. But I leave you with a sense of hope, even in a time where we see the fog and ambiguity of mercy in the Muslim extremist context, that mercy is mercy, not extremism.”