For Rabbi Yakov Nagen, meeting with religious leaders – Imams, priests, sheikhs, monks – has become a routine part of his interfaith activities – and he has long advocated that interreligious discourse is central to his worldview. So at first glance, whoever might have happened to be at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum seminary recently and saw Rabbi Nagen in the company of a group of Christian guests, would most likely assume this was another such visit. That assumption would be even more natural in light of the fact that the visit took place during the month of Tishrei, which is filled with the High Holy days and festivities. Threaded through them all is the vision of renewal of human unity and the gathering of all nations in the House of God.
However, the visit afforded Rabbi Nagen and his guests a special and unusually life-affirming encounter between two people who had just been brushed by death.
“Close to Rosh Hashanah I received a request to meet with Bishop K. T. Mkhize from South Africa, a leading Christian figure and head of the Mt. Zion Christian Center. Bishop Mkhize often expresses support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people in his sermons and television shows,” relates Rabbi Nagen, who heads Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue. “In encounters of this type I bring the religious leaders to places where they can be exposed to the sanctification of God’s name. That’s why we held the visit at Midreshet Lindenbaum, where the Bishop toured the women’s beit midrash [study hall] and sat alongside the students through a lesson given by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. The Bishop also met with rabbinical court advocates from Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha organization who represent women who are agunot [refused a get – a Jewish writ of divorce].”
Yet what began as a routine visit for Rabbi Nagen quickly took a surprising turn when in the midst of the visit to the beit midrash he noticed that Bishop Mhkize’s reaction was much stronger than expected. “I saw he was very moved, and asked what brought him to Jerusalem,” says Rabbi Nagen, who was astounded by the Bishop’s reply. The Bishop shared with him that he had been very ill in recent months, to the extent that he had to stop working, and was even hospitalized. His condition deteriorated until he felt he was on the brink of death. When the Bishop picked up his Bible and reached chapter eight of the Book of Zechariah, the following verses jumped out at him: “And many peoples and powerful nations shall come to entreat the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord. So said the Lord of Hosts: In those days, when ten men of all the languages of the nations shall take hold of the skirt of a Jewish man, saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you”. These verses filled him with strength and a sense of love for humanity, and he promised himself that if he recovered he would visit Jerusalem.
“When I heard the Bishop’s story I couldn’t believe my ears. I felt we had a common destiny,” Rabbi Nagen shared. “Just a few months ago, I experienced a sudden brain injury that led to profuse bleeding and had found myself hanging between life and death. I underwent emergency catheterization followed by brain surgery, and the doctors were not sure I would survive. My family sent a message out to everyone who knew me to pray for my recovery. Miraculously, I woke up after the surgery uninjured, and was moved to tears to hear that countless Jews, Muslims, and Christians from all across the world had prayed for me. I was privileged to experience a certain extent of the realization of the vision appearing in the book of the Prophet Zephaniah, that humanity must, ‘call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder.’
“The encounter with Bishop Mkhize, who underwent a similar experience that opened his heart, like mine, with love for humanity and God, felt to us both like an additional miracle – one that realizes the vision of mending the relationship between nations,” continued Rabbi Nagen. “Not only that, but just a few days after I was released from the ICU, the new book I had written with Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt and Dr. Assaf Malach was published. Its name –’His Name Is One’ – is taken from the very same vision in the book of Zechariah that the Bishop quoted.”
The book, “His Name is One – Healing the Relationship between Judaism and World Religions”, is the first publication by Ohr Torah Stone’s Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity, also headed by Rabbi Nagen. The institute’s aim is to develop discourse and philosophical and religious works in the field of the relationship between Israel and humanity while synchronizing the sources and tradition with real life, between its spiritual and practical aspects.
“The book places the relationship between Israel and other religions at the center, and the value of other religions as starting points for understanding the role of the Jewish nation today,” Rabbi Nagen explains. “The unity across religions that took place around my recovery, as well as my encounter with Bishop Mkhize in the midst of the Days of Awe of Tishrei – in which all people of the world come together before God – was the actualization of this vision and as a true miracle for me,” he added.
The article was originally published in Hebrew in Ynet. Its English version was included in Rabbi Nagen’s book “Healing the Middle East.”