[Published in the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire]
THE INTERVIEW by Lucia Capuzzi
Rabbi Skorka, friend of Pope Francis offers “A model the world day of prayer:” The lesson of the COVID emergency? “Only if it is united, can humanity defend life and the whole planet.”
The drama of the coronavirus has forced us to face the tremendous miseries of our time, starting with the limited investments having been made in health and research. It has forced us to deal with our frailty. It has shown us how much of an illusion is our domination over reality. And it showed us how, only united, can humanity defend life, the possibility of surviving on the planet.” And this is the “lesson” of the pandemic that we cannot afford to miss now, as parts of the world begin to emerge from the nightmare. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, biophysicist and writer, longtime rector of the Latin American rabbinical seminary of Buenos Aires, and now professor at the prestigious Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is convinced of this. Always at the forefront of interreligious dialogue, the rabbi collaborated for a long time with the then archbishop of the Argentine capital, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, his personal friend.
In this perspective, a crucial moment was the Day of Prayer, Fasting, and Charity called for on May 14 by the High Commission for the Human Fraternity. A large number of men and women of various creeds have raised eyes to heaven, each according to their own tradition, with the same intention: to free the world from COVID’s scourge. “The common thread that day was the sentence of the prophet Zephaniah, contained in the Old Testament and in the Hebrew Bible: ‘Then I will give pure lips to the people, so that everyone may call on the name of the Lord, to serve him shoulder to shoulder.’ May 14 was truly everyone’s day. Believers of the various faiths, who joined with respect for their beliefs. Agnostics, who were able to join in through their spiritual questing. Atheists, who participated through reflection on the great principles and values common to every human being. We have to go on down this path.”
A milestone on this path is the Declaration on Human Fraternity, signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the imam of al Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib. “The highest authorities of the Catholic world and Islam have led the way. The contribution of all religions is crucial to make a human brotherhood out of flesh, blood, and spirit. Each must take part in the process, making it truly universal. And many are doing it,” says the rabbi who personally witnessed the signing of the Declaration, on February 4, 2019, with five other representatives of Judaism. “That was not all. I was also in Cairo, in 2017, when Pope Francis was received at al-Azhar University. The words spoken on that occasion by the Pontiff and the imams were the seeds of the subsequent Declaration. In turn, the day of 14 May was a fruit of the latter. Many others will follow. ”
Yet still, 34 years after the historic invitation of John Paul II to the leaders of the various faiths to join the prayer for peace in Assisi, interreligious initiatives are looked upon with suspicion by some, who do not hesitate to wave the specter of syncretism. Rabbi Skorka, biblical scholar and theologian, is categorical in denying the validity of this accusation. “We often talked about it with the then Cardinal Bergoglio. And we both agreed on one point: syncretism is the religious equivalent of uniformity of thought in the political arena. Things are ‘arranged’ with the pretense of eliminating differences. But it is tyrants who are afraid of diversity, those who want to impose their beliefs on others. It is the imposition [of religion] and the antithesis of authentic religion. In this regard, I quote my friend Pope Francis: faith, when it is truly such, does not use men and women but serves them.” Rabbi Skorka often alternates long biblical quotes with examples from everyday life. “Sometimes it is good to use common sense, which is not always the most common of the senses. How can it be an offense to religion to accept the invitation of a brother of different faith than to pray, in a different way, but with the same intention, so that he may have greater strength? How can it be an offense to share fasting and a good work? Let us turn to the Ten Commandments: the first word, in Hebrew, is “God,” the last is “neighbor.” In between is the one who listens to the Lord and because of this, lives in justice and harmony with the other.”