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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Skorka

Religious Leaders and Interreligious Dialogue: Framing the Conversation

Stockholm Meeting on Interreligious and Cultural Dialogue: “Walk Together”


Civilizations prosper only when people are able to overcome the multiple conflicts that arise in life. This is possible only when every person is respected, and feelings of fraternity prevail.

Resolving conflict is an unavoidable aspect of human existence. Even relations between parents and children, the primal experience of relationship of every individual, necessarily has conflicting aspects. The biblical text recognizes that the relationship between parents and their children is complicated, so one of the Ten Commandments[1] requires the honoring of parents and is complemented by another verse that prescribes respecting them.[2] From the time of the Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus and Electra, up through to Freudian psychology, familial conflicts have been recognized as part of the human condition.

Great complexity characterizes not only the parent-child relationship, but also the relationship between siblings. The biblical story of Cain and Abel is the most extreme of the clashes between brothers that are scattered throughout the narrative of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Other fraternal conflicts in scripture, however, provide examples of reconciliation. Esau, who wanted to kill Jacob, ends up hugging him. Joseph tearily forgives the brothers who had sold him into slavery. Even brothers who hated each other could rebuild their relationship when they became more mature persons and their capacity for empathy and love had deepened.

According to the Bible, it is imperative that each person adopt an attitude of compassionate engagement and not of animosity or destructiveness, particularly within the family. The heart of this message is found in the verses: you will love your neighbor as yourself,[3] you will love the foreigner in your midst,[4] and so forth. The challenge set before the people is to redirect their destructive tendencies, the yetzer hara, into positive channels by developing their abilities for solidarity and emotional attachment, the yetzer hatov.

The ultimate ideal of the biblical vision for humanity is, in the words of Isaiah[5] and Micah,[6] a reality in which swords are transformed into plowing blades, in which no one lifts a sword against another, and in which no one prepares for war anymore.

This vision was transmitted to the people of Israel by the prophets, people who dialogued with and “spoke on behalf” (Greek = pro-phetes) of God. The word for “prophet” in Hebrew is navi, a word related to the human capacity for speech, expression and exaltation.[7] The medieval Hebrew exegetes associated the word navi with the expression niv sefataim of Isaiah 57:19,[8] which should be understood as the fruit of the lips. The words of the prophet are the fruit of an encounter with God that the prophet must convey to the people, so that the people, in turn, will engage in dialogue with their Creator.

Since the Bible is the fundamental text of Judaism, and both Christianity and Islam have their original roots in it, the message of the spiritual leaders of all three religious communities must reflect this vision of Isaiah and Micah. I believe that the common denominator of the three “Abrahamic” religions is to frame the structures of civilization so as to guide people away from their destructive impulses and toward their constructive ones. This is what Moses referred to by saying that God has put life and death before the people, the blessing and the curse, and the imperative of choosing life.[9] It is spreading this concept universally that is the quintessence of the biblical message. According to Maimonides, the three Abrahamic religions have the task of spreading it to all humankind.[10]

The hatreds that have characterized the horrors people have committed throughout history are the passions described by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents.[11] More recently, Fernando Savater analyzed the xenophobia that marks our times and wrote:

"Heterophobia - that is, distrust, fear and even hatred against those who do not belong to our group sinks its roots in atavistic socialization mechanisms, when membership of the group implied first of all hostility towards those who were not from the tribe or they were not like those of the tribe they should be. What was once a useful impulse for the primitive forms of human society, today has become something that responds to collective primitivism within modern society: that is, a moral disease.[12]"

Overcoming that primitivism, ceasing to be part of a horde and instead achieving relationships in which even those who are different are accepted as part of oneself is the core and essence of the biblical worldview. The biblical story of the creation of a single human being from whom all humans derive is the foundation of this worldview. The Sages of the Talmud emphasized the meaning of the biblical message saying: why didn't God create two humans? Because one would say to the other: My father is superior to yours, and therefore I am superior to you[13]

The primary mission of the spiritual leaders of the Abrahamic religions should be to spread this message, not within their communities only, but also to convey them to the adherents of other religious traditions. The prophets serve as a paradigm for the behavior to be adopted by these leaders. In the same way that the prophets were the teachers of dialogue with God and with people, so today’s religious teachers must be paradigms of dialogue.

The biblical texts testify that the prophets maintained a respectful, humble and courageous dialogue with God; this is the same way that the religious and interreligious leaders of today must act. There should be no prohibited topics in these dialogues. Progress is made in knowing and understanding the other through a deeply empathic demeanor. Never can dialogue have the slightest intention of persuading the other to abandon their identity. A sincere dialogue can never be transformed into a dispute. While we should not expect interreligious dialogue to end with total understanding among all the participants, nevertheless as each other's perspectives are examined and studied, and their positions are approached, eventually a point of maximum understanding that can be reached at that moment arrives, and the dialogue continues.

Dialogue requires, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. The purpose of interreligious dialogue is not merely to meet and talk sympathetically about the possibility of change. No, we must begin to generate actual changes in the real lives of people by together taking responsibility for significant commitments. The overarching goal of dialogue is to transform enemies into friends, pervasive iniquity into social justice, blind egoism into humility, and conflict into peace.

The dialogue must lead to the building of a new grammar of human interaction in which hatred, arrogance, contempt and evil have no more place, the clear language that the prophet Zephaniah envisioned with which the Creator will bless his creatures: “For then I will give to the peoples purified speech, That all of them may call on the name of the LORD, To serve God shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph. 3:9).


[1] Exodus 20:11; Deuteronomy 5:15

[2] Leviticus 19:3

[3] Leviticus 19:18

[4] Leviticus 19:34

[5] Isaiah 2:1-5

[6] Micah 4:1-5

[7]William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1939. Fleming, Daniel E. “The Etymological Origins of the Hebrew nābî’: One Who Invokes God,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (CBQ) 55 (1993): 217–24.

[8]Rashbam in Genesis 20: 7; Rashi in Exodus 7: 1; Nehemiah 6: 7; Eliahu Mizrahi to Exodus 7: 1. For modern research see: Fleming, Daniel E. “The Etymological Origins of the Hebrew nābî’: One Who Invokes God,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (CBQ) 55 (1993): 217–24.

[9] Deuteronomy 30:19

[10] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4

[11] Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Sigmund Freud: Gesammelte Werke, chronologisch geordnet. Bd. 14. Hrsg. v. Anna Freud unter Mitarbeit von Marie Bonaparte. Imago, London 1948, S. 421–516.

[12] La heterofobia como enfermedad moral de Fernando Savater, Vuelta, Nr. 205, December 1993, pgs. 23-27. Paragraph translated by AS.

[13] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5


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