INTERVIEW: Make Friends With Other Religions: Pope Francis Gives Witness

An Initiative of Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Campaign for Rebuilding Friendship - Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein

“It’s important, because my religious life was enriched by his explanations to him, it was extraordinarily enriched, and I suppose his with mine”: by these words, spoken in Spanish, on turning to his Argentine friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who spoke just after him, Pope Francis witnesses in a worldwide video-message of religions, inviting the man and woman of the street to “to make friends” with all religions.

Taking part in it notably are the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Israel Jonathan Sacks, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the Dalai Lama and religious leaders among the most famous of India.

It is an original initiative of Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, based in Jerusalem, and known by many ZENIT readers after the Rabbis’ campaign to restore the church of Tabgha after a criminal fire.

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein’s Elijah Interreligious Institute (www.elijah-interfaith.org) launched this video of these religious leaders and he was willing to say more to ZENIT’s readers on this initiative called simply “Make Friends,” which can be viewed on the Elijah Website and on YouTube with subtitles in 16 languages.

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Zenit: What drove you to launch the appeal under the slogan “Make Friends”?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: Friendship has been the root of my experience in interreligious dialogue. Had it not been for close friendships with religious leaders of other faiths, I would have probably never founded the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Over the years, the Elijah Institute has developed a cadre of religious leaders (http://elijah-interfaith.org/about-elijah/the-elijah-board-of-world-religious-leaders) who convene regularly for spiritual sharing and for whom friendship across religions is a way of being. In fact, we reflected on the topic consciously at our 6th in-person gathering, 4 years ago, and published a book on the subject (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498526357/Friendship-across-Religions-Theological-Perspectives-on-Interreligious-Friendship). (Cardinals Schonborn and Etchegeray contributed to that meeting with interviews available on The Make Friends youtube page). The time had come to share with the world at large the vision of friendship that we had succeeded in cultivating among premier world religious leaders. When I was approached by Mark Woerde, president of award winning Havas-Lemz advertising agency in Amsterdam, who sought to deliver a message of religious leaders to the world that would help reduce social tension, and who asked for my partnership in this project, it was natural to focus on friendship as a global and contemporary message. While so many teachers speak of peace or even harmony between religions, no one has advanced the cause of friendship. Friendship is the most personal and immediate contribution that an individual and a community can make in advancing relations with the religious other.

Zenit: So what is the particularity of Pope Francis’ contribution to this initiative?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: We realized that Pope Francis’ friendship with Rabbi Skorka is the most visible high-profile friendship across religions in today’s world. We therefore thought that it should be profiled as an invitation to others to follow suit. Whereas all other interviews of more than twenty global religious figures focus on their call, in the case of the Pope and Rabbi Skorka we asked them to speak of their friendship as a model for others. Personally, I find this video to be the most moving video in the treasure house of recorded interviews that we have been given by the world’s premier religious leaders. It is moving precisely because it is personal to their relationship. And the Pope is touchingly human and profound at the same time, as we watch his body language and his interaction with Rabbi Skorka.

Zenit: What is the message that this pair of friends brings to the world?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: That friendship between religions is not simply a matter of social nicety. Rather, it is a source of personal spiritual enrichment. Both parties have grown in their spiritual identity and vocation through their encounter, and, as the Pope affirms, neither has sacrificed his identity in any way.

Zenit: What other messages are delivered by participating religious leaders?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: It is a rich collection of theoretical reflections and practical instructions for today’s world, spoken from the diversity of religious perspectives. One of the main themes is the challenge of maintaining friendship despite differences and how differences should not be an obstacle to friendship. Many of the leaders (Swami Chidananda, Khandro Rinpoche and others) speak of difference as a source of enrichment. The Archbishop of Canterbury shares his experiences of friendship and offers concrete suggestions for how to advance friendship through meals, conversation and more. The Dalai Lama speaks of how friendship points to the sharing of spiritual experience, and shares his experiences with Christian religious personalities. Chief Rabbi Sacks points to the common human experience that bonds us all together that we discover through friendship. And Shaykh Hamza Yusuf speaks of friendship across religions as part of a common quest for truth. This is a small foretaste of the riches of this project, that is really an occasion for common interreligious teaching.

Zenit: What is the novelty of this initiative?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: The teaching of interreligious friendship is itself a novelty. As we discovered when we published research on the subject, our traditions don’t really develop the notion. Friendship is typically limited to the in-group, to members of one’s own religions. To extend it to others is a significant advance in religious teaching. And our initiative brings together the voices of religious leaders in different traditions who offer this as a joint teaching for humanity today. This too is a significant moment, in which a step in religious instruction is taken jointly by diverse leaders. To me, this initiative is proof that those who consider that religion is “dead” and only recycles old truths are so wrong. Uniting for religious teaching across religious lines is a sign of spiritual regeneration.

Zenit: So where do you see this initiative going?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: I am grateful for the possibility of sharing with Zenit’s readers the fact that the initiative is not simply the viral video to which you referenced initially. That video is an invitation to learn more from the interviews. We have them on a dedicated page on youtube (www.youtube.com/makefriends) translated into English, Spanish and Arabic. The viral clip itself is available in 14 languages, (all of Zenit’s languages included). Going beyond teaching, we want to inspire to concrete actions. On our home page we have created toolkits for friendship. There is a toolkit for every person and one for religious leaders. They are designed to advance the practice of friendship by individuals and to guide religious leaders in sharing teaching between traditions, what we call “Sharing Wisdom”, as part of the practice of friendship between religions. We would love to have Zenit’s readers download the toolkit, find practical ways of sharing friendship and for them to share with us and others what they have done, by posting to our Facebook page (instructions on the toolkit) or using the dedicated hashtag. We would like this to become a movement that truly follows the example and theory of friendship, provided by the religious leaders.

Zenit: And what do you envisage beyond this friendship initiative?

Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein: If we succeed in inspiring a movement of friendship between religions, and especially if it is supported by the study of wisdom of the religions, then in fact we are establishing a new paradigm for local religious leaders and communities. If God blesses us to achieve this goal, then we can dream further how to bring hope to humanity. Our flagship project sees hope coming from Jerusalem, in the form of an institution called HOPE, acronym for House of Prayer and Education (http://elijah-interfaith.org/hope-center) . If the world’s religions can share a home in Jerusalem, and inspire by the example of teaching, of praying alongside one another on an ongoing basis and by this visible sign of friendship across religions, we can help dispel the notion that religions are at war and offer a new vision of peace and spiritual teaching from Jerusalem.

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