Wisdom Newsletter | August 2017

In this newsletter

1. Elijah Interreligious Seminar and Summer School
2. Sharing Wisdom in Situations of Imbalance of Power
3. Prayer as Sharing Wisdom
4. Testimonies of Participants
5. Sharing Wisdom: Christian Understandings


1.Elijah Interreligious Seminar and Summer School

Elijah just completed its annual Jerusalem summer school program, twenty years after the first edition. The theme was “Sharing Wisdom: The Quest for One-ness”. Students came from India, USA, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Columbia, Israel, Indonesia, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa and France. Participants examined the meaning of Wisdom from six religious traditions, different views of who is a wise person, sacred texts encouraging or cautioning against sharing wisdom with others, and the means by which it can be shared. Wisdom was shared through close text-study, hearing from religious leaders and scholars, personal testimonies, re-enacting the lives of Religious Geniuses through bibliodrama, visits to sacred sites and praying with and alongside each other. Following are thematic highlights we would like to share with readers of Wisdom.


 2. Sharing Wisdom in Situations of Imbalance of Power

“Can we share wisdom responsibly in when there is an imbalance of power? Can interreligious dialogue ignore political realities?” The 2017 summer school was the first time that Elijah explicitly discussed the challenging question of whether it is possible or responsible to encourage sharing wisdom as a means to advancing peace, particularly in situations where there is an imbalance of power. “Sharing wisdom” implies a certain level of equality. Is it disingenuous to engage in pleasant conversations about spiritual matters and theological exchanges, treating each partner in the conversation as an equal, when the situation on the ground is unequal?

Fr David Neuhaus, Patriarchal vicar to Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Holy Land described the complexities of the issue, conveying the reality felt by Palestinians.

He suggested that engaging in dialogue or sharing wisdom might be way of ignoring the real issues and could constitute a tacit acceptance of the status quo, however unjust that may be. On the other hand, the personal engagement that is the setting for sharing wisdom can also create opportunities for the oppressed to convey their grievances to the oppressor or for those holding power recognizing the inequities to which they are contributing. Focusing on Jerusalem and the Holy Land, he described the different sectors of the Christian population and explained that their identity was closely linked to the local Muslim population. He explained how difficult it was for local Christians to rise above the injustices that they experience, both from Jewish and Muslim majorities. Politics and religion are inextricable. The very robust Christian presence in dialogue in this region usually comes from non-indigenous Christians rather than the local population, which is more concerned about mundane matters of survival.


Yehuda Stolov, who runs Interfaith Encounter Association, was adamant about the possibility of dialogue precisely under these circumstance.

Yehuda has devoted his life to creating opportunities for encounter between the different communities that comprise Israel/ Palestine and believes it is absolutely essential for people to be able to rise above the conflict and engage in conversations about their daily lives, discuss spiritual matters or even enter into theological discussions. For Yehuda, the encounter is more important than the subject matter. Having seen hundreds of people changed by their encounters with individuals from communities outside their own, he is convinced that the conflict and differences between Jewish Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians will not be resolved only through political means. On the ground, people need to engage in “peace talks” of a different caliber.


A prominent Muslim voice helped us appreciate the challenges of dialogue from the Palestinian side.

The third speaker, a prominent Muslim scholar, entered the conversation by telephone hook-up. He was not far away, but his decision not to appear in person was in adherence to official Palestinian policy, which discourages contact between Palestinians and Israelis, hence his request to remain anonymous. He explained that for many Palestinians, engaging in sharing wisdom or interreligious dialogue was a betrayal of the religious principle of justice above all. As long as there is no justice for Palestinians, he does not believe that other topics should be discussed “as if things are normal.” He described dialogue as “elitist” and said that it was important once social and political grievances for ordinary people were resolved. Acknowledging that this might mean that Israelis remain ignorant of the grievances of their Palestinian neighbors, our scholar felt that religious “wisdom” would lead to the same conclusion – that there are priorities higher than dialogue.


Robin Seelan, an Indian Jesuit allowed us to consider issues of power imbalances from the perspective of another global context, that of India.

As a member of a minority in a setting where the Hindu majority was increasingly hostile to others, Robin felt that it was incumbent upon Christians in India to make themselves known to their neighbors and disavow them of their fears. He said that Christians and Muslims had a common interest in promoting dialogue not just as a way of overcoming ignorance but also to model the values of an open society. Sharing wisdom, Robin explained, was part of traditional Indian life and the current trend towards Hindu extremism and promoting homogeneity does not reflect the Indian heritage. Dialogue could have practical benefits; it also represents a higher value.


3. Prayer as Sharing Wisdom

Another major theme of the program was whether and how the life of prayer and ritual observance particular to a religious community could be shared by others, as an aspect of sharing wisdom. When we encounter the other in prayer what it is that we encounter? The person? The religion? God who is present at the moment? And must can sharing the spiritual reality of the prayerful moment and the ritual take place without belief in the ritual.

Each day began with prayers led by a different member of the group. The prayers took different forms, from silent meditation to shared readings, singing and even drawing.

On day two, after three sessions of intense learning, Rabbi Alon Goshen Gottstein introduced the idea of experiencing each other’s prayer as a form of Sharing Wisdom. Participants shared their experience of being moved by the prayers of another faith, even though they may not subscribe to the details of faith or belong to the particular religious community. Visiting the Western Wall on Friday night was noted by many as an example of being inspired by the spiritual life in Judaism and the power of community and joy, even though the observer may not keep Shabbat observances. At the other extreme, visiting the Wall on Tish’a Be’av, the day in which the destruction of the Temple is commemorated allowed a glimpse into mourning. Here the question became pointed: must one share in the pain of a particular story in order to have appreciation for mourning practices or is there something universal in pain, loss, destruction and mourning that transcends the particularity of a given faith and its narrative. One thing participants seem to agree upon was that in order to share in rituals of another faith, even as passive participant-observers, the rituals must be practiced with full feeling and engagement. Often, the problem in sharing rituals and prayers of another faith is more related to poor performance and heartless fulfillment of those rituals than it is to the inherent limitation of relating to prayer across traditions.

According to participants’ evaluation at the end of the program, a highlight of the two-week program was participation in Praying Together in Jerusalem’s July gathering. The gathering was preceded by a presentation from three key figures in Praying Together – Fr Russ McDougall of Tantur Ecumenical Intsitute, Rabbi Eliyahu McClean of the Abrahamic Reunion and a Muslim participant from Jericho, who chose not to publicise his name. Each spoke about how important this movement was to them and the potential it had to change hearts and minds.

Russ spoke about the history of Praying Together in Jerusalem – how he and Peta came to the conclusion that this was both possible and important that we model our mutual respect and our stated value that we are all praying to the One Creator. He described the search for and ongoing issue over the right venue, the way that political realities have had an impact on the movement, the success of gatherings where food and music have been added to the agenda of side-by-side prayer and the camaraderie between those who attend regularly.

Eliyahu narrated his personal spiritual journey and how he came first to appreciate the power of prayer and then to enjoy the beauty of side-by-side prayer. Coming from a home where traditional religion was not appreciated, he chose a religious life-style in his teens. He explained that his spiritual growth within his own Jewish tradition had a parallel trajectory in appreciating other religious traditions and finding ways to work in creating partnerships. After being active in Jerusalem Peacemakers, he now runs the Abrahamic Reunion, which brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews who appreciate their common heritage as children of Abraham and as having their origins in this part of the world.

The young Palestinian Muslim from Jericho who spoke next is a member of the Abrahamic Reunion, where he has found true friendship and opportunities for personal, spiritual growth. He said that his parents always encouraged him to love and respect all people and that they had never harbored any suspicion or fear of the other. However, he had experienced fear towards himself, as an Arab, and had always done his best to present himself as what he is – a peace-loving person. The timing of the summer school, in a period of great tension in Jerusalem after a number of terrorist incidents, meant that Arabs in the streets of Jerusalem were subject to extraordinary security measures. Our speaker had to be escorted in the last part of his walk through Jerusalem to our venue, as he was frequently stopped and questioned. He arrived shaken. Speaking to the group, his sincerity was evident. He regained his composure and was able to give a beautiful testimony as well as to join in the prayers in a peaceful state.

The last session of the summer school was an opportunity for participants to share their own prayers as a personal conclusion and offering. Wisdom and prayer came together in this concluding session.

The faculty included Rabbi Meir Sendor, Fr David Neuhaus, Dr Alick Isaacs, Dr Debbie Weissman, Professor Mohammed Dajani, Dr Gregor Boss and Dr Yehuda Stolov in person and Elijah Academy teachers Ruben Habito, Anantanand Rambachan, Doug Christie, Timothy Gianotti and a Muslim teacher from al-Quds University, via distance technology. Rabbi Alon Goshen Gottstein was the presenter of most of the theoretical material and Peta Jones Pellach led text-study sessions and the bibliodramas.


4. Testimonies of Participants

Robin Sahaya Seelan, SJ, India: Highlighting the relevance of wisdom in modern times in the light of various religious traditions through various events, this summer school made an impact on me as a person and as a follower of my religion.

Lisa McConnell, Utah, USA: The experience of summer school was unlike any other I’ve experienced. The ability to meet and develop relationships with people from different faiths and backgrounds increased my understanding and appreciation for the “Other.” Perhaps the greatest moment (for me) was when we were able to pray together in Jerusalem. There was a tangible power and the feeling of unity as we prayed not only for peace, but for each other, for the leaders of nations, and for ourselves to be able to rise above hate, prejudice, and bias of today’s world. To experience summer school is to choose to be changed.


5. Sharing Wisdom: Christian Understandings

Our Sharing Wisdom is comprised of two sources that were used by Dr Gregor Buss in his session on “Christian Understandings of Wisdom.”

Wisdom is not just one type of knowledge, but diverse. What a wise person needs to know and understand constitutes a varied list: the most important goals and values of life – the ultimate goal, if there is one; what means will reach these goals without too great a cost; what kinds of dangers threaten the achieving of these goals; how to recognize and avoid or minimize these dangers; what different types of human beings are like in their actions and motives (as this presents dangers or opportunities); what is not possible or feasible to achieve (or avoid); how to tell what is appropriate when; knowing when certain goals are sufficiently achieved; what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them; how to improve oneself and one’s relationships with others or society; knowing what the true and unapparent value of various things is; when to take a long-term view; knowing the variety and obduracy of facts, institutions, and human nature; understanding what one’s real motives are; how to cope and deal with the major tragedies and dilemmas of life, and with the major good things too.

Jürgen Moltmann, “Science and Wisdom”, in: Theology Today 58 (2), 2001, pp. 155-164, p. 158

In order to arrive at reflection about ourselves, about what we know, and about what we do and leave undone, a countervailing force is needed, through which we are brought back to ourselves. This cannot be a particular perception; it must transcend all possible perceptions, and hence the perceivable world as well. In the biblical traditions, the transcendence that brings a person back to oneself is called “the fear of the Lord.” This does not mean the awe and terror of the so-called “Wholly Other”; nor does it mean the mysterium tremendum of primordial religious experiences. It means the sublimity of God, the immeasurability of God’s wisdom and the fathomless complexity of God’s creative Spirit.