Wisdom Newsletter | September 2017

In this newsletter:
1. Prayer for the Rohingya People
2. Spreading the Word About Religious Genius
A. World Congress of Jewish Studies explores Religious Genius
B. Religious Genius as a Vehicle for Dialogue
3. Sharing Wisdom: Christian Sources on Friendship


1. Prayer for the Rohingya People

The Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, supported by Buddhist and Muslim scholars from the Elijah Interfaith Academy, recently released a prayer for the Rohingya people. We urge you to bring this prayer to your places of worship and public events.

Emergency shelter for Rohingya refugees


 2. Spreading the Word About Religious Genius

A. World Congress of Jewish Studies explores Religious Genius

The World Congress of Jewish Studies was recently held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a series of workshops and presentations were made to honour the work of Alon Goshen-Gottstein. Panel discussions reviewed and discussed the publications in the Interreligious Reflections Series as well as many of the other titles that Alon has written or edited.

One session focused on the just published “Religious Genius: Appreciating Outstanding Individuals Across religions“. In addition to discussions of the theory of Religious Genius, participants engaged two of the candidates for the category whose lives and contributions have been explored as part of the ongoing work of the Elijah Academy – Rav Kook and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.

Dov Schwartz of Bar Ilan University presented Rav Kook as Religious Genius and emphasized the brilliance of his vision, which went beyond the specific to the universal. Schwartz highlighted what made Rav Kook more than just a brilliant teacher and put him in the special category. It is the power of experience and the reality of the poetic that raise Rav Kook to a special level. Rav Kook’s ability to articulate a universal spiritual message allows for his appreciation beyond his native Judaism.




Zvi Mark, also of Bar Ilan, presented Rav Nahman of Breslav. He illustrated the originality of Rav Nahman through his appeal to the imagination and his original literary creativity, unique to him.




B. Religious Genius as a Vehicle for Dialogue

One of the appeals of the category of “Religious Genius” is that studying the lives of the inspirational figures from different traditions can be wonderful way to develop appreciation of and respect for the religious “other” and can open up avenues of dialogue. Three candidates for Religious Genius, Yochanan be Zakkai (Jewish), St Francis of Assisi (Christian) and Emir Abdelkader (Muslim) were explored through the medium of bibliodrama at an interfaith summer school in Brussels this summer. In each case, the personality studied provided inspiration and lessons that were relevant for contemporary people of different faiths.

One of the objectives of I.T.OUCH is to train people in Europe who are open to transcendence, to create multiplier agents and to offer personal growth experiences. Rozemarijn was particularly taken with the idea of studying Religious Geniuses as a vehicle for interfaith inspiration and understanding.

In 2016, Alon Goshen-Gottstein was scholar-in-residence for the I.T.OUCH Summer School, which was held in Italy. This year, Peta Jones Pellach was scholar-in-residence. Participants, who came to Brussels from all over Europe, explored three new candidates for Religious Genius through the medium of bibliodrama.

Summer School, Brussels

The methodology of bibliodrama allows participants to focus on particular incidents in the lives of the personalities being studied and to come to a better understanding of the challenges they faced in each case. Through studying and reenacting episodes in the Genius’s life, participants came to understand the greatness of the individual and the unique way each faced their challenges. They were able to empathize with the subject of the bibliodrama and also to learn lessons relevant to our own social, political and spiritual lives. This educational medium also allows participants to consider the very usefulness of the category “Religious Genius” to the figure being studied.

Bibliodrama in Action

The summary below notes the points in each character’s life which were re-enacted through bibliodrama.

Emir Abdelkader of Algeria:

Abdelkader (born Sept. 6, 1808, Guetna, near Mascara, Algeria —died May 26, 1883, Damascus, Syria), was emīr of Mascara (from 1832). He became the military and religious leader who founded the Algerian state and led the Algerians in their struggle against French domination (1840–46). In pursuing his national goals, he demonstrated his religious genius in the way he put compassion, peace and the good of the community above his own glory or even safety. He took great risks but never wavered from his religious commitment and ethical values. He died in Damascus, after heroically intervening on behalf of Christians there.

Biographical notes (moments and issues emphasized in the exercise):

Bred for leadership – but exceeded his father’s wisdom, even at a young age.

Faced with a stronger enemy – had to lead his people through times of invasion and oppression, yet maintained dignity, strong identity and quality of leadership.

Not afraid of personal hardship – bravery – self-sacrifice

Defied convention, but stayed within tradition’s framework – re-interpreted Islamic law to better match his understanding of its moral code but always sought the backing of legal experts and sought continuity with precedent.

Peace as priority – used lenient interpretation of Islamic law and exploited peaceful options within law.

Lessons (participants drew):

Stay true to oneself and one’s values

Don’t be afraid to speak up

We can always find a more generous, more compassionate way

Personal sacrifice as a mark of greatness

St Francis of Assisi:

Born in Italy circa 1181, St. Francis of Assisi was renowned for his wild childhood. He began receiving visions from God while in prison, awaiting his wealthy father to arrange his ransom. After Francis heard the voice of Christ, who told him to repair the Christian Church and live a life of poverty, he abandoned his life of luxury and became a devotee of the faith, his reputation spreading all over the Christian world. Later in life, Francis reportedly received a vision that left him with the stigmata of Christ—marks resembling the wounds Jesus Christ suffered when he was crucified—making Francis the first person to receive such holy wounds. He was canonized as a saint on July 16, 1228. During his life he also developed a deep love of nature and animals and is known as the patron saint of the environment and animals; his life and words have had a lasting resonance with millions of followers across the globe.

Biographical notes (moments and issues emphasized in the exercise):

Bred with privilege, rebellious teen – had to make a radical change in self

Faced hardship – learnt about himself and willingness to repeat deprivation later

Rejected materialism – but had to learn a middle path

Strong principles – even to the extent of alienating support

Communicated with G-d

Original ideas that inspired others

Lessons (participants drew):

Ability to make choices – reject social expectations

Willingness to be despised/ alienated on matters of principle

G-d’s will more important than human expectations

Pilgrimage – geographic and internal

Legacy – clear explication of ideals accessible for future generations

Yochanan Ben Zakkai:

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. c. 85 CE) was one of the most influential figures in ancient Jewish history. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai led the Jewish people through the dangerous first years after the destruction of the Second Temple and devastation of the last remnants of their state by the Romans. In his most famous act, he arranged to feign his own death in order to escape his enemies among the Zealots to negotiate a peace treaty with Vespasian, who would later become Emperor. “Give me Yavneh and its scholars,” famously asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, setting in place the foundation for the existence of Judaism after the Temple could no longer serve as the center of Jewish religious life.

Biographical notes (moments and issues emphasized in the exercise):

Historical context – Roman occupation of Judea and need for Jewish leadership to choose a response

Complicated family relationships – different views within one family

Willingness to follow advice and be involved in a complicated plot

Facing a much more powerful opponent

Negotiating with skill for a compromise solution – sacrificing Jerusalem

Saving the scholars

Lessons (participants drew):

We cannot choose our situation but we can choose how to respond

Take wisdom from all sources

Need to rise above the situation and to ensure personal and national survival

Bravery in the face of a stronger enemy – keeping composure and confidence

Compromise for the sake of peace

Preserving scholarship over other options

Re-envisioning the faith community as a response to physical realities


3. Sharing Wisdom: Christian Sources on Friendship

Following on the heels of our “Make Friends” Campaign, we are happy to share another set of sources relating to friendship, this time taken from the Christian tradition.

Source 1:
St John Chrysostom: In good truth, a friend is more to be longed for than the light.

Source 2:
Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue On Spiritual Friendship (De spiritali amicitia)[i]

Aelred begins by adopting Cicero’s definition: “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity” (1.11, quoting Cicero, De amicitia 6.20). He then, like Aristotle, distinguishes between three types of friendship.[ii] His categories, however, are expressed in a decidedly Christian vocabulary. The first, ‘carnal’ friendship, is “created by a conspiracy in vice.” The second, ‘worldly’ friendship, is “enkindled by hope of gain.” And the third, ‘spiritual’ friendship, is “cemented among the righteous by a likeness of lifestyles and interests” (1.38). Aelred also maintains a teleological view of friendship. True friendship, spiritual friendship, is “a step toward the love and knowledge of God” (2.18).

Aelred’s Christianization of his classical sources is clear in the following remark: “What statement about friendship can be more sublime, more true, more valuable than this? It has been proved that friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ, and be perfected by Christ” (1.10).

Source 3:
“What interfaith friendships seem to offer is a way of allowing the faith of others … to interact with our own faith commitment to draw out dimensions of our faith response that the shadow side of our tradition may have blocked. This is far from a simple ‘complementarity’ approach, wherein one tradition makes up what is lacking in the other. It rather represents a process whereby triangulating from another tradition—not abstractly but through friendships—allows us to activate the critical dimensions of our own tradition, so clarifying what we may have obscured in the revelation we have received.”[iii]

Questions on Christian sources:
Source 1:
Friends are compared with ‘light’. In what ways can friends be compared with light?

Source 2:
1. Are all friendships based on perceived benefits for the friends or can there be friendships that are altruistic?
2. Does having a ‘benefit’ from a friendship make it more or less ‘true’?
3. If friendship is about ‘agreement’, can you have friends who are very different from yourself? Does this source suggest that Christians should only be friends with each other? Is that problematic for you? Why?

Source 3:
What is the author suggesting as the process by which an interfaith friendship strengthens a Christian’s faith in their own religion?