On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi, chemist and writer, met with the staff of the Jewish Journal.
Skorka’s trip was sponsored by Masorti Olami, the worldwide organization of the Conservative movement, and his prominence is due in part to his position as rector of the Conservative rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires, where he is also a rabbi at Benei Tikva congregation. But it is Skorka’s longstanding, deep friendship with then Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, that has given Skorka an international platform.
The two friends co-authored a book on interfaith dialogue titled “On Heaven and Earth,” based on more than 30 television shows they co-hosted in Argentina, and the pontiff chose Skorka to write the introduction to his official biography. In May 2014, Skorka accompanied the pope, as part of the papal entourage, to the Middle East.
At the Journal’s offices, Skorka, 64, ate pizza and salad — famished after a day of nonstop meetings. He is of medium height, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and an academic’s well-worn suit and tie. He switched easily among English, Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish — all languages in which he is fluent.
The focus of his visit was to promote the Masorti/Conservative worldwide movement, but the conversation began with the week’s shocking news out of Argentina, the alleged murder of Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor charged with the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Just before Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment, he had pointed to a cover-up in the case involving both Iranians and Argentinians at the highest levels of government.
Jewish Journal: What is your reaction to the news of Alberto Nisman’s death?
Abraham Skorka: There are many, many questions to ask, and we don’t know exactly if we will receive answers within a short time or in a long time. This I say taking into account our waiting of 20 years since the bombing of the AMIA, 22 years since the bombing of the Israeli embassy.
We, as Jews, are suffering, especially because all of the story is related to the drama of the bombing of the AMIA. But this is not a specific Jewish drama attached to the Jewish community; this is an Argentinean drama.
JJ: Do you trust that the authorities will pursue this with rigor?
AS: I don’t know. This is not a matter of faith, of trusting. This is a matter of evidence. Look what occurred in Paris. The same day, or the day after the attacks [on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher market], they knew exactly at whom to look.
JJ: In the book you wrote with Pope Francis, “On Heaven and Earth,” you wrote about how the AMIA bombing created a separation between the Jewish community and the government.
AS: Look, in the history of what occurred after the bombing, yes, it was a separation. Why? Because there are black holes in this history where [evidence] disappeared. Because we know from the security agencies exactly the people who prepared the attack, but who were the local connections? This is a mystery nowadays. And this provoked some gap between the government and the Jewish community. But the first steps that [former Argentine President] Néstor Kirchner and [Néstor’s widow and current President] Cristina Kirchner took were very important steps in order to decipher exactly what happened. With time, the story, in accordance with Nisman’s words and concepts, [changed].
JJ: What do you feel is the benefit or the impact of creating interfaith relations at a time when the more extremist sects of religion seem to be creating more divisions than ever?
AS: They are very, very closely related. Why? Because all fanaticism is based on the idea that the truth is in their hands. Interfaith dialogue shows that we, as religious people — Muslims and Jews and all the Christian denominations — know that we share a truth.
Empathy means that you have the capability to put yourself in the place of the other, to understand the other. It’s when you embrace this attitude, this is the best answer to those fanatics, to say, “I am very religious, as religious as you, but I understand that what God is asking from us, first and foremost, is to respect the other.” Why? Because in the other is the image of God.
JJ: But how does that affect the fanatics within that religion? They’re not going to sit with you.
AS: Look, what the interfaith dialogue can do — or must do — is it must give answers to violence.
I’ll give you a very simple example regarding this point. Some people in Argentina prepared a declaration against what occurred in Paris, quoting the words of the pope, and they asked all kinds of very important Argentinians to sign this document. The first three signatures were from the archbishop of Buenos Aires — the new archbishop of Buenos Aires — my signature and the third was of the Islamic teacher — Omar Abboud. So this is a symbol, a very, very important symbol, that can make a very strong impact. A Muslim, a Jew and the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the three of us with a special history in dialogue are the first signatures condemning in the harshest terms what occurred in Paris.
JJ: Did you agree with the pope’s comments against cartoons mocking religion?
AS: I do. Look, don’t forget that he blamed in the harshest terms the murder of the people. Regarding the cartoons, I agree with him. Why? Look, this cannot be in any way an excuse to kill the other, but remember the role played by caricatures of Jews in the Nazi era?
JJ: What drew you to interfaith work?
AS: The theme of the Shoah was a central theme in my life for several reasons. All my family, from my father’s side and my mother’s side, perished.
So this was a trauma in my father’s life, and he transmitted this anguish to me. This is point one.
Point two, I was very shocked by an article written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Religion Is an Island.”
At the first congregation where I served as a rabbi, the local rabbi had developed a special relationship and done interfaith work with the Catholic priest of the area, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. On Kabbalat Shabbat, the priest was invited to speak to the congregation, and he said a phrase that impacted me a lot: “Look, you can build up hate, you can demonize the other, only on the basis of ignorance.”
So I arrived at the conclusion that I would work on this theme. A similar sentiment happened with the archbishop of Buenos Aires [now the current pope], and he opened the doors of his heart, and we began working together.
JJ: Why do you think he chose you?
AS: I asked him this question. It was a very special moment. I went to be with him when his brother died, and there are special places where the corpses rest — in Spanish, they call it “velatorio” [funeral parlor]. So we spoke about life, and suddenly I asked him, “Let me ask you a question.” “Yeah, ask.” “Why did you choose me?” And he said, without hesitation, “It came out from my heart.” And he revealed to me at so many opportunities a deep sentiment of love, of real love. This is the highest stage of dialogue, the highest stage.
There is a very important Catholic university in Buenos Aires that is related to the Vatican, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Argentina. In recognition of 50 years since the beginning of the sessions of the second Vatican Council, they prepared a special celebration. And what was the center of the celebration? To bestow upon me a Ph.D. degree, an honorary doctorate.
The symbolism of this moment was tremendous. Why? Because [Pope Francis] tried to emphasize very clearly: A rabbi can also be a teacher for us Christians and Catholics.
At a certain moment in this ceremony, he stood before me. He told me, “You cannot imagine how long I have dreamt of this moment.” He has a very deep feeling regarding a Jew with whom he bound himself to Judaism.
JJ: Why do you think that was important to him?
AS: Because he very much relates to the image of Jesus. And he knew that Jesus was a Jew, and that Christianity and the rabbinic Judaism developed in the same way.
JJ: Have you studied Torah with the pope?
AS: Yes, at several opportunities, yes.
JJ: Do you know if there’s part of Hebrew Scripture that the pope has mentioned as having an impact on his thinking?
AS: Oh, his favorite Torah. The figure of Abraham is very important to him. The attitude of Abraham.
JJ: In terms of questioning God or challenging God? That part of Abraham?
AS: Yes. He very often quotes verses from the Tanakh.
JJ: So do you consider him your friend?
AS: Of course! The last email I received from him — and you can feel that he wrote the email so very, very quickly — he began the email with these words: “Dear Brother.”
JJ: What’s his email address?
AS: That’s a good question!
JJ: Why do you think that there continues to be such reverence toward the pope, even as the world becomes more secular?
AS: First of all, you must separate two concepts: religion and religiosity. Religion means the church, the synagogues and institutions. Religiosity is the fire.
Maybe that the world is, from an institutional point of view, more secularized, but the fire still exists. Without this fire, you cannot continue living because life loses its meaning. To live, you need some hope.
The second point is that when you study the prophets, [they] emphasized that to worship God means, first of all, to honor the human being. And this is the message that [the pope] is spreading throughout the world, because he revealed himself not only as a leader for the church, but for the world.
This interview was condensed and edited.