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Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron – an interreligious appreciation

The former chief sephardic rabbi, who died Sunday of the coronavirus, viewed Judaism as a source of peace and worked to build bridges with other faiths
Rabbi Bakshi Doron with Archbishop Aristarkos, Sheikh Abdelsalam Manasrah and Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein preparing for interfaith panel. Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

The many voices expressing the loss we suffer, with the passing away of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron z”l, highlight his personal piety and humility, his erudition, his leadership and in particular some of the courageous stands he took as Sefardi Chief Rabbi. For nearly two decades I was privileged to know another aspect of this great person. I believe I was the person who worked most closely, though not exclusively, with him in the interreligious domain.

My first contact with him was around the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel, in 2000, in relation to an interfaith event I facilitated. From there our relationship evolved. He was one of the founders of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, that I set up shortly thereafter. The strategy through which this group was formed was to have one important leader of each of five major faiths invite other leaders. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron was the convener for the Jewish leaders, and through him the group came into being.

Rabbi Bakshi-Doron really believed in reaching out across religions. Some faith leaders do so under duress, as a part of their job description, by force of necessity. He believed in it. He was, as far as I know, the first Sephardic chief rabbi who understood his “job description” to include significant relations with members of other faiths. In this sense, he recast the role of the Rishon Lezion, adding to it an important dimension. This dimension drew on his personal faith and understanding of the importance of relations between religions and their leaders in today’s world. If I had to sum up the theoretical foundations for that, they would be:

  1. An appreciation of the centrality of the image of God and its reality in shaping relations across religions.
  2. Understanding religion as a source of peace and the need for religious leaders to cultivate forms of religion that enhance understanding and tolerance.
  3. Appreciation for the spiritual life of other faiths and the possibility of mutual enrichment across religions.

Because his commitment was based on a religious view, and not only on the need to perform on the diplomatic-religious stage, he continued his engagement and his collaboration with the Elijah Institute’s initiatives, long after he was out of office. A telling moment, that demonstrated his genuine interest in the theological and religious challenges of working with other religions occurred in 2012 when I shared with him the recent publication of Jewish Theology and World Religions, that I coedited. He could not read English, so I thought I would show him the book, just so he knew it had appeared. He insisted on having a copy and said he would work through it with help in translation from his son in law.

It mattered to him, as did our work over the years. He always made himself available for it, receiving delegations of members of other faiths, and attending various panels I had organized. The pictures featured in this post show Rabbi Bakshi-Doron receiving a group of Sikh pilgrims from the United Kingdom. Sikhs are not part of the local conflict and engaging them in a spiritual sharing, as he did, demonstrated his concern for genuine spiritual engagement with other faiths. The taste of the respect and appreciation he consistently showed towards me and my work and the fatherly care he exhibited towards an organization he had helped to build will always stay with me.

Rabbi Bakshi Doron receives Sikh pilgrims from UK. Published with permission from Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha
Mohinder Singh, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Rabbi Bakshi-Doron on panel during Sikh pilgrimage. Published with permission from Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha

In what follows, I would like to offer small snippets of his presence, wisdom and messaging in the field of relations between religions. These speak to his interests and his belief. They are a testimony to present day religious leaders and faithful, no less significant than the halachic rulings that are his better known legacy.

The Alexandria Declaration
In 2002, while still in office, Rabbi Bakshi Doron was the lead signatory of the Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land. This was the highest level group of religious leaders from the Holy Land, who gathered, following the intifada, in order to declare:

Our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and dignity. According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name, and defames religion in the world. The violence in the Holy Land is an evil which must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbors, respecting the integrity of each other’s historical and religious inheritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred, and the misrepresentation of the other.

Combating Terrorism

Dr. Abdurrahman Wahid, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein signing the Statement on Combating Terrorism. Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

In 2003, I facilitated an encounter between Rabbi Bakshi-Doron and Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was himself a noted religious leader (and the Muslim counterpart of Rabbi Bakshi Doron in founding the Elijah Board of Religious Leaders). The result of the encounter was a statement against terrorism.

One of the messages of the statement is:

Causing suffering in God’s name is opposed to the will of God. We affirm the highest religious value to be the sanctity of human life. We condemn those expressions of our religions that speak in the name of our religions and that endorse the use of terrorist means, such as suicide homicides, to achieve political or other goals.

Meeting of 100 Imams and Rabbis

In Brussels in early 2005, Rabbi Bakshi Doron made the following observation, at a gathering of 100 Imams and Rabbis: “when I see all of the Imams and Rabbis coming together, this is a message to the Creator that we are here to do your will, that is to bring peace.”

The Image of God

In 2012, Jewish religious extremists set fire to the doors of the Latroun monastery. Elijah Institute released a statement, signed by 50 scholars and leaders, with Rabbi Bakshi Doron as the lead signatory. The statement was released publicly and delivered to the monks of Latroun. Part of it reads:

In our understanding, the creation of humanity in God’s image is the great motif of the Torah. We believe the Torah mandates full respect for the infinite value, equality and uniqueness of every human life, for we are all created in the image of God. There is no place for hatred or bigotry towards those whose religious commitment is different from our own.

Church leaders have justifiably asked questions about the type of values-education that Jewish children are receiving. The Elijah Interfaith Institute shares these concerns and we are working together to bring to light teachings of Judaism that cohere to the worldview that love of one’s own group should not be equated with the hatred of others. Israel’s calling is harmonious with the well-being of all humanity. Our Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. These and other great principles are the guidelines through which we interpret and teach our tradition.

A message of Hope

Rabbi Bakshi-Doron succumbed to Coronavirus. He had a small funeral in a dark moment in time. The final message I would like to share is a message of hope. In an interfaith panel I organized towards the end of 2010, I brought him together in conversation with then Franciscan Custos and now Patriarchal Administrator of Jerusalem, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzabala, and a Muslim scholar, Prof. Muhammad Dajani. The theme was “hope” in the three faiths. Fr. Pizzabala’s message echoes what is central to Christians this week, as always. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s message echoes the hope that springs eternal in Jewish hearts and souls. I conclude with these words of hope.

The Custos, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, spoke of Hope as the key value in Christianity. For him, the resurrection of Jesus represents a paradigm of hope for all humanity; Jesus embodies hope and represents the ability of the Divine to overcome all obstacles.

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron explained that for him as a Jewish leader the hope was in the dire state of affairs he observed around him. With so many young people alienated from religion, his faith told him that the next phase would be a revival of spirituality and a renewed commitment to religious values. People would come to see the emptiness of their non-religious lives and would recognize that the future depends on hope which depends on faith. He was not despondent at the failure of peace effort until now; he asserted that this was fulfillment of Biblical prophecy which indicated that out of the depths comes the greatest hope and momentum towards ultimate peace.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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