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:
- An appreciation of the centrality of the image of God and its reality in shaping relations across religions.
- Understanding religion as a source of peace and the need for religious leaders to cultivate forms of religion that enhance understanding and tolerance.
- 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.