Ecce Homo Convent is one of the most beautiful spots in Jerusalem. The beauty is not just the physical complex with its stunning view of Jerusalem’s most sacred sites but because it is home to the Sisters of Sion, Elijah’s partners in conducting our annual Summer Interreligious Leadership Training Seminar, which took place at the end of August,2015. The hospitality shown to participants, the aesthetic surroundings and the wonderful sounds of prayer, which envelop one periodically throughout the day, add to the atmosphere of a spiritual learning-community and enrich the shared interreligious experience.
This year’s seminar focused on the theme of ‘Religious Genius’ and participants came to know three great exemplars of the best that religion can offer the world – St Gregory the Theologian, Al-Ghazali and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the latter two of whom are closely associated with Jerusalem.
We were pleased to be taught by expert teachers who imbibe the influence of these great individuals into their spiritual lives. Dr Ivan Vuksanovic from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley was our expert on St Gregory, Mustafa Abu Sway, who is the Al-Ghazali scholar at al-Aqsa Mosque, was happy to donate his time to teaching at Ecce Homo and participants in the summer school benefited greatly from his presence, along with Dr Timothy Gianotti, another follower of al-Ghazali, who taught us via Skype, and Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein, who specialises in performing the poetry of Rav Kook, including with jazz accompaniment, was our guide and teacher on the life of Rav Kook.
Prior to examining the lives of these individuals, Professors Doug Christie, Timothy Gianotti and Vanessa Sassoon, members of the Elijah Academy who have been part of Elijah’s ground-breaking work on the theme of Religious Genius, shared their enthusiasm for this approach to studying the great figures from the religious traditions. They all emphasised its potential for dialogue and sharing wisdom between religions.
In addition to text-study and bibliodrama, participants were able to imbue the religious values of these great figures by visiting sites sacred to them or important in their lives. We attended Vespers at the Dormition Abbey, according to Christian tradition, the site of the Last Supper. There, Prior Ralph shared one of the most important lines of the week: “I do not have much time for people who have ‘found God’; I am much more interested in people who are ‘seeking God.'” We tried to feel the spiritual power of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Al-Ghazali spent a significant period of his life and which was crucial in his spiritual development. As part of the bibliodrama process, we took a walking meditation to the edge of the balcony of Ecce Homo, where we are overlooking the Golden Dome on the Temple Mount. Later, we went to the Temple Mount precinct itself and those who chose, went onto the higher platform. Interestingly, many articulated that looking at the place while ‘in role’ was more powerful that being there, where the realities of contemporary tensions interfere with a purely religious experience.
A highlight for everyone was the visit to Rav Kook House, (Sarah, I forwarded you those photos separately)where hearing some of the Rav’s poetry read aloud in the very place where he wrote it had a profound effect. It was evident that many people had negative preconceptions about the impact Rav Kook has had on Israeli society and on Jewish relations with those of other faiths. Studying his own words and examining his life opened people to the richness and wisdom of his contribution and raised awareness of how taking quotes (or misquotes) in isolation can distort a great teaching.
At the end of the intensive week together participants, who had come from Belgium, France, Italy, Holland, the UK, Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the USA and Israel, expressed their gratitude that an Elijah Summer Seminar is not merely a series of lectures. It is a chance to really engage with texts and with each other, to share insights and develop ideas. Everyone is valued. Everyone is heard. Everyone grows from the experience.