Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein Interview with Tikkun Magazine

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has recently launched a project featuring religious wisdom, from all major faith traditions, in relation to Coronavirus and its challenges. Tikkun explores some dimensions of this project, dubbed “Coronaspection” with Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein.

Interview with Tikkun Magazine

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has recently launched a project featuring religious wisdom, from all major faith traditions, in relation to Coronavirus and its challenges. This has been followed up by a book titled Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Reflect on COVID-19, that has just been published. 

Tikkun explored some dimensions of this project, dubbed “Coronaspection” with Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein. 

Tikkun:  Could you summarize for us what is Coronaspection?

AGG: Coronaspection is a series of 40 video interviews and messages with religious leaders regarding the spiritual challenges brought about by the Corona virus. Leaders from 15 countries and 7 religions were interviewed and asked how to handle some of the major faith challenges of the moment: how to deal with fear and anxiety; how do cope with loss; how to use the time in lockdown and how to use solitude; how to maintain a sense of solidarity with others; what kind of world do they envision for the future. The sum total is a storehouse of teaching and inspiration, delivered by some of the most prominent voices in religion globally. 

Tikkun: Who were some of the participants in the project, especially the Jewish ones?

AGG: Let us begin with Pope Francis, who supported the project and our use of his messages in the framework of Coronaspection. The archbishop of Canterbury and other heads of churches, Lutheran, Orthodox and more, also took part. Some of India’s most important faith leaders, such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Amma are featured in the project. The head of the world’s largest Muslim organization, Yahya Cholil Staquf, one of India’s most important Muslim voices, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and some voices better known in America, such as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, offer a Muslim perspective. On the Jewish side we have a wide spectrum, covering ultra-orthodox to post-denominational voices. Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar and the leader of Breslav Hassidism in Safed, Rabbi Ephraim Kenig, represent ultra-orthodox voices. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is a voice for religious Zionism. Rabba Tamar Elad Applebaum, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Rabbi David Wolpe are all affiliated with the conservative movement and Rabbi Arthur Green offers a theological, mystical perspective that extends beyond particular denominations. These are some of the participants in the project.

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Tikkun: Do the answers to the questions in some way break down according to the differences in religion?

AGG: One of striking outcomes of the interview process has been that there is great unanimity across the religions. There are some basic messages that resonate across the project, regardless of religious affiliation. One of them is the recognition of the fundamental unity of humanity and how we are all interconnected. As the Archbishop of Canterbury states – the virus has taught us that we are all connected. It hits all without discrimination and its dissemination shows how we are all closely related. The challenge, he says, is how to turn this interconnectivity to an interconnectivity of compassion. This is probably the greatest message that comes out of the project and it is shared by religious leaders of all faiths. Another key feature that emerges is the basic sense of positivity that religions bring. Religions teach hope, and each of the messages in the project is a message of hope. Rabbi Lazar, to take one example, considers positivity as the one key ingredient by means of which we cope with present challenges, affecting both our physical and spiritual well-being. 

Tikkun: Can one identify differences in spiritual approach according to different Jewish denominations?

AGG: One of the interesting things to observe is that differences in denomination matter less than differences in religious personality. This is true across religions and it is also true across Jewish denominations. Thus, answers break down according to personal disposition, rather than according to theological adherence. I find it interesting to note how much Jewish mysticism provides a common bridge across Jewish denominations. Obviously, the Hassidic representatives would appeal to Hassidic teachings. But these appear in many of the other interviews, regardless of the particularity of denomination. For instance, one teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov is that all our experiences are expressions of divine attributes that have come down to our lower reality. If we experience fear, then the fear has to be elevated back to its root, the root being the dimension of awe in the divine. This is cited by several participants, and they represent all streams. Rabbis Kenig, Dov Singer and Art Green all offer this as an important teaching. It reflects their experience much more than their denomination. Rabba Tamar-Elad offers a Hassidic teaching of the Magid of Kozhnitz and speaks of the centrality of breathing in reaching to God, while Rabbi Wittenberg speaks of meditations that are offered by his synagogue. Clearly, there has been a broadening in the reach of Jewish mysticism and spirituality beyond the groups it has been historically associated with. It is increasingly the source of spiritual nourishment that teachers and leaders of all denominations draw from. 

One divide in the responses similarly reflects the personalities and religious orientations of respondents more than their  denominational affiliation. There are two basic orientations in response to the guiding questions. Some of the leaders offer answers that are more spiritual, for example highlighting the benefits of solitude along more spiritual lines that emphasize the spiritual opportunity in relation to God, while others profile the human solidarity and more practical, psychological responses. Both Rabbi Wolpe and Chief  Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Di Segni fall into this more practical camp. However, it is fair to say that all leaders strike a balance between the two poles, with some leaning to one side or the other. 

Tikkun: Is there nevertheless a particularity to the message of Jewish leaders?

AGG: I would identify two particularities, one formal and one substantive.

On the formal level, I note that all rabbis offer teachings that are scripturally based, divrei torah. This is not necessarily the case for all religions. I think engagement with Torah and scripture is such a deeply rooted feature of Judaism and so much characterizes the role of the religious leader, that every single Jewish respondent ends up offering some kind of teaching along the way. Buddhists, for instance, do not do that. Nor do all Christian teachers. Hindus and Muslims do tend to cite more. But I think in terms of being shaped by and in dialogue with Torah, this is clearly a Jewish characteristic. Learning Torah is also featured as one of the key elements in coping with COVID-19. As Rabbi Di Segni reports, one of the main responses of the Jewish community in Rome to lockdown was a huge increase in turnout for Zoom Torah classes. This testimony emerges in other ways as well across the Jewish responses.

In more substantive terms, I think the main challenge and therefore the main contribution of Jewish speakers is to bring into discussions of Corona the tension between universality and particularity. Corona strikes all of humanity. When asked how to develop a notion of interconnectivity that would match the reality on the ground, many of the speakers approach the question from the perspective of affirming Jewish universality. Rabbi Green returns to the spiritual roots of Binah, the divine mother, as a means of finding the common spirituality of all of humanity. Nothing less will do. In concrete ways, Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum affirms care for all during this time, regardless of religious affiliation. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow speaks of prayers composed during COVID-19 and how we can no longer pray only for Israel. The moment is a global moment. This universal sense appears among all teachers, regardless of country or denomination. 

Tikkun: Can this be related in some way to the concerns of racism that have emerged since COVID-19 has struck?

AGG: Rabbi David Wolpe makes a very significant contribution on this point. Wolpe approaches the theme of interconnectivity, one of the main themes of “Coronaspection”, through an exploration of racism. We must go to the roots of racism, and understand it, in order to discover the deeper understanding by means of which we can overcome it. Suspicion of other groups is evolutionary and biological. Other groups have viruses and diseases. Coronavirus occurs in an age in which we can no longer limit the harmful effects of viruses to one group. As he says to me in the course of the interview – “someone bites a bat in China and here we are talking on Zoom.” We are led to an understanding of our interconnectedness. We are at a point where we have the possibility of transcending our evolutionary limitation with a spiritual outreach.

Zenit: What moments have struck you in particular as you worked on this project?

AGG: Every interview made a deep impression, because every interview was a meaningful moment of encounter. I am struck by how deeply moved I was by the contribution of Buddhist teachers. Several of them offered meditations that I found very helpful and that I believe others would as well. Abbot Norman Fischer, former Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Monastery, is affiliated as a Zen teacher but also as a Jewish thinker. I found his own meditation, including how he tied it to Jewish sources, very powerful for me personally. So much so, that I asked him for further spiritual guidance, once the interview was over. The possibility of deepening one’s own spiritual engagement by association with another tradition is beautifully lived out in his example. 

Zenit: How can readers view these interviews and obtain an overview of their content?

Rabbi: Simple. If you type www.coronaspection.org you will be taken to a page with a wall of images. Click on the image of the person and you will find long and short forms of the interviews. Or go to the link of Jewish leaders, and you will find all Jewish leaders listed there, or to the link of any other religion. The project’s message is presented and analyzed in Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Reflect on COVID-19. The book has just been published by Cascade books and is available online with major retailers. The book is not a transcript of the interviews, but rather a presentation and analysis of their content. I hope the videos and the book enhance each other and offer the message of meaning and hope the world needs today from all its faith leaders. 

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