By Lucinda Bashfield
TRUSTING OUR VOICES – AN INTERVIEW WITH FRANCISCO CANZANI & RABBI SILVINA CHEMEN
From the very first, I knew Francisco Canzani and Rabbi Silvina Chemen embodied genuine kindness. After two years writing at the same computer, the English translation of A Dialogue of Life: Towards the Encounter of Jews and Christians (Esp. Un diálogo para la vida: hacia el encuentro entre judíos y cristianos: a dos voces y al unísono) has been released. I interviewed the pair this week while they were in New York to hold discussions and workshops around the theme of meaningful dialogue.
The book traces three voices: Silvina, Francisco, and their voices in unison. Recounting personal experiences and comparing their sacred texts (the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament), they guide us along the steps to true dialogue with a fierce appreciation of identity and the liberating gift of listening.
Francisco Canzani was born in Uruguay ‘facing the sea.’ He holds a doctorate in law and social sciences, was the head of the Department of Ecumenism at the Theology Faculty of the Republic of Uruguay Monsignor Mariano Soler, and is a consecrated member of the Focolare Movement. He currently resides in Italy. Silvina Chemen serves as Rabbi at the Congregation Beth El in Buenos Aires. She holds degrees in Hebrew language, social communication, and was ordained as a rabbi in 2006. She currently lives in Argentina with husband Hector and two sons, Ariel and Ilán.
Their book stemmed from a lack of practical advice on how to engage in interreligious dialogue, and it aims to provide a guide for this kind of communication. Via genuine connection and understanding, they ask us to be conscious of self and how we listen to others, instead of only how others listen to us. It is humans who are the conductors of interreligious dialogue, and thus we must bring humanity into the conversation, realizing “our relationships become tender when [we] abandon protocol to enter the realm of the interpersonal” (p. 61).
And abandon protocol we did, as we talked. Our conversation took its own path, flowing through trust, listening in silence, freedom of identity, and appreciation of differences. “When we speak of trust,” Silvina explained, “we are not referring to a strategy. Trust unfolds with experience; it begins with sincerity of heart.” When we trust each other without fear of being despised, we can take on another’s problem as our own. We can share the pain, and then share the healing and the success.
We moved on to the power of listening: of being silent and giving voice to the other. “There needs to be one who speaks and one who is present in silence.” As they spoke, neither interrupted the other. They finished each other’s sentences but never dominated the conversation. They gave equal importance to the other’s words, reaching the same conclusions, but through the acceptance of different theological and personal motivations. “The most important thing,” said Francisco, “is to accept that two voices, although different, are not in conflict, they are not one against the other. Sometimes we can sing together ... and other times, we are apart. And that is okay.”
Silvina highlights one group who could benefit greatly from it. “We have three groups,” she says, “Those that want to engage, those that do not, and those who do not know what they want. The latter is the major group. They don’t know how to approach this type of communication.” According to her, this risks them remaining comfortably separated and “closed from the danger of the outside,” owing to a false belief that cross-communication is difficult and unnecessary. “When you are open to dialogue,” Francisco clarifies, “you discover your own identity even more through the other.”
Thus they defined dialogue as a process requiring an unlearning of stereotypes and relearning of possibilities. “Caring doesn’t mean avoiding challenges; it means respecting and appreciating that it is a challenge ... and continuing anyway. When writing the book, we sat together at the very same computer. We negotiated every word. We did not want to hurt each other.”
For Francisco, the need for dialogue was based upon the necessity of the other. That both theologically and socially, we need each other in order to reach God, to reach the Truth; that without each other, Truth is not possible. “This has nothing to do with a Jewish point of view,” Silvina responded. “When you go deep, we are not trying to find the truth because we do not have a truth; the risks of being open are printed in our DNA. So many people hide their religion. Even Christians and Jews. In the past, we closed doors to protect our identity, so for us, being open is not for seeking a truth, but to preserve and to legitimize our experiences.”
So how do we engage within this realm of communication? Silvina hopes the book will become a source for training people in communication. She argues, “Dialogue is a choice.” Francisco adding, “Imams, pastors, rabbis, all leaders, need to put interreligious dialogue on their agendas." Both stressed the importance of engaging with young people and allowing them to enjoy their identity. In Silvina’s eyes, “when you offer [youth] experiences of dignity, you teach them. They become sensitive to you, and you to them, their beliefs to your beliefs; sensitive and appreciative of difference.”
Upon presenting their book in Montevideo, the pair was asked why they promote dialogue. Francisco responded, “It is not only for social issues, but more importantly, for the psychological necessity to communicate.” “Look at us”, Silvina tells them, “We are the product of the book, we are more happy. That is it.” Unity is what makes diversity, and diversity gives wheels to unity. Ultimately, we need each other.
Interreligious dialogue gives us the opportunity to use the gifts we have been granted: our eyes – to acknowledge and to be acknowledged, and our ears – to listen and to be listened to. By opening ourselves to the possibility of greater interreligious dialogue, we are saying, let me listen to you, brother or sister, and in this listening I will welcome you, I will receive you. “Let me make room for you in me.”
Lucinda Bashfield is an intern at Religions for Peace USA