what i did this summer

A Report from the Parliament of the World’s Religions

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Over the drone of the harmonium in the Sikh’s makeshift Gudwara, I overheard a Buddhist monk and a Sikh discussing species extinction and reincarnation:

“What if a person’s soul is destined for a near extinct species, like the spotted owl?” the monk asked.

“If the species becomes extinct then would that soul be stuck in limbo for eternity?”

The Parliament of World’s Religions, an idea that was born at the Columbia exposition of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was abuzz with questions sprung from the scuffle between traditional religious thought and new realities. Held this July at Barcelona’s new seaside conference center, the Parliament attracted some eight thousand religious adherents from around the globe to hear recent Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and countless other presenters listed in the two hundred and fifty-nine page program book address what has become a world increasingly torn by religious conflicts.

What message can be heard over F-15s and car bombs? Can we teach religious tolerance and understanding to those who see the world through the lens of conflict? For the year leading up to the conference, Lee Hancock and I met with leaders of ten other New York based religious organizations to debate that question. The result was planning the largest symposium of the parliament – a three-day focus on interfaith education. Our collaborative, called the Consultation for Interfaith Education, put together an international program of twenty-five sessions, with nearly fifty presenters keynoted by the XIVth Dalai Lama.

Spain, which suffered national turmoil during the massive terror attack in Madrid this past year, turned out to be an ideal location for the conference. And though surveillance was high, with two airport like security searches required to attend the sessions, crowds flocked to hear moderate Muslims, like Ayatollah Hadvhi Tehrani, speak on coexistence.
And while the Dalai Lama’s poor health prevented him from joining us, the consultation turned out to be a big draw. Here are a few stories:

The minute after I checked into my hotel, a gentleman with a dark beard approached me in the lobby.

“You Jewish rabbi?” He asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you like Martin Buber?” He asked, mispronouncing the name of one of Judaism’s most influential philosophers, rhyming it with Flubber.

“Yes.” I replied.

“I translate him for graduate students, University of Teheran!”

I immediately invited him to join us in the symposium, and a few days later we both ended up having a conversation about religious extremism with an Indian woman who teaches in South Africa.

“My grandfather would be so upset if he saw what was going on in the Middle East right now” she said.

“What did your grandfather do?” I asked.

“He was Mahatma Gandhi.”


On another day of the conference, Dr. Hasan Al-Assady, an Iraqi psychologist, spoke of both the fears he held regarding extremists and the promise of a new era of freedom in Iraq.

“Did you have any trouble getting out of Iraq during a time of military occupation?” someone from the audience asked after his speech.

“Yes. My truck overheated!” Al-Assady answered, which turned out to be a refreshing humorous moment during a rather academic session.

There were also moments that were touching. After a panel of religious leaders from Israel debated the legacy of Isaac and Ishmael, one of East Jerusalem’s Imam’s gave a long and lovely bear hug to Rabbi David Rosen from West Jerusalem. And at a panel that my wife Lisa attended, for women only, I heard that deeper breakthroughs were taking place. An Orthodox Jewish woman whose son had been severely injured by a Palestinian terrorist’s bomb was listening to the story of a Palestinian woman whose child had been killed by an Israeli soldier. “I carried so much anger in my heart” the Palestinian woman said, “that it began to poison me.”

The Parliament affirmed that religious dialogue has the potential to overcome underlying mistrust. And although the parliament is a microcosm of those already committed to such work, it displays the growing international efforts to bridge traditional religious communities.

A final note - One of my personal highlights was the opportunity to moderate a panel with the renowned Catholic theologian Raimon Pannikar. Pannikar, who was born in Barcelona in 1918 to a Hindu father and a Catholic mother, is regarded as a local saint. Overflow crowds gathered to hear him speak of a cosmotheandric vision in which understanding the simultaneous unity and trinity of the divine, human, and earthly realms is the unifying theme of world religions. Pannikar also had the most quotable remark from the symposium. Claiming that exclusivists, those who insisted that the world could only be understood through the lens of their own tradition, are colorblind he called out “Let us see the colors through this dialogue!”

By the way, the answer to the monk’s question about the spotted owl is that the cycle of reincarnation can be disturbed by species extinction. Proof again that sometimes it is the most esoteric of ideas that push us humans to value the diversity of the planet.