Making space for others
Two Argentinian experts — one Jewish, one Catholic —
show the art of dialogue
By Susanne Janssen
It had seemed to be a successful workshop in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The students were attentive, they collaborated, and then Rabbi Silvina Chemen opened up the seminar for questions.
“Why do you Jews not believe in Jesus Christ?” asked one student bluntly.
Chemen didn’t answer this question, but asked the student instead: “What do you intend to achieve with this question? What is the effect on the atmosphere we built during this last hour?”
The students learned an important lesson on dialogue: it’s not about who is right or wrong, it’s all about building a relationship of trust.
Teaching how to dialogue is a theme that Rabbi Silvina Chemen and Francisco Canzani are both very concerned about. Canzani, who is Uruguayan, studied law and theology and worked as a professor and journalist for several years. When he met the rabbi in Argentina, where he lived the last seven years, they both entered in a dialogue that led them not only to understand the others’ religion deeper, but also the process of dialogue itself. When they shared their experience, others were inspired and prepared to do the same, which led them to a project to write a book together.
A Dialogue of Life — Towards the Encounter of Jews and Christians is not a theoretical reflection but is based on experience. Both Canzani and Chemen speak of the insights they gained from decades of interreligious dialogue. Some chapters are written by Canzani in his perspective as a Catholic, consecrated lay person. Others are Chemen’s perspective as a rabbi, married and mother of two teenage children.
Then there are chapters written in unison: “We challenged ourselves to write together — literally two people, one computer,” she shared at a discussion at Fordham University in New York. It helped both of them to become sensitive to the words used.
Their book is becoming “a pedagogy of dialogue,” a way to teach people how to engage. The first edition, in Spanish, was very much appreciated by Pope Francis. Both authors knew him well when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires.
Canzani and Chemen don’t spare us the difficulties; in fact, they face them. These stem from seeing the differences, like feeling that one cannot express oneself freely, or having the impression that there’s no progress.
That said, some mistakes can be avoided when you know some basics: how to listen carefully, how to make space for others, and avoiding questions coming from prejudices and preconceptions that may hurt.
“You need remote preparation — you need to know something about the other,” explains Canzani. And then there is the immediate preparation, like listening without thinking of an answer. “It takes time. Dialogue is not fast food,” Chemen adds.
Being “remotely prepared” as Canzani explained above, one may ask anything — even the daring question that one Jewish participant posed at a different workshop: “Is it possible that your God is not my God, because yours is three and mine is one?” The key lies in listening and answering without pretending to be right or being the same.
Both are convinced that dialogue should not be done only in an academic setting. Canzani shared that one time while they were working together on the book, he took a taxi and asked to go to the synagogue. “What are you doing there?” the driver asked him. And after he answered that he was writing a book with a Jewish friend, the driver started with a tirade of prejudices and preconceptions against Jews.
Canzani listened, then carefully shared how he experienced the relationship with them. “By the time we arrived, he considered rethinking several topics — and that is already a lot.” Chemen explains, “Dialogue is taking place everywhere — in the supermarket, in the taxi, at work. It means that there’s always a new possibility to build relationships.”
Eventually, their hope is that this dialogue should not remain only between Catholics and Jews. Chemen said that every dialogue has its own time. In Argentina, only first steps have been made to reach out to Muslims and several Christian denominations.
“For sure, we stand up against Islamophobia, which is becoming serious. We Jews were persecuted, and so we are with everyone who is now persecuted,” said Chemen.
Canzani trusts in youth. “Young people are more open. We had a very good experience with a small but constructive workshop with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. It gave me a lot of hope.”
A Dialogue of Life is available at