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When Pope Francis Makes His Visit to Israel, This Rabbi Will Be His Guide

Abraham Skorka, an unassuming scientist and rabbi in Buenos Aires, is the pontiff’s friend and interlocutor

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images, Franco Origlia/Getty Images, and Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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At the wooden desk in his cozy office, Skorka nods to a framed speech mounted above his head. It’s a Yom Kippur prayer of penitence—a selichot—that Pope Francis gave a few years ago to Benei Tikva congregants. “He came here and spoke and gave a special salutation,” recalls Skorka, who in April publicly acted as Francis’ interlocutor on American television, in his 60 Minutes appearance. “One of the great sins of leaders throughout the world has been that they’d appear perfect,” Skorka told Scott Pelley. Skorka also wrote in Argentina’s national newspaper that Francis is the same unassuming, devoted man he was before his elevation. “Behind his white robe you can find the same man, who knows the right equilibrium between power and decision and who mandates with humility and sincerity,” Skorka explained.

It’s hard not to feel that Skorka is also, to some degree, describing himself and what has happened since his life accelerated in his friend’s shadow. When Skorka stands at the bima on Shabbat, as he does most weeks, he recites meticulously woven aphorisms interspersed with unabashed moments of humor and affection. He squeezes the 13-year-old boy beside him celebrating his bar mitzvah, or breaks from his somber homily to address the audience.

“Holiness is the ability to dominate one’s instincts in service of a higher power,” Skorka pronounced at a recent Friday-night service. From the fifth row of the packed wooden pews, a baby began to wail. Skorka stopped and scanned the crowd for the child. “What is wrong, why are you bothered? What happened?” he asked, turning his stance to address the infant, and then the parents. “Mother, do you know what he needs? Did his brother bother him? Oh! He’s probably hungry,” Skorka grinned from the pulpit, and then found his place again. “Anyway, where were we?” he asked the audience, a master of practiced casualness. “Oh that’s right, holiness.” The congregation chuckled and hung even more closely on his next words.

Skorka completed his Ph.D. in chemistry during his first years as a pulpit rabbi, but while he champions a dialogue between reason and science in religion as much as between Christians and Jews—“Religion is a matter of faith but we can’t say there are answers. Science must speak with religion,” he told me—his true home is his shul, not the academy. He moved to Benei Tikva from Lamroth Hakol in the mid-1970s at a time when the synagogue’s president was set on reviving the congregation. “I felt this person was renewing the synagogue in order to give me something,” Skorka tells me, “in order for me to work more and to gather more and more things and people here.”

Skorka shrugged when I asked him about the impact of his new international profile. “In my daily life l have much more work to do now,” he replied. “But in my spiritual life I feel like God has given me a good opportunity to do something relevant in life.” He paused, then added, “A rabbi must be a teacher, a master. He has to be a master in all fields.”

In April, Skorka presided over a Seder attended by 150 congregants. Before the ceremony, guests bustled in the social hall hugging each other and filling the room with chatter in Spanish. Elegant older women with bobbed hair and sleek all-black outfits dashed with sequins pecked each other on the cheeks. Tiny boys in yarmulkes looked longingly at matzo stacks still forbidden to taste. The cantor, wearing a suit, stood with a swanlike woman in white stilettos, poised to sing next to the keyboard player, who tapped his foot. Waiters scurried out with a final few red wine bottles from the kitchen; as the ceremony began, a flock of freshly lipsticked teen girls sauntered in to take their seats.

Wearing a humble smile and a suit accented with a blue tie, Skorka peered out over his glasses, gathering in the darting energy of the crowd. Then, in a low, meditative tone, he began to speak. The room hushed, listening. Bright Haggadahs were opened, and the Passover story began. “The word Seder means ‘order,’” he said in Spanish. “Just as the universe has order, so must a human being, to move with purpose.”

***

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When Pope Francis Makes His Visit to Israel, This Rabbi Will Be His Guide

Abraham Skorka, an unassuming scientist and rabbi in Buenos Aires, is the pontiff’s friend and interlocutor

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