Scriptural Reasoning in a Time of Social Distancing

Doaa M. Baumi, The University of Birmingham
Elena Dini, John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue
Miriam Feldmann Kaye, Bar Ilan University and Jewish Theological Seminary


Once the word “pandemic” had made the headlines of the global news, the call to abandon any social activity demanded a new interpretation of responsibility. Religious institutions struggled with the reality that their communities would not be able to congregate. Consequently, cancellations of worship services, including the closure of synagogues, churches, and mosques, had a significant impact on religiously affiliated people, some of whom began to feel abandoned by their communities and depressed by the news. The ensuing situation continues to raise significant questions: How do we retain a strong sense of community? What is the role of study, liturgy and scripture amidst such unprecedented times? Is there a need to re-think the connection of religious peoples to their scripture? This paper will re-consider the role of religious understandings of scripture during the coronavirus pandemic, from the inter-religious method of Scriptural Reasoning (SR).

As an approach and as a practice, SR generates original interpretations of sacred texts whilst highlighting diverse religious communities with their many distinctions. While the nature of SR sessions requires people to meet in person and read the sacred texts together, we thought that the use of digital platforms could host such a practice. In fact, this experiment was initially borne out of communal support for one another, and it also functions as a pedagogic tool to encourage learning within communities, wherein participants are guided toward posing new questions and making suggestions about their own reading of the scriptures through textual dialogue with others. Given that physical meetings were not possible in the earlier stages of the pandemic, we held an SR encounter online. With this, we feared we would lose the intimacy and intensity generated by face to face meetings. However, we stood to gain: the virtual platform, since it does not require physical attendance, allowed people from four distinct continents to join. Coming together to learn and explore from our scriptural resources in a time of distress gave relief and a new openness; in addition, participants were also able to form new friendships, which were at once both international and intimate. This is usually far from the norm among different religions, especially at a challenging time for religious communities across the globe, when often we prioritize our own over the other, or look inward rather than outward.

We welcomed several participants who had not previously taken part in SR sessions. In some ways, we sensed an element of starting from scratch—explaining or sending the ground rules, explaining sensitivities, and only accepting invited individuals. This was coupled with the awareness that we were reaching people who would not have had the opportunity to engage in inter-religious dialogue at all. We attempted to strike a balance between allowing those with a great deal of experience of SR dialogue to present texts and encourage the type of discussion which SR seeks (scripture-based), and encouraging new voices from different parts of the world to share their reflections on the concepts being analyzed. 

The selection of the theme was crucial, since the aim was to allow participants to discuss openly their challenges and the current worries and fears borne out of the pandemic. Here we share the fruits of our SR encounter on the theme of social distancing and quarantine, which was discussed from the perspectives of various religious traditions. Interestingly, the Jewish and Muslim presenters chose the same biblical figure featured in different religious contexts: that of Jonah. There are some passages in different chapters narrating his story in the Qur’an, while in the Hebrew Bible, the Jonah story forms a canonical book as one of the minor prophets. Jonah experiences isolation in multiple ways, and the selections from the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an allowed the group to look at the textual examples from two different religious perspectives. The Christian presenter chose a text about Jesus’ passion from the Gospel according to Mark, in which each character experiences isolation in a peculiar way. The discussions about the scriptural texts ranged from conceptual to scriptural cross-comparisons, linking back to the theme of social distancing and its portrayal both in the texts and in our contemporary lived experience. 

Jewish Text: The Book of Jonah 1:2-15

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’S service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.

But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.

In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the vessel, where he lay down and fell asleep.

The captain went over to him and cried out, “How can you be sleeping so soundly! Up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish.”

The men said to one another, “Let us cast lots and find out on whose account this misfortune has come upon us.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

They said to him, “Tell us, you who have brought this misfortune upon us, what is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country, and of what people are you?”

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.”

The men were greatly terrified, and they asked him, “What have you done?” And when the men learned that he was fleeing from the service of the LORD-for so he told them—they said to him, “What must we do to you to make the sea calm around us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy.

He answered, “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you; for I know     that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.”

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to regain the shore, but they could not, for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them.

Then they cried out to the LORD: “Oh, please, LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O LORD, by Your will, have brought this about.”

And they heaved Jonah overboard, and the sea stopped raging. (Jonah 1:2-15)

Jonah, in a point of crisis, seeks distance and is distanced. He flees the divine call by boarding a ship;[1] he descends to the hold of the ship and falls asleep in an attempt to distance himself from the situation;[2] his plea to leave the ship and be tossed overboard[3] is realized; and he finds himself once again alone. But once he is drowning in the sea, a whale swallows him, and he commences a quarantine of sorts.[4] It is at this point that he prays a prayer of depth and profundity. He is then forced out of this religious experience and spewed onto dry land,[5] commencing a lone journey towards Nineveh.[6] The phraseology here is perhaps most closely reminiscent of social distancing: “Jonah left the city and sat at the east of the city. He made himself a booth there and sat in the shade.”[7]

In the Jewish tradition, the story of Jonah has a canonical significance which makes the text available to those who might not be familiar with other texts of the minor prophets. It is bequeathed with religious and spiritual significance through its status as a communal reading in the High Holy days; it is part of the public synagogue reading from the Hebrew Bible on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).[8] This is telling in its own right and has several hermeneutical explanations. For example, its references to the attributes of God, one of which is mercy,[9] are congruent with the liturgy of Yom Kippur; themes of transgression and repentance are repeated and developed throughout the text; and the divine will for Jonah is that he be given a second chance. I will further develop this idea in relation to life after the coronavirus pandemic and the potential second chance that humanity is offered to start again—this time, through understanding a call to recognize the importance of social responsibility through social distancing.

In the instances above, Jonah faces self-quarantine. With his wish to distance himself socially, however, he is in fact hiding to save himself—thereby evading the call to social responsibility. The concept of evasion was developed by the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his earlier writings on human existence as an “Impossible Escape,” Levinas draws on the tale of Jonah as one that expresses the theme of evasion. In his essay Transcendence and Height, Levinas draws on the character of Jonah as exemplary of his theory of responsibility and theology:      

I do not refuse religious terms, but I adopt them in order to designate the situation where the subject exists in the impossibility of hiding itself. I do not start from the existence of a very great and all-powerful being. Everything I wish to say comes from this situation of responsibility which is religious insofar as I cannot elude it. If you like, it is like a Jonah who cannot escape. You find yourself before a responsibility from which you cannot escape. You find yourself before a responsibility from which you cannot steal away. [10]

In this text, Jonah is held ethically responsible for a people and is demanded to heed the call to rectify the errant ways of the Ninevites. This call for social responsibility goes hand in hand with a recognition that people must be given a second chance: Nineveh must be given the chance to repent, and Jonah himself, despite his attempts to evade the call, is given a second chance. Indeed, the second time, he accepts responsibility for the fate of Nineveh.[11]

It might be that the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale is actually a more fitting metaphor for self-isolation than Jonah on the ship, which is the text I initially offered to the group. After all, this is where he is swallowed against his will, and it is by remaining inside that he is saved. Ultimately, one could intimate, it is this experience that causes the people of Nineveh to be saved. Further, it appears that Jonah’s quarantine within the whale compelled him to reflect on what has happened. Isolation provides him with an opportunity, one that he embraces, to re-think his behavior and to ask what he could have done differently. Thus, the experience of distance leads him to respond to the same divine call, living up to the challenge that has been thrust upon him. Reading this text in the shadow of COVID-19 offers an opportunity for reflection on the question of how reality might look after this storm has passed.

A comparison with the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis allows for an enriched understanding of this text.[12] In both stories, the protagonist is called by God to leave his home in search of answering a greater call.[13] Both have significant encounters on boats, rich in aesthetic and literary imagery. Both are surrounded and bound by water. Both undergo intensive periods of time in isolation, alone or with others. For Jonah, the time alone—this quarantine—is time for introspection.

In both stories, divine mercy is evoked through the leitmotif of the natural world. For Noah, the animals are a symbol of survival and creation, and they also appear at the end of the Jonah story. Of course, for Jonah, the fish—an animal rather than a human—is his savior (echoed in some senses when the kikayon tree saves him from fainting).[14] The fish is the place from which he offers his profound prayer,[15] after which Jonah is spat out onto dry land. Water is the ultimate source of significance in its various manifestations: the tempest and the flood. 

Further relating to the natural world is the role of animality in these stories, where Noah is released from the Ark through a dialogue with animals.[17] In the Jonah story, release from evil, through repentance, involves animals as it does humans.[18] Here, one could draw again on Levinas, in his interview on human responsibility towards animals, even though Jacques Derrida suggests that Levinas does not go far enough in situating the animal as “Other.”[19] In this light, one can re-think the animals’ theological role in the Jonah story, as animals are involved in the process of repentance.[20] In the Noah story, animals are bound up in themes of regret, destruction and promise. Indeed, the animal world is inextricably linked to hope and promise—such as with the raven, and then, the dove—signaling peace and promise.

There are also clear differences. For Jonah, his period on a boat was an escape, whereas for Noah, his time on the boat was adherence to an instruction—at least from a literalist perspective. However, reading between the lines in these stories, both convey a sense of trepidation of what will come afterwards, and both, as is currently the state of the global community – are called – one forced social distancing – and self-quarantine are lifted.

Nevertheless, there is no ultimate closure in either story. The Jonah story culminates amidst a tense dialogue. Even after stories as great as these end, complexity does not cease, and more challenges present themselves. However, hope depends on responsibility and trust, in giving others an opportunity to prove themselves. In the Jonah story, the protagonist is given a second chance[21] even after his failure to respond to the call.[22] The midrash teaches that the dove (יונה), which Noah sends out of the Ark to see whether the flood has subsided, shares the Hebrew name with the prophet Jonah (יונה).[23] Thus, the role of Jonah and the role of the dove share the value of going out into the world to renew it: Noah’s dove is sent out after the raven. The promise is given a second chance,[24] just as Jonah is offered a second chance.[25]

This idea offers the opportunity to think about how society might be able to understand the phenomenon of the pandemic as a second chance. This second chance could encourage a dedication to taking greater social responsibility towards those around us. How might holding biblical texts to contemporary scriptural analysis imbue religious communities, including those around them, with the courage to take greater social responsibility? How might religious communities embrace some form of collective reflection on despair and uncertainty? This session of SR raised these questions of notions of roles and revelations from different religious perspectives. The topic, as well as the sustained discussion itself, engaged participants of different faiths to face the scriptural texts from the new reality of living in an age of COVID-19. 

Christian Text: Mark 14:29-40

Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14:29-40)[26]

Our international online session of Scriptural Reasoning on the theme of “isolation and faith,” held during a time of social distancing, took place just a few days after Easter was celebrated. This passage at the beginning of Jesus’ passion as recounted in the Gospel according to Mark was not the only option to talk about the selected topic, but it definitely was a quite timely one that the Christian liturgy often proposes in the days preceding Easter.

The Marcan Jesus knows he will be abandoned by his disciples and that even Peter, who emerges individually from the group of the Twelve[27] in this and the other Gospels, will deny him in the next few hours. Nonetheless, Jesus asks him, James, and John to accompany him in one of the most difficult hours of his life and to keep praying. He confesses to them how he feels: “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” and this might be quite shocking to our ears. This is not an easy text to deal with, not only in terms of exegesis but also from a systematic-theological point of view. Jesus who, until then in the Gospel of Mark, was “particularly strong, even stern at times”[28] now is grieved and asks his father to “remove this cup” from him. Krokus shows how “[a]lready in the first Christian centuries, and even among the biblical authors themselves, there was concern for reconciling the narrative with a proper understanding of Christ.”[29] In this passage, Jesus’ humanity seems to overshadow his divinity, and although this is a challenge for theologians, it is also part of the reason why this scene speaks so deeply to all those who are going through hard times. In Jesus’ words one might hear the voice of sick people who are in intensive care, struggling to breathe because of COVID-19.

Jesus feels all the burden of what is waiting for him and raises his voice to the Father. He is actually alone in the garden of Gethsemane: he knows his disciples will flee, and he realizes that they cannot pray with him. No one on this earth can be with him at the darkest hour he has to live and accepts to live. Jesus is isolated. During an SR session, people often look at the peculiar connections suggested by the bundle of texts chosen from the different scriptures. In our case, both the Hebrew Bible and Qur’anic text presented a section of Jonah’s story. A participant stressed how both Jesus and Jonah pray when they are alone.[30] Jesus looks for solitude to pray to the Father. Jonah, who fell asleep when the mariners were crying unto their gods during the storm, raises his voice to God when he is alone in the belly of the fish.

This reference to the ability to pray in solitude was particularly relevant during the pandemic, at a time when most of us were unable to attend religious services with coreligionists because of the risk of spreading the virus. For Catholics, the lockdown meant being unable to attend mass and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, and this was a hard test. Starting from Pope Francis, Catholic leaders invited the faithful to “spiritual communion,” a traditional Christian practice suggested to those who cannot receive sacramental communion. For the Catholic Church in Western countries where sacraments might be a daily practice,[31] this was a time to rediscover that receiving communion “is not the only and indispensable way to unite with Jesus and with his body, that is the Church.”[32]

Looking at Mark’s text and focusing on isolation, identification with Jesus is quite automatic. As we saw, on one hand, Jesus chose to isolate from people to pray, but on the other hand, his isolation was also a “forced” result of the incapability of his disciples to stand with him. However, one could look at the text also from the perspective of Peter or one of the other disciples. The way Mark insists on the disciples’ incapability to be with Jesus might be read in the light of the context of the community for which Mark was writing the Gospel, possibly a community in Rome experiencing persecutions.

During the session, we mentioned that Peter and the other disciples in this passage were not the only ones who left Jesus alone. Judas clearly did that too: his choice of betraying Jesus made him opt out of the relationship with him and with the community of the disciples. This resulted in being isolated. Isolation is therefore sometimes due to a failure, to an incapability of being with the other.

Lockdown in our cities forced us to close ourselves in our private spaces, with our immediate family or alone, and this was challenging. But we learned that we have resources to make that social distance less wide—through media and electronic tools, but also through resilience and creativity. There is, however, another isolation that sometimes we impose on ourselves that is even deeper.

Both Peter and Judas are estranging themselves from Jesus. Judas, after having betrayed Jesus, will end up committing suicide.[33] Peter gets increasingly isolated from Jesus in this passage. He does not get to be with him not at Gethsemane, nor later when he is in the courtyard of the high priest where he followed Jesus and actually denied him as Jesus anticipated.[34] Peter will deal with this profound failure in his relationship with Jesus in a different way than Judas. He will stick to the community of Jesus’ disciples, and we know that “despite cowardice and extreme infidelity, Jesus remains loyal to him, as abundantly clear already from 16:7 alone.”[35]

A last aspect was extensively tackled during our Scriptural Reasoning session, an aspect which does not always earn the right attention in this Gospel passage: in both Mark and Jonah, there are people who fall asleep while we would expect them to be praying.

Interestingly enough, sleep is often seen as a “place” where God might speak to human beings.[36] Here, however, Jonah, Peter, James, and John appear connected with neither God nor what is happening around them. A participant echoed Martin Buber’s reflection on a comparison between Western and Eastern approach to sleep and dreams. Commenting on Heracleitus’s thought, Buber affirms, “In sleep there is no factual bond with others….Here and only here are we ‘We’.”[37] He continues, “Heracleitus places upon us the pure duty and responsibility of waking togetherness.”[38] Waking up and waking togetherness, investing in relationships, is a possibility that the coronavirus gave us by inviting us to rediscover solidarity and care for the other.

Qurʾānic Texts

And indeed, Jonah was among the messengers. [Mention] when he ran away to the laden ship. And he drew lots and was among the losers. Then the fish swallowed him, while he was blameworthy. And had he not been of those who exalt Allah, He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected. (37:139-144)

Then be patient for the decision of your Lord, [O Muḥammad], and be not like the companion of the fish [i.e., Jonah] when he called out while he was distressed. If not that a favor [i.e., mercy] from his Lord overtook him, he would have been thrown onto the naked shore while he was censured. And his Lord chose him and made him of the righteous. (68:48-50)

And [mention] the man of the fish [i.e., Jonah], when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, “There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers. So We responded to him and saved him from the distress. And thus do We save the believers. (21:87-88)[39]

While discussing social distancing as a necessity in a time of pandemic and crisis, we  opted for the tale of Jonah in the Qurʾān as a good example to reflect on his trial. The following section reflects on Jonah’s lockdown in the belly of the whale and how it was a transformative experience for him. While Jonah’s lockdown was difficult for him—he was kept in the darkness of the fish belly for some time—Jonah conducted a practice of self-reflection in which he purified himself and prayed to his Lord to save him. Jonah transformed personally and spiritually, and there is a shift in the Qurʾānic depiction of Jonah from someone who is impatient to someone who is an obedient slave who prays beautifully to his God.

Many of the prophets’ stories are repeated in the Qurʾān—not only to emphasize the kinship between the last Prophet, Muḥammed, and the prophets that preceded him, but also to educate believers about the previous nations. The Qurʾān confirms the significance of telling stories: “There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding. Never was the Qurʾān a narration invented, but a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of all things and guidance and mercy for a people who believe.”[40] Clearly, the Qurʾān affirms that the lives of the prophets must be remembered.[41] Yet, unlike the Bible, the Qurʾān does not provide a complete episode for each prophet; rather, certain elements of each story are highlighted to teach a particular moral. It is common to see many of the prophets’ stories scattered across the Qurʾān. Similarly, the story of Jonah (Yūnus in Arabic) is mentioned three times in the Qurʾān. In each instance, the Qurʾān tells the reader a single detail about Jonah that teaches a certain lesson. In addition, the Qurʾān speaks highly of Jonah’s community as faithful people who repented to God, so he lifted the punishment of disgrace and let them enjoy their life.[42]

It is interesting to find parallels between the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible and in the Qurʾān. There are several elements of the story that have been emphasized in both traditions—for instance, the ship and the fish. Yet, perhaps the most striking part for a Muslim reader is the emphasis on human imperfection in the Qurʾānic narrative; Jonah is depicted as angry and impatient. It is worth mentioning here that most prophets in the Qurʾān are introduced as good models for believers to follow. However, Jonah is the only exception; in one episode he is depicted as an example for Muḥammed not to follow. God speaks to Muḥammed: “Then be patient for the decision of your Lord, [O Muhammad], and be not like the companion of the fish when he called out while he was distressed. If not that a favor from his Lord overtook him, he would have been thrown onto the naked shore while he was censured. And his Lord chose him and made him of the righteous.”[43]

In a similar vein, Jonah is depicted in the Qurʾān as an angry prophet: “And [mention] the man of the fish, when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him.”[44] Jonah is angry, and his anger leads him to flee to a laden ship to find a moment of peace. Yet, Jonah’s anger costs him a price that he will pay later. Jonah was thrown in the sea and then swallowed by a big fish: “And indeed, Jonah was among the messengers. [Mention] when he ran away to the laden ship. And he drew lots and was among the losers. Then the fish swallowed him while he was blameworthy.”[45] The word “angry” here appears problematic, and many Muslim scholars understand Jonah’s anger in the light of his status as a prophet in Islam. According to most Muslim theologians, prophets are infallible, and they are protected from sin or mistakes.[46] Attempting to find an interpretation for Jonah’s anger, Muslim scholars argue that Jonah’s anger was right before he is commissioned as a prophet. Furthermore, they state that Jonah is not angry with God, but rather he is angry at his own people. This interpretation allows for Jonah to stay innocent and infallible.[47]

Yet, despite the challenge the story offers, the narrative shifts dramatically to depict Jonah as an obedient slave. Jonah, while being trapped in the fish’s belly, moves from a state of rebellion to a state of self-reflection. Jonah looks around and realizes how vulnerable he is. He is incapable of freeing himself and unable to seek someone’s help. The whale came to remind Jonah of his incapability and imperfection. It also enables him to discover the world’s sea and to realize how other creatures have submitted to God’s will, something that he refused to do in the first place. It is mentioned in the extra-Qurʾānic tradition that Jonah was able to hear the other fish praising God in the depths of the rolling sea.[48] Jonah is then inspired by the sea creatures worshipping God, and he decides to make his own prayer.

It is in this moment that Jonah realizes his sin; he prays beautifully in the belly of the fish to God: “And he called out within the darknesses, ‘There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers.’”[49] Jonah’s prayer reveals the Islamic understanding of God’s oneness, and he admits his shortcomings.[50] Jonah is powerless and sinful, but he turns to God to save him. It is worth highlighting that Jonah, despite everything, was hopeful: although he admitted that he is among the wrongdoers, he is hopeful for God’s mercy. The Qurʾānic verse ends nicely with the divine acceptance of Jonah’s call: “So We responded to him and saved him from the distress. And thus do We save the believers.”[51] Surprisingly, despite everything, Jonah is still considered among the believers, and he was therefore given a second chance. In another verse, Jonah is praised for worshiping God in such a difficult time: “And had he not been of those who exalt Allah, He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected.”[52]

It is interesting to see how Jonah’s repentance made him an ideal figure for many Muslim authors to reflect on. Jonah’s trial helped him not only to submit himself to God, but also to introduce a good example for believers to follow. Ibn Kathīr (d.1373) depicted Jonah as a mystical figure whose example has to be followed. Ibn Kathīr cited a tradition in which the Prophet confirms that if a Muslim prays to God with Jonah’s prayer, God will accept it from him. Jonah then appears as a man of virtue who was saved because of his prior obedience to God.[53]

Reading Jonah’s story in such a tough time is significant because it does not deny our human imperfection and vulnerability. Rather, it highlights the importance of submitting oneself to God in a time of difficulty and distress. Jonah as a prophet has a social responsibility toward his community, yet like many of us, he does not seem ready to stand up for his mission. Jonah teaches us that to come to a wrong decision is human. Jonah may appear to depart from his community in a critical time, yet he was in need of a new experience to learn more about himself. Jonah felt powerless and vulnerable during his lockdown, but his experience enabled him to be stronger and righteous. Jonah’s experience comes to its climax when he realizes that it is never too late to repent to his God. His repentance transformed him from a hopeless rebellious to an obedient servant. If Jonah’s tale is meant to teach us one thing today: the power of prayers and supplications. The story won’t leave us hopeless and depressed, rather it tells us about God’s unconditional love and His infinite mercy. The Qurʾān confirms the same meaning; “but My mercy encompasses all things.”[54]


In these times of social distancing, the practice of SR has developed a unique manifestation in its transition to a virtual method of dialogue. There have been several drawbacks to holding online international meetings, such as technical issues and the difficulties of creating actual relationships with others. A particular challenge for facilitators was the lack of in-person ways of having everyone feel on board and part of the discussion. When people are physically gathering in the same space the facilitator can more easily understand how to involve more silent participants or redirect the discussion, if needed. With participants not used to this practice as a group, the virtual setting made this aspect more difficult. When the idea of holding an SR session online was introduced, these limitations were taken into account, and, after two meetings, significant success has been perceived, by organisers, presenters, and participants. In fact, the notion of distance appears to have created a new closeness and unity, with individuals who were strangers to one another prior to our sessions.  

Furthermore, virtual meetings allow participants to attend from everywhere. This challenging time actually gave us the chance to do something that we likely would not have done before COVID-19 because we were all used to our in-person gatherings. The fact that we were forced to remain at home might have decreased physical distance from one another, but through our SR encounters, we managed to come closer to those who are far away from us. It is actually this distance which offered the possibility of coordinating sessions with people from all around the world. Through doing so, we felt empowered to expand the scope of previous SR practice, as participants came from multiple countries and brought with them their respective experiential, conceptual, and scriptural contexts. 

One of the unique aspects of SR stems from its encouragement of participants to reflect on the layers upon layers of historical interpretation that have become part of each of our traditions’ scriptures. This aspect acquired an even deeper dimension through its propensity for comfort and healing. In fact, religious traditions remind people that their ancestors have been tested, they have gone through many trials and crises, and yet they emerged stronger. Albeit momentarily, these examples lifted participants up and perhaps even left them a little more hopeful. If their ancestors have survived hardship, perhaps they can challenge themselves to do so, too?

In such a situation, insider/outsider distinctions, even with regard to nationalities, are placed to the side in favor of responding to the challenges faced by all religious communities. Our decision to develop these online SR sessions is based on the innate belief that as human beings, we share the same values. This underlined the central role of faith communities in providing support at times of crisis. They attempt to cope with the current challenge by finding a new platform that allows them to share their worries and fears safely, leading them to request more online SR meetings.

The common themes that emerged out of these SR sessions were of great significance. One of these is the power and potency of prayer, which sustains our human efforts and our propensities for self and spiritual transformation. Participants were left astonished by the intertextual interpretative readings, which revealed the different ways in which prayer is conceived as a blessing in all our three traditions.

SR in times of social distancing has surprisingly opened up a new opportunity to harness the sense of closeness with others when in fact so distant—not just in terms of geographical location, but also in terms of religious belief and more. We were able to engage new participants in SR, even with their distress in the midst of the pandemic.  It is this engagement that we sought out through meaningful encounter, and we surprisingly found more in common with the Other than we had prior to the meeting. In this sense, we were able to find, even if fleetingly, some positive aspects of this reality, and we were able to turn them into a benefit for interreligious scriptural dialogue.


[1] Jonah 1:3.
[2] Jonah 1:4.
[3] Jonah 1:12.
[4] Jonah 2:1.
[5] Jonah 2:11.
[6] Jonah 3:3.
[7] Jonah 4:5.
[8] The dating of this ritual can be traced back to Second Temple as recorded in Philo. See Daniel Stokl Ben Ezra, The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity: The Day of Atonement from Second Temple Judaism to the Fifth Century (Tubingham: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 55-59.
[9] Jonah 4:2.
[10] Emmanuel Levinas, “Transcendence and Height,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adrian Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 29. Levinas wrote about Jonah in only three other places, wherein responsibility and evasion remain the key themes.
[11] Jonah 1:1 and 3:1.
[12] Genesis 6-9.
[13] For examples of intertextual readings of Jonah, see Hyun Chul Paul Kim, “Jonah Read Intertextually,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 497-528.
[14] Jonah 4:6.
[15] Jonah 2:3-10.
[16] On the divine role in the storm in the story of Jonah see Ben Zion Krieger, “Yonah, Yisrael Ve-Umot Ha-Olam: Iyyun me-Hudash be-Nevu-at Yonah al pi Ha-Mekorot” (Jerusalem: Aliner Press 1997), 32 [Hebrew].
[17] Genesis 8:7-12.
[18] According to Levinas’s writings on the role of animals in the Noah story in Genesis, see T. Wright, “Now We’re Talking Pedagogy: Levinas, Animal Ethics and Jewish Education,” in Face to Face with Animals: Levinas and the Animal Question, ed P. Atterton and T. Wright (New York: SUNY, 2019), 203-223. See also “Animal Interview” on which this chapter was based, in Ibid., 3-13.
[19] Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that Therefore I am” (New York: Fordham University Press) 2008.
[20] This idea is suggested as one of the reasons for the linkage between the book of Jonah and Yom Kippur, as it was recorded by Philo (Stokl Ben Ezra, 55-59).
[21] Jonah 3:1.
[22] Jonah 1:1.
[23] Song of Songs Rabba 1. See Krieger, 32-33.
[24] Genesis 8:17-22.
[25] This analysis leaves numerous question open about the notion of promise, especially in Noah, where the promise is closely followed by a second divine attempt at destruction at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).
[26] Translation of the biblical text is from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.
[27] Robyn Whitaker, “Rebuke or Recall? Rethinking the Role of Peter in Mark’s Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 75, no. 4 (October 2013): 666.
[28] Christian S. Krokus, “Jesus’ Expression of Sorrow, Fear, Doubt, and Abandonment in the Passion Narrative of Mark (14:33-36; 15:34) according to Modern Catholic Exegesis and Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologiae’: Pastoral and Doctrinal Concerns,” Angelicum 85, no. 3 (2008): 676.
[29] Krokus, “Jesus’ Expression of Sorrow,” 677.
[30] The selection from the Hebrew Bible that was chosen for our SR session does not tell about the time Jonah spent in the belly of the fish and prayed to God, but the Qur’anic excerpt mentions it and this was a topic raised during the discussion.
[31] This is not true for the Catholic Church in other countries where there are a limited number of priests who can administer sacraments.
[32] Federico Lombardi, “La Comunione Spirituale,” Vatican News, 18 April 2020, accessed at
[33] This event is narrated in Matthew 27:3-10.
[34] “At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:72)
[35]  Bas M. F. Van Iersel, “Failed Followers in Mark: Mark 13:12 as a Key for the Identification of the Intended Readers,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 2 (April 1996): 259.
[36] See, for example, Genesis 28:12-16; Genesis 37:4-10; Matthew 1:20-24; Matthew 2:12; Acts 16:9.
[37] Martin Buber, “What Is Common to All,” The Review of Metaphysics 11, no. 3 (March 1958): 361.
[38] Buber, “What Is Common to All,” 361.
[39] For the Quranic translation, the author uses Saḥiḥ International,
[40] Qurʾān 12:111.
[41] Roberto Tottoli, Biblical Prophets in the Quran and Muslim Literature (London: Routledge, 2009), 4.
[42] Qurʾān 10:98
[43] Qurʾān 68:48-50.
[44] Qurʾān 21:87.
[45] Qurʾān 37:139-142.
[46]  Ibn Kathīr and al-Rāzī contend that prophets are sinless.
[47] John Kaltner and Younus Y. Mirza, The Bible and the Qurʾan: Biblical Figures in the Islamic Tradition (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), 96-97.
[48] Brannon M Wheeler, Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis (London: Continuum, 2002), 169-170
[49] Qurʾān 21:87.
[50] Kaltner, 96.
[51] Qurʾān 21:88.
[52] Qurʾān 37:143-144.
[53] Younus Y. Mirza, “Was Ibn Kathīr the ‘Spokesperson’ for Ibn Taymiyya? Jonah as a Prophet of Obedience,” Journal of Quranic Studies 16, no. 1 (2014): 1–19.
[54] Qurʾān 7:156.