There is a Vatican policy that the first audience a new pope holds with the Jewish community takes place with the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, known by the acronym IJCIC, the Holy See’s official Jewish dialogue partner.
Because of my academic background in the period of the Jewish-Christian schism, I was tapped by the Orthodox Union to serve as one of its representatives to the IJCIC. I was honored to be elected its chair.
A few weeks ago I and others in the IJCIC delegation went to the Vatican for a formal audience with the new pope, whom I’d first met nearly twelve years ago when he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires. For some of us it was our second visit with the new pope, having been present at his inauguration and having had the chance to talk with him personally at the reception for leaders of other religions held the next day. At that time, he gave a special welcome to the “ospiti ebraici,” his Jewish guests.
This most recent audience, however, served two purposes, the first being to join together to symbolically mark the continuation of our close relationship under a new bishop of Rome. Beyond that important symbolism, it was an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to carry on our joint agenda of improving Catholic-Jewish relations and seeking common ground between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church. These meetings are of great importance since the key to good intergroup relations often lies in the personal relations of those charged with the leadership of the various groups.
Pope Francis took our meeting as an opportunity to repeat his commitment and that of the Church to lead in the fight against anti-Semitism. Blunt and forthright, he declared that “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”
This comment, and the entire speech from which it was only the most quotable line, make clear his dedication to the new attitudes toward Jews and Judaism set forth in the Second Vatican Council and in the 1965 Nostra Aetate document. No one could have expected anything different from the man whose relations with the Jewish people had been friendly throughout his service in his native Argentina.
Indeed, some of us were with him a dozen years ago when the International Liaison Committee meeting of Jewish and Vatican representatives took place in Buenos Aires. We were astounded by the level of Catholic-Jewish cooperation in dispensing charitable aid and we all know of the strong stand he took regarding the horrific AMIA (Jewish Community Center) bombing. Further, he has written a book together with an Argentine rabbi. And he has already accepted an invitation to visit Israel.
IJCIC has been privileged to work closely with a series of popes and Vatican officials for some forty years in advancing Jewish-Catholic relations in particular, Jewish-Christian relations more widely, and goodwill among humankind as a whole. We advocated for years that the Vatican enter into diplomatic relations with Israel and are gratified by the ongoing Vatican dialogue with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as well as with a number of Jewish groups and the local Jewish communities in Rome and throughout Italy. Before Vatican II, no one would have expected this web of relationships binding the Catholic Church to the Jewish people.
Our recent audience followed in this positive spirit. This is not to imply that problems meriting serious discussion no longer exist. I think we are all in agreement, for example, that the principles of Nostra Aetate have yet to take hold among the faithful in certain parts of the world. And we in the Jewish community need to continue educating our coreligionists about the changes that have taken place in the Church’s attitudes toward the Jewish people.
Further, we all remain concerned about religious extremism and need to continue to work together in that area. While we thank the Vatican for the strong stand it has taken regarding all forms of anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, and Holocaust denial, we know that racism and even Nazism have not been completely eradicated. We take very seriously threats to our religious freedom inherent in such developments as the attempts to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter in various European countries. We hope to be able to call on our Catholic friends and colleagues to join us in opposing such infractions against our collective freedom.
And the Jewish community continues to be concerned about efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII while innumerable documents pertaining to the history of the Church and the Jewish people during the dark years of the Holocaust still remain closed to outside scholarly investigation. The new pope has made statements in the past regarding the need to make these archives available for scholarly study, and we hope the promise made to us of the full release of these documents in 2014 will indeed be fulfilled.
To be sure, disagreements and difficulties will always exist. After all, we disagree about fundamental aspects of our religious commitments, including the nature of the divine, our religious obligations (“the law”), and the nature of the end of days. But our years of meetings, along with the numerous programs held by our constituent organizations with equivalent Catholic organizations, have shown that we share fundamental beliefs regarding such issues as justice, charity, world health, peace and the creation of all humans in the image of God.
Our job now, while continuing to deal with the minor obstacles strewn in our path from time to time, is clearly to chart a better future and make it happen.
For Jews, our efforts to improve relations with other groups essentially have two purposes. On the one hand, it is simply by principle and by nature our goal to relate with friendship, love and cooperation to others with whom we share many basic principles. After all, our common Scripture commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Mark 12:31). This natural gravitation toward friendship with others holds true despite the need of the Jewish people to remain a distinct and committed group.
On the other hand, we seek to engage other religious and national groups out of profound concern for the security of many of our coreligionists and especially that of the state of Israel. The Bible also commands us, “You shall guard carefully your safety” (Joshua 23:11).
These dual concerns – ethical principle and the quest for security for our community and our state – will be eternally overshadowed by the fears engendered by the horrible crimes perpetrated against us and the hate with which we have been greeted in some quarters.
Yet with the help of God we have been able to make enormous progress through our efforts together with our Catholic colleagues, realizing an amazing, perhaps miraculous, new friendship. Our challenge is to solidify that relationship and to find ways to prevent the numerous minor obstacles we face from distracting us from our work.
But perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity before us is to focus not on eliminating the difficulties of the past but on building the cooperation of the future. For each one of us this involves overcoming different obstacles and limitations. As we get down to business, I have to say that my own personal experiences in working with Catholic colleagues through IJCIC and other contexts have given me confidence that we can succeed when we work together.
About the Author: Lawrence H. Schiffman is vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University.
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