Catholic-Jewish Relations: Good News, Bad News: Extraordinary Achievements and Current Tensions
The Joseph Klein Lecture on Judaic Affairs, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Assumption College, Worcester, MA, March 23, 2000
The last half-century has seen a sea change in Catholic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. No responsible person could dispute that more progress has been made in Catholic-Jewish relations in the last fifty years than was made in the previous two millennia.
Changes in the church during this period are properly seen as nothing less than a revolution, world-shattering in their impact, far-reaching in their implications. When Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, he instituted a process intended to overcome the anti-Jewish teachings that were deeply rooted in Catholic sacred literature. This process led to the publication in 1965 of Nostra Aetate, which removed the official teaching that Jews are rejected by God and responsible for the murder of the son of God. And this document was only the first step in a much broader process of reconciliation that would eventually lead to purging anti-Jewish elements from the church?s liturgy and to repudiating those doctrines that had long promoted contempt among Catholics for Jews and Judaism.
The initiative of John XXII was continued by many in the church. But the current pope, John Paul II, has been especially insistent that this effort be a priority of his papacy, and he has carried forward this work in a way that is both vigorous and daring. The steps that he has taken to promote a new relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people are known to many of you. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue. He has spoken out eloquently and frequently against anti-Semitism, condemning it as a “sin against God.” He has referred to the Jewish people as Christianity’s “elder brother,” and he has insisted on the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jews. He has established a tradition of meeting with Jewish leaders on his pilgrimages around the world. He has described the twentieth century as the century of the Shoah, has visited a number of Holocaust sites, and has cited Jewish suffering while kneeling at Auschwitz. He has sponsored a Holocaust Remembrance concert in the Vatican, and in memory of the six million, he has placed a six-branched menorahin the Vatican gardens. He has identified himself with the effort to remove the missionizing of Jews from the agenda of the church. And in a step of special importance, taken in the face of internal opposition from his own hierarchy and significant political pressure from Arab states, he established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in 1993.
Yet even this extraordinary listing does not do full justice to the extent of the change that this pope has wrought. In a church in which anti-Judaism was a prejudice so routine that rare was the member who did not experience it, only by demonstrating an intense depth of concern expressed in powerful and suggestive language could the pope hope to change the church’s direction and overcome the hostility of centuries past. And this is exactly what John Paul has repeatedly done, calling on the members of the church to do teshuvahand to remember the unique relationship that exists between the church and the Jewish religion. I doubt if we could find any other example in history of a church initiating a process of such profound repentance, acknowledging the sins of its members over a 2,000-year period against the practitioners of the religious tradition from which it sprang.
In light of this revolutionary change in attitude by the Catholic Church, why should there be a crisis of any kind between Catholics and Jews? If a religious crisis were to exist, at least here in North America, one would think that a more likely place to look for it would be between Jews and Protestants. After all, it was a Protestant and not a Catholic leader who said, not long ago, that the Antichrist will be a Jew. Furthermore, as the leader of a movement with almost 900 synagogues, I often hear bitter complaints from Reform congregations about the missionary efforts of local Protestant churches that are directed at Jewish young people. Even more frequently I am told of the deceptive tactics of the so-called Jews for Jesus, who are simply Protestant missionaries pretending to be Jews in order to disguise their missionary work. In contrast, religious conflict between Jews and Catholics on the local level is virtually unheard of.
Yet tensions between Jews and the Roman Catholic Church do exist. Over the last several years, there has been a series of angry exchanges between church officials and Jewish leaders, some of which have reached a level of distressing intensity. The issues in dispute vary, but many are related to Catholic attitudes about the Holocaust and the conduct of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Other controversies include decisions by the church about who should be declared a saint, relations between the church and the Palestinians, and Israeli policy toward Christian holy places.
While differences of opinion are to be expected, there is no denying that some of the comments that have been hurled back and forth in the last year have been both hurtful and dismaying and seem inconsistent with the extraordinary progress that I have described. Not surprisingly, many Catholics wonder what in heaven’s name is going on. At a time when the church has made such remarkable strides in overcoming the animosities of the past, led by a pope who has made unprecedented efforts to promote Catholic-Jewish dialogue, what exactly is it that Jewish leadership wants? Aren’t Jewish leaders being unreasonably demanding and impatient? And aren’t they meddling in matters that might reasonably be defined as the internal affairs of the church? And Jewish leaders,of course, have questions and concerns of their own.
The real danger, usually unstated but present nonetheless, is that if the sources of this newly manifested discomfort are not addressed, the magnificent edifice of mutual understanding that we have constructed together in recent decades will come tumbling down. Another possibility, scarcely less worrisome, is that the fruitful dialogues and high-level exchanges between our religious communities will simply come to a screeching halt. This is an utterly intolerable scenario. It is unthinkable that we would cast aside the remarkable progress of the past fifty years. But there is even more at stake.
If you believe that in this world of deceit and deception too many are deprived, too many suffer, too many have lost their place at the table, then you are likely to conclude, as I do, that the religious voice is our best hope for reviving conscience. Furthermore, you are likely to conclude that no one religious tradition can do it alone that interreligious cooperation is essential if we are to renew our sensitivity to suffering and our belief in the dignity of humankind. And what better place to start than with Catholic-Jewish dialogue, which has given us reason for optimism in recent years that great religious traditions can retain their otherness and still embrace each other and promote holiness in the world? In short, the stakes are too high: The great conversations between faiths, and in particular our dialogue, have been among the great achievements of the last half century, and it would be tragic if the momentum were to be lost.
I, therefore, would like to offer some thoughts on why difficulties have arisen in the relations between our two communities. Of necessity, I will focus somewhat more on the Jewish side than the Catholic side, since it is my own community that I know best. I will try to put forward some specific suggestions on what must be done if we are to move ahead. And I will speak as freely and frankly as I can. We all recognize, I believe, that flattery and platitudes never advance real dialogue and must be avoided at all costs when there are difficult issues to confront and problems to be overcome.
Who Speaks for the Jews?
Before I enter into substantive issues, let me comment on the important question of the tone of our dialogue. Our ability to communicate is dependent in large measure on the climate in which our exchanges take place and our ability to foster an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect. Church officials have complained recently about what they perceive to be the hostile, aggressive, and disputatious tone employed by at least some Jewish representatives. This tone is problematic both because it can be hurtful and subject to misunderstanding and because it may be seen as evidence of an underlying unease and resentment toward the church.
I agree with much of what has been said by these church officials, and I regret in particular a pattern that has developed in responding to important church statements. For example, let us look at what occurred when the church issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” – a document that appeared in March of 1998-in which the church asked for forgiveness for the sins of passivity of its sons and daughters during the Holocaust. This document is, in fact, quite an extraordinary one, containing sentiments that not long ago it would have been impossible to imagine coming from the Vatican. The Jewish reaction in most cases was to issue a litany of complaints about what the statement failed to say, very nearly creating the impression that the omissions were more important than the affirmations. This pattern repeated itself this year with the pope’s historic March 12 public apology in St. Peter’s Basilica, in which he asked for forgiveness for the sins of the church over two millennia, and with the issuance of “Memory and Reconciliation,” the document that previewed the apology and provided its theological foundation. In this instance again, the majority of statements by Jewish leaders expressed disappointment with what had not been said and what had not been written, conveying the sense that the Jewish community had responded to these statements with disapproval or, at best, ambivalence.
To some extent, of course, we are simply witnessing the predictable dynamics of our media-driven era. When an important statement is made by the pope or a document is issued by the Vatican, religious spokespersons-including heads of Jewish agencies-are usually asked for an immediate reaction, often before they an study the document or read the statement carefully. Also, because our sound-bite culture often allows us no more than two or three sentences of response, we are reluctant to leave out our special concerns and special agendas, even if they would not normally merit equal billing with our words of praise and thanks. Particularly when it comes to weighty theological matters, religious spokespersons of all stripes would be well advised to exercise restraint, to avoid the instant answer, and to allow for the thoughtful reflection that such matters require before public declarations are made.
But I offer no excuses. What I want to express is my own distress at the manner in which so many Jewish leaders have responded to recent papal and Vatican pronouncements.
When my friend apologizes to me for a sin that he has committed, the appropriate response is for me to thank him, to welcome his repentance, and to express my desire to continue our discussion. It is surely inappropriate to greet a heartfelt act of contrition with a pointed reminder of every act of wrongdoing that I think may have been left off the list. If every step forward is greeted with an attack, there is little incentive for taking additional steps.
Jewish representatives should have enthusiastically welcomed the recent statements as an important step forward in the developing relationship between Catholicism and Judaism, encouraged those who produced the statements, and noted the importance of ongoing deliberations between the two groups to explore fully the implications of what has been said.
More fundamentally, I do not believe that the attitude conveyed by Jewish responses of this sort are in any way broadly representative of the sentiments toward the church that exist in the Jewish community. I am the president of the largest grassroots Jewish organization in North America, with almost 900 synagogues and more than a million and a half members. My experience is that the state of grassroots Catholic-Jewish relations differs considerably from place to place. In some areas, there is little activity, while in others, synagogues and churches regularly participate in programs such as dialogues and pulpit exchanges. Relations between the local rabbi and priest, while not the only factor, tend to determine what transpires locally. But I am convinced that whether or not there is a high level of local activity, the negative sentiments often conveyed by Jewish leaders of the national dialogue are virtually nonexistent on the local level. Our local laity are not always sophisticated about interfaith matters, but they understand nonetheless that far-reaching changes have taken place in Catholic attitudes toward the Jews. And they welcome these changes wholeheartedly, without any of the unease or resentment that too often emerges from exchanges in national and international forums.
This raises, inevitably, the difficult question: Who speaks for the Jews? This is a sensitive topic, but it is virtually impossible to examine interfaith affairs unless we consider it. The Vatican reasonably asks from time to time whether those to whom it is speaking can claim to be representative of the Jewish community. And we in the Jewish community reasonably ask from time to time whether a “representative Jewish position” on interfaith matters can be said to exist at all.
If Catholics are confused about the structure of the Jewish community, they should not feel embarrassed. The structure is so complicated that we Jews barely understand it ourselves. The basic reality is that we are an exceedingly diverse and often contentious community, lacking an centralized governing structure, and blessed with a plethora of religious, cultural, philanthropic, and defense organizations. Furthermore, most of us see the vigorous pluralism of our community, with its competing organizations and competing voices of leadership, as a source of strength and as an explanation for the broad involvement of so many Jews in our communal ranks.
Do not misunderstand me. Communal bonds are strong in the Jewish community, and North American Jews have a deep sense of mutual responsibility. There is a widely held belief in our ranks that American Jews and Jews everywhere are linked by covenant and history and implicated in each other’s fate and destiny. In times of crisis, we have a proven ability to come together in coalition and common cause. When the State of Israel is threatened or when anti-Semitism rears its head anywhere in the world, we put aside our differences, affirm our interdependence, and offer concrete assistance to those in need.
But in the absence of crisis, the spectrum of belief in matters of religion and culture is wide indeed. And in day-to-day affairs, our organizational bodies stress their autonomy and independence, regardless of their size or influence. It has often been noted that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations has more than fifty-five members, even though it is a stretch of the English language and common sense to suggest that a community of our size can produce fifty-five “major” Jewish organizations. Nonetheless, it seems that virtually every Jewish organization cheerfully insists on seeing itself in those terms, and the rest of us rarely object.
But what this means is that sometimes a Jewish organization with an impressive title and virtually no constituency will come forward and assert its voice in Catholic-Jewish affairs, and it will sometimes do this in a way that reflects its own agenda more than it does community sentiment. The picture is further muddied by the fact that among Jews, many of the major players in interfaith affairs are not religious organizations at all-a situation that Christians find difficult to understand and that has its roots in complicated historical factors beyond the scope of this lecture. In any case, I want to admit, with regret, that mainstream religious organizations such as my own have in recent years turned our attention to other areas and have played only a minor role in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Now, surely, we are obligated to become more active in this realm, to represent the moderate views of our membership, and to help lead the way toward reconciliation.
I would emphasize three points:
First, I believe that the masses of American Jews view with understanding and appreciation the steps taken by the church to revive and redefine Catholic-Jewish relations and that the hurtful tone that some have used in pursuing this dialogue does not reflect the feelings of the majority in the Jewish community. There are issues that divide Catholics and Jews, of course, but our community understands that confronting those issues is appropriately regarded as part of the process of renewal.
Second, I believe that at least some of the Jewish organizational voices that have been so outspoken in recent years have minimal claim to speak in the name of the entire community.
And third, I believe that the major religious movements must recognize their responsibility to assume a greater role in the dialogue with the church. I refer in particular to Reform and Conservative Judaism, which are mass-membership religious groupings that are moderate, mainstream, and firmly rooted in community life.
The Vatican and the Holocaust
By far the most troublesome and disruptive element in the dialogue between Catholics and Jews has been their differing perceptions of the Holocaust. At one time, the absence of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See was the major source of tension, but Holocaust concerns emerged as central after 1993. As I indicated before, the Vatican’s long-awaited document on the Holocaust, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” did not succeed in significantly reducing those tensions, and in some ways even inflamed them. Disputes surrounding the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II, as well as the possibility of his canonization by the church, are elements of this broader issue of conflicting interpretations of the Holocaust. At times, the entire structure of Catholic-Jewish relations has seemed caught up in a morass of recriminations about Holocaust questions.
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish religious thinking is so focused on the implications of the Shoah. The Jewish people came face-to-face with the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. True, the theological questions that emerge from the Holocaust are not necessarily different from those that arise from previous periods of persecution. But the scale of the Nazi slaughter, the racist ideology that fueled it, the relentless quality of the killing, and the modern technology that made it possible all contribute to our conviction that the Shoah is, in fact, unique in the annals of human history and that every effort must be made to comprehend fully the enormity of the crime.
Pope John Paul II has written eloquently and powerfully on “the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah,” and the 1998 Vatican document proclaimed that “the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any heart.” What, then, is the source of disagreement? The major Jewish criticism has been that the church as an institution has not acknowledged any wrongdoing during the Holocaust, ascribing blame only to individual Catholics. Jewish representatives have also condemned what they regard have seen as the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi era. The church has found no merit in either argument.
It is not my intention to review all of the arguments on both sides of these issues. Instead, I would like to suggest an approach to Holocaust matters that will enable us to go forward with a measure of mutual understanding.
Our starting point needs to be the simple recognition by both of our religious communities that there exists little possibility for us to reach agreement on many of the difficult historical and religious issues surrounding the Shoah. If there is no chance that I can be convinced, at a certain point you should stop trying to convince me. And vice versa. This does not mean that our conversations should stop, but it does mean that we need to have modest and realistic expectations about where these conversations can take us.
I was born in 1947. Like other Jewish leaders of my generation, I had no direct experience with World War II or with the Holocaust. But an entire branch of my grandfather’s family perished in the slaughter. We estimate that eighty-eight family members were killed by the firing squads or in the extermination camps. My cousin, now living in Israel, has shared with me, in bits and pieces, the breathtaking and harrowing tale of his escape from Nazis, but the telling was so painful that it took nearly thirty years for the story to emerge in its entirety.
I am familiar with the history of the war and the pressures to which the church was subjected. But what remains with me are certain uncontested historical facts: Pius XII never condemned either Hitler or the Nazis by name. He never mentioned specifically the suffering of the Jews, although many people, both clergy and lay diplomats, pleaded with him to issue a public condemnation. In October 1943, the Jews were rounded up in Rome itself; the cattle trucks drove past St. Peter’s, with the tiny, shivering hands of the incarcerated children hanging through the slats. The pope, sitting in St. Peter’s, still said nothing at all.
I know the arguments that have been put forward to explain this behavior: that the pope feared a furious reaction from the Nazis if he were to speak out publicly; that Nazi retaliation might have made things worse for the Jews; that church interests in Europe would have been harmed, surely a legitimate papal concern; that the pope encouraged help for the Jews in secret, and that this help was forthcoming in innumerable cases. The heart of the argument is that the pope may have been overly cautious, but that in confronting perhaps the most evil regime the world has seen, he was a great and holy man, whose intentions were always luminously honorable.
I have done my best to understand these points. They are weighty arguments, deserving of careful consideration. The history of the period is not simple. And I deeply respect the integrity of those who have thoughtfully made this case.
But you need to know that I keep coming back to those Jewish children in Rome, being transported past St. Peter’s, and I simply cannot understand the failure of the pope to speak out.
Very soon, it seems to me, we shall need to recognize and accept the impasse at which we find ourselves. On these matters, we do not understand you and you do not understand us. This does not mean that the review of Vatican archives now underway should be halted. But I expect no dramatic revelations to emerge from the archives. And in any case, our differences relate less to the question of what are the facts and more to the divergent interpretations that we bring to those facts. At this moment and for the foreseeable future, the church?s interpretation points in one direction and the Jewish community’s points in another.
And what about sainthood for Pius XII? What does this imply for the Jewish community? The conferring of sainthood on this pope, or on anyone else, is an internal church affair. I have watched with astonishment as some Jewish organizations have organized letter-writing campaigns to protest the beatification of Pius and as some Jewish newspapers have commented on the validity of miracles attributed to candidates for sainthood. Beatification and canonization are a religious process, subject to the rules and the beliefs of the church; treating them as a political process, to be influenced similar to the way in which we would attempt to influence a congressional vote, is chutzpah of the first order and rightly offensive to Catholics.
Yet at the risk of self-contradiction, I wonder if it might not be possible to concede the absolute and sole right of the church to choose its saints and still have a serious and thoughtful discussion about some of the broader religious issues that frame the Pius debate. These issues, I cannot help but feel, require consideration precisely because they are the most sensitive and the most theologically complex; and it is precisely because they touch our innermost convictions that we are generally reluctant to discuss them. Again: the purpose should not be for Jews to influence the selection of saints but for us to examine together some of the profound questions that have arisen in connection with the Pius controversy, and to be informed and enlightened as a result. Acknowledging our differences is essential, but it is best to illuminate and comprehend them first.
What I am proposing is that we bring together theologians and religious thinkers from our two communities and that we begin by considering the question recently asked by Rabbi Albert Friedlander of London: “Who is a saint in the time of evil?” In a thoughtful article on the Pius XII controversy, Friedlander noted that the Genesis text “And Noah was a righteous man in his time” generated an extensive discussion by the rabbis on what it means to be righteous when most of those around you are immersed in sin. In an evil time, they ask, are the standards of righteousness much lower? Are we to assume that at such a time anyone who is not totally evil can be called righteous? Or are we to assume exactly the opposite-that anyone fighting evil in an evil time has to be particularly good? The relevance of these questions to the Nazi era is immediately apparent. Confronted with a regime of absolute evil, what moral resistance is required? If you engage in indirect action and do not put your life at risk, is that sufficient? Taking this a step farther, what exactly is a “saint” in the Catholic Church? Must a saint engage in public moral witness or political action? Must a saint die as a martyr? Or are there other criteria for sainthood? If sainthood is about holiness, are there other paths to holiness? To what extent might holiness be seen as an everyday thing-as a matter of prayer, and teaching, and caring for children and the infirm? Even in a time of absolute evil, can there be a single litmus test for holiness? And this too: Rabbi Friedlander suggests that the church should be a teacher and witness to everyone and that, therefore, its decisions on sainthood must be arrived at with that in mind. But is this so? To what extent does the church see a decision on canonization as an internal matter, and to what extent does it hope and expect speak to everyone by its actions, including the Jews?
And there are other subjects that we would be wise to consider as well. The distinction between the church as a human institution and as a sacramental, transcendent reality has been a central element of the public debate, but it is a point that is understood poorly, if at all, by Jews. There is a widespread assumption that this refers to the distinction between the leaders of the institutional church and its rank-and-file believers, but according to my limited understanding of such matters, it does not mean that at all. Similarly, Catholics are baffled and, sometimes, infuriated when they feel that their efforts to take the Holocaust seriously result in charges from the Jewish community that they are attempting to “Christianize” the Holocaust and diminish its Jewish uniqueness. Some Christians truly do not understand why a cross at Auschwitz is offensive to Jews. But Jews do find it offensive and need to explain why.
And then there are those in the Christian world, Catholics included, who feel that we have moved beyond the time of remembering to a time of forgiving. They ask, often in a whispered voice, if there is not a certain unforgiving relentlessness about bringing aged war criminals to trial fifty years after the event. Jews may find such questions distressing, but we need to understand that they express sincere Christian concerns and that they are worthy of a serious response.
I am not proposing a “behind closed doors” session, but I am suggesting that we engage in a thoughtful, extended, high-level, and theologically intense discussion without the public posturing that has so often dominated our recent public exchanges. As I have stated, we will not produce anything even approaching a consensus on most of the issues that I have enumerated; at best, we will have defined the parameters of our differences. But I would consider our deliberations a great success if we were to emerge with the following:
First, a vocabulary for discussing Holocaust issues that enables us to maintain a civil and respectful tone even when confronting the most sensitive and troubling subjects;
Second, an approach to Holocaust discussions that does not diminish the paramount guilt of Nazi Germany for the slaughter and does not ignore the stories of those Catholics who protected, rescued, and welcomed Jews during the war;
Third, an understanding by Catholics that Jews cannot turn away from the history of the Holocaust; that we will continue to study all aspects of the Shoah’s history, including the role of the church and Pius XII; that in this case, the history of the period and of the church is our history as well; that historical truth is historical truth, as important for Catholics as for Jews, because it makes no sense for Catholics to repent if they do not know for what they are repenting;
And, finally, an understanding by Jews that the Holocaust cannot be the sole item on the Catholic-Jewish agenda; that as important as it is, it cannot become an obsession that crowds out all those other subjects that so urgently require our collective attention.
The Vatican and the State of Israel
In a moment, I will give my thoughts on what I believe our agenda needs to be in the days ahead. But first, let me say a few words on the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel.
As I mentioned previously, the failure of the Holy See to come to terms with the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish consciousness was a major obstacle to Catholic-Jewish understanding for more than four decades after Israel?s founding. The refusal of the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations with Israel meant an unwillingness to accept the importance of national sovereignty to the Jewish people. And remember: this was a people who had lost one-third of their sons and daughters in the Nazi death camps, and that for two millennia had not had an inch of this planet that they could look upon as a refuge or a home. Many in our community also wondered if perhaps this position did not indicate that the Vatican had retained traces of ancient theological prejudices. After all, the church had taught that homelessness was the divine judgment against Jews for not becoming Christians, and, therefore, a Jewish homecoming was impossible.
It was for this reason that the signing of the agreement between the Vatican and Israel in December 1993 was so significant. The determination of John Paul II to take this step over the objections of Vatican diplomats was a breakthrough of fundamental importance, and, in a sense, all the dramatic advances that we have witnessed in Catholic-Jewish relations since then rest upon this foundation. It was simply inconceivable to us that the church could recognize Jewry without including in this recognition its most powerful collective expression, the State of Israel.
In the last decade, John Paul II has frequently expressed his understanding of the deep connection that exists between the Jewish people and their homeland. The visit of the pope to the Middle East this week is spiritual rather than political in nature, but it nonetheless can be fairly described as the culmination of an unmistakable process of rapprochement with the Jewish State. His visit contrasts starkly with that of Pope Paul VI in 1964. Paul VI remained in Israel for exactly twelve hours, never mentioned the name of the country that he was visiting, and refused to call on any Israeli officials. During John Paul’s much longer stay, he has a full itinerary which includes visiting with President Ezer Weizman and the chief rabbis, and meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Nonetheless, relations between Israel and the Vatican are immensely complicated. Pope John Paul II is both the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics and a head of state responsible for people and institutions throughout the Middle East. The Vatican sometimes speaks to Israel in the language of religious concern and sometimes as the voice of a church that is intent on protecting its Middle Eastern properties and interests. Similarly, Israel sometimes speaks to the Vatican as the agent and ally of the Jewish people, committed to promoting dialogue between the church and the Jews, and sometimes in the name of a sovereign nation interested in advancing its specific political agenda. Needless to say, these factors are hopelessly intertwined, and it is generally impossible to determine where one set of motives starts and another ends. As a result, issues of narrow political interest often impact on broader religious questions, and vice versa.
Not surprisingly, the Holy See has also entered into a relationship with the Palestinians that has both political and religious dimensions. It has expressed its sympathy for Palestinian suffering, while taking steps to insure that the security and status of church institutions in Palestinian territory are protected. A comprehensive agreement between the Vatican and the PLO was signed last month.
This agreement elicited some angry words from Israeli officials, who saw it as being supportive of Yassir Arafat’s demand that East Jerusalem be returned to Palestinian control as the capital of the new Palestinian state. In contrast, most Israelis and most Jews throughout the world believe that Jerusalem must remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty. Israel points out that while it may make sense to divide a country, it makes very little sense to divide a city. It notes as well that Jerusalem?s holy sites have been administered with unprecedented openness and fairness since Israel assumed control of them in 1967.
In fact, the Vatican-PLO agreement was not quite as bad as the Israelis contend. While the document’s preamble contains some barbs aimed at Israel’s “unilateral actions” in Jerusalem, the Vatican’s old demand for the internationalization of the city has given way to vague references about a “special status” to be conferred on Jerusalem by international agreement. It is not clear what this special status might mean, but it is clear that abandoning the call for internationalization is a step forward. In fact, the agreement says nothing specific about the political fate of Jerusalem, and many believe that the Vatican will ultimately accept whatever agreement the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate between themselves, assuming that it is comfortable with the arrangements for the Christian holy sites. In short, the Vatican’s position on Jerusalem is not really different from that of Israel’s other allies, including the United States, which–election rhetoric notwithstanding–still keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv.
My point is that the Vatican and Israel will agree on some aspects of Middle East politics and disagree on others, and a variety of political and religious calculations will always be at work. As a sovereign state with responsibility for both Christian and Muslim institutions, Israel knows that a certain amount of tension with the religious authorities of other traditions is inevitable. What happened in Nazareth near the Basilica of Annunciation is a good example of a well-intentioned Israel government doing its best, with very limited success, to resolve Christian-Muslim tension. But there is no reason for differences on specific points of policy to disrupt the forward movement of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Israel has the right to expect that the Holy See will not support any position that fundamentally undermines the security of the Jewish State. But at this moment, there is no reason to fear that, just as there is no reason to be overly concerned about political squabbles on lesser issues. In 1993, the Vatican made a decision to recognize the political rebirth of the Jewish people after two thousand years of powerlessness and dispersion. Seven years later, that decision stands as a historic turning point in the relationship between two of the world’s great faiths and as a momentous signal of hope and reconciliation for the future.
An Agenda for the Future
And so where do we go from here? The key, as I have mentioned, is broadening our agenda. Yes, the Holocaust remains a concern, but a dialogue of grievance can no longer dominate our relations.
The theological discussions that I have proposed on Holocaust issues will, I hope, generate interest in theological dialogue about other issues of faith and belief. Not everyone in the Jewish community is prepared to engage in theological exchange, but the largest religious movements are, and it is not essential that everyone be seated around the table. I am interested in discussing ethics and redemption and sin. I would like to read the Hebrew Bible with you. And I want to do this not because I expect to win your agreement or elicit your approval, but because I want you to understand Judaism as a living and dynamic religion. Through these discussions I expect to stimulate your thinking, and I anticipate that you will stimulate mine.
I also hope that we will talk about our respective visions of family and society. In many respects, our society is in crisis and our families are under attack. I would like to know what the Catholic church has to say on such matters and what we can learn from each other.
I am particularly concerned about the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of our country. We know that the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow and that most of the time, the poor and weak are not on our political radar at all. What about those twelve million children in this country who have no health insurance at a time of unprecedented and continuing prosperity?
We may read the Bible somewhat differently, but I think that we can agree that there is a biblical mandate for a just society. I think that we can agree that religion without a passion for justice is a failed mission, a contradiction in terms. I think we can agree that in the future, social action will be primarily interreligious, reaching across the chasms of race, faith, and culture. Shouldn’t we be talking about such things and seeing if it’s possible to devise a plan of action to implement both nationally and in our local communities?
And in this context, I would like to mention my own concern about the anti-Catholicism that has been manifested at Bob Jones University. I am appalled both by the viciousness of this bigotry and by the free pass that we have given those who have chosen either to remain silent about it or to utter only the most formalistic kind of demurral. If the things said about the Catholics had been said about the Jews, I can assure you that the Jewish community would be up in arms and demanding condemnations and apologies. And we would be coming to you for assistance. If this is a matter of concern to you, then you certainly have every right to expect our support.
Finally, let me point out the desperate need for a joint campaign of positive religious education. This means that Catholics need to educate Catholics about Jews, and Jews need to educate Jews about Catholics. This is work that we need to do separately but that we should do in close consultation with each other. We should review your books and you should review ours. And we should not hesitate to prod, push, and make demands of ourselves and of each other.
I believe that the church is far ahead of the Jewish community in this regard. My understanding is that you have made far-reaching changes in the materials you use to educate children and adults about Jews and Judaism, although I am not certain how effective this education is in the local parish. I am sure that there is more to be done. But in our community, we have failed utterly in conveying to our young people the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the church since the Second Vatican Council. Too often we teach nothing at all about other religious traditions to our children, and what we do teach about Catholicism is likely to focus on the Inquisition and the Crusades. This is a moral failure of the first order, and we have a profound responsibility to provide an immediate remedy. I pledge, therefore, that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations will immediately undertake to produce textbooks for its religious schools that will portray accurately and sympathetically the evolving position of the church on the Jews and Judaism.
This is an ambitious agenda, my friends. There is a great deal to do. Let us begin immediately.
The Example of Jacob and Esau
I wish to conclude by thanking the pope and the church: For their willingness to atone and to change. For their readiness to wrestle with their own texts and teachings. For their determination to overcome ancient hostilities. For their ability to reverse in a few short years what most of us in positions of Jewish leadership never expected to see in our lifetimes. For blessing us, as they, too, have been blessed, with the fruits of a successful revolution that has transformed the church and forever changed the religious landscape of the world.
Our work is not done. Hostilities do not die overnight. But the actions of the church give us reason to hope that we are not condemned to replay those hostilities forever.
And finally, this: Jacob and Esau were siblings who, at a young age, found themselves engaged in a relationship of hate. Jacob fled, and twenty-two years later, the brothers reunited. Jacob feared for his life, but his fears proved groundless. Esau ran to greet him. They embraced and wept. Each spoke of his contentment with what he had. No longer did they envy each other’s gifts.
The brother Jacob became Israel, and Jewish tradition traces Esau to Rome. The note of reconciliation in the biblical story perfectly describes the relationship between Israel and Rome-that is, between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. Again, our work is not completely done. But surely we have reached one of those rare moments of blessedness when Jews and Catholics can, for the most part, accept their differences and enrich each other’s lives. The story of Esau and Jacob begins in conflict and ends in peace. They start as rivals but end, simply, as brothers.