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Grasping the hand that Catholics stretch out to us

· Why Orthodox Jews should join the dialogue ·

The Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See wrote the following article for the February issue of “Pagine Ebraiche”, the monthly of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities directed by Guido Vitale.


Judaism is founded on recognizing the unity of the human race, the law of righteousness, and truth being supreme over all men – regardless of race or creed. Righteousness is not conditioned by birth. Gentiles may attain it as may Jews, as mentioned in Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13, “The righteous among the Gentiles have a share in the world to come”. In Leviticus 19:18, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor like thyself”, applies to every human being. Those principles are conducive to a respectful treatment of the other . Despite changing living conditions in Europe, medieval rabbinical sources show respect to other religions. Not only Maimonides, but also Rabbi Menachem Hameiri of Perpignan (1249-1315) recognized in his Talmud comment Beit Habechira that Moslems and Christians deserve fairness in economic transactions, as “peoples bound by the ways of religion” (comments on Tractates Baba Metzia , 27a and Baba Kama , 113b).

Rabbi Moses of Coucy admonished fellow 13th century Jews not to lie, “neither to Jew or Gentile, nor to deceive them in the least thing” ( Semag , § 74). Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) in the Shulchan Aruch stated, “modern Gentiles are not reckoned as heathen with reference to the restoration of lost articles and other matters” (Hoshen Mishpat , § 266). Rabbi Moses Rivkes (1600-1684), author of a comment on Shulchan Aruch, wrote in Beer Hagolah , 7:7, that Christians “believe in the Creator, the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai and whose whole intent is to serve their Maker”.

Rabbi Jacob Emden (1698-1776), in a response to Polish Jewry appeals to Christians to treat the Shabbateans as apostate as well, “For it is recognized, that also the Nazarene and his disciples, especially Paul, warned concerning the Torah of the Israelites, to which all the circumcised are tied. And if they are truly Christians, they will observe their faith with truth, and not allow within their boundary this new unfit Messiah Shabbetai Zevi... But truly even according to the writers of the Gospels, a Jew is not permitted to leave his Torah”. This passage is annexed into Emden's Seder Olam Raba , Hamburg 1757, p.33.

In his comment, Lechem Shamajim on the Mishna Tractate Avot , Amsterdam 1751, p. 41, Emden praises Muslim and Christian scholarship : “The sages of Edom and Ishmael speak in our favor ... due to the one common divine teaching which they share... Although some dumb were almost annihilating us... the wise amongst them stood as lions against those who were ill minded, especially the Christian sages who look always after the truth.... They have been our protectors and this will be considered a charitable deed of them”.

Jewish Orthodoxy, pluralistic in its approach towards Christians in the distant past, seems since the Shoah to have resisted change. Of the three prevalent attitudes towards Christians, only the ultra orthodox Haredim are totally negative, guided by the Psak Halacha [halachic verdict] from 1967 of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1985). This verdict, published in Igrot Moshe, Yore Dea 3:43 prohibited any meetings with priests.

For now, Haredi attitudes, which even delegitimize other minded Orthodox Jews, will persist. The Orthodox mainstream attitude is expressed by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in his programmatic article “Confrontation” ( Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought , 1964) – considered a response to pre- Nostrae Aetate deliberations . Although he denies the possibility of religious dialogue, he suggests a common platform of concerted action in the secular public sphere. Soloveitchik's parameters are: 1) Jewish-Christian scope of action for the common good is confined to the secular sphere, as God commanded mankind in Genesis 1:28: “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. 2) Respectful relations between religions require strict non-interference . One should refrain from suggesting to other faith changes in ritual or emendations of its texts.

Forty years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue after Nostrae Aetate were a period of mutual trial and error in which an own dynamism developed. Emerging modern Orthodoxy went beyond the confines which Soloveitchik delineated, becoming the hard core of Jewish Orthodox currents, which carry the message of the present dialogue.

One of their renowned speakers, Rabbi David Rosen, explained the rationales of dialoguing with Catholics thus: 1) Ignorance breeds prejudice and thus threatens communities' well being, especially for a minority. Through dialoguing, barriers of prejudice and stereotypes are removed and mutual respect is promoted. 2) An ulterior basis for inter-religious relations is the perception of a “common agenda”, as no religion is an island. All religions in the West have become minorities in an overwhelmingly secular world. 3) Each religion is equal before God with its own truth. The claim of monopoly on truth amounts to limiting the encounter with the Divine. 4) Christianity's identity is uniquely bound up with Jewish history and revelation, despite our fundamental differences. As Judaism teaches that our obligation is to testify to God's presence and sanctify his name in the world, we have an obligation to work together.

Christians and Jews look back upon 2000 years as a common traumatic past. After the Shoa, the Catholic Church initiated in the Sixties a radical change towards Jews. Conversion is banned to a distant and unknown eschatological horizon. The survivability of Judaism is guaranteed with the establishment of the Jewish State. Their hand is stretched out to us. It would be unwise not to grasp it, lest we mortgage our future in continued animosity with the Catholic world. The first 2000 years do not warrant repetition. Both of us deserve better.

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