Benedict, Judaism and Israel

The nearly impossible challenge of Pope Benedict’s “pilgrimage  of peace” has been how to meet the expectations of very diverse audiences. The task has been made all the more difficult in Israel by the media’s playing the  expectations game, repeatedly reminding interviewees of past grievances and testing the pope not by what he said, but by what people hoped he would say or  what he might have said if only he had been able to speak to every listener  personally. The expectations game was designed for failure. So, a fair assessment requires we know what he did say: about Judaism, the state of
Israel  and the city of Jerusalem.

First, on Judaism, he made clear his  unswerving commitment to Nostra Aetate. He recalled the Jewish heritage of  Christianity and encouraged the ongoing dialogue between the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate. He deplored the Holocaust, invoked the memory of those who were  slaughtered, and added his voice to the resounding chorus that chants “Never  again.” In that vein, he also condemned anti-Semitism and committed himself and  the Church to the
struggle against it.

On Israel, he espoused Israel’s long term demand for normal, peaceful existence within secure borders among the  community of states. He pointed to the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of the land as in principle a desirable state of affairs, and the special role  of Israel (and Palestine) in providing for humankind a model of interreligious  peace. The desirability of religious diversity will certainly be questioned by  strong Zionists, and the hope for a model of interreligious peace will be  derided by realists as a pipe dream. But that is the message he brought.

On Jerusalem, he repeated the Holy See’s endorsement of an internationally guaranteed statute for the city which would guarantee access to the Holy Places of men and women of the three monotheistic faiths. On this question, he probably was farthest from most Israeli Jews. Though only a couple of years ago a majority were willing to share the city with Palestinians. In recent months, positions have hardened against any concessions, and the new Netanyahu government has stated its opposition to any negotiation with the Palestinians.
While there were one or two references in Benedict’s talks and homilies to the historic and religious ties that unite Jews and  Christians, if I were a Jew, what would concern me more than failures to say  again and again what he has said before about the Holocaust of Bishop Williamson  is how little Benedict discussed so little the specificity of that relationship  and the particularity so central to Jewish religious identity. Judaism seemed to be swept up in a vision of the common witness of all believers in an increasingly secular world and a call to arms in a campaign to preserve a place for religion in the public square. In this, Benedict’s appeal to Jews was little different than his appeal to Muslims.

This central message reverts to his earliest statements on interreligious dialogue at the inauguration of his papacy. It seems to derive, in the first place, from his metaphysical approach  to ecclesiology and the philosophy of religion, preferring general arguments  over particular biblical appeals. What is strange is that his central argument–a creator God, who bestows dignity and reason on human beings, allowing them to understand the natural law, and so cooperate for the common good–reads more like  a natural theology than an appeal to believers in revelation.

In the case of Judaism this is particularly perplexing because even Jewish moral thinking, as contrasted with scholastic Catholic thinking, tends to keep to particulars. In addition, this means that Benedict seems to glide too quickly for the comfort of most Jewish listeners to the general moral implications for humanity and the unity of the human family than most Jews are ready to do. There is, of course, a great Isaian vision of Jerusalem as the center of the world to which God draws all humanity; but in rabbinic Judaism that is a minority position.


Secondly, Benedict  sees the natural law, frequently understood in terms of human rights, as the basis for common agreement among believers; and thirdly, the key human right is the right to religious liberty threatened by the tyranny of secular relativism. Benedict identified a whole set of issues around family and human life that Catholics share especially with Orthodox Jews, but “natural law” will seem to many as a foreign, Catholic form of discourse. And Reform Jews who agree with his human rights positions will not be likely to assent to his stand on the beginning of life issues. On the preservation of the right of religion to have a voice in public debate, there will probably be much agreement all round.
While the ceremony and the public engagement with interreligious dialogue has been going on, the new government of Israel has taken three decisive steps to curtail the Catholic presence in the Holy Land. Last week two ministers rejected the request of President Shimon Peres to hand over certain holy places on which various Israeli groups have designs to the Church. Peres, who inaugurated the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, was trying to break open the stalemated negotiations with the Holy See by settling title to these Holy Places.

The ministers concerned rejected the proposal, saying they owed no gifts to Rome and would not infringe Israeli sovereignty. The sites in question were never under Israeli sovereignty. Under international law, since the founding of Israel, they belonged properly to the Church(es), but various Israeli entities, including private individuals and corporations, keep encroaching upon them.

Today Israeli newspapers reported that the government had also rejected two requests vital to the continued Catholic presence in the Holy Land: granting multiple entry visas to clergy and allowing residency for Palestinian couples in East Jerusalem who are currently prevented from doing so because one spouse comes from the West Bank. Accommodations on both these issues have been made in the past. Both were rejected on national security grounds.

If these decisions stand, it appears that in the short run Benedict’s pilgrimage will leave neither the international Church presence in the Holy Land nor the living communities of the local Church better off than when he came.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

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9 years 8 months ago
That is an interesting point, that Pope Benedict's comments about Judaism are, like his comments about Islam, based on natural law. One feels that there should be more, but there just isn't. We know nothing in revelation about the current role of Judaism, beyond a few vague comments by St. Paul. These comments boil down to the following: a) God's promise to the Jews has not been rescinded and b) Jews and Christians will be united, in some fashion, at the end of the world. God appears to have little to say to Christians about what the current role of Jews may be. Presumably we don't need to know what it is. But that leaves the Pope in the position of having to view Jews in much the same category as all "men and women of good will" for whom shared communication is to be found in the natural law.


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