Rabbi Rosen looks to Pope Francis for new Holy Land peace initiative

Rabbi David Rosen has proposed that Pope Francis should make another initiative for peace in the Holy Land, particularly given this great moment of tension where “we have the most acute and massive breakdown of trust, certainly over the course of the last 25 years.”

He’s not made this proposal directly to the pope, but he has made it to the local Catholic leaders in the Holy Land “to communicate it to Rome.”


He believes that if the pope could bring together “the religious representatives” of the different faiths and—most importantly—“coordinate this with the political leadership” on both sides, then “it could have a significant effect.”

He also thinks that the Vatican should be “more proactive” in this field and says “the Catholic Church could do things with political consequences if it coordinated with political leaders.”

Rabbi Rosen is International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee and lives in Jerusalem. He is also advisor to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on interreligious affairs, and served as a member of the Permanent Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See that negotiated the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two sides. 

He talked about his proposed peace initiative when I interviewed him for America on Dec. 10. We spoke some hours before he took the plane back to Jerusalem, and our conversation focused mainly on the significance of the new document from the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which the Vatican published earlier that day and which addresses questions that have arisen in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in recent decades.

Rabbi Rosen came to Rome for the presentation of this text when, for the first time ever, the Vatican invited two Jewish representatives (Rabbi Rosen and Dr. Edward Kessler, founding Director of the Cambridge Woolf Institute), to be part of the panel that presented the document at a Vatican press conference, along with Cardinal Kurt Koch and Fr. Norbert Hofmann, president and secretary of the pontifical commission.

He warmly welcomed this new text, which is a study document rather a magisterial one, particularly because it affirms for the first time that the church “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission directed towards Jews,” and also because it calls on both sides to work together to combat anti-Semitism. But he felt that what’s still “missing” in the document is an appreciation of “the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish People.”

This is the third major statement to come from the Vatican on Catholic-Jewish relations since the Second Vatican Council’ s landmark document “Nostra Aetate” on the church’s relations with other religions, in 1965. It is not a magisterial text the Vatican said, rather it is a study document aimed at sparking reflection on some important questions in this field. How important is this document in your estimation? 

All the three subsequent documents after “Nostra Aetate” were published by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. There are a few things that are exceptional about this document but the most remarkable aspect of it is that it is gathering together, if you like, all the loose significant comments, teachings, over the course of the decades that have not been part of the formal documentation; comments of popes, especially from John Paul II and now Pope Francis. It has integrated these comments into a document. 

Thus, for example, this is the first formal document that says there’s no mission to the Jews, and that Jews are in a salvific relationship with God, and then it acknowledges that it cannot square the circle about the covenant with God and how is it then that everyone has to come to God through Jesus. The answer is: we don’t know, it’s a mystery which goes back to [St. Paul’s Letter to the] Romans. This is the first time it’s been affirmed that there is no mission and therefore it’s inappropriate in fact to seek to proselytize Jews, and even though the document again speaks of the importance of Christians bearing witness to their faith, that’s very important.

It’s also important in as much as it’s the first document not only to condemn anti-Semitism but to say that we’ve got to work together on this, and work together on a broad range of other issues.

I would also say the document reflects the passage of the last decades of this remarkable attitude of esteem towards Judaism which is only, to some extent, barely nascent in “Nostra Aetate.” Now you see an attitude that expresses an understanding of the centrality of the Torah in Judaism in a remarkable way, that quotes from the Mishna and the Talmud and other resources, that recognizes that the Jewish way of understanding Scripture not only has an integrity in its own right, but that it is important for Christians to understand too. 

So I would say that what this document reflects is how far the church has come in its approach towards Jews and Judaism in the last 50 years.

I was struck that the document highlighted that up to the third or fourth centuries you had a Christian-Jewish church and a Christian-gentile church, and that the separation of the church from the synagogue may not have been complete until well into those centuries.

Indeed, and this emphasizes the idea that was first attributed to John Paul II, the idea of being ‘the beloved elder brother,’ of a sibling relationship, and the documents speaks of the church’s relationship with Judaism as intra-religious. I’m not sure that from a Jewish perspective one could necessarily agree with that, but from a Catholic point of view it’s affirming in a very deep way the unique relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people.

Today’s document says Article 4 of “Nostra Aetate,” which deals with the church’s theological relation with Judaism, “represents almost the heart” of that key text of the Second Vatican Council which also addresses the relation of the Catholic Church to other religions. To speak of it as “almost the heart” of “Nostra Aetate” is quite a strong statement.

It is, but from a historical point of view it could even be stronger because the whole history of the “Nostra Aetate” as a document comes out of John XXIII’s desire to address the Jewish religion. It [took this form] only because of opposition coming from different quarters that this might be seen as an endorsement of Zionism, or from certain conservative theological elements, or even geographical elements in the Far East that said Hinduism and Buddhism is our focus, why this specific focus. And so in order to get the majority support that was necessary it had to become a document of Christians relations with the other religions.

So in effect this is not just the heart of the document it is the seed, it is the root of “Nostra Aetate.” But, you might say, the fact that the church opened up its message to the other religions happened only because it had to address its relation to the Jewish people. And of course the other side of that coin is that because it had to address its relation to Judaism it has also to address its relation to the rest of the world, and that to some extent highlights the responsibility of the Jewish and Catholic communities to the world at large, the joint responsibility.

At the press conference you highlighted the fact that the Catholic Church has still not come to terms with the relation of the Jewish people to the land. You emphasized that “to fully understand Jewish self-understanding, it is also necessary to appreciate the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people,” and added that such an appreciation “appears to be missing.”

Cardinal Koch to some extent responded in the question and answer session at the end with this—as much as I love and respect him—with this rather feeble excuse that is the traditional Vatican excuse that we separate religion from politics, we understand that from the Jewish perspective there is this inextricable link, but that our competency is to deal with religion not with politics. But my point is that it is not an issue of politics—I actually departed from my text to emphasize that particular point; this is a matter of Jewish self-understanding; there is an inextricable relationship between the land and the people of faith, we are a people that emerges out of a religion, the land does not just arise out of modern political Zionism, the whole Bible is continuously replete with ‘you shall keep my commandments in the land that I am bringing you into, it is the land of your fore fathers, of Abraham’s and Jacob’s and Isaac sojourning.’ So the land is an inextricable part of Jewish self-identity.

Of course God is everywhere, and you can lead a good Jewish life everywhere, but wherever you lead it there is a relationship to the land. And in terms of your calendar, your seasons are determined by the agricultural seasons of the land. You pray for rain sometimes in places where you don’t want it because it is due to the agricultural seasons of the land. Your direction of prayer is Jerusalem, the restoration to Jerusalem is central to all daily prayers and grace after meals. So the land is so central to the Jewish ethos and identity.

Indeed, if you say as the Vatican does, based on the guidelines of “Nostra Aetate,” that the Jews have to be understood the way they understand themselves and you don’t mention the centrality of the land for people’s identity, then it suggests that you still have something of a problem in that regard. Here the response is yes, the problem is politics. But that’s not a good enough excuse in my opinion.

In the 1985 guidelines it was said that you need to understand the significance of the land. But my point is that in reviewing the highlights that the historical survey also deals with, the Fundamental Agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See should be mentioned as having religious significance, in keeping with the preamble to that agreement which precisely puts it in the context of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews and, more than that, if it hadn’t been for that Fundamental Agreement the popes would not have been able to visit Israel, the bilateral commission with the Chief Rabbinate would have never been established. And nothing more than the diplomatic relations with Israel testified that the Catholic Church has indeed repudiated its approach that the Jews have to wander forever as an eternal punishment until the end of time.

You know that from the Vatican’s point of view, from the Christian community in the Holy Land’s point of view, this issue of the land is a bone of contention.

I understand the problem and that’s why I acknowledged also the point regarding “Nostra Aetate’s” internalization is also crucial in that political context. As I was saying before, if Christians—let alone Muslims—in the land, precisely in the context of all that political complexity, don’t understand what it means for the Jewish people, then you’re never going to be able to resolve the conflict because the conflict can only be resolved when the different parties have a decent appreciation of the other’s attachments.

And if you avoid that appreciation then you are actually compounding the problem, you are not enabling people to understand why they are there in the first place. In this context therefore the Catholic Church could play a very important part if it was able to educate its own particular faithful in the Middle East and in that way communicate to the Arab world that you can be critical of political positions and you can be critical of certain policies, and you can even be diametrically opposed to some of them, but to fail to understand the historical attachment of the Jewish people to the land, to fail to understand why they are there, which is a failure to come to terms with their presence, then the longer this continues the longer the conflict is going to be exacerbated.

The documents following “Nostra Aetate” speak about anti-Semitism, and since John Paul II the church’s position on this has been quite strong. But many people would say that part of the anti-Semitism that has grown over these decades is a direct result of the conflict over the land.

I would say I can understand how that would happen and I lament it greatly and that’s precisely the reason why the church has to behave responsibly and not avoid the issue of Jewish attachment to the land, and be able to emphasize that this is something it respects while reserving the position and the responsibility to be critical of certain political policies. But for as long as you avoid it all and say one is the same as the other you are actually compounding the problem and not contributing to its resolution.

I’ve been to Jerusalem and the Holy Land many times and I have seen that there are some Jewish groups who claim it is their birthright, their God-given right, to have all the land. How do you reconcile that with the right of another people—the Palestinians who were born in that land—to live there?

You’re asking me how do I reconcile Jewish attachment to the land with Palestinian dignity and aspirations! Well that’s very, very important. God’s promises are God’s business; our business is to live in accordance with God’s words, to teach that every human being is created in the divine image and to behave accordingly. Therefore I have to respect individual human integrity, and I also have to respect the peoples and the communities there.

I would say that if Israel is not a democratic state then it’s not authentically Jewish, because at the heart of Jewish ethical teaching is a respect for human dignity. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible repeats in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that the people’s ability to be able to live in the land depends on their moral responsibilities and if we fail to live up to these moral responsibilities we undermine our own integrity and security; and the fact that two commonwealths have been destroyed in the past is not a reason why a third commonwealth cannot be destroyed.

So we have an obligation to behave with moral responsibility and dignity towards Palestinians and that’s why I believe a peaceful resolution of the conflict is not only necessary for Palestinian dignity, it’s essential for Israel’s survival, because in order to be able to be a democratic Jewish state we have to have a natural majority and we cannot afford to hold onto territory where we are not a majority; it is also critical for Judaism’s survival as a religion because as long as we are in conflict our ethical and moral responsibilities are undermined.

The document speaks about, as you did in your talk, the need for Christians and Jews to work together for peace, for justice, for the protection of the environment and so on. How much of that is happening in the Holy Land today?

Well today in the Holy Land we are facing a very sad situation because we have the most acute and massive breakdown of trust, certainly over the course of the last 25 years, and because of this breakdown of trust it’s very difficult for the inter-faith organizations and inter-group organizations to function effectively. There is now a blanket Palestinian policy of anti-normalization, which intimidates those who want to be involved with Israeli groups and activities from doing so, believing that this is necessary in order to advance the Palestinian cause. So the present situation is very sad. 

One also needs to bear in mind that the Christian communities are to some extent divided by the conflict. People who go to the Holy Land tend only to meet the Palestinian Christians, that is in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Ramallah areas, but the vast majority of Christians are in Galilee and they are Israelis and they have an interest in being part of the Israeli society and they are to some extent also torn by that particular conflict in this situation.

So you can’t really expect the local Christian community to be a bridge in this context, but you can expect the Vatican, through its particular communities, to be more proactive. This was also an allusion in my comments. It’s very nice that Pope Francis brings representatives from the different faith communities to come and pray in the Vatican Gardens, but this was done without any involvement of the key political players in Israel at the time. It was done with a president who was within a couple of weeks out of his presidency and with not even a Nihil Obstat [no objection] from the Israeli political authorities. So you have a very nice photo opportunity and a very nice spiritual message but it doesn’t have any political consequence. 

The Catholic Church could do things with political consequences if it coordinated with political leaders and so, for example, if there was a round two of this effort for peace—and whether this would take place here in Rome, or somewhere else is another question—then Pope Francis could convene both the religious representatives of the faiths, coordinated with their political authorities.

For example, precisely at this particular time when there is tension around Jerusalem, to affirm the significance of Jerusalem to all three faiths, and to affirm respect by each faith for the other faith’s attachments, and to call on its particular adherents to live in mutual respect. This is not an issue of sovereignty, it is not an issue of political maneuvering, it is a matter of respect. And in my opinion, if he were to bring them all together, and this was coordinated with the political leadership, it could have a significant effect.

Have you made this proposal to Pope Francis?

No, I haven’t made this proposal to the pope, but to tell you the truth I have made it locally to Catholic leaders to communicate it to Rome. I haven’t written a proposal but I have suggested it.

Pope Francis will visit the Rome synagogue on Jan. 17, just as John Paul II did in 1985 and Benedict XVI in 2010. How significant is it that Francis is going there too?

Let me respond with two points. First of all in Jewish tradition three is considered confirmation. So in that sense Pope Francis’ visit is almost something that has now become the fabric of the church; the pope is expected to visit the great synagogue in Rome as an expression of the friendship and the special bonds with the Jewish community.

But there is something else that is special and that is there’s never been a pope, if you like since Peter, who has had such an intimate relationship with the Jewish religion and the Jewish people as this one from the time when he was cardinal in Buenos Aires. The world knows that, the world knows that he is a friend of the Jews.

Moreover, there has never been a pope who has been a media star in this way. Maybe if John Paul II were alive today he would have been the same, but the reality is that the media, the social communications are so much more attentive today and Pope Francis is the ultimate superstar. Nobody can compete with that. Therefore the visibility of him going to the synagogue and greeting the Chief Rabbi, and of him being with the Jewish community, is of enormous consequence in telling the world, as the world will never have seen before to same degree, that there is a fundamentally a radically new relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people.

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William Rydberg
3 years 1 month ago
The Church is a Mass movement, not a "top down" operation. Initiatives such as these must start with grass roots, Dioceses, Religious Orders, various Uniates, etc... In my opinion few are actually listening to Pope Francis message about subsidiarity and prefer to run things by Committee


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