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David MeyerNovember 28, 2023
Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Pope Francis embrace after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Pope Francis embrace after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On Nov. 12, a group of five Jewish scholars, each deeply involved in Jewish/Christian dialogue, penned an open letter to Pope Francis and to the faithful of the Catholic Church. The letter quickly gathered more than 400 signatures, emanating from various corners of the rabbinic and academic Jewish world. In essence, the letter asked the church to act as a beacon of moral and conceptual clarity in times of confusion and deceit by distinguishing the Oct. 7 terrorist massacre from the civilian casualties, as tragic and heartbreaking as they are, of Israel’s war of self-defense. This does not imply that Israel’s way of waging war should not be criticized, even on ethical grounds. However, labeling Israel’s war as terrorism fundamentally subverts its right to exist.

When faced with a terrifying level of violence and death, and a deep existential threat that affects not just Israel but the Jewish people in its entirety, one can wonder: Why a letter? Why writing? Why place our trust, and our fading hopes, in words? In phrasing such questions, as a Jewish scholar and rabbi passionately engaged in dialogue with the Catholic Church, I dare to return to one of the theological cornerstones of Christian teachings. If “at the beginning was the word,” can we still hope in the word when we fear being “at the end”?

It is the ontological fragility of Israel and of the Jewish people that the Catholic Church must face and learn to acknowledge.

The reference I make to “the end” ought not to be read as stylistic rhetoric with apocalyptic or victimhood overtones. Rather, it aims at expressing the reality of our current anguishes and interrogations, lying deep behind the display of Israel military actions in Gaza. Beyond the noise of war and the images of unbearable Palestinian civilian sufferings, it is also the ontological fragility of Israel and of the Jewish people that the Catholic Church must face and learn to acknowledge.

Could our words today reach past the images of war and military power, being as it were our last stance—as I fear that the Christian world is not listening when our own catastrophe, as a people, is pending? As the prayer of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut 6:4) is on our lips, it is calling on Christians (the people of the logos) to become, if only for a moment, the people of the Shema, listening to Israel.

What am I asking the Catholic Church to listen to? What are my expectations, beyond the practical concerns detailed in the open letter?

I dare to formulate three calls, three hopes, which are in truth none other than three reminders of past logos and postures of the church.

First, citing the 20th-century theologian Johann Baptist Metz, I call on the church to stand “facing the Jews”—that is, listening to the Jewish people in their times of trouble and doubts. This means listening to our existential cry without finding refuge behind the diplomatic screen of neutrality and political balance or consideration. The face of the Jews—our faces—are not visible, nor our cries audible, in the muffled corridors of diplomatic chambers and language.

The belief in a never-revoked covenant requires better than a gentle neutrality shrouded in words of prayers.

Second, I note that since the Second Vatican Council, almost 60 years ago, the church has made us feel like brothers, bringing to an end centuries of antisemitic hatred and contempt. On multiple occasions, we have been experiencing the bond of friendship that unites our two traditions. It has been for Jews a spiritual lifeline, sustaining us. Placing our trust in the sincerity of your words, I expect today brotherly words of theological and political comfort. I have not heard them yet from institutional voices. In 1966, Pope John XXIII greeted a delegation of Jewish leaders by recontextualizing the biblical verse and declaring: “I am Joseph your brother.” Where, then, is our brother Joseph today?

Finally, in theological terms, the contemporary existential crisis experienced by the Jewish people, be it in Israel or in the diaspora, can be thought of as a fissuring of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. When the very existence of the people of Israel is in the balance, and as there can be no covenant without a covenant people, it is the covenant itself that is at stake.

Pope John Paul II introduced the “never revoked covenant” of the Jewish people in Catholic theology. It became a central pillar of faith. If his words are to be more than a formula, deprived of true meaning and bearings in the reality of our world, then the church can simply not ignore the fissuring of the covenant taking place in front of her eyes. The belief in a never-revoked covenant requires better than a gentle neutrality shrouded in words of prayers, asking God to bring peace. The words of Jeremiah come to mind: “They have lightly healed the hurt of my people, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). The never-revoked covenant deserves more than prayers. It deserves theological audacity and courage.

As a Jewish scholar and rabbi, I have been privileged to experience and rely on the courage of the Catholic Church in recent decades, both theologically and historically. This courage includes transforming contempt into respect and facing the church’s past with audacity and rectitude through the opening of the archives of Pope Pius XII. It is this same courage I call for today. Can the church, in need of the certitude of a never-revoked covenant to affirm her own spiritual existence, listen to the cry of the Jews—who are more uncertain than ever of the theological and political grounds on which they stand?

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