There was no one better than Rabbi Jacob Neusner — one of the most knowledgeable living experts on Judaism — to dialogue with the theologian Archbishop Bruno Forte on the Sermon on the Mount. The exceptional evening discussion took place on Jan. 18 in Rome in the Auditorium’s [a public theater in Rome known for hosting cultural events] Petrassi Hall.
It’s not coincidental that the event took place the day after the Pope’s historic visit to Rome’s synagogue, nor was the Marilena Ferrari-FMR Foundation’s choice of the Jewish figure in organizing the Imago Christi event. Imago Christi was also the title of a book of artwork by Nicola Sapori containing the Sermon on the Mount, which was read by Luca Zingaretti.
Archbishop Forte opened by recalling a quote from Gandhi: “Thanks to this text I have learned to love Christ.” The text is, as it were, Christ’s calling card and also that of every Christian. No one is better prepared to reflect on that extraordinary “calling card” than Jacob Neusner, especially because it’s what the American rabbi has been doing for more than 20 years, when his long-distance dialogue with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger began.
Neusner published in 1993 a book dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount: A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. In the book, he imagines that he is there, on the mountain where Jesus spoke the Beatitudes, hearing him as if for the first time. Neusner’s challenge is to listen to Christ keeping at bay all the prejudices and preconceived notions which 2000 years of Christianity have generated.
Before beginning the event, the elderly rabbi from Hartford, Conn., told the story of the book: “When it was about to be published, I suggested to my editor that we should ask Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for a review to be put on the back cover. He told me I was crazy, since according to him the Cardinal would never accept. So we made a bet, and I won: Ratzinger wrote, among other things, that my book is ‘By far the most important book for the Jewish-Chrisitan dialogue in the last decade. The absolute honesty, the precision of analysis, the union of respect for the other party with carefully grounded loyalty to one’s own position characterize the book and make it a challenge especially to Christians, who will have to ponder the analysis of the contrast between Moses and Jesus.’ When Benedict XVI wrote his first book Jesus of Nazareth in 2007, he was kind enough to resume our dialogue by dealing over several pages with my 1993 work.”
Archbishop Forte also knows Neusner’s book well, and during the public dialogue he praised it several times: for its originality — “which is shown in the fact that the author imagines himself to be a contemporary of the Galilean teacher and has a sharp dialogue with him. From the rabbinical point of view, this is an act of deep respect and real spiritual tension” — and for its forthrightness — “the Jewish character of Jesus is indisputable, and we should be grateful to those, like Neusner, who emphasize that with honesty and respect.” With the same forthrightness, the archbishop went on to speak about the fundamental truths of Christianity, particularly the most controversial points which puzzle the rabbi in his book: the respect for the Torah, and particularly the Third and Fourth commandments.
Citing the prophet Jeremiah, the Catholic theologian reminded the audience that the Sermon on the Mount is not another law set against the Mosaic Law, but a Gospel instead: the joyful proclamation of the love of God who does not abandon man, but by becoming incarnate in Christ gives him the strength to achieve the apparently impossible spiritual heights mentioned in the Beatitudes, which are the Magna Carta of Christianity. The most fascinating aspect of the dialogue between Archbishop Forte and Rabbi Neusner was its genuineness; a well-mannered debate which got to points of substance: a fair and honest debate which along with the other Jewish-Christian events of the past few days has helped mutual understanding to grow.
Another mark of that dialogue was the private audience that the Pope granted Jacob Neusner and his wife Suzanne on Monday, Jan. 18. The rabbi gave Benedict XVI a copy of the German edition of his 1993 work — Ratzinger at the time had read the original American edition — along with a copy of the Italian edition of his work on the Talmud, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, who have likewise reprinted Un rabbino parla con Gesù [the Italian edition of the 1993 book]. The Pope was very pleased by the gifts, and spent almost 20 minutes with his American friend: “It was enough time for a wonderful encounter between two professors,” Neusner said. “I have always respected Joseph Ratzinger as a scholar for his honesty and clarity of thought, and I was very interested in meeting him. Now that I’ve come to Rome for the historic visit to the synagogue and to debate Archbishop Forte, I’ve received this great gift of meeting the Pope.”
Neusner was almost at a loss for words to express the joy of that visit: “We spoke of our books, and he told me that he’s finished writing the second volume of his work on Jesus.”
But Neusner is a man of few words and goes straight to the heart of the matter; that’s why both “professors” respect each other: “What most struck me were his penetrating eyes. He sees right through you. And then his manners, full of friendliness and humility.” That’s the human side of the Pontiff that most struck the rabbi, the same courteousness that he saw during the Pope’s visit to Rome’s synagogue on Sunday: “A marvelous event, so well-attended, with such high expectations, that gave me much hope for the future. Our problem today, which the Pope understands very well, is that we have forgotten the history and the religious traditions from which we have come. That’s why the study of history is so important. I think about a controversy like that of Pius XII. To me, it’s still too early to judge him, and yet we so often hear sharp judgments on both sides. I have the sensation that there’s someone shaking everything up seeking destruction, who’s not interested in Catholicism, nor Judaism, nor especially the dialogue between the two. It’s sad, because then in real life — as I can see in my daily life in the United States — the relationship between Jews and Christians is excellent. If we ignore the past, we’ll be condemned to repeat it; this sort of study is essential. It goes along with a sense of responsibility: every generation has responsibility for the future, just as we do today, here and now.”