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Veteran of Vatican-Israeli talks thinks Catholics and Jews are ready to tackle theology
BY Jim Cosgrove
When a Christian comes to Israel, what are some considerations he or she must keep in mind?
Rabbi Rosen: There is absolutely no question that Jesus and the Apostles were good Jews. Therefore, to be in an environment where Jewish observance is the norm and the natural context should be an exciting experience for a believing Christian. But most pilgrims still evince a preconciliar mentality. There is still a residue of supercessionism, the notion that Christianity has taken the place of Judaism. In their experience, the holy sites are detached from their Jewish origins and context. That's still a problem. Obviously, 30 years [since Vatican II] does not wipe out 2,000.
However, John Paul II has stressed that the election of the Jews is permanent.
Indeed he has spoken in terms of the covenant never being revoked, which was his re-phrasing of Nostra Aetate. In Israel, moreover, pilgrims can experience what it is like, once again, to be a minority within a Jewish majority—as it was in the beginning.
An opportunity to rediscover their roots.
Yes, looking at it from a Christian perspective, I would say Israel offers a very special opportunity. After all those centuries of us being a minority, we can re-assert our own national dignity and independence from the gentile whim of pushing us from pillar to post. That's a very important component in the ethos of Israel. It's good for Christians to be exposed to this.
Is Israel doing enough to ensure that there is more exposure to living Judaism?
It's very difficult logistically and tactically to guarantee that if there isn't the willingness and the desire on the part of the Christian pilgrims. The majority of pilgrims, naturally, are connecting to their local Churches. These are Palestinian. The local Churches are not interested in them having contact with living Judaism or with Israel because it doesn't serve their interests. Many pilgrims don't even meet local Christians, either. The pilgrims come here purely to see the “dead stones” and not to see the living communities. Bishops in the home communities for example, could help in this regard through planning the pilgrimage program accordingly.
You've been in many negotiations with Vatican officials. What can you tell us about the status of Jerusalem?
The Vatican today isn't asking for international status [for Jerusalem]. It began to recognize the total lack of practicality of internationalizing the city. To some extent, it was the result of a more sanguine look at its interest and rights and how these can best be protected—recognition that, in the final analysis, Israel and the Palestinians must be able to give those kind of guarantees to the Church. Now the Church is asking for international guarantees for Jerusalem.
Even if it's under Israeli jurisdiction?
This is the interesting question. I'll give you my interpretation. What does this mean “international guarantees?” [The Church] has signed an agreement with Israel, one of whose major components is the recognition of the religious rights and of the integrity of the holy sites. No one has guaranteed freedom of access to the holy sites as much as Israel.
Even with the closures of the West Bank?
Israel is the only authority that's ever enshrined in law [access to the holy sites], a law she passed in 1967, after Israel took control of East Jerusalem. In the accord between Israel and the Vatican, Israel affirms that—and the Holy See acknowledges Israel's affirmation of the integrity of the holy sites, the guaranteeing of freedom of religion and the maintenance of the status quo.
The status quo being the administration of holy sites by various Churches.
In my opinion that is what guarantees, from the Holy See's point of view, her historical rights in Jerusalem. If the Church signed an agreement with Israel, it's assumable that there is faithful trust in Israel. If not, why sign an agreement? If she does have faith and trust in Israel, then why does she need international guarantees? What will international guarantees do? Again, if the Church doesn't trust Israel, then international guarantees aren't going to make Israel behave. If Israel is trustworthy, why do you need international guarantees?
How do you explain this then?
In my opinion the reason the Church is looking for international guarantees is not in relation to Israel at all. But it doesn't do any harm, from her point of view, for the world to think that Israel is the problem. In reality, however, for the Holy See, Israel is not the problem. The problem is the Arab world; the Church can never get from any Arab authority what she's gotten from Israel. The Church acquired from Israel the recognition of her inherent stake in the Holy Land. That is something she had never acquired before from a non-Christian power. She can't get that from any Arab-Muslim society. Because Islamic teaching would oppose it. If we were controlled by some of our rabbis, the Church wouldn't have gotten it either, but thank God—I say this as an Orthodox rabbi—thank God we are a secular democracy. Religion is always healthier within a democratic society.
Islam teaches that any area that has come under the control of Islam is “holy land,” which can never be considered as inherently belonging to anybody other than Muslims. You can come to an accommodation, out of political necessity, with a power that may control what was once Muslim land. But you can never say that the other party has an inherent legitimate stake in it because it' essentially Muslim land. As a result the Holy See can never get the same kind of accord from any Muslim authority or society, whether it's Jordan, the Palestinians, or whoever, in the way that they have arrived at an accord with Israel. However, the Church can use the agreement with Israel and its content as leverage in relation to the Muslim world within the context of an international framework. Everybody who has any interest in Jerusalem would acknowledge the Church's rights and interests—by virtue of international guarantees—and therefore her stake in the Holy Land.
What about the persistent accounts of a Christian exodus from Israel?
There has been a continued diminution in the number of Christians in East Jerusalem and the Bethlehem area (now under the Palestinian Authority) already since Turkish times. However the majority of Christians in this country live in the Galilee, and there they have multiplied by nearly five times their size since 1948. This is the only place in the whole of the Middle East where Christianity is growing. Most pilgrims don't go to visit the communities in the Galilee. They might be exposed to a Palestinian perspective, but not the Israeli-Christian or Israeli-Arab-Christian perspective.
What's the Christian population in the Galilee?
About 170,000. They have multiplied so significantly not because everybody loves Christians in Israel—I wish it were the case—but because they are the beneficiaries of a democratic society, with opportunities and educational facilities. They have done very well as a result of that.
Isn't there some discrimination, though?
Of course the situation is far from perfect and it could not be otherwise in the political context. Nevertheless their situation is still light years better than that of any other Christian community anywhere in the whole of the Middle East or North Africa.
Besides the Church's juridical status in Israel (see “Dialogue,” July 27-Aug.
2), there is the matter of taxation. Can you explain?
Christians in Israel enjoy a unique privilege that Muslims and even Jews in the Jewish state do not have with regard to taxation benefits for Christian institutions. This historic practice has continued to be part of the Israeli government's magna-nimity. But now the Holy See wants to formalize this matter and see these benefits enshrined in law.
Any other substantial matters that remain to be resolved?
Israel has a problem with the agreement that was made by previous governments with regard to pilgrimages and tour guides. Every country worries about the income of its own citizens first. No tour guide may work on a professional basis without being licensed by Israel. The Israeli Tour Guide Association wants all guides to be licensed, but, naturally, the different religious communities want their own personnel to be guides. The Israeli government of the time accommodated this demand. However it is still a source of irritation within the relevant quarters of Israeli society. But one thing is clear: The commitment on the part of the Church, the Holy See, and the State of Israel to recognize the importance of pilgrimages. In addition, the hope is expressed in the Fundamental Agreement that this will lead to a deeper understanding and knowledge of the local society and its communities.
The time appears ripe for theological discussion to complement the more technical, political accords. Father Marcel Dubois OP, a pioneer of Christian-Jewish relations, has spoken of the “Christic” dimension of Judaism. He suggests that, in some mysterious way, the faithful Jew is connected to God and doesn't need the “Christian way.”
Marcel is part of a select minority, which, please God, may grow. However for many Christians, the Jew is dear to God, but he really is Class 1-B without Jesus. Nevertheless, it still means that God does love him and therefore he has a status that other non-Christians don't have. That, I would say, is a predominant attitude within the Church. Christianity is about looking at life through a Christian perspective, of course. So, if Jews are upset about that, they are upset about the very existence of Christianity Catholics and Jews have an obligation to examine the nature of some kind of partnership here. I recognize that such words are unusual coming from an Orthodox rabbi, because most Orthodox rabbis are still very much under the impact of our historical tragic experiences with Christianity. They are not always aware of the changes that have taken place with the Christian world. Often, given the nature of Orthodoxy in facing the secular world, they also tend to be inward looking.
Martin Buber declared that “we share a book—that is no small thing.” In other words, Christianity and Judaism emerge from the same scripture of Revelation that Christians call the Old Testament; that is the Hebrew Bible, and its message for Humankind. In the United States, Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested that Christianity's message had to come about in a way that did not deny the covenant of the Jewish people with God, which is a covenant directed specifically at a particular people. Divine design allowed for the people of Israel as well as the more universal “people of Israel,” which follows the person of Jesus. It's a very interesting theory. You're talking about two parts of the one covenant, or the two-covenant theory.
Both could end up in the same place.
As Jesus himself says, “in my father's house there are many chambers.” Therefore, you can be in your father's house in different ways. There doesn't have to be one exclusive way to be with God.
Christians view Jesus as the Son of God. What does that mean to you?
That view is, and must be—because otherwise I would be a Christian—beyond my comprehension. But the fact that there are affirmations of Catholic faith that I cannot comprehend, does not mean that I cannot be respectful of my Catholic neighbors. The Incarnation, though, is beyond my comprehension. That's why I'm not a Catholic.
Christians accept it on faith.
Can you believe what you can't possibly understand? What is the nature of that kind of belief? The only way I can understand that that question is if someone has been through an experience that powerfully confirms a reality, which cannot necessarily be translated into intellectual language. That's what I understand to be the nature of the experience of the first disciples or the first Apostles. The issue of the messiahship of Jesus wasn't the question that led to the break between the first Apostles and their Jewish contemporaries. They were Jewish themselves—still worshipping in the same synagogues, still observing the Jewish way of life. That wasn't the issue. For example, there is a Jewish community today that believe their rabbi was the Messiah, and even though he's died, they believe he is going to come back again as the Messiah. Nobody says they have to be hounded out of the Jewish community because of that
But, the attitude of Jews to them at the time of Jesus has been that the Messiah— clearly according to biblical prophesy—is one who throws off the yoke of oppression and prevented the Romans from persecuting them. There would be an era of universal peace. And if this hasn't happened, then he can't have been the Messiah.
That's what you would believe today.
That's what I would believe today. So, the first Christians would have one of two answers. The simple answer is the answer the Jewish community gives today about their rabbi. “He didn't fulfill these things the first time when he revealed himself. When he comes back the second time, he will fulfill these.” Then, I believe, there was a more sophisticated interpretation that came on within Christianity, which was to say: “You Jews don't need to understand these concepts in such an earthbound way. Try and spiritualize them. If you have this faith that we have, then you are no longer in exile. If you have this faith that we have, then you are in a state of universal peace.”
The kingdom is within….
Within. So since these kind of comments came out of the personal experience, the sympathetic objective observer within the Jewish community would have said to his Christian contemporaries: “This is a matter of your personal experience. I haven't had that experience, therefore I can't say what you're saying. It would simply be false of me to say because I don't, at the moment, believe it. Because I haven't had that experience.”
For Catholics faith is a gift.
I believe my gift comes through being born into the people of Israel, and there are those who have this conferred on them as well. Of course, it's not a question of pure ethnicity. It involves those who have either been born into or have somehow accepted that particular gift that was given to the covenantal people. That's also mystery— why God particularly selects a particular people. Why does God need a particular historical paradigm?
Catholics think of Jesus as a personal God. You don't quite think of your God as intimately involved with your life.
We do, but, we do not think of a God whose intimacy requires some form of human intermediary—even though he is divine—such as the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus. From our point of view, it's much more simplistic. Each of us has a direct line to God. If we are sincerely contrite for everything we do wrong, God, in his abundant and unlimited mercy, accepts our contrition. Therefore, we all live in a continuous personal relationship with God.
And he guides every little detail of your life, protecting every hair on your head?
Indeed. The purpose of the commandments and daily observance is to be in living communion with God. The observance of commandments is a celebration of God's presence. Every time I eat, and drink, and make a blessing, I am conscious of God's presence. For me, this is the living dynamic of spirituality in my life as a Jew.
It's obviously not the “obsolete” old law. However, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, acknowledging the living old law, still speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law.
He acknowledges that Judaism has a special place, but he doesn't go all the way. All the more reason for in-depth exchange between us.
So is that where the dialogue process will head?
The question of anti-Semitism and the State of Israel are no longer issues on the agenda. There is nothing further that the Jewish people can ask of the Holy See when it comes to condemnation of antiSemitism. The Vatican cannot be any more forthright than it has been. As to the role of the Church historically at certain times, like during the Holocaust, that's an internal matter on the part of the Church, though a real soul-searching in that regard would be greatly welcomed by the Jewish community. As far as Israel is concerned, we now have a full relationship. We now need to put the past behind us and address the future.
We should be doing two things. First of all, on light of our common sources and shared values, we should work together in response and action on many contemporary issues, even though there may be perspectives that differ. We should also be deepening the mutual understanding of the nature of our relationship, which means theological discourse.