The Dean of Dialogue: Orthodox Rabbi, Papal Knight

Rabbi David Rosen is at the forefront of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

On Nov. 3, Rabbi Rosen was awarded a Papal Knighthood for his “outstanding contributions to promoting Catholic-Jewish dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation.” He is the first Israeli citizen and the first Orthodox rabbi to receive this honor.

The same day, the British-born rabbi was presented with the Mount Zion Award from the Benedictine Order for his efforts, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, in which the Vatican declared that the Jewish people were not guilty of the murder of Jesus.

Rosen, 54, is the president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the umbrella organization that represents world Jewry to other religions, and that is an official partner with the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He spoke with the Register's Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin.

Apartheid helped spark your career focus, but you were also the chief rabbi of Ireland.

It evolved out of my commitment to social justice. In the late '70s and early '80s, when I was a rabbi in South Africa at the beginning of my career, bringing the religious communities together at the height of apartheid was one of the few ways to break through racial barriers. Together with leaders of the major denominations in Cape Town, I founded the Interfaith Forum Council of Christians, Muslims and Jews. I discovered that the interaction was enormously important not only for the image and values of the Jewish community, but also for its contribution to society at large.

When I was appointed chief rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who once held the same position, quipped, “Ninety-five percent of Ireland is Catholic, 5% is Protestant, and you're chief rabbi of the rest.” It's certainly true that if you don't relate to Catholic society, you can't do your job properly.

Are Jews and Catholics on friendlier terms in America than elsewhere? Why?

The key to the internalization of the transformation brought about by Nostra Aetate is the interaction between living and vibrant Catholic and Jewish communities that live alongside one another and who are engaged in society at large. In this regard, there is nothing parallel to the situation in the U.S., where Catholics and Jews — though both minorities that have experienced prejudice within their society — feel they are total equals in society. People who feel secure in their society at large are able to interact with their counterparts in other religions.

I'll give you an example: The American Jewish Committee has a program called the Catholic Jewish Educational Enrichment Project, in which priests and nuns go into Jewish schools and talk about Christianity and its relationship to Judaism, and rabbis go into Catholic parochial schools and talk about Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. This would be virtually impossible in any other part of the world.

What was it like meeting Pope John Paul II?

I met Pope John Paul II 15 or 16 times, but my longest conversation with him was in Assisi at the beginning of 1993, during his Prayer for Peace for the Balkans. I headed a small Jewish delegation to the event, and will never forget the moment he told us, “You know you are our dearly beloved elder brother of the original covenant, a covenant never broken and never to be broken.” It was, to my knowledge, the first time that Pope John Paul had articulated this formulation of the Church's radically new theological approach to Jews and Judaism. This statement sums up Nostra Aetate, the document that changed Catholic teaching.

It is important to note that during such interreligious meetings, the Pope had representatives from different religions pray separately, according to our own traditions, and then come together in some assembly. This showed remarkable sensitivity on his part and was a model of how you can have unity and respect for difference at the same time.

Have you met Pope Benedict XVI?

I met Pope Benedict twice, both times in June (2005). The first meeting was a Christian-Jewish conference organized by the Focolare Movement, the second an official private audience of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. It has been said that Pope Benedict is not as charismatic and demonstrative as his predecessor, but during our meeting Pope Benedict came over to each one of us to talk to us individually and to express his firm commitment to continue the path of his predecessor. He is a great man.

The controversy over the alleged failure of Pope Pius XII to give sufficient help to Jews during the Holocaust continues to trouble Catholic-Jewish relations. Is a resolution in sight?

For better or for worse, history is not an objective science, and I don't believe that any evidence is going to convince those on either side of this controversy that its position is incorrect. Pope Pius’ defenders say he genuinely believed that directly challenging the Nazi regime would have been counterproductive. The Jewish side would say that at the very least, he could have done more to give us hope during our time of greatest distress.

Jews and Catholics will need to agree to disagree on this matter and not allow it to disturb the remarkable positive relations achieved between the two communities during the past 40 years.

Holy Land Christians are in a precarious position these days, with many leaving the region. Why is their continued presence important, and what can be done to encourage this?

The well-being of the Christian minority is in the interests of Israeli and Palestinian society. The well-being of the Christian communities in the Holy Land is the real litmus test of the genuine democratic nature of the governments under which they live. If Christians feel forced to leave and don't feel they have a stake in the land of their origins, it a reflection of a profound failure.

In Bethlehem and environs [which are in the West bank, under Palestinian rule], Christians are caught between the hammer and the anvil. As long as there is no resolution to the political conflict, their situation will only get worse. The solution is one in which two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, live peacefully alongside one another. This is of crucial importance to everyone, most especially Christians.

What role do you see for the Vatican in securing a lasting and equitable peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

The Vatican, like any outside institution that has a profound stake in the Holy Land, can contribute to peace and reconciliation by supporting initiatives that promote bilateral, interfaith initiatives. However, when an institution is involved exclusively in assisting one side of the conflict, its ability to promote reconciliation is limited.

Catholic welfare organizations make great contributions within Palestinian society, but to the best of my knowledge there are no similar efforts within Israeli society, which has its needy, its traumatized, its victims of terror and violence. Were that to be initiated in both communities, in parallel and jointly, not only would this give the Catholic Church credibility within both societies; it would enable it to be a source of reconciliation.

As you are an Orthodox Jew, how does it feel to be made a Papal Knight?

I'm extremely moved by it. I feel this recognition is much greater than me personally. I feel it is an expression of Pope Benedict's appreciation of and commitment to the Jewish people and Israel, as well as to Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

When Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, phoned me with the news, I was a bit shocked and even amused to think that a Jewish boy could receive a Papal Knighthood. Above all, I am extremely honored.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jeruselem.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy