In a move that may reestablish the World Jewish Congress as the primary Jewish partner for dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, this week the organization arranged an unprecedented gathering of top-level Catholic and Jewish religious leaders from around the world.
The two-day “open dialogue” included current and former chief rabbis from six countries including Israel, as well as heads of the three main Jewish religious denominations. Catholic participants included 10 cardinals from four continents including Africa and Asia. In addition, two of the Vatican’s most senior officials, Cardinal Georges Marie Cottier and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, appeared in videotaped speeches. Organizers claimed it was the largest assembly of cardinals ever held outside of Rome.
The hastily arranged meeting also broke ground by bringing together one of the largest groups of Orthodox Jewish representatives ever to attend an interfaith event. Orthodox rabbis at the event outnumbered Conservative and Reform officials combined by a ratio of at least three to one.
The WJC, in partnership with Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, orchestrated the event independently of the formal channel for dialogue between the worldwide Jewish and Catholic communities that was created in the wake of the 1965 Second Vatican Council. By doing so, some observers said the WJC might be attempting to break a logjam that has slowed the pace of formal dialogue in recent years, and even further in recent months. Given the deteriorating health of Pope John Paul II, considered the most sympathetic pontiff ever to Jewish concerns, there appears to be a mounting sense of urgency among Jewish communal leaders to restore and solidify relations with the church leadership in advance of the next papacy.
“The dialogue sometimes may be too important to be left to professional dialoguers,” said the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Rabbi Israel Singer. The dialogue “needs to be taken off-center.”
“The pope is old,” Singer told the Forward. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Who is going to succeed him? These guys are going to select a successor,” he said, pointing to a group of robed cardinals deep in discussion of talmudic texts with students in the noisy study hall of Yeshiva University. The cardinals visited the study hall while at the Orthodox campus for a meeting with its chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
The event appears to have drawn the WJC back into the heart of interfaith affairs almost five years after church officials blasted the organization for “denigrating” the Vatican. The WJC was singled out, without being named, in an angry 1999 speech by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, for its aggressive opposition to issues such as the proposed beatification of Pope Pius XII. Cassidy’s speech ushered in a downgrading of relations between the Vatican and its traditional partner in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, a worldwide coalition of which the WJC is a key member.
The international Jewish committee recovered from the 1999 slap and restored ties with the Vatican under a new chairman, attorney Seymour Reich. However, it suffered another setback two years ago when Cassidy’s successor, Cardinal Walter Kasper, broke off contact with Reich following a public spat over access to the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives. Since then, relations have been on the mend. Singer and other Jewish leaders have been meeting with the Pope and Kasper. Last week, the pope hosted two chief rabbis of Israel for the first time at the Vatican.
Planners of this week’s symposium, however, seemed to have been pushing to accelerate the often slow dialogue process by circumventing its formal partners on both sides, including Kasper’s office. Kasper ultimately was invited and, while he did not attend, citing a busy schedule, he gave the conference his blessing, a church official said.
Singer insisted the event was not meant to sideline any dialogue body, especially IJCIC, which he co-chairs. “It’s a parallel, supportive activity with IJCIC,” he said. “It’s not undercutting IJCIC.”
Participants offered several explanations for the unprecedented Orthodox showing, which included some 16 rabbis, including two identified with the ultra-Orthodox community. Some theorized that it was a strategic move on Singer’s part to woo the Vatican by delivering something the church has long sought, namely interlocutors from the segment of the Jewish community that many Catholic clerics regard as their closest religious counterpart. Others pointed to a rise in global antisemitic activity as explanation for the strong presence of chief Orthodox rabbis from Europe, as well as the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau. Many Orthodox leaders have long shied away from dialogue on any but the most secular topics, in deference to a ban against theological dialogue with other religions issued by the late Orthodox sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
The unofficial title of the symposium was “The First Among the Commandments.” Most of the cardinals delivered religious papers on the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor that quoted heavily from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Participants said that because there were no exchanges of views beyond the prepared papers, it did not formally qualify as theological dialogue. Still, it skirted close — dangerously so in one rabbi’s view — to such debates. Yet several Modern Orthodox leaders told the Forward that the time has come to review Soloveitchik’s ban.
Lustiger, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, told the Forward he was thrilled with the Orthodox participation at the event: “There is a gap between the knowledge of such part of Judaism and Christianity.”
The cardinals made several overtures to mend fences with Jews. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna expressed his concern to Lamm of Y.U. about those strains of Catholicism that seek to expunge the Jewish roots of their tradition. Lamm, in turn, referred indirectly to the controversy over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” and said, “I know your hearts and minds are with us to overcome” this problem.
But the event hit a few snags. Some Jewish participants said they were uncomfortable during a visit to the site of the World Trade Center when some cardinals prayed that killers be forgiven. And a decidedly frank speech delivered by the talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz turned a few heads. He said that the power of rabbis and cardinals has become a “facade.” Rabbis, he said, can barely control their congregations, while cardinals wear “nice red garments” and minister to “a community of nice old women.” Steinsaltz panned the current meeting as an exchange of pleasantries. He called for a theological dialogue that asks the tough questions, such as whether Catholicism allows for Jews to enter eternal paradise. Lustiger and Schonborn both said they sincerely appreciated his candor.
In the end, the symposium produced a formal declaration from the participants promising follow-up conferences on various continents. It stated that the next meeting “would address the challenges of general religious peace and confront the rise of hate and anti-Semitism.”