As Pope Benedict XVI paid a historic visit last week to a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, and laid out his agenda for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, his Jewish partners in dialogue were settling an internal skirmish over titles and authority.
Despite the jockeying, Jewish leaders found time to praise Benedict’s speech, which included a denunciation of the rise in antisemitism.
“Today, sadly, we are witnessing the rise of new signs of antisemitism and various forms of a general hostility toward foreigners,” the 78-year-old pontiff warned during his August 19 trip to Cologne’s Roonstrasse synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and rebuilt after the war. His visit was the second ever by a pope to a Jewish house of worship, following Pope John Paul II’s 1986 trip to the Great Synagogue of Rome.
Benedict had returned to his native Germany for the church’s World Youth Day, his first trip abroad since his election in April. During the trip, he also addressed Germany’s Muslim community in a pointed speech that blamed terrorism for “sowing death and destruction” around the world and reminded Muslim leaders of their “great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation.”
The pope’s remarks at the synagogue reaffirmed the Vatican’s commitment to positive relations with Jews in a year when the Church is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking church document that repudiated the idea that the Jews were collectively responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. In his speech, Benedict indicated his specific priorities: continued discussion about interpretations of history, dialogue about the theological differences between Jews and Catholics, and joint humanitarian projects.
Jewish organizations seemed comfortable with this approach. The only question was whether they had settled on who would lead the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the Vatican’s official Jewish partner in dialogue. The umbrella group comprises the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Israel Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations and representatives of the three major American synagogue movements.
Earlier this month, the international umbrella organization announced the appointment of a new president, Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and the re-election of its chairman, Rabbi Israel Singer. The announcements came only after Rosen and Singer, who also serves as the chairman of the governing board of the WJC, negotiated over their titles and degrees of authority.
The previous leadership team — Singer and Rabbi Joel Meyers, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly — had referred to themselves as “co-chairmen,” with Singer playing the lead role. This time around, Singer, who was due to rotate out of the top slot to number two at the organization, wanted to continue with those titles. But, Rosen told the Forward, he wanted a clear delineation between the top two slots.
Technically, Rosen said, the current bylaws call for a chair and vice chair. But after Singer indicated that he did not want to take the title of vice chair, according to Rosen, discussions resulted in the creation of a new title — president — that went to Rosen, with the clear understanding that he would serve as the “first among equals” and that Singer would retain the title of chairman. The partnership seemed to get off to a rocky start, as the AJCommittee issued a press release announcing Rosen’s appointment that failed to mention Singer.
In recent months, there have been signs of unease among some Jewish groups about the leading role that Singer and the WJC have played in Jewish-Catholic relations. Following on the heels of a joint relief effort initiated by Catholic groups and the WJC in Argentina during the financial crisis there, Singer has continued to prioritize the establishment of similar projects. At a meeting with the Vatican in June, he announced that the Jewish umbrella group and the Catholic Church would cooperate on fighting AIDS in Africa, a move that some other attendees said they were not apprised of beforehand. In recent years, the WJC also has been a major partner with the Vatican on theological dialogue and has helped arrange a series of meetings between cardinals and Orthodox rabbis.
By this week, despite any earlier tensions, Singer and Rosen were complimenting each other and sent out a joint release.
“We see ourselves as a team and we are committed to working together,” Rosen said. “I trust totally his commitment that he will respect my position in this relationship, so hopefully everything will work out fine.”
Singer concurred, saying, “We will consult each other before any statement is made, before any meeting, and before any public initiative is taken.” He added that Rosen would be “like a quarter more [in charge], but it’s very minor.”
The two men issued a statement August 19, sent out by the WJC, praising the pope’s remarks at the German synagogue.
Observers said that Benedict’s Cologne speech — with its emphasis on theological discussion and joint social action — reflected a healthy maturation of the Catholic-Jewish relationship, with the two sides moving beyond apologies over the Church’s past misdeeds.
“We’re at the beginning of the third chapter of Catholic-Jewish relationships,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “The first chapter was about 1,960-years long, and it wasn’t very good for the most part. The second chapter begins with the introduction of Nostra Aetate and the new understanding of the relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church. And now I think we’re at the beginning of a healthy third chapter which is where we really discover what our [theological] differences are.”
In recent weeks, members of the international Jewish umbrella group have been united in their commitment to adopting a forward-looking approach in dealings with the new pope.
This commitment to avoiding conflict appeared to be on display last month, when Israel’s Foreign Ministry entered into a heated exchange with the Vatican. The flap arose after a sermon delivered by Benedict in the wake of the July 7 London bombings, in which he decried recent terrorist attacks in “Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Britain” but did not mention a July 12 bombing in Israel.
For the most part members of the international umbrella organization refrained from issuing strongly worded statements about Benedict’s omission or the subsequent verbal sparring between Israeli and Vatican officials. Rosen told The Associated Press that both Israel and the Vatican had “overreacted.”
In an interview with the Forward, Singer voiced a commitment to a diplomatic approach. “You don’t have to fight with people who are giving you an opening,” he said. We want to “use the relationship with the Catholics… as a bridge to build good contacts rather than as a method of tearing off old scabs.”
Singer offered some criticism of a public address made by German Jewish leader Abraham Lehrer during Benedict’s synagogue visit, in which Lehrer urged the Vatican to open its World War II-era archives. Several years ago, after a highly contentious and bitter set of negotiations with Jewish organizations, the Church set a goal for opening the archives in 2007.
Singer said that Lehrer’s request was “important” but not necessarily politic. “Do we have to, how to describe this, question their word?” Singer said. “My feeling is at the present time their word seems to be good.”