The Holy See
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Issues Concerning Future Dialogue
Between Jews and Christians


It gives me great pleasure to be with you my dear brothers and especially with you, my older brothers, as Pope John Paul II called you at his visit to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986. We are here in Israel together to reflect upon the future of the religious relationship between the Catholic Church and the world–wide Jewish community, especially the religious relationship between Jews and Christians here in the Holy Land. I am grateful for your invitation which gives me the opportunity to come back once more to this holy city Jerusalem during this difficult moment of its long history.  

I think there are urgent reasons in our world today, especially in the present situation in this country, compelling us to reflect upon and to discuss fundamental issues concerning our relationship. There are deep conflicts in our present world, there are destructive forces at work, there are enmity and hatred. All men of good will are called upon to overcome this situation and work for a new world where all can live in dignity, justice and peace. 

This is true especially for Jews and Christians.  In the common religious heritage of Jews and Christians there is one term which is central and fundamental: shalom, peace – but peace not built on power and even less on violence but built on zedaka, on justice for all. “Justice shall yield peace” (Jes 32,17). Thus even in the conflicts of  today, Jews and Christians are called and obliged to offer common witness and to work together for justice and peace. Indeed, what else is more needed and what else need we seek more? In this light, we are in a sense duty-bound to foster our relationship and our religious dialogue. 


I. Foundations

Let me start first with a more general question: What are our relations in essence all about? What are the foundations of our dialogue? What is the very reason of our meeting?

Our relations could remain at the diplomatic level. On his arrival at Ben–Gurion Airport,  Pope John Paul II was welcomed by an important government representation. On this occasion he said: Many things have changed in the diplomatic relationship between the Holy See and the State of Israel since my predecessor the Pope Paul VI came here in 1964. The establishment of diplomatic relationships based on common interests such as religious freedom, the relationship between Church and State and, more generally, the relationships between Christians and Jews. 

Indeed, despite setbacks over the course of history, a peaceful relationship between the Holy See and Israel has actually emerged. 

But on a more profound level, on his pilgrimages to sacred sites, Pope Jean Paul has shed much light not only on the diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel, but even more so on the religious relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews. In this regard Pope John Paul stood on solid ground and on the tradition of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its Declaration “Nostra aetate” “on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions”. 

The fourth chapter of this Declaration on issues relating to Christians and Jews made a decisive and historical breakthrough and initiated a promising period of our relations based on new theological grounds after a such a longstanding and dark history of misunderstandings and worse.  The Council reproved not only “every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed” and consequently deplored “all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism levelled at any time or from any source against Jews”, it emphasised as well our common spiritual heritage and encouraged further mutual understanding and appreciation by way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions. 

This binding statement has borne in the meantime many fruits and it is – as Pope John Paul has repeated  many times – the basis and the compass for our present and our future dialogues. There may be from time to time irritations, but there is not and there cannot be any retreat from this position. On the contrary, in the face of the present dangerous world situation we must not only continue the new dialogue this document inaugurated, we must actively promote it, especially in this country. 

It is only when we speak of our religious relationship that we touch upon the particular and even unique relation between Jews and Christians. Indeed, we share a rich common religious heritage in what Jews call the Hebrew Bible and what Christians define as the Old Testament. Yet, the very difference in our terminology serves to remind us of our differences. Nonetheless, both our common heritage and our differences are ultimately of a religious nature and in this sense represent fundamental issues of our dialogue. We meet as religious communities, as two faith communities. 

Besides the common  Book, the Bible, in both our traditions, there has also been an abundance of masters who formed a wide diversity of theological, halaric, and mystic schools investigating themes relevant to us both. Despite our disputes, conflicts, polemics and even worse throughout history, our traditions have influenced and sometimes enriched each other. Also, the history of modern European culture, philosophy, literature, and art cannot be written without mentioning the important Jewish contribution. This magnificent heritage too can become a space for dialogue and exchange, offering us the chance not only to pursue common studies but also to cultivate respect for each other and for our respective religious and cultural roots. 

With this we will not and we cannot forget the traumatic experience of the Shoah; we must remember it as a gesture of respect for the victims and as a warning for the future. Remembering the Shoah is – as Yehuda Bauer and others in their Opus magnum termed it – “Remembering for the Future”. In this sense, we need a culture of remembering. In this light, the Shoah should not be considered an obstacle but rather a challenge for serious dialogue. Indeed it was – tragically yet paradoxically – only after the shock of the Shoah that a critical revision of Judeo-Christian relations took place and a new academic exchange emerged. Serious academic studies seem to me to represent an essential  opportunity for deeper mutual understanding, for mutual respect and esteem, for authentic encounter in peace and truth and for a better common future. 

In saying this, I am from the outset quite aware of the inherent difficulties underlying this dialogue. The difficulties do not simply derive from tragic historical memories, which have generated enough disputes instead of dialogues; the difficulties arise from the constitutive asymmetry of this meeting as well. I am reminded in this context of the remark of one your greatest teachers, the Chief Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi who lived here in Jerusalem:  The difference between an atheist Christian and an atheist Jew is that an atheist Christian does not believe that God exists, while an atheist Jew believes that God does not exist. Indeed, neither the term ‘faith’, nor the terms ‘unbelief’ or ‘people’ evoke exactly the same realities for you as well as for us. 

This preliminary remark may not constitute a particularly agreeable observation. But an authentic academic discussion can or should not ignore this asymmetry. In the modern world, we have become accustomed to assuming a secular point of view; it has become far more commonplace to generalise the differences between religions, especially the monotheist religions, reducing them to the level of ethics and summarising them in a sort of declaration of human rights. Our discussions should seek to avoid this kind of oversimplification, which tends towards misunderstanding and does not take seriously the authentic deeper religious character of both our traditions. 

In undertaking this the dialogue we are through all difficulties encouraged by the fact that this kind of meeting is not something new and conceived only now at the beginning of this third Millennium of the Christian era, but is rooted in a long tradition of dialogue, sometimes very fruitful, sometimes also marked by controversy, between Jews and Christians. Although our common history on the larger scale has been characterised on the one hand by serious difficulties, on the other hand, it has never been countersigned by the total absence of meeting in the best sense of the term.

This recent dialogue, undertaken with intelligence and with faith is rooted in millenary traditions. For let us not forget that, despite the incomprehension and violence marking the Middle Ages, this era produced thinkers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Meiri, Rabbi of Perpignan, who made inquiries along similar lines, and under unfavourable circumstances in both cases. There were also others, such as Maimonide, who began to think in terms of a reconciliation between Jews and Catholics rooted in our faith, but also in our intelligence. This abiding tradition of courageous personalities with the ambition of fraternity and of truth has re-emerged again today, both for Catholics and also for Jews. 

In recent times, pensive men such as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, David Ben Chorin, David Flusser and Zvi Werblowsky  placed themselves at the forefront in their pursuit of intellectual, academic and believing research by studying in a serious way not only emblematic but archetypal figures of Christianity, such as Jesus, Paul and Mary. In this context I want pay a special tribute to Jules Isaac who, despite the tragedy that his own family had known, did not hesitate to enter into dialogue with the Christian tradition, envisaging and aspiring to a more truthful and just future. Thanks to their philosophical, historical and theological culture, these thinkers stand out in our imagination like builders of bridges leading us towards the possibility we effectively now have to reflect and to talk serenely upon issues which once separated us so radically. 

One of the most encouraging recent initiatives is a project of some outstanding Jewish scholars in the United States, which was issued only some months ago: “Dabru emet. A Jewish statement on Christians and Christianity”. I quote some phrases of the introduction of this remarkable document:

“In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterise Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official Church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism. ... We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves – an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars – we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honour Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.”

Another bridge-builder, and certainly one of the most influential, is Pope John Paul II himself.  From his childhood and youth in Poland he has nurtured personal relations and friendships with Jews.  The many texts of John Paul II, which were drafted  on the occasion of the many visits of Jewish communities to Rome, his visit to the Synagogue of Rome, his meetings with Jewish people all over the world and not the least his visit here to Jerusalem, constitute today the general orientation of Catholic belief towards the Jewish people. Many countries are now editing these texts in their native languages, as was recently the case in my own country, Germany.  

Pope John Paul has not hesitated to pronounce new words on difficult issues, considered in the past to be fraught with adversity. I refer in particular to the ‘Shoah’, a term used by the Pope for the first time when the wider world had just become familiar with this word through the Claude Lanzmann movie. I refer also to the newer Catholic understanding of the Covenant and of the Jewish people. Of even greater importance are his historic anti-Semitic symbolic gestures especially at Yad Vashem, where many of his former Polish neighbours of Wadowice were waiting, and at the Wailing Wall.

When we reflect upon the recent evolution of the dialogue between Christians and Jews, our thoughts may turn spontaneously to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Fortunately also between Jews and Christians a wall has collapsed. And as in Berlin,  nobody can really conceive of the wall’s reconstruction.  A new period of history has been ushered in, as fragile and delicate as this new situation may still be.  It is our common responsibility to look forward and to give shape to a new serious partnership on the basis of what we share: our common monotheist tradition and a common book, the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.


II. Concrete Issues

On the basis of the discussion outlined above and bearing in mind our long tradition, I would like now to formulate several themes which could be taken up in future dialogue. 

1. The Common Book – The Bible

As I have already stated, we share a common book, which we call with the Greek term for “book”, the Bible. This fact constitutes a rare and promising case in interreligious dialogue, a link which binds us in a unique relationship, quite different from all other interreligious relations, for example with Hindus or Buddhists, but also with Muslims. While for Muslims too the Bible is a holy book, Islam as a post-Christian religion and does not enter into the fundamental concerns of the Christian religion as Judaism does. As the apostle Paul said in his Letter to the Romans (11,17-24) and as the Second Vatican Council reiterated, the Church of the Gentiles is grafted, is nourished and is supported by the good olive tree of Israel. We can define Christianity without mentioning Islam, but we cannot do so without taking into account Judaism. Our relation is a unique one. 

Moreover, we both regard the Bible not only as a literary witness but as a book of revelation. This means we consider that this book is not only the literal expression of human searching and longing for God, and that it entails not only human religious wisdom, as for example the Upanishads of the Hindus, but that in and through this book God reveals himself and speaks to us. Several times in Christian history the Church has had to defend the binding revelational character of what we call the Old Testament. It has even represented one of the very constitutive events in Church history, when in the second century against Marcion and the Manichees the Bible we share was accepted as part of the canon. The same happened in the 19th century against liberal Protestantism and in the 20th century against the Nazi influenced so-called German Christians and their furious ideological anti-Semitism.

After the shock of the Shoah a new co-operation between Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars developed. Christian exegetes learned from Jewish scholarship and vice–versa. This co-operation continues and is very fruitful and promising. We have discovered, for example, that many New Testament prayers and hymns, especially the “Our Father”, the “Magnificat”, “Benedictus” and “Nunc dimitis”, which later became so important for Christian devotion and liturgy,  are deeply rooted in the Old Testament.  

Notwithstanding this our common ground there are clearly also differences. More important then the question of the precise entity of the volume, that is, the question of whether the so-called apocrypha belong to the Bible or not, is the question of the different traditions of interpretation and therefore the different status of the Bible. For Judaism, interpretation is based on the oral Torah and the rabbinical tradition; for Christianity, on the New Testament and – in a different way – for Catholic understanding also on the living tradition of the Church. The fact that Christians speak of the Old Testament jointly yet distinctly from the New Testament marks this essential difference. Although as Christians we cannot understand the New Testament without taking seriously its roots in what we call the Old Testament, we interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. This mutual relationship and mutual interpretation implies a whole hermeneutic program while constituting at the same time a hermeneutic problem which should be a central and fundamental issue of our future dialogue. 

2. Tradition

As already mentioned the notion of tradition is as important for Jews and as it is for Catholics as well. It is not my intention in this context to delve into the question of the doctrinal and authoritative character of tradition in Judaism and in Christian faith. This question pertains to the  hermeneutical problems mentioned earlier. 

I would prefer to frame more concrete questions, and dare to ask: Do we really know the tradition of our respective partner? Or does there still exist a large ocean of ignorance, of misunderstanding, of stereotypes and prejudices? Do we really know our both histories? Are we aware not only of the negative, sad and shameful aspects of our history, but also of our mutual cultural and even religious, particularly liturgical, influence? I do not think so. There is still a lot to do. 

Let me mention here only our liturgical traditions. Experts have investigated and evaluated how much the liturgy of the synagogue has influenced our Christian liturgy, even to this very day. Especially the psalms we pray together. The Christian celebration of the Eucharist cannot be understood without knowledge of the Old Testament ‘berakah’, the Jewish liturgy of the Synagogue and the Jewish celebration of ‘seder’. Many Christian feasts have Jewish roots. This is true especially for both the most important Christian feasts: Easter, which  has roots in the Jewish ‘pesach’, and Pentecost with roots in the Jewish ‘Chag HaSchabu’ot’

On the other hand, recently Jewish scholars have told me that a Christian influence can be traced in the Jewish liturgy. As well, when I visited the Synagogue of Rome some weeks ago for the first time, the ambassador of Israel pointed out that this imposing building was designed according to the model of many Roman churches, so that I felt myself almost at home. 

Of more general and public interest than these questions of our religious and liturgical tradition are the issues related to social history and modes of thought, the history of ideas, what we Germans call the Geistesgeschichte, and what is also known as the history of ideologies. In this context the origin and development of anti–Judaism and anti-Semitism – the terms are not the same – is still a battlefield between many Jewish and Christian historians. 

Parenthetically, I may add, all the more reason why this theme should form the basis of a common study project. Also within this wider context belongs the activity, or – as I presume many of you may maintain – the inactivity of  the Holy See during the Second World War and the Holocaust. I do not wish to enter now into this highly controversial problem. I can only say: the Catholic Church does not fear the historical truth. As we read in our New Testament: “Truth alone makes us free” (Jn 8,32). Historical research must go on and will go on, and the lack of success of one group of historians (to put it delicately) cannot be and will not be the end of serious historical research on this issue. Let me in this context quote myself in an official Communiqué from 24 August 2001: 

“The fostering of ongoing relationships between Jews and Catholics will require historical investigations. Access to all relevant historical sources constitutes a natural demand of such investigations. The wish of many historians to have access to the archives relating to the Pontificates of Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958) is understandable and legitimate. Out of respect for the truth, the Holy See is ready to consent to the access of the Vatican’s Secret Archive as soon as the reorganising and the cataloguing work is concluded.” 

Or as Pope John Paul II often has affirmed: the purification of memories is still necessary  for the healing of the wounds of history. 


3. The Covenant

There are many particular themes in both our traditions which lend themselves to mutual reflection; for example, revelation, law (torah), conversion (teshuva), reconciliation and salvation.  Clearly, we should discuss also our understanding of the land and the people of Israel, of the importance of the holy city Jerusalem, the Sabbath and many other issues. But in this context, I want to highlight only one of the most central biblical themes: the covenant (berit), which implies God’s merciful love and truth towards his chosen people. 

The fact that Christians speak in terms of both the Old and the New Covenant, and they call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament, has led to many misunderstandings and wrong interpretations. Often Christians have held the theory that the new covenant (the New Testament, as we say) substituted the old, that is the first covenant, and, more seriously, that by extension the Jewish people are God forsaken. The sad consequences of these theories are known. 

In this, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought an historical breakthrough. In its Declaration Nostra aetate, the fundamental text for all recent and future Jewish-Christian relations,  the Second Vatican Council recalled the Letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans speaking on God’s truthfulness and the unbroken covenant (11,29).  The Council states: 

“The apostle Paul maintains that the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.” 

This means that the covenant with the Jewish people is enduring, still valid and still effective. Pope John Paul II – during his visit to Mainz and his encounter with Jewish-German representatives on 17th November 1980 – remarked: The first dimension of the dialogue, that is, the meeting between the people of God of the ancient Covenant, and people of the new Covenant, concerns this point.

These considerations raise many questions, and as I see it, many still unresolved questions, questions which lead us to the deepest mysteries of the nature of God’s election, God’s grace and God’s truth. In these terms, we cannot but speak with deep respect for each other, and with respect for the divine mystery which is intrinsic to both Jewish and Christian existence. And as Karl Barth, one of the most famous theologians of the 20th century, remarked, because both of these existences are a mystery, the ongoing relation of both is a mystery as well. 

In this context I am reminded of the words of Professor David Harman of the Hebrew University, who wrote: I argue strongly for the significance of Jewish particularity, not for its uniqueness.  The election of Israel at Sinai, which is a central theme in this work, should not be understood as implying a metaphysical claim regarding the ontological uniqueness of the Jewish people.  I do not subscribe to the view that a serious commitment to the God of Israel and Torah requires to believe that the Jewish people mediate the only authentic way for the worship of God.  I make no claims regarding all the non-Judaic ways of giving meaning and significance to human life. 

Such words of respect for the theological dimension of the existence of the other could be expressed from the Christian side as well. Christian identity cannot be expressed without acknowledging Jewish identity. Even in their differences both Jews and Christians belong together. In respecting the other in his or her otherness, nobody gives up his or her own identity; on the contrary, it is only in this way that each finds their own identity. Just as the biblical Joseph traced his brothers after a long and painful search we can regain the spirit of fraternity in a similar way. Jews and Christians could find themselves again through  dialogue which could  bear fruits of peace for all. This last remark leads us to a further point of great current interest.


4. Greatness and misery of the human person 

Already the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, does not confine itself to the chosen people of Israel but enlarges its view to  the whole of  humankind. Adam is not only an individual person but stands for all humankind. This universalistic view is expressed particularly in the famous affirmation that God created  the human being in his own image and likeness (Gn 1,28). As such, the Bible affirms the sanctity and inviolable dignity of the human  being  - of every human being, independently of cultural, national, religious or sexual belonging. This was in its time a revolutionary statement breaking through and going beyond all cultural, national, religious and sexual limits, demarcations, exclusions, marginalisations, prejudices and enmities. 

This universalistic biblical view is one of the very foundations and sources of modern theory and policy on human rights. This common heritage gives a common .responsibility to Jews and Christians for the defence and promotion of human rights and of human life in the world, and this is – as I am convinced – the best we can do for peace and freedom in the world.  Against all nationalist narrowness, ideological manipulation and materialistic depreciation of the human person we must insist on the individual’s dignity and greatness. We must stand against the immoralities and idolatries that harm and degrade human dignity. In a similar way our common belief in creation can become an important modern message in terms of environmental questions and bioethical issues as well. 

But the Bible is thoroughly realistic and knows the misery of the human being as well. It knows that our world is not at all a paradise and therefore it speaks of paradise lost, of hard labour, guilt, suffering and death, of enmity between individuals and between nations, of poverty, injustice, lies, defamations and persecutions, of the experience of meaninglessness and hopelessness and, especially in the figure of Job, of unjust suffering and the question: Why? Why is there suffering? Why do I have to suffer? 

The Bible and both our religious traditions do not leave us alone with this question. They speak on hope due to salvation. I quite aware that the issue of salvation represents a very delicate point for our dialogue, touching the deepest difference between Jewish and Christian faith. The cross, for Christians the sign of salvation is for Jews a scandal and often used as an accusation against them. The Second Vatican Council contradicted explicitly such wrong but long–lasting interpretations and incriminations saying that the cross has to be preached as sign of reconciliation between Jews  and Gentiles and as sign of God’s universal love for all – Christians and Jews.  

Here, deep and essential differences remain. But notwithstanding all these differences, here we meet our common mission: to witness salvation and give thus the witness of hope to the world, to encourage people and to witness that there is meaning in our life. Moreover, we can offer a path to true happiness in life through the way of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, which according to the Bible are not to be considered as burdens and limitations but as guides and signposts to contentment and fullness of life. 

What more important task could we undertake in common at a time when so many people, and perhaps even a good part of our Western civilisation, have lost their direction and ethical orientation? Recent scientific and technological progress has raised new and difficult ethical questions. As Jews and Christians, we constitute an enormous human, religious and ethical potential against the immense destructive potential in our world. Our positive potential can help to build up a new human civilisation of life. We have therefore a common responsibility for the future in the new century and the new Millennium, for the next generation and our young people. We should not only take a backward glance at the negative aspects of our history; today we are called to look forward and to initiate a new common history for the good of all. This is our common challenge today.  

I want to quote again the statement “Dabru emet”: 

“Jews and Christian, each in their own way, recognise the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery. Although justice and peace are finally God’s, our joint efforts, together with those of other faith communities, will help bring the kingdom of God for which we hope and long. Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace in our world.” 


Concluding remarks

Let me now come to some very short concluding remarks. It is my deep conviction  that we have embarked on a new phase of our relationship. In the book of our common history a new page has been opened. Indeed, it is precisely because of this that we are here in Jerusalem together. We are here perhaps not to inaugurate but certainly to promote this new phase of fraternity. This does not at all mean that we should forget and no longer remember what was wrong and bad in the past. But our remembering should be a remembering for the future. In our situation we can no longer afford to be apart from each other, let alone engage in battle with one another. As difficult it may be, we must build bridges between us or, better, we must dare to walk on bridges which have existed and exist as long we have existed and exist as Jews and Christians.  

As sons and inheritors of our common father Abraham, we must set off and set our sights far ahead. May God bless our beginning so that we never lose faith in one another and never lose the hope He bestows upon us.