Understanding -- and Misunderstanding -- the Papal Visit to the Jewish State


 

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The ranges of Jewish and Catholic reactions to Pope Benedict XVI's journey to Jordan and Israel reveal more about the dynamics of interfaith discourse than about the trip itself.

The pope's trip, in its symbolic opportunities, largely duplicated that of John Paul II in 2000, creating obvious points of comparison. Because of differences between these two men's biographies and personalities, Benedict almost inevitably came across less well than his predecessor. Where the Polish John Paul II could speak as a victim of Nazism himself -- one whose childhood Jewish friends were lost in the war -- the German Benedict XVI did not have boyhood Jewish friends, and was an unwilling youthful conscript into various organs of the Nazi apparatus.

Their styles are different, too: Where John Paul spoke from the heart, Benedict speaks as an intellectual. No less important is that John Paul visited Israel both when peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinians seemed imminent and as part of the reconciliatory goals of his Jubilee 2000; Benedict visited at a time of tension, both between Israelis and their neighbors, and between Jews and Catholics.

The journeys of the two popes to the Middle East are perhaps analogous to American moon landings. The first was historic and dramatic, and grabbed the world's attention. Subsequent ones paled in comparison, raising questions about the cost and effort involved. Likewise, while popes will continue to visit the Holy Land, these could become almost routine visits.

Some rabbis scrutinized every papal word and gesture for hidden meanings. They voiced an abiding suspicion of the pope's motivations -- understandable because of recent bumps in Catholic-Jewish relations, but also ignoring the deep reforms in Catholic thinking about Jews, many of which Benedict reaffirmed on this trip.

Bypassing the pope's rejection of Holocaust denial, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau criticized him for saying at Yad Vashem "millions" instead of "six million" Jewish victims. He also criticized the pope's use of the verb "kill" instead of "murder" to describe Nazi atrocities. Perhaps both pope and rabbi forgot that Jews and Catholics read the Ten Commandments differently: The Hebrew says "do not murder"; the Catholic translation is "do not kill."

Other critics simply expected that Benedict would be John Paul, speaking from the heart about his personal experience, or accepting Church responsibility for the tragedies. But Benedict is not John Paul in personality, and his theology of the Church does not stress corporate ecclesial responsibility. The central theme of his messages throughout the trip was instead a prayer for peace in this troubled region.

Benedict forcefully condemned anti-Semitism as "totally unacceptable;" reiterated Vatican policy that "the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream;" challenged Christians and Muslims to collaborate "in bearing witness to all that is true and good"; and prayed at the Western Wall for peace, justice and compassion among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Jews and Catholics have different cultures of discourse: Jews place great value on open argumentation, while Catholics esteem unanimity. It is perhaps a tribute to the growing closeness of relations that some Jewish observers address the topic of the papal visit as though debating an internal Jewish matter, while some Catholics tend to overemphasize common understanding.

The newness of our dialogue means that Jews need to be cautious that honest critiques are not perceived by Catholics as insulting or nit-picking, and Catholics need to avoid trying to take short-cuts on the road to mutual understanding and listen carefully to disagreements.

Philip A. Cunningham is professor of Catholic-Jewish relations and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Rabbi Ruth Langer is associate professor of theology at Boston College and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.