An Important Stage in the Dialogue Between Jews and Christians

First meeting of delegates of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and those of the Vatican, followed by a common declaration on human life and family values

 February 23-27, 2003, an important meeting brought together a delegation from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and another made up of members of the Holy See’s Commission for Relations with Judaism and personalities from the Catholic Church in the Holy land.  At the end of its work, which took place in Grottaferrata, near Rome, this “Commission for Jewish-Catholic Dialogue in Israel” published a declaration concerning the sacred nature of hum life and family values.

Dialogue already begun in 1998

 For a long time already, meetings between representatives of the Jewish people and of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem have been taking place at various levels, but an official dialogue between people responsible in the two institutions had not yet been initiated.  the beginning of such dialogue, which was prepared for step by step, was a few years ago: on March 23, 1998, the Latin Patriarch, Michael Sabbah, visited the two Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau for the Ashkenzis and Rabbi Mordechai Bashi Doron for the Sephardis, at the seat of the Chief Rabbinate.1  The initiative was taken by the Patriarch, who had repeatedly expressed the conviction that the religious leaders could make an important contribution to peace if they could unite in addressing a common appeal to the believers of the three religions.

 That day, the dialogue had focused on the demands of peace and justice, relations between the Palestinian and the Jewish people, and access to Jerusalem for Christian and Muslim Palestinians.  At the end of the meeting, a common appeal was published condemning violence and the use of religion as a pretext for violence, and the wish was expressed that this first meeting would be followed by others.  On August 24, 1998, the two Chief Rabbis made a return visit to the Latin Patriarch.  The conversation was on the same matters as in the preceding month of March, and the two parties agreed in saying that every initiative would be more significant if the Muslim religious leaders could be included in it.  The possibility of s stable Jewish-Christian dialogue commission was also mentioned, but there was no follow-up.  However, as a witness wrote, these meetings had “enabled the persons to get to know one another better and to go beyond public positions, in a simple, direct and fraternal dialogue.”2   The Patriarch has continued to meet with Jewish personalities from all walks of life, and a strengthened diocesan commission for relations with Judaism has since been created.  This commission meets regularly.

A symbolic place for Jews

 The idea of dialogue on a broader basis was taken up again following John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March 2000, during which the Pope visited the Chief Rabbinate, where he had a private conversation with his two hosts.  After Walter Cardinal Kasper’s visit to Jerusalem on November 20 and 21, 2001 as president of the Roman Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism,3 the possibility of creating dialogue commission in Israel became clearer.  it was in this spirit that a meeting was held in Jerusalem, on June 5, 2002, thanks to the efforts of Mgr. Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine and the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, and of Mr. Oded Wiener, the Director of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate; the participants at this meetings were, on the one hand, persons named by the Chief Rabbinate, and on the other hand, Catholic leaders, several of whom had come from Rome.

 This was a day of preparation for the meeting of February 23-27 in Grottaferrata, at the Villa Cavalletti; a place heavy with symbolism for Jews.  During the last war, this large property, which had served as a retreat house animated by the Jesuits, had been requisitioned by the German military command in Rome who made it their headquarters.  But in 1945, it became the meeting place of the Jews who had escaped extermination in the Nazi concentration camps, before they found a country of refuge.  Today, the property belongs to a German Catholic association, “Die Integrierte Gemeinde” (‘The Integrated Community”), which among other objectives, was founded in a spirit of atonement following the Shoah.

 The participants at this meeting, the majority of whom had already been at the one in Jerusalem, were:

 - on the Jewish side: Rabbis Shear Yishuv HaCohen from Haifa, the president of the delegation; Ratzon Arrusi from Kiryat Ono; David Brodman from Savyon; Mr. Oded Wiener, the coordinator, Director of the Chief Rabbinate; Mr. Shmuel Hadas, Israel’s first ambassador to the Holy See in 1994;

 - on the Catholic side: Jorge Maria Cardinal Mejia, the Vatican archivist and librarian, the president of the delegations; Mgr. Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio the Israle; Mgr. Boulos Marcuzzo, the Patriarchal Vicar for Israel; Fr. Elias Chacour, the director of the Prophet Elijah College in Ibilin; Fr. Georges Cottier, papal household theologian; Mgr. Pier Francesco Fumagalli and Fr. Norbert Hofmann, Salesian, members of the Roman Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.

Broad agreement on human life and the family

 “The meetings were characterized by an atmosphere of friendship and mutual trust.  On both sides, the parties intend to continue the dialogue which has begun,” as the Vatican press spokesperson said when presenting the common communiqu? of this commission for dialogue between Jews and Catholics in Israel.  Moreover, the text confirms this impression and adds that the goal of the discussions is “to seek how to promote peace, harmony and religious values in contemporary society.”

 The topics for discussion at this first meeting were: the sacred nature of human life and family values.  The final communiqu?  (sf. the rubric Documents, pp. 37-39) shows broad agreement on numerous points concerning these two basic topics.

 At the end of its work, the commission was invited to visit the Vatican Library and Museum, and two official receptions were given in its honor, one at the Israeli Embassy to the Vatican, the other organized by the Commission for Relations with Judaism.

 Such a beginning is promising for the future, and it is to be hoped that after the coming election of the two new Chief Rabbis of Israel, the commission will continue its meetings in the same spirit.