Rabbi Teaching Catholic Bishops

It was Pope Benedict XVI who angered Jewish communities by reintroducing to the canon the prayer for the “conversion of Jews.” But it was also he who became the first head of the Catholic Church to ever visit a synagogue in America. Now he asked a rabbi to teach bishops how to read the Bible.

The moment was historic. Over 250 bishops from all over the world gathered in the Vatican to take part in this year`s session of the synod, a meeting of Church authorities first convened by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and continued ever since. But this often highly scholastic conference captured the attention of all the media when it turned out that among invited guests was the chief rabbi of Haifa, Shear-Yashuv Cohen.

Dressed in a dark suit, a black yarmulke on his gray wispy hair, Shear-Yashuv Cohen began his speech by thanking the Church for allowing him to participate in the synod. “It brings with it a signal of hope and message of love, co-existence; a peace for our generation, and for generations to come,” he said nodding at the pope sitting nearby.

Even though his speech was written in a conciliatory tone, the rabbi did not forget to mention the darker side of the mutual relations. “There is a long, hard and painful history of the relationship between our people, our faith and the Catholic Church leadership and followers; a history of blood and tears,” Shear-Yashuv Cohen told the gathered bishops.

The dialog between the two religions began in the 1960s, during the pontiff of John XXIII. Until then, both sides had hardly communicated with each other since many Catholics stuck to the traditional belief that Jews killed Jesus Christ and had to embrace Christianity to receive God`s grace. This policy was reversed by John XXIII and his successors who saw in Jews “older brothers in the faith” rather than theological enemies. In 2000, ailing Pope John Paul II traveled to Israel where he prayed in a synagogue and sought forgiveness for the sins of the past.

But history, although distant, still plays a serious role in the relations between Catholics and Jews. In a press conference called soon after his speech, Shear-Yashuv Cohen told journalists that war-time Pope Pius XII should not be elevated to sanctity. In his opinion, the pope`s response to the Nazi crimes was inappropriate, especially when it came to pressuring Italian authorities to stop the deportations of Jews to German death camps.

Only recently, Pope Benedict XVI said that Pius XII deserved to be sanctified. According to Vatican historians Pius XII as well as tens of thousands of ordinary priests did their best to save as many Jews as possible, sheltering them in monasteries, issuing false passports, and bribing Nazi officials. Anything more could have endangered the very existence of the Vatican itself, especially when it was learned that the Germans had prepared plans to kidnap the pope.

Some may claim that Shear-Yashuv Cohen`s position on the difficult past and Pius XII could imperil the inter-religion dialog began four decades ago. But the fact that the rabbi delivered his controversial words in the very heart of the Catholic Church shows how much both sides have achieved, leaving almost two thousand years of often violent coexistence far behind them.