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An Unexpected Trip To Israel: Catholic-Jewish Dialogue

About three weeks ago I received a call from a dear colleague, asking me if I would like an all-expense-paid trip to an interfaith conference in Israel? A few phone calls later I knew only a little bit more. A Catholic organization known as the Neocatechumenal Way was organizing a meeting for rabbis and Catholic priests in Israel, they had funding for 100 rabbis who could carve out the time on very short notice, and they were still 40 rabbis short. (I thought that sounded pretty funny, too!) Also, the conference center at which the meeting was to take place was near my brother and sister-in-law’s house in the Galilee, and I could play with their growing brood of grandchildren.

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Monday evening I drove up to the entrance of Domus Galilaeae, a stunning new complex high on a hill with an unmatched view of the entire Sea of Galilee. The location sits just above the traditional site known as the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps his best-known and most important teachings. I wandered into the building, dazed by its detail and architecture. Taking up an entire wall were two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Hebrew and the other in Latin, a continuous sheet of water flowing down over them into a pool, representing the living waters of the Torah. In the soaring library room a giant transparent dome housed a reader’s table with a Torah scroll resting on it, framed by a wall of glass through which the Sea of Galilee spread below us. An enormous round hall with tiered seating was off to the right. Our meetings would be held in there. Several beautiful chapels could be found off of the central courtyard. There was much more which I will not describe here. I wandered around awestruck, both by the honored place given to Jewish symbols in this Catholic building, and by the wealth of detail and sheer wealth that had been invested in creating it all.

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The next morning an older man sat next to me at breakfast. He introduced himself as George, Australian but currently posted to Rome. Inquiring further, I learned that he was in fact a cardinal, Cardinal George Pell, and that he was in charge of the Finance Ministry at the Vatican. Who else might be here, I wondered?

I would soon find out. Perhaps 300 hundred of us gathered in the big round hall and the program began with introductions. There were rabbis of every denomination hailing from 30 different countries, many quite prominent, including the chief rabbis of several European countries. Women rabbis were woefully under-represented – more about that later. There were 7 cardinals, various archbishops and monsignors, and missionaries of the Neocatechumenal Way from all over the world. We wore headsets with simultaneous translation as speakers spoke Italian, Spanish, French, English and Hebrew. And in the center of it all a man named Kiko Arguello, the founder of the Way, as it is called by its followers. Kiko, as he is affectionately known, had created the Way 50 years earlier. He was from Spain, and as young man was quite secular and an artist, when one day God came into his heart and he became a practicing Catholic. A passionate and charismatic man, he moved with a colleague named Carmen Hernandez to the slums of Madrid and started ministering to and evangelizing the poor. Their work crystallized into what they called the Neocatechumenal Way – a new or renewed way of religious instruction. Their goal was to renew Catholic faith in small caring communities filled with enthusiasm and commitment. This was a Catholic spiritual revival movement, and it rapidly caught the attention of the Vatican, both for good and for ill. The Catholic hierarchy was both drawn to the amazing success the Way was having in revitalizing Catholic life, and also wary of its unorthodox methods and eager to control it. The Way spread rapidly throughout the world, as committed missionaries traveled to hundreds and then thousands of Catholic parishes around the world. The Domus Galilaeae center in which we were meeting is their crowning achievement.

My rabbinic colleagues and I all felt that this group seemed like a Catholic Chabad. Chabad is the Chasidic sect whose mission is to bring Jews back to Jewish practice. Chabad sends emissaries anywhere in the world where they might find wayward Jews that they can bring back into the fold. The followers of the Way were doing this in the Catholic world.

Kiko not only had a big personality, he had a huge ego. He talked about himself at great length to us, his captive audience. My first impression – one that never abated much – was that all of the rabbis were there, at least in part, as Kiko’s trophies to be displayed to the Vatican hierarchy that was there, as if to show how important the Neocatechumenal Way had become. The building we were in was also clearly the fruit of Kiko’s work, and he described the hand he had taken in designing all of its features. And then – this is all still on the first day of the conference – an entire symphony orchestra had been assembled, along with an 80-voice choir, to perform for us a symphony that Kiko had composed on the theme of the suffering of the innocents at Auschwitz. The climax of the symphony was the choir joined by the audience repeating a rousing refrain of Shema Yisrael. I could see how much it meant to the Catholics assembled there to affirm that the God of the Jews is also their God, and that God is One. As I will explain, this is a huge and positive change in the Catholic Church, and is not to be taken lightly. By this point however I was ready for some fresh air. The Way had all the markings of a cult of personality. Perhaps the remainder of the conference agenda would open up some space for actual dialogue.

Although Kiko did have several more hours of speechifying to get out of his system, by the second full day of the conference we finally had an opportunity for dialogue. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the great American rabbis of our time, gave a wonderfully clear keynote in which he laid out the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church, the historic transformation of Church doctrine toward the Jews that was declared 50 years ago by the Second Vatican Council, and the work yet to be done. As I watched the Catholic audience listening raptly I began to sense the sincerity of their desire to reach out to us Jews. After Yitz’s talk we had a lengthy opportunity for small group discussions, and I finally had a chance to find out more about some of our counterparts.IMG_0295

Truthfully, the gap across which we had to reach to one another was wide. In fact, there were several culture gaps to recognize and negotiate. One gap was not religious but cultural. The vast majority of the Catholics were Spanish or Italian, and I came to understand that nothing started remotely on time, ending times were none too firm either, and dinner was often after 9pm. Also, the challenges they face as religious people in intensely secular Europe are somewhat different than our American challenges, where the fundamental separation of church and state have in certain ways made it easier to pursue a religious life.

A larger gap was created by other cultural differences. The Neocatechumenal Way is a conservative evangelical movement within the Catholic Church. That means they are firmly rooted in conservative ideology, familiar to us from the Protestant Evangelicals in our own country. Their view of the world is binary: you are either living a godly life or you are on the path of destruction. Secularism is irredeemable and the source of evil. In our small groups we shared our faith stories, and each Catholic described being headed toward a dissolute, immoral path until God saved them. They are completely opposed to anything other than heterosexual marriage, in which the wife is subservient to the husband. And, of course, there is only one true God, and one Truth. As it happens, they are eager to expand their sense of the one truth to include the Jews, since we are their forebears and “older brothers”. But other faiths, especially Islam, are outside the fold. This may resonate with some of the more Orthodox rabbis who were present at the gathering, but most of the American rabbis who were there adhere to the American ethos of tolerance and pluralism, and moderate or outright reject any claims we have to being the one true path. I understood that in this regard we were speaking past one another, but I did my best to articulate the possibility that God, in God’s great love of diversity, might have created more than one true way to know God.

Then there was the gender gap. The Catholic Church is a stunning bastion of male privilege, matched by the large number of quite Orthodox rabbis and their wives who were present. I felt as though I had walked into an alternate universe in which feminism had never happened. There were just 3 female rabbis present, and when they were introduced they were announced with the title of Doctor or Professor. These women, along with myself and many other male rabbis, did everything we could to have this oversight redressed, but we could not overcome the cloak of invisibility placed over our women colleagues. It was shocking, and made me realize the degree to which I live in a feminist “bubble”, and the huge swaths of society in which patriarchy and entrenched sexism still rule.

Finally, another gap deserving of description was the very different religious vocabularies that we employ as Jews and Catholics. For the Catholics, suffering is holy, something to offer up to God as the highest form of service, modeling after Jesus. Therefore, as far as I can tell, the suffering of the Jews, from the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues in the 2nd century culminating with the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, has somehow been an ennobling experience. We Jews, obviously, don’t feel so ennobled by murderous oppression. When we remember the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva on Yom Kippur, it is with anguish as well as praise. And for me and many other Jews, our response to the Holocaust is the need for the State of Israel, a clear statement that we would rather defend our lives than be suffering victims. It was challenging not to feel offended. It reminded me of well-meaning folks who console someone who has just suffered a loss by telling them it is God’s will and is all for the best.

If this all sounds daunting, know that it was. I considered leaving several times. The saving grace, as always, was the opportunity to meet individuals and hear their stories. This is, of course, where our humanity can shine through and hearts can become connected, and everyone I spoke with was loving and sincere in their desire to connect with me. Their hospitality was over the top, and they made every possible effort to make us comfortable.

So let me close on a positive note. The Neocatechumenal Way came into being in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. In 1965, that Council produced a document called Nostra Aetate, “In Our Time”, which initiated the most far-reaching changes in church doctrine in centuries. Nostra Aetate (you can read it here; it’s not very long, and I recommend it) affirms the commonality of all humankind: “We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than brotherly fashion, for all men are created in God’s image.” It then states in explicit language, “There is no basis therefore, either in theory or in practice for any discrimination between individual and individual, or between people and people arising either from human dignity or from the rights which flow from it.”

The importance of this document cannot be overstated. In declaring these principles the Church entered the 20th century. But the Second Vatican Council recognized that explicit changes needed to be made to Church doctrine regarding the Jews, the historical victims of Church doctrine and practice, and so the document states: “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

It is easy to forget that prior to 1965 the official position of the Catholic Church was that the Jews were Christ killers and deserving of scorn and vilification. Some of the older rabbis present spoke movingly about growing up prior to the Second Vatican Council, and the hateful treatment they received from Catholics. It was a great reminder to me that the Catholic Church has officially repudiated anti-Semitism and has embraced the Jewish People as “our older brothers.” (I know that “sisters” is missing!) The Cardinal of Vienna spoke movingly and without flinching about Austria’s horrific anti-Semitic history, and explained that 50 years in Church History was a blink of an eye, and that the repudiation of anti-Semitism implemented by Nostra Aetate was real but would take a long time to be fully realized. He asked for our patience and good will.

The followers of the Neocatechumenal Way are at the forefront of this wave of change in the church, and for this I am deeply grateful. When Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, his outreach to the Jewish People was sincere, and the possibility was truly established that even the most tradition-bound institution can change for the better. Each of the Jewish keynote speakers at this conference reminded us of the profound and radical nature of this change. In that sense this conference was both the fruit of and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Despite my skepticism and concerns, which I have described to you in detail, I found this larger historical perspective to be quite heartening.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan