During a recent dinner at the Vatican, Pope Francis went around the table offering cake to his guests. But when he reached his old friend from Argentina, Rabbi Avraham Skorka, the pope excused himself by saying he would not offer him a slice -- because he was not sure whether the pastry contained animal fat, which would render it not kosher.
It is through this anecdote that Skorka, who has known and worked with Francis for two decades, describes the pope as a man with a deep knowledge and respect of Jewish tradition and law.
The 63-year-old rabbi accompanied Francis during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and on Monday shared an emotional embrace with the pope in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
"I dreamed about it and he made that dream his own," Skorka said of that iconic moment. "We wanted to create an image that would have the power to inspire others to embrace their fellow men."
Though he hadn't spoken with the pope since his departure a few hours earlier, Skorka told Haaretz that Francis seemed "satisfied" with the trip, especially because he had successfully invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas to join him at the Vatican next month to pray together for peace.
In a wide-ranging interview, Skorka said he hopes the visit will also herald stronger ties between Jews and the Catholic Church. Francis, he says would like the two sides to engage in deeper dialogue, including on theological issues such as the interpretation of the Bible and Jewish law, as well as the fundamental differences between the two religions.
"Their intention is to let us speak like brothers, not with the intention to convert each other, but to learn about each other," he said.
The rabbi noted that since the 1960s the Church has made great strides in its attitude toward the Jewish people, culminating with Pope John Paul II's request for forgiveness for the suffering inflicted upon the Jews in past centuries.
"The pope would like to have some kind of reaction from the Jews to the deeds of the Catholic Church," he said.
However, Skorka says Jewish leaders have responded coldly to Francis' desire for closer ties, remaining too focused on the tragedies of the past and fearing that a deeper, theological dialogue would just be a thinly veiled attempt to encourage conversion.
"He and I cannot understand this fear," Skorka said. "If you are sure of your beliefs why fear to speak about ourselves to the other?"
The rabbi, a PhD in chemistry who leads a Conservative community in Buenos Aires and is the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, has been working for years to build bridges between the two faiths.
Skorka befriended Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in the mid-nineties, when he was on his way to becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires. The two would meet often at official state ceremonies and hit it off by discussing interfaith issues and occasionally poking fun at each other for the defeats of their rival soccer teams, Skorka recalled.
They went on to write a book together, titled "On Heaven and Earth," in which they debate issues ranging from abortion and same-sex marriage to the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They also took part in a television program with a similar format and Skorka wrote the introduction to Bergoglio's first official biography.
At most they had "differences of opinion," Skorka said. One of these concerned the role of wartime Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not speaking out strongly enough against the Nazi persecution of Jews.
"I told him I could not understand the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust, and he said that the Vatican should open its archives on the period," something that, as pope, Francis now has the power to do.
Since Bergoglio's election to the papacy last year, the two have kept in touch by email and Skorka has visited him several times in Rome, staying in the same Vatican guest house that Francis chose as his residence after refusing to move into the more luxurious Apostolic palace.
Thanks to this unprecedented access, Skorka has become a sort of informal ambassador, acting not only as a conduit between the Jewish world and Francis, but speaking out about Judaism and Israel to the entire Church.
In the run-up to the visit, Skorka wrote an op-ed in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper, discussing the origins of Zionism and its link to the Jewish faith. He also had a 35-page interview in La Civiltà Cattolica, the respected magazine of the Jesuits, the same order to which the pope belongs.
Skorka also orchestrated the embrace at the Western Wall he shared with Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina's Muslim community and another of Francis' interfaith dialogue partners.
After the pope placed an envelope in the wall containing the "Our Father" prayer, Skorka said he added his own note: a prayer for peace in which he recalled the names of his parents and of their Polish hometown of Konskie, whose community was wiped out in the Holocaust.
Skorka stressed that despite attempts by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to politicize the visit, Francis only intended to travel here as a spiritual leader sending a message of peace. That is also true of his impromptu stop at Israel's concrete security barrier in Bethlehem, a move that some interpreted as a show of support for the Palestinian cause.
"He is a great friend of the Jews and understands the importance of Israel for the Jewish people," Skorka told Haaretz. "You cannot interpret the prayer at the wall as a political act – I know him – he was only praying for peace, for a time when this wall would be destroyed because it would not be necessary."
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