“Sholem Aleichem!” said Pope Francis as he greeted a delegation of 30 European rabbis in Rome on Monday. It was the first time that the Conference of European Rabbis sent a delegation to the Vatican since the organization - which represents around 700 Orthodox rabbis across the continent - was founded in 1956.
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“It was a historical meeting taking place at a special moment,” a spokesperson for France's Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia told Haaretz.
The “special moment,” explained the spokesperson, is the “upcoming 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate,” the declaration in which the Catholic Church officially opened up to dialogue with other religions in general and Judaism in particular.
“For almost fifty years, the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community has progressed in a systematic way,” said Francis on Monday, while also reaffirming the Vatican's stance against anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitic trends in Europe these days are troubling, as are certain acts of hatred and violence," he said. "Every Christian must be firm in deploring all forms of anti-Semitism, and in showing their solidarity with the Jewish people.” The full transcript of his welcome speech can be found here.
The rabbinic delegation was headed by Moscow chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who is also the President of the Conference of European Rabbis. Goldschmidt said that interfaith dialogue is “particularly relevant in the wake of recent attacks on the Jewish communities of Europe and the Catholic communities in Africa and the Middle East,” according to JTA.
Rabbi Korsia held a private audience with Francis after the official delegation meeting. “In fact, these were two separate events," said his spokesperson. "Rabbi Korsia had asked Francis [for] a meeting in December, specifically because of the Nostra Aetate upcoming anniversary.”
Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in October 1965 during the Second Vatican Council – a period of key reformation inside the Catholic Church – the Nostra Aetate document lays out the Catholic Church's position toward other religions, including Islam and Buddhism, although most of it is dedicated to Judaism.
“It was a new beginning, a real turning point," Piero Stefani, a progressive Catholic scholar who teaches Jewish Studies at the Facoltà Teologica del Nord Italia, a Church-owned institute in Milan, told Haaretz. "The dialogue between Catholics and Jews that followed really began with Nostra Aetate.”
The document describes the Jews as the people that “God holds most dear.” It also states that the death of Jesus “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
“In short, the Church was breaking with its own tradition without openly saying so,” said Stefani, pointing out that before Nostra Aetate, the Jews were openly blamed for the death of Jesus and of being “faithless.” He did, however, point out that there are still theological issues to be resolved: “At a certain point, with Nostra Aetate, the Jews went from being pariahs to being the chosen people. But the Church still has to have an open discussion on how this transition took place.”
Meanwhile, French Chief Rabbi Korsia said he was looking forward the Nostra Aetate 50th anniversary celebrations, adding that he hoped to “do something with Pope Francis” this October.