Jewish leaders are pondering the significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States last week.
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended a meeting with the pope at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, called it "more show that substance, but for the Vatican even show is substance."
The fact that the pope invited the approximately 50 Jewish representatives to meet with him in a private room was an important gesture, said Foxman, because he "greeted us on the occasion of a Jewish festival, which basically was a recognition of religious Jewish life, Jewish faith, and Jewish rituals, and had that significance."
But there was no real dialogue, in Foxman’s view.
"He reached out, he greeted people and he reiterated his support for Nostra Aetate," the declaration issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that deals with the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic religions, especially with Judaism. "The importance was in the event."
Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt, was also at that private meeting and reported that the pope wished the Jewish representatives "a wonderful seder."
An earlier meeting at the cultural center was attended by about 150 people from interreligious groups that included Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus.
Bemporad, senior rabbinic scholar at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Tenafly and a professor at Saint Thomas Aquinas University in Rome, said the dialogue between Jews and the Church has been "very special," whereas the one with Muslims is just taking off.
"They are now beginning to see the necessity of dealing with the Catholics," he said. "There are a billion of them [Muslims], and you can’t act as if they don’t exist."
Despite differences, "there has to be some way of uniting [religious groups] for dealing with very serious problems," such as terrorism, poverty, and human rights, Bemporad said.
"Religions have to talk to one another because they have to have some common principles of human rights if they want to be relevant in the world."
That common ground, he continued, is what the pope reaffirmed in his speech at the United Nations last Friday.
A vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension, the pope said, "can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace."
This also provides the proper context for "the interreligious dialogue that the United Nations is called to support, just as it supports dialogue in other areas of human activity."
Human rights, he added, must include the right to religious freedom.
Last Friday, the pope paid a brief visit to the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan at the invitation of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
According to Foxman, the pope’s visit to the synagogue was more significant than the private meeting with the Jewish representatives, which he saw as a continuation of a policy began by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, when he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986.
"When Pope John Paul went to that synagogue he changed the dogma of Catholicism, which believes that Christianity superseded Judaism and that it was the new Judaism," Foxman said. "It was a public statement that Judaism exists, that Judaism lives, and that it has vitality."
At the Park East Synagogue, the pope stood before ark "bearing witness to the Jewish faith today, not when [the Catholic] messiah will come," Foxman said.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of the Fairfield, Ct.-based Sacred Heart University and a Bergenfield resident, said he was invited to the meeting in Washington but couldn’t attend because he was in Israel attending a family affair.
Nevertheless, from accounts of the visit, he thinks the pope is "genuinely trying to reach to Jewish community," even though there has been a negative reaction among Jews to a Catholic prayer that calls for their conversion.
The pope issued an order in July of ‘007 to restore the Mass in Latin and the inclusion of the prayer from the liturgy of the early 1960s.
In an interview with this newspaper last year, Korn said, "the prayer is offensive to me and an affront to any Jew with integrity."
The old prayer said: "For the Conversion of the Jews: Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ . Almighty and everlasting God, you do not refuse your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness."
The new version, published in February, says: "Let us also pray for the Jews: that God our Lord might enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind. Almighty and eternal God, whose desire it is that all men might be saved and come to the knowledge of truth, grant in your mercy that as the fullness of mankind enters into your Church, all Israel may be saved, through Christ our Lord. Amen."
"The prayer raises legitimate concerns that the Church will go back to its historic precedents to begin an active policy to convert Jews," said Korn.
If that’s not the case, he added, "it will help enormously if the highest levels in Rome as well as [Church] officials in the United States make a statement saying that there is no change in policy and that there is no active conversion of Jews."
Although the prayer exists only in Latin and is said by few people who understand it, it still represents an official position of the Church, he said.
"That should be worrisome for some Jews who understand history and the historic position of the Church."
Jews shouldn’t be telling Catholics what they should be praying for and Catholics shouldn’t tell Jews what should be in the Jewish prayer book, Korn said.
In January, Foxman wrote the pope a letter expressing concerns about the prayer. He believes that the new version is better, although it retains the concept of conversion.
"I hope that either the pope or his representatives will find a new way to say very simply, ‘We are not interested in converting Jews,’" he said. "What we have seen now implicitly from the pope is that they don’t want to convert Jews [but] I want to hear it explicitly."