How Jewish Fragmentation Alters Ties withCatholics

Interfaith understanding will take a big leapforward this spring.

On May 18, a group of 30 Jewish, Moslem andChristian scholars will gather at Auschwitz for a three-dayconference on religion and violence. Participants will include theOrthodox chief rabbi of Haifa, the Moslem primate of Croatia and aformer Catholic cardinal of Northern Ireland, among others.

The conference, sponsored by the Center forCatholic-Jewish Understanding at Catholic-run Sacred Heart Universityin Connecticut, promises a rarity: frank talk about the dangers ofreligious extremism, from a prestigious international group ofclerics.

“This will be a conference of religious people whosay that those who use violence in the name of religion are wrong,”says Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, the center’s director.

But that’s not why interfaith understanding isleaping forward. Enlightening as it may be, the Auschwitz conferenceis essentially a gabfest. Its most historic advance will probably bea technicality: Of seven rabbis participating, five are Orthodox,including Ehrenkranz.

A small point? Not to the Vatican. The CatholicChurch has been itching for decades to enter an ongoing theologicaldialogue with the Jewish community. To the church, that means aformal conversation with rabbis representing the full spectrum ofJudaism. Unfortunately, Orthodox rabbis are barred by tradition fromentering theological debates with non-Jews.

The Orthodox ban was issued in 1964 by RabbiJoseph Soloveitchik, but its roots are in the Middle Ages, when”disputations” between rabbis and priests had an unfortunate tendencyto end with a dead rabbi. The ban has frustrated Catholics no end.Still, they’ve respected it, avoiding theology in formal dialogues.They prefer half a dialogue with the whole Jewish people to a fulldialogue with just part of Judaism.

The Auschwitz conference is a turning point. Forthe first time, a group of Orthodox rabbis will join an interfaithdiscussion of religious doctrine. The reason: a backlash amongOrthodox liberals against right-wing violence in Israel.

It’s just one of a string of Catholic-Jewishinitiatives this year that suggest momentum is shifting to theCatholic side, thanks partly to divisions among Jews.

Another is the “interfaith journey” to Israel andRome this week by a group of American rabbis and bishops.Co-sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and theJewish Council on Public Affairs, the unusual trip lets rabbis –none of them Orthodox — show their local bishops how Israel looksthrough Jewish eyes, in tours organized by the American JewishCommittee. The bishops, too, will get to show the rabbis how they seethe Holy Land. That part was arranged by the Catholic Near EastWelfare Association, the American church’s link to PalestinianChristians, in its first major outreach to American Jewry.

Another shift occurs on March 23 in Rome, at aformal dialogue between Vatican officials and an international groupof Jewish leaders. The two sides meet biennially, usually to exploreaspects of Catholic anti-Semitism. Jews had hoped this year for along-promised papal statement on the church and the Holocaust. Thatnow looks unlikely. There will, however, be talks on what the twocommunities teach about each other — what Catholics teach aboutJews, what Jews teach about Catholics. Now it’s 50-50.

Catholics see dialogue with Jews as a religiousmandate, arising from the 1965 church declaration ending the ancientcharge of deicide. The document also ordered the church to re-examineits relations with Judaism.

In 1968, the Vatican set up a Secretariat forReligious Relations With the Jews and asked Jewish leaders to createa counterpart. A Jewish committee was pasted together in 1971, led bythe World Jewish Congress and the now-defunct Synagogue Council ofAmerica, representing, respectively, the communal and religious sidesof Judaism. The International Jewish Committee on InterreligiousConsultations, or IJCIC, meets with the church every two years forthree-day seminars on Catholic-Jewish relations. No theology,please.

Ironically, Jews have been the dialogue’s mainbeneficiaries so far. The record is monumental: sweeping revisions ofCatholic texts to eliminate anti-Jewish bias; papal statements onanti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the ongoing validity of Judaism;Vatican recognition of Israel; and more.

Catholics have found the process more frustrating.One reason is the theology ban, which keeps much of the church’sagenda — views of sin and redemption, roots of ritual — off thetable.

Even more frustrating for Catholics is a sensethat while they’ve undergone vast change, the Jewish community hasn’treciprocated. There’s no comparing historic Catholic sins againstJews to whatever prejudice Jews may harbor against Catholics. Still,the church is fighting its prejudices vigorously. The Jewishcommunity has resisted even discussing its own.

“It’s a two-sided thing,” says Eugene Fisher,director of Catholic-Jewish relations at the National Conference ofCatholic Bishops. “Jewish schools in the United States and Israelshould be teaching about Christianity. The last we heard, therewasn’t much. You get that Jesus was a nice guy, Paul wasn’t, then youjump to the Crusades and the Inquisition, and that defines howChristianity treats Jews. That’s not the whole story.”

Catholics, after decades of listening, startedpushing harder for their own agenda in the late 1980s. A series ofincidents — a convent at Auschwitz, a papal audience for accusedNazi Kurt Waldheim — was causing a wave of anti-Catholic sentimentamong Jews.

Today, Catholics speak of the dialogue withrenewed optimism. What’s changed? Church leaders list a series offactors. One is Vatican recognition of Israel, which increased Jewishwillingness to listen. Another was the Israeli-Palestinian handshake,which improved the atmosphere for all Jewish intergroup work.

A third, discussed in hints, is Jewishfragmentation. The American church used to dialogue with theSynagogue Council of America, which joined Orthodox, Conservative andReform rabbis. It collapsed in 1995. Catholics now have two separatedialogues — one with Reform and Conservative rabbis, the other withOrthodox. The result? A burst of energy in the non-Orthodox dialogue.Growing political cooperation with the Orthodox. And, as Jewishfragmentation continues, the first group of Orthodox rabbis ready totalk theology.

A final factor may simply be increased Jewishawareness of change in the Catholic church. “I just feel a muchgreater warmth as I meet with Jewish groups,” says Cardinal WilliamKeeler of Baltimore, former president of the National Conference ofCatholic Bishops, who now chairs the bishops’ committee onCatholic-Jewish relations. “It’s a question of people becoming morefamiliar with history. The church’s process of teshuvah [repentance]is a continuing thing.”

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power:Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly forThe Jewish Journal.