Pope Declares Attacks on Israel and Jews Are Anti-Semitism

Pope Francis welcomed more than 100 leaders of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) on Wednesday and issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism.

(Left to right) WJC Governing Board Chairman David de Rothschild, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder, Pope Francis, WJC Treasurer Chella Safra, President of Latin American Jewish Congress Jack Terpins, WJC CEO Robert Singer and Executive Director of the Latin American Jewish Congress Claudio Epelman.

(Left to right) WJC Governing Board Chairman David de Rothschild, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder, Pope Francis, WJC Treasurer Chella Safra, President of Latin American Jewish Congress Jack Terpins, WJC CEO Robert Singer and Executive Director of the Latin American Jewish Congress Claudio Epelman.

At a private audience with WJC President Ronald S. Lauder in the morning, the Pontiff made it clear that outright attacks against Israel’s existence are a form of anti-Semitism:

To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism. There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.

Jews and Catholics marked the anniversary of the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, which condemned anti-Semitism and completely transformed and improved relations between Jews and Catholics.

Lauder praised the Pope for this powerful message and said relations between the two faiths were stronger than they had ever been before:

Pope Francis does not simply make declarations. He inspires people with his warmth and his compassion. His clear and unequivocal support for the Jewish people is critical to us.

Nearly 150 delegates and observers from the World Jewish Congress Governing Board took part in the public audience with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday. The delegates were in Rome for the Board’s annual meeting.

The pope recalled Nostra Aetate, a declaration adopted on 28 October 1965 by the Second Vatican Council:

Indifference and opposition were transformed into cooperation and benevolence. Enemies and strangers have become friends and brothers. The Council, with the declaration Nostra Aetate, paved the way. It said yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and no to any form of anti-Semitism and condemnation of any insult, discrimination and persecution derived from that.

On Tuesday, the WJC Governing Board, representing more than 100 Jewish communities around the world, held discussions which focused on the implications facing Jewish communities in light of the various conflicts in the Middle East, including the threat of jihadist terrorism.

The Governing Board reaffirmed its continued support of a two State solution and urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume peace talks without preconditions as soon as possible.

The Board also called on the international community to maintain and, if necessary, expand sanctions on Iran until there is verification and international acceptance of Iran’s compliance with all the conditions of the nuclear deal.

Concerning the refugee crisis, the delegates passed a resolution calling on the international community to provide refugees with sanctuary irrespective of origin or religion, recalling the Talmudic maxim that says, “He who saves a single life saves the whole world.”

Book Review: Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka’s Interfaith Dialogue

— by Jonathan Kremer

Interfaith dialogue is often a challenge. A participant may feel a need to be “politically correct,” to pull punches, or to make every effort to present their own religion in the best light possible. True dialogue enables participants to “lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth,” in the words of Pope Francis, without compromising one’s identity.

The book On Heaven and Earth is a collection of uncompromising dialogues between then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a community rabbi and rector of the Conservative Jewish center Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires.

The conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka covered a wide range of subjects, including God, religious leadership, prayer, same-sex marriage, science and Argentine political history. They agreed on much: the arrogance of the atheist and the unquestioning believer, religious leaders as teachers and guides, and the dangers of fundamentalism. They even concurred — after a charged exchange — that the Vatican must open its archives, so that lingering questions about the Church’s actions during the Holocaust might be answered.
[Read more…]

Our Rabbis Can Learn From Pope Francis

— by David Benkof

The shift in tone that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church has serious repercussions for both people who follow that religion and those of other faith systems.

As the most prominent religious figure in today’s world, the actions, ideas, and approach of the Pontiff (literally, “bridge builder”) deserve attention, including among Jews. Perhaps even our most outstanding rabbis could learn from Pope Francis.

That is no criticism of the gedolim (leading rabbis of the current generation). Instead, it is a recognition that Jewish leaders need not shy away from the moral and intellectual contributions of great men of other faiths.

Pope Francis has several qualities that are worthy of consideration:

He Is Accessible

Many Catholics have praised the “common touch” of the current pontiff, particularly in contrast to the more aloof popes of the past. In his desire to communicate with all kinds of people, he has become conversant in 10 languages.

This pope uses Twitter. Also, he regularly grants interviews to the press, and speaks openly about important moral and contemporary matters in public settings. In fact, his followers have dubbed him “the people’s pope.”

He Is Humble

Upon his election, the Pope eschewed the tradition of sitting on the Papal Throne, and stood instead. A Jewish leader who visited him said, “If everyone sat in chairs with [arms], he would sit in the one without.”

The Pontiff lives modestly in a guesthouse rather than in the lavish papal apartments. He even drives himself around Rome in a 30-year-old used Renault. Previous pontiffs rode as passengers in the “Popemobile,” a Mercedes costing more that a half-million dollars in which the pope would sit on a chair made from white leather with gold trim.

He Is Traditional

Pope Francis does not surrender to calls for assimilating recent social values that are foreign to Catholicism. Thus, he does not approve of ordaining women priests, abandoning clerical celibacy, or endorsing abortion and gay marriage. On the other hand, he has been willing to listen with respect and kindness to people advocating all kinds of new ideas. He marginalizes no one.

He Is Merciful

Soon after ascending to the papacy, Francis washed and kissed the feet of several juvenile offenders. He goes out of his way to embrace people who are usually demeaned by the wider society, especially the poor. Alleviating poverty seems to be the centerpiece of his papacy.

He Is Respectful

Under Pope Francis, Catholic clergy no longer speak of “living in sin,” a phrase that had been an unnecessary slap in the face to Catholics whose family arrangements do not involve church-approved marriages. He has not changed church policy on unmarried couples cohabiting, but he sees no need to insult them, either.

The recently convened Synod on the Family just released a draft document that declared that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer,” though they maintained the church’s policies on the nature of proper bedroom and family life.

As the Jewish collection of wisdom Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.” If we are supposed to learn from everyone, we ought to listen carefully to one of the moral exemplars of our century.

Jewish Community Welcomes Pope Francis

— by Ronald S. Lauder

Pope Francis is no stranger to us. In recent years he attended many inter-faith events co-organized by the WJC and our regional affiliate, the Latin American Jewish Congress. I personally met with him in Buenos Aires in June 2008. He always had an open ear for our concerns. By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world. I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.

During the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic-Jewish relations reached unprecedented levels. This was due to the determination of the pope to continue the work of his predecessor, John Paul II. We are convinced that new pontiff will continue on this path, that he will speak out against all forms of Antisemitism both within and without the Catholic Church, that he will take action against clerics who deny or belittle the Holocaust, and that he will strengthen the Vatican’s relationship with Israel.

More reactions follow the jump.
B’nai B’rith International

In November, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was the keynote speaker at B’nai B’rith’s Krystallnacht commemoration in Buenos Aires, where he helped light the menorah.

“We welcome Pope Francis I to his new role as leader of the Catholic Church,” B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs said. “Catholic-Jewish relations had remained a focus of Pope Benedict XVI and we look forward to continuing the solid foundation that already exists for interfaith dialogue.”


Cardinal Jorge Jorge María Bergoglio (now known as Pope Francis) and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in Buenos AIres in 2008.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold

We offer our sincerest blessings and hope that our cherished friendship with the Catholic Church will continue to flourish and deepen. We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow

We look forward to our ongoing partnership with the Catholic church in combating poverty, a great legacy of the Pope during his tenure as Cardinal of Buenos Aires. In a world so awfully divided by wealth and opportunity, may his teaching and example help to heal our broken world and bring us closer to a time when no person goes to bed hungry.

Pope Resigns for Health Reasons

Pope Benedict XVI is resigning for reasons of health, effective February 28. This is the first time a pope has resigned in 600 years.

Benedict has been recognized by Jewish leaders for clearly stating that the Jewish people are not responsible for the death of Jesus. Although this has been an official church policy for at least half a century, there is a detailed account in the Pope’s book.

When the Pope, a German, was first elected, there was concern in the Jewish world, since he had been a member of the Hitler Youth and the German army during the World War II era.

A Rabbi’s Journey to Rome Building Bridges of Hope


Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action

— Rabbi Warren Stone

I was invited to Rome to speak by the U.S. Embassy and the Vatican’s  Pontifical Gregorian University for a major one-day conference on October 12, entitled:  “Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action.”  The program’s vision was to include the Abrahamic faith traditions on three global issues panels, each of which included a Christian, Jewish and Muslim leader. The issues were:

  1. Equitable and Ethical Development,
  2. Caring for the Environment and
  3. Preventing Conflict.

Atttending the conference were worldwide ambassadors to the Vatican, Vatican Bishops and officials, seminary students from Gregorian and the international media.
U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz envisioned this conference as  a concrete expression of President Obama’s interfaith goals. He spoke about the critical importance of having religious voices work on world issues: “We believe that interfaith strategies can solve many of the world’s biggest problems.”

A special banquet was held at the US Vatican Embassy in honor of the speakers, with kosher/halal food thoughtfully provided to the Jewish and Muslim participants. Together we shared our interreligious visions for cooperation and bold action on environmental and climate challenges, the alleviation of world poverty and hunger, and the development of courageous paths to ease world conflicts.  The press was pleased to get many pictures of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders fully engaged in friendship and dialogue.

Joshua Dubois, head of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offered greetings from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  His keynote address encouraged faith communities to actively engage on these global political issues: “Every day, brick by brick by brick, men and women of faith continuously lay the moral and intellectual foundation of our public life and dialogue, and you are the first responders when for various reasons, that foundation is shaken.”

The vision of this conference was to turn interreligious dialogue into interreligious action.  I served on a panel with Father Joseph Rozansky, the justice chair of the World Franciscans, and Fazlun Khalid, founder and director of the UK’s Islamic Foundation for Ecology and the Environment.  We concurred that religious leadership from all traditions must act to alleviate environmental despoliation and the world-wide threats of climate change.

The other two Jewish representatives, each of whom sat on a panel, were Dr. Hillel Levine, founder of the International Center for Conciliation, and Dr. Edward Kessler, founder of Cambridge University’s Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.  The conference ended with Dr. Levine embracing Archbishop Chacour, a Palestinian priest, on the podium after the archibishop gave an emotionally moving talk about his life in Israel. Cameras went off to capture this moment of embrace.

We were given an “insider’s tour” of the Vatican, which included the Pope’s inner sanctum behind the Sistine Chapel, and I spent a bit of time seeing the Coliseum and the Jewish Ghetto. Of course, I went to see the Arch of Titus, which bears the famous sculpted relief of the Roman soldiers taking the Second Temple’s Golden Menorah and the phrase, “Judea Vanquished.”  It felt good to be in Rome in our time, where we as Jews stood in partnership with representatives of Christianity and Islam to confront our world problems.

We left united in the hope and with the commitment that the message of interreligious dialogue and action will grow throughout our communities.  It was a most inspiring and uplifting conference. We focused on the positive and the doable rather than the divisiveness found too often between faith traditions.

And now it’s time for all of us to act.  

“Building Bridges of Hope” An Interfaith Conference                                                  

           An ancient Jewish Midrash describes how God took Adam around the Garden of Eden and said to him:  “Look at My Creation, how beautiful and perfect is everything that I created.  I created it for you.  Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world.  If you ruin it, there is nobody to restore it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28)        

           Those words ring mightily today, for the very future of life as we know it is at stake.  I fervently believe that climate change and our human despoliation of our sacred and fragile Earth has become the most profound religious issue of our times.  Like Adam, we have been warned and cannot plead ignorance.  Like Adam, will we fail to heed God’s words?  The mythic story of Creation warns us that we are guardians of all creation, human and all other species.

           Ancient Jewish traditions call for justice, equity and the Deuteronomic commandment, “Baal tashchit,” meaning, “thou shalt not destroy.”  The reference is to the trees and fruits of future generations and hence, human survival.  Ancient Jewish traditions call for the corners of the fields and the produce of our harvest to be left for the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable of society.  Yet in our world, it will be the most vulnerable, with the least resources, who first reap the consequences of our environmental failures.  I am referring to the peoples of Micronesia and Bangladesh and hundreds of millions of other of the world’s most impoverished people living close to the seas, who are on the front lines of climate change and have become the first of our world’s environmental refugees. While at the UN in Copenhagen, I met with leaders from the Micronesian island of Kiribati who are already planning the emigration of their entire population.  They have already run out of fresh water and soon will be threatened with food scarcity.

           For all of us, impoverished and comfortable alike, our future will be tied to the scarcity of fresh water and food, as our glaciers melt and water sources, including the Jordan River in our holy lands which has been diminished.  Who is responsible for responding to these threats to our environment?  We may believe that our political leaders and bodies, which came together at the United Nations in Kyoto and Copenhagen and which will meet again in Cancun, or our individual nations’ leaders and lawmakers will have the political will to solve these issues. Others put the burden on our scientists and particularly, our environmentalists. But climate change and the despoliation of our earth and its limited resources are the most urgent moral and spiritual issues for all of us, and we are going to have to be active instruments for driving the necessary changes.   In this regard, people of our faith traditions have a great deal to say. Our futures and the futures of our families are at stake. This conference is meant to express the urgency of people of all faith traditions, represented here by the Abrahamic faiths, to take the bold lead in insisting that world leaders act to protect our earth-changing climate and threats to humanity that those changes portend.  Like Biblical Joseph of old, we have been forewarned and need to plan our survival particularly with water and food issues for our planet. The future will bring environmental refugees in numbers unknown in previous ages.  As a result of climate change and habitat destruction, a myriad of species now faces a silent genocide. We are caretakers of God’s creation. We must never forget that along with the creatures of our earth, the fish of our seas and the birds of our air, we, too are part of the great change of life. We are all interdependent for our common survival of life.

           It is incumbent upon every religious leader, religious institution and person of faith to serve as beacons to our communities, illustrating by our actions and example our spiritual commitment to our earth and its threatened and limited resources.

        In a world where matters of faith seem so often and so tragically to divide us, there is no issue that aligns us more deeply than our shared dependence upon and sacred responsibility to this tiny planet, enfolded within its fragile atmosphere, spinning in the vastness of time and space.  I experienced this shared conviction most profoundly when in 1997, I served as the Jewish NGO representative at the United Nations climate talks in Kyoto and this past year at the UN in Copenhagen. I met with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders from around the world.  We spoke at Kyoto’s largest Buddhist Temple and in forums throughout Copenhagen.  We led an interfaith march and vigil in our religious garb to the center of Copenhagen to share our concerns as faith leaders on this world stage.

           We all concurred from our diverse faith traditions that our human actions, our human failing and sins, have damaged the environment.  Each speaking from the voice of his or her own authentic spiritual tradition, we affirmed our religious responsibility to act. Amidst chanting from Christians of the Psalms and the reading of the Koran, I blew the shofar, a ram’s horn, the blast of sound that has been Judaism’s ancient call to action since the days we wandered, searching for our way in the desert.

           I carried this mandate for bold action on the environment back to my own country and my own religious community.  Here, too, I found that faith traditions can readily unite on issues of climate change.  Working for many years with the National Partnership on Religion and the Environment, and as Chair of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, I have joined interfaith leaders to engage Washington’s Capitol Hill leaders and to meet with White House staff.  Political leaders are eager to hear our religious point of view. As interfaith leaders, we also met with the leadership of the World Bank asking them to devote resources to sustainability in the world and cultivating the development of the world’s alternative energy sources.

           Statements by Catholic Bishops, Protestant leaders, Rabbis and Muslim Leaders have symbolic power and carry political weight. Formal resolutions  affirmed by hundreds of thousands of persons of faith help embolden our legislators to act.  Our country witnessed what has been considered the worst oil spill in our world’s history, with the BP massive oil spill of millions of gallons into the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. There is an urgent need to regulate worldwide corporate energy companies and put prioritize caring for our sacred Earth as the primary moral concern. Now is the time for religious leadership to be heard, now is the time to engage our world bodies and speak out for Creation.

           As chair of the Environmental Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I have joined with many committed colleagues to use our faith tradition to increase awareness and encourage action in response to climate change and other environmental challenges.  We have passed national resolutions on climate change and energy policy and have established environmentally conscious guidelines for our myriad congregations around the country.  We have worked with the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light to green religious communities around America in order to serve as a model of the millions of people who observe faith traditions.

               And finally, I believe that our religious voice must be strongest closest to home, manifest in how we daily live.  And, of course, our collective, interfaith efforts gather their strength from the work each of us does within our own particular communities.  The congregation I serve, Temple Emanuel of the Greater Washington area, has worked on greening its agenda for over 20 years.  We believe that local action by religious communities can have a national and international impact.  How have we implemented our agenda?  Let me mention some of the ways:

  • We installed solar panels on the roof for our eternal light, added wind power from a regional collective, made use of energy efficient zoning, lighting and office equipment and during a building phase, made use of passive solar throughout the building.
  • We planted sustainable gardens to meet our annual ritual needs, growing grapes, horseradish, and indoor olive and pomegranate trees.
  • We regularly schedule environmental Shabbats and other opportunities for learning with our state representative and national leaders.
  • We sell CPF bulbs and have information about climate change on our coffee tables.
  • We have become an EPA energy star community and one of the nation’s first “zero carbon footprint’ communities by supporting alternative energy investments.
  • Our webpage includes our Green Shalom action guide which is designed to educate and spur further community involvement and environmental action in our own homes and community.
  • Let us all work with people of every disciplines, be they diplomats, scientists, environmentalists, engineers, architects, writers, artist, poets and journalists to create programming that changes hearts and minds and helps to refocus us on sustainable living and a culture of meaning, not possessing.

           This community focus has borne fruit, with a good number of our young people choosing science, media, religion and public policy arenas that deal directly with environmental issues.  We in faith communities must train our future religious and lay leaders to see the close connection between caring for the Earth and our own spiritual traditions.

           People of faith around our world number in the billions. We are the largest constituency of any nation of our world.  The opportunity to be heard is greater than in previous decades, and we have a prophetic responsibility to seize it.   There is so much that each of us can and must do, within our own homes, congregations, and countries, and beyond, as we work together as a global family in common cause, to preserve and sanctity life.

         As Rabbi Tarphon of the second century reminds us: “It is not your duty to finish all the work, but neither are you are liberty to desist from it.”  May it be that years hence, our children and our children’s children will look back with appreciation to this moment when we heeded one of the great moral imperatives of our time.  May they know that we had the vision and the strength to fulfill our sacred obligation to preserve and protect the earth in all of its majesty, this garden with which we have been entrusted, for those who will follow.