By Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt
Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis
The 9th of Av is an important day in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the first and second commonwealth of the Jewish people, remembered in its religious context as the day of destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem.
However, the memory of the destruction of the temple is not only important to us Jews. Joseph Ratzinger better known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has published a lengthy essay on the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people in an article in the Catholic “Communio” under the heading in German “Gnade und Berufung ohne Reue” or in free translation into English “Mercy and Mission without Regrets”.
Kurt Cardinal Koch, in charge of Vatican Relations with the Jews, in his foreword to the article mentions that these thoughts were originally not meant to be public, but the Cardinal was able to convince the Pope emeritus to publish his comments, which he thought might further the dialogue between the Church and the Jews.
Chief Rabbi Folger of Vienna, in his recent article in the Judische Allgemeine, suggests that even though not mentioned explicitly in Ratzinger’s essay, it appears to respond to the document issued at about the same time by the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel “Between Jerusalem and Rome.”
While Benedict’s essay revolves mainly about the use misuse or disuse of the substitution theology of the Church regarding the Jews, it also tries to clarify theologically the terminologies used in recent Vatican statements regarding the Jews.
Benedict highlights the importance of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple for Christian theology, allowing the substitution of the body of Jesus for the physical temple, with the crucifixion and resurrection symbolizing the creation of a new model of temple and of sacrifice. In departure of pre-Nostra Aetate Church doctrine, Benedict sees Jews in dispersion not only as a state divine punishment and exclusion, but as a people with a mission to sanctify and publicize the name of G-d.
Benedict’s words are mirrored in the Nineteen Letters of the 19th century leader of German Neo-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who stated that Israel accomplished its task better in exile than in possession of good fortune. Indeed, improvements and corrections were the chief purposes of the exile.
Paradoxically, it is Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, who writes in the censored part of Hilchot Melachim that it is thanks to Christianity and Islam that the name of G-d and the words of the Torah, the prophets and the Psalms became known even to those living on far away islands.
Indeed, the universal mission of the Israelites in exile can be traced back to when the Israelites refused to enter the promised land and were punished to stay for forty years in the desert, a punishment which was preceded with the verse in Numbers (14:21) and indeed I am the living G-d and the glory of G-d will fill the world. Midrashic literature sets the date of the edict of the 30-year exile at the 9th of Av, the date when the successive two exiles will begin with thedestruction of both temples at that date. However, the really interesting part of Benedict’s words comes, when he deals with the Promised Land. Here, we see his struggle with the religious meaning of the return of the Jews to Zion. If the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple is the resurrection of Jesus and the messianic idea is the spread of the Catholic Church then the return of the Jews to Zion after two thousand years of exile is theologically problematic.
Already over fifty years ago, leading 20th century non-Zionist Rabbi, Shlomo Wolbe, pointed out the collateral result of the creation of the Jewish State, as being a difficult theological challenge to Church doctrine, making it impossible to recognize the Jewish State. Benedict confirms this in his latest essay, writing: In essence, the belief (of the Vatican) that a Jewish religious state, which claimed the fulfillment of the biblical (messianic) promises (of redemption), was seen in our (Christian) system of belief as an impossibility and a total rejection of Christian exegesis of the biblical (messianic) promises.
Benedict then explains what has moved and transpired in the Vatican since then, making the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Jewish State in 1993 possible. Based on the history of political Zionism, which could be seen as a secular national liberation movement, the creation of the State of Israel and the recognition thereof would be only possible in this context.
This approach also explains that when diplomatic relations were finally established and Israel contemplated sending Rabbi David Rosen, the architect of the rapprochement of the Vatican and Israel as first ambassador, the Vatican subtly signaled its wish to get a secular professional diplomat instead. The official reason, according to Cardinal Tauran’s explanation to Vice Foreign Minister Yosef Beilin was, that some outstanding diplomatic matters would demand a professional diplomat from the Israeli side. When Rabbi Rosen contacted Cardinal Ratzinger (who was a strong proponent of establishing diplomatic relations) through Zwi Werblovsky, who approached the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Casserolli, the answer was, that they didn't want the Muslims to think that the Jewish State got a preferential religious agreement…..
When, recently, the US administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I was surprised to see the unusual sharp protests of many different Christian denominations. I came to the realization that this is not only a result of their policy regarding the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but could very possibly be a result of their theological difficulties with the return of Jews to Jerusalem. Israel can be explained by highlighting secular Zionism, but the return of Jerusalem as the spiritual capital of the Jewish people, with its hundreds of synagogues, tens of thousands of Talmudical students and major centers of Jewish learning, is a much harder nut to crack.
When I will walk the streets of old Jerusalem on the 9th day of Av, I will see the remnants of the Crusaders and the Mamluks, the Romans and the Byzantine, all those who tried to establish permanent presence in the city of G-d and have failed to do so. The curse and punishment of exile to the Jews came with a hidden blessing, written in Leviticus (26:32), (often mistranslated, but) translated literally says, I will make the land desolate and your enemies who will try to live there will also be desolated.
As the 9th of Av approaches and in the synagogues of the world the lamentations of Jeremiah will be read, a bittersweet feeling might descend on us to thank the Al-mighty of the merit and Zechut of living in our generation, when once again (Zechariah 8:4) Old men and women will walk Jerusalem’s streets with their canes and will sit together in the city squares, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls, as we will read the words of Isaiah (1:27) this coming Shabbat, Zion will be redeemed by justice and those who will return, through charity.