By Jack Bemporad
executive director, Center for Interreligious Understanding
A simple idea turned into a kind of grassroots movement among rabbis as Pope Benedict was about to arrive in Israel last week. Angelica Berrie, President of the Russell Berrie Foundation and I thought it would be appropriate to publish in Ha’aretz a short note of welcome to Pope Benedict, signed by a few Jewish leaders. What we uncorked was a flood of support among rabbis and Jewish leadership of all denominations. A few days, emails, and phone calls later, we had some 200 leaders committed to our Letter of Welcome. Not one person said no.
In this small act, something became unremittingly clear: this unexpected outpouring testifies to Jewish concern for, and endorsement of, genuine dialogue. And what became clear during the Pope’s first visit to the Holyland, is that Pope Benedict is deeply committed, too.
Speaking upon his departure from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, the Pope said:
“We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.” As for the Holocaust, he was clear: “That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied. On the contrary, those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree…”
I believe Pope Benedict is demonstrating his interfaith commitment by trying to understand Jews the way Jews understand and recognize themselves, and that, is the heart and soul of interreligious dialogue. In the over thirty years that I have worked in interfaith dialogue, I have come to believe that to be truly engaged, there are three questions each of us must ask ourselves:
“How can I be true to my faith without being false to yours?”
“What is the place of the other religions in our own self-understanding?”
“What are the common moral and ethical elements of our religions?”
First, in order to be true to our own faiths and not distort the other, we must find new terminology. Common words mean very different things in different traditions. Only dialogue can bring about clarification so that our own and the other’s religion can be accurately described. One must recognize oneself as properly characterized by the other in the dialogue process. Not simply to see the other person as they are, but to try to understand with what eyes they see you. A process of re-cognition must take place.
The second question, “What is the place of other religions in our own self-understanding?” requires us to review our religious theologies and past teachings about the other, and find a proper place for the other. This requires a renewed effort to accurately educate our own adherents to the values and beliefs of others.
Third we must dialogue to discover the common moral and ethical elements of our religions, and try to unite on a common objective and universal ethic. This is of the utmost importance, since we cannot expect religions to agree on fundamental theological issues.
There is no doubt that the last 45 years have seen revolutionary changes on the part of the Catholic Church to begin to view Jews as Jews view themselves. From the 1964 Nostra Aetate to the Papal visits to Israel. This forward momentum has laid a path and now is the time to truly engage in serious interfaith dialogue by asking and answering these three key questions.
Religions wield great power. They influence millions of people. Interreligious dialogue has shown it can be a model for real change. In fact, it must be because those millions of resources who make up the world’s religions are ultimately the world’s hope for peace.
It is a tall order, but as Pope John Paul II reminded us, “Our heritage tells us that as the children of Abraham we are to be a blessing for all the earth; we should begin by being a blessing to one another.”
Rabbi Jack Bemporad is the Executive Director of Center for Interreligious Understanding (CIU) in New Jersey, and is on the faculty of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) Pontifical University in Rome. He is just back from Israel where he was one of the American Rabbis in attendance to greet Pope Benedict during his visit.