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Leading Rabbis Voice Appreciation For The Message of Pope John Paul II

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2000

Discussing the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in March, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, stated: "I believe that Jews everywhere were touched by the ceremony (at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial) and his words."  

In a speech at Assumption College, a Catholic institution in Worcester, Massachusetts, Rabbi Yoffie said he was distressed by some Jewish leaders' call for the pope to specifically apologize for the church's action or inaction during the Holocaust. "I want to express my own distress at the manner in which so many Jewish leaders have responded to recent papal and Vatican pronouncements," he said. He declared: "When my friend apologizes to me for a sin he has committed, the appropriate response is for me to thank him, to welcome his repentance and to express my desire to continue our discussion." (New York Times, March 25, 2000)  

The Times reports: "In his speech, Rabbi Yoffie said that Reform Judaism had fallen behind in teaching its youth about important changes that had occurred since the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, an event whose emphasis on interfaith engagement is the foundation that John Paul has built upon. The Reform movement, Rabbi Yoffie said, will revise religious school textbooks to reflect `accurately and sympathetically' the church's position on Jews and Judaism."  

Rabbi Yoffie also declared that, "Church officials have complained recently about what they perceive to be the hostile, aggressive and disputatious tone that has been employed by at least some Jewish representatives. I agree with much that has been said by these church officials." Jewish organizations' response to Church statements on the Holocaust, Yoffie said, constitute "a litany of complaints about what the statement failed to say, very nearly creating the impression that the omissions were more important than the affirmations...I'm offering to all elements of the community the humble advice that the negative tone is inappropriate...and clearly counterproductive. The consistently negative and hostile tone heard from many (defense organizations) does not, in my view, represent the community." (The Forward, March 24, 2000).  

A similar response came from Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) in New York. "I think there's been enormous progress," he said, "One just need compare the visit of Pope Paul VI to Israel to the visit of Pope John Paul II. They are worlds apart." (Pope Paul, in a brief visit to Israel three decades ago, never uttered the word "Israel").  

Rabbi Schorsch noted that the pope had experienced the Nazi era directly, as a young seminarian in Poland, and had grown up with Jewish neighbors and schoolmates. Jews, who numbered more than three million in prewar Poland, "were not an abstraction to him, as they must have been to many Italian popes," Rabbi Schorsch said. "The Nazi trauma is a source of his empathy for Jews and of his courage in taking the church so far in its progress. I think the pattern of efforts at reconciliation is unmistakable and cumulative."  

In Rabbi Schorsch's view, "We have been exceedingly critical, almost to the point of nitpicking. It's time for a major Jewish voice to say, `This pope has done more for the Jewish people than all his predecessors. There should be much more conversation on our different religious practices, and these conversations should go well beyond the Holocaust and theology, in the direction of promoting understanding."  

In Israel, some Jewish and Muslim religious leaders sought to use the pope's visit for their own political ends. The Washington Post (March 24, 2000) reported about the pope's visit to Yad Vashem, "Pope John Paul II delivered an unusually impassioned speech on healing and reconciliation... But the Muslim and Jewish religious leaders he invited to hear it gave no indication they were ready to listen. Instead, the rabbi and the sheik invited by the Vatican to share the podium with the pope at an interfaith gathering...each made provocative, politically charged comments, some of which prompted catcalls from the audience...It was a sour turn for a session in which the Vatican had intended to highlight religious cooperation."  

According to the Post, "Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau...fired the first shot, shortly after a Jewish chorus sang the first of four songs about peace. He spoke briefly of friendship and understanding, then turned to the pope and said that Israel welcomes `your visit here, your coming here...your recognition of the independent state of Israel and your recognition of Jerusalem as its united, eternal capital city.' The first reply to his comments came from a male audience member who yelled out, `The pope has not recognized...' before hushes from some of the other 500 guests drowned him out. After Lau left the podium...his remarks were matched by Sheik Taysir Tamimi, who also warmly welcomed the pope before voicing familiar demands for Palestinian control of East Jerusalem and formation of an independent Palestinian state...During the statements by both the rabbi and the sheik, John Paul held his head in his hands but betrayed little emotion."

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