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BENEDICT-JUDAISM Jun-13-2005 (1,320 words) xxxi

Jewish leaders say pope's past cause for optimism, not concern

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When recent headlines announced that Pope Benedict XVI had once been enrolled in the Hitler Youth, Jewish leaders who knew the new pope were not overly concerned.

In the days after the pope's April 19 election, Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur said he asked Jewish audiences "to be patient, to not pass hasty judgments."

Ben-Hur, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, was optimistic because he was familiar with the new pontiff's track record as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote extensively about the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian faith; the ongoing mission of the Jews in God's plan of salvation for humanity; the error of blaming Jews for the death of Jesus; and how that error contributed to anti-Semitism and to instances of Christian complacency in the face of the Holocaust.

The new pope's theological contributions to Catholic-Jewish dialogue far outweighed any apprehensions by 25 leaders of the world's major Jewish organizations who met with the pontiff June 9 at Vatican.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told reporters June 9: "Anybody who had any fear or concern did not know who Ratzinger was."

The rabbi described as "rubbish" the stories that played up the future pope's enrollment in the Hitler Youth.

"Enrollment was compulsory," he said. "And even if it hadn't been obligatory, the mark of a man isn't his childhood, but who he is today."

Rabbi Rosen said the future pope's respect for the Jewish people and his commitment to ongoing dialogue were particularly clear at a 1994 conference the rabbi organized in Jerusalem and in a 2000 article the future pope wrote in the Vatican newspaper.

At the Jerusalem conference, then-Cardinal Ratzinger began by acknowledging "the history of the relationship between Israel and Christendom is drenched with blood and tears."

Especially after the Holocaust, the cardinal said, Christians have a moral obligation to be clear in their teaching of esteem and respect for the Jewish people.

In the 2000 article, he emphasized how Christianity and Judaism have a unique relationship, one that Christians do not share with any other world religion, because Christianity acknowledges God's relationship with Israel as the beginning of salvation history. He also affirmed Catholic belief that God's covenant with the Jewish people is "irrevocable."

The text of his Jerusalem speech and other essays on theological topics related to Catholic-Jewish relations are found in Cardinal Ratzinger's book, "Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World," published in English in 1999.

Ben-Hur, the Israeli ambassador, told Catholic News Service June 8 he thinks most members of the Jewish community already recognize they have a friend in the new pope.

"In his first 50 days in office, Pope Benedict has given us enough signals to show he will continue on the path of the popes before him" in promoting stronger relations with the Jewish community, the ambassador said.

Like the Catholic crowds at papal Masses or Catholic bishops holding private meetings with the pope, members of the Jewish community naturally tend to make comparisons between Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, the first pope to visit a synagogue and the author of appreciated gestures of friendship and reconciliation.

"While the background, upbringing, surroundings and friends of Pope John Paul II" brought him into personal contact with the Jewish community, Ben-Hur said, "whatever Cardinal Ratzinger had formed in relation to the Jews was something he formed himself."

It is possible the new pope approaches Jewish-Catholic relations "more with his head than with his heart, but to realize where he has arrived in the relationship and his willingness to deepen the dialogue is another reason for optimism," the ambassador said.

Pope Benedict's study and love of Scriptures "is what brings the whole thing to his heart in a way that perhaps his personal background did not," he said. "This is not opportunistic politics for him."

Rabbi Israel Singer, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told CNS that his June 9 meeting was with "an old friend in new white robes. He is the same person, but with more authority, and with the same commitment to dialogue."

The rabbi said he is expecting even more from the new pope.

"He was the one who gave the theological underpinnings to the gestures of Pope John Paul. He has already thought through the theological implications of what he says," Rabbi Singer said.

Pope Benedict, he said, has an "overwhelming theological authority. He does not have to go to someone else to decide what is kosher. He judges what is kosher."

Some Jewish leaders were concerned about "Dominus Iesus," the document the doctrinal congregation issued in 2000 affirming Catholic belief in Jesus Christ as the only savior of humanity. Many non-Christians felt the document not only called into question the validity of their religions, but also opened the door for new Catholic campaigns to convert members of other religions.

But Rabbi Singer said the new pope's authorship of "Dominus Iesus" is not an obstacle to Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

"The pope is a Catholic and 'Dominus Iesus' says what he believes as a Catholic," the rabbi said.

The document did not specifically look at the question of the salvation of the Jews, but Cardinal Ratzinger did discuss the issue in his 1999 book: "Even if Christians wish that Israel might one day recognize Christ as the Son of God and that the fissure that still divides them might thereby be closed, they ought to acknowledge the decree of God, who has obviously entrusted Israel with a distinctive mission in the 'time of the Gentiles.'"

The continuing mission of the Jews, he has said, is to witness to the world the existence of the one true God.

In the article he wrote in late 2000 for the Vatican newspaper, largely seen as an attempt to clarify his position after the release of "Dominus Iesus," Cardinal Ratzinger said, "Our gratitude must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present, and who witness to it in the sight of those peoples who, lacking knowledge of the one God, 'dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.'"

After meeting the pope June 9, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, vice president of the U.S.-based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said, "We are optimistic and positive" about the future "because if you look at what he has said and what he has done in the last 20 years he has given every indication that he is committed to a strong relationship with the Jewish community."

Pope Benedict's appreciation of Judaism, he said, "is spiritual, not just intellectual. People come to a spiritual point from different places: from Scripture, which is very appropriate, or from personal experiences" like Pope John Paul, who grew up with Jewish friends.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the U.S.-based Rabbinical Assembly, said Jewish reaction to the election of Pope Benedict varied depending on how much knowledge and experience individuals had with Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

"The Jewish community still has strong feelings about the Holocaust and the Catholic Church's role in it. When it was reported that he had been in the Hitler Youth, it immediately raised questions and concerns. That is normal," he said. "But those who knew his previous work and writings knew he is thoughtful, learned, compassionate and would work to continue the change brought by Vatican II."

"It is too soon to tell" how different his approach will be from that of Pope John Paul, Rabbi Meyers said. "As a cardinal, he was responsible for developing the intellectual, theological basis of these positions, while Pope John Paul was the personal face. But now he has a different job and I think he will rise to the occasion."


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