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SCRIPTURE-COHEN (SECOND UPDATE) Sep-24-2008 (910 words) With logo posted Aug. 21 and photo to come. xxxi

Israeli rabbi calls Vatican invitation to address synod sign of hope

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- The Vatican invitation to participate in the upcoming world Synod of Bishops on the Bible is a "signal of hope," said Israeli Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, who will lead a one-day discussion on the Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures.

Rabbi Cohen, co-chairman of the Israeli-Vatican dialogue commission and chief rabbi of Haifa, is the first non-Christian ever invited to address the world Synod of Bishops. He will speak the second day of the Oct. 5-26 synod at the Vatican.

"(The invitation) brings with it a message of love, coexistence and peace for generations," Rabbi Cohen told Catholic News Service in an interview in his Jerusalem office in late September. "We see in (the) invitation a kind of declaration that (the church) intends to continue with the policy and doctrine established by Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and we appreciate very deeply this declaration."

Despite the history of violence and bloodshed from the Christian world, said Rabbi Cohen, the invitation can also be seen as a declaration of "respect and coexistence with Judaism as the older brother of Christianity."

He said he actually felt a bit of trepidation in accepting the invitation because some rabbinical leaders feel that interreligious dialogue is simply another way of trying to convince Jews to become Christians, and some Jewish leaders opposed his addressing the synod.

"There is an extreme group that is afraid and who say that, since (Christians) didn't succeed by force to convert us, they are trying now to do it by talking; they call it the kiss of death," said Rabbi Cohen. "If they are right, I am making a mistake, but I believe that is not the situation."

The rabbi said he sees the invitation as a partial fulfillment of an ancient daily prayer that seeks a day when all people will join together to worship God.

Rabbi Cohen noted Christianity, Islam and Judaism are Abrahamic faiths that believe in one God.

"You can't deny the fact that, despite the difference in opinion, the roots are the same. They start from Abraham, and we can call these three religions the Abrahamic faiths. We all continue the sanctity and loyalty to the Bible," he said.

Rabbi Cohen -- the 18th generation of a family of rabbis and biblical scholars -- said he will speak to the synod about the centrality of the Jewish Scripture in Jewish tradition and daily life and the importance of it in the education of every Jewish child, as well as its importance to Israel. He gave the example of a yearly Bible quiz, which is broadcast nationally and whose winners are congratulated by the Israeli president.

"I believe that is what should be copied by all nations of the world. They should learn the Bible and know it and be inspired by it," he said.

He said he was able to recite almost the entire Torah -- the first five books of the Bible -- by the time he was 8 years old.

Rabbis use biblical quotations and their rabbinical interpretations to relate to contemporary issues when they must make a religious ruling, he said.

"The Tanach, the Torah, is indeed a central part of our (prayer) service and the very symbolic fact that in every synagogue we face the (Holy) Ark, which contains the written scrolls of the books of Moses and the prophets," shows its importance, said Rabbi Cohen. "We pray (toward) the book, not to God; there is no image of God or icons. We put in our Holy Ark the words of God. That is how central the Scriptures are in our lives."

In the years following the 2001 Vatican document "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible," Rabbi Cohen has noticed a growing interest in learning about the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians know as the Old Testament. He said he has hosted several groups of Catholic religious who asked him questions about the Scriptures.

"I asked them if they could forget the fact that not only Jesus but all the apostles were Jewish, so instead of hating those Jews that are accused of having killed Christ, think about the fact that the victims were also Jews," said Rabbi Cohen. "I believe that is part of the Jewish persecution that happened through generations by other people. That is part of our destiny, but Christians should realize that and respect those who continue to live as the Jews (lived) in the time of the founding of Christianity."

Jewish survival throughout centuries of hatred and persecution "is a sign that despite all the difficulty God wants us to exist and to continue the way we were," said Rabbi Cohen.

He said interreligious dialogue acts as a block to the spreading of the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiment of the past, without which the Holocaust could not have taken place.

While there may not be room for Scripture scholarship between Jews and Christians because of the different conclusions both reach from the readings, such discussions might be possible on a scientific level at academic institutions, he said.

"I believe we should leave each to his own tradition and not try to blur the differences," said Rabbi Cohen. "One part of every dialogue is not only to speak to each other but also to listen to each other and respect his right to be different. We can't expect Christians to do that for us if we don't do that for them."


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