|The Pope at the Synagogue? An important event
No one could be more suitable than Rabbi Jacob Neusner
one of the greatest experts and scholars on Judaism alive
to discuss the Sermon on the Mount with the Catholic theologian
Archbishop Bruno Forte.
The exceptional evening meeting took place on 18 January
in Rome, in the Auditorium's Petrassi Hall. It was no coincidence that
this dialogue took place the day after the Pope's historic Visit to the
Synagogue of Rome, nor was it by chance that the Marilena Ferrari-FMR
Foundation chose this Jewish figure in organizing the Imago Christi
event. Imago Christi is the title of the art book published
by Nicola Sapori that contains the Sermon on the Mount;
read aloud at the event by actor Luca Zingaretti.
Archbishop Forte began by recalling a quotation of
Ghandi's, who said: "It was thanks to this text that I learned to love
Jesus". The Sermon on the Mount is, as it were, the "identity
card" of Christ, hence also that of Christians. No one is more fitting
to reflect on this extraordinary "identity card" than Jacob Neusner,
because this is what the American Rabbi has been doing for more than 20
years, from the time when his long-distance dialogue with Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger began.
In 1993 Neusner published a book in the United States on
the Sermon on the Mount: A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. In this book
he imagines he is there on the mountain where Jesus spoke the
Beatitudes, hearing him for the first time. Neusner's challenge is to
listen to Christ, free from all the preconceived notions and prejudices
that have inevitably accumulated in 2,000 years of Christian history.
Before beginning the dialogue, the elderly Rabbi from
Hartford, Connecticut, told the audience about his book: "Just before it
was published, I suggested to my editor that we ask Cardinal Ratzinger,
then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to write
a review for the jacket. He treated me as though I were out of my mind
for he thought that the Cardinal would never have accepted. We bet on it
and I won".
Ratzinger wrote, among other things, that my essay was
"by far the most important book for Jewish-Christian dialogue to have
come out in the past decade". And he added: "The absolute intellectual
honesty, the precision of the analysis, the combination of respect for
the other party and radical loyalty to his own position characterize
this book and make it a challenge, especially to Christians who will
have to think carefully about the difference between Moses and Jesus".
"Then in 2007, when Benedict XVI wrote the first volume
of his work on Jesus of Nazareth, he had the courtesy to resume our
dialogue, dedicating several pages to my book of 1993".
Archbishop Forte is also well acquainted with Neusner's
book. During the public dialogue he praised it several times, stressing
first its originality, due "to the fact that the author imagines himself
a contemporary of the Galilean Teacher and enters into an intense
discussion with him. From the rabbinical point of view, this is an act
of profound respect and strong spiritual tension"
and then the loyal frankness with which it was written: "Jesus' Jewish
identity is therefore indisputable, and we must be grateful to those
who avow it with honesty and respect".
With the same frankness the Archbishop went on to
explain the reasons for Christianity, reflecting precisely on the most
controversial points in his book over which the Rabbi expresses the
greatest perplexity: respect for the Torah and in particular, for the
Third and Fourth Commandments.
Citing Jeremiah, the Catholic theologian recalled that
the Sermon on the Mount is not a law that opposes Mosaic Law.
Rather, he said, it is a Gospel, the glad tidings of the love of God who
does not abandon man but, by taking on flesh in Christ, gives him the
power to scale those apparently impossible heights represented by the
Beatitudes, the Magna Carta of Christianity.
The most engaging aspect of the dialogue between
Archbishop Forte and Rabbi Neusner was its authenticity. It was
courteous in style yet forthright and open in essence: a
straight-forward confrontation which, together with the meetings between
Jews and Catholics that have taken place in the past few days,
contributed to increasing their reciprocal knowledge.
Another positive indication
of this dialogue was the Private Audience that the Pope granted to Jacob
Neusner and his wife, Suzanne, on Monday, 18 January. On that occasion
the Rabbi gave Benedict XVI a copy of the German edition of his book of
which Ratzinger had read at the time in the
original American edition
together with a copy of the Italian edition of the essay on the Talmud
(published by the Daughters of St Paul who have likewise reprinted it
with the title: Un rabbino parla
The Pope was very pleased
with these gifts and spent almost 20 minutes talking to his friend from
across the ocean. "Enough time", Neusner explained, "for a nice meeting
between two professors. I have always esteemed the scholar Joseph
Ratzinger for his honesty and lucidity, and I was very interested to
meet him and become acquainted with him. Now that I have come here to
Rome for the historic meeting in the Synagogue and for a discussion with
Archbishpp Forte, I have received this great privilege of being able to
meet the Pope".
Neusner was almost at a
loss to express the joy of the visit: "We talked about our books and he
told me he has finished writing the second volume of his work on Jesus".
Neusner, however, is a man
of few words. He goes straight to the point, which is, moreover, the
virtue that the two "professors" appreciate in each other. "What
impressed me most was his penetrating gaze. He sees right through you.
And then his gentlemanly manner, full of kindness and humility".
It is this human quality of
the Pontiff which touched the Rabbi, the same quality he discerned in
the Pope during his Visit to the Synagogue on Sunday: "An important
event, widely attended and with high expectations and excitement on the
part of all, which leads me to have great hopes for the future. The
and the Pope has clearly understood it
is that we live in oblivion, we have forgotten the history and religious
traditions from which we come.
"That is why it is
important to study history. I am thinking of a controversial question
such as that of the historical figure of Pius XII. To my mind it is
still too early to judge; yet I often hear incisive contradictory
opinions. I have a sort of feeling that someone is destructively
undermining everything, someone who is not interested in Catholicism or
Judaism, nor even in the dialogue between these two great traditions.
This is sad, because in practical reality
I see it in my daily life in the United States
relations between Jews and Christians are excellent. If we ignore the
past, we are condemned to relive it. The study of this viewpoint is
indispensable. Together with a sense of responsibility: every generation
has a responsibility for the future and has it today, here and now".