Friday, February 08, 2008

Praying for the Jews

There is a prayer that Catholics recite on Good Friday colloquially called the Prayer for the Jews. Historically, it has been a prayer for the conversion of the Jews to Catholicism. Pope Benedict recently released a revised version of this prayer that is supposed to be less offensive to Jews. However, a number of Jewish figures have announced their displeasure with the new version (NY Times, Time, JTA). I asked Dr. David Berger for his thoughts on this. Here is what he kindly sent me:

Click here to read moreGil has asked me to comment on the controversy surrounding the new version of the Latin prayer regarding Jews. While omitting the original reference to Jewish blindness, it expresses hope that Jews will recognize Jesus, who is the savior of all people, and it effectively cites the famous assertion in Romans 11:25-26 that in the fullness of the nations, all Israel will be saved. This material is not present in the post-Vatican II vernacular mass, which will remain the most widely used version, but the Pope has apparently approved a somewhat more extensive use of the Latin mass in its new and moderately improved formulation.

The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) has expressed deep disappointment at this development. Its chair described the prayer as “a regression from the path advanced by the declaration of the second Vatican Council” and “urge[d] the Catholic Church to deepen its exploration of the full implications of Nostra Aetate's affirmation of the eternal validity of God’s Divine Covenant with the Jewish People."

Though I am one of the Rabbinical Council of America’s representatives in IJCIC, I did not get to the email announcing an urgent conference call on this matter until it had already taken place. One of the RCA representatives who did participate expressed strong reservations about the wisdom of issuing an immediate response.

Deciding how to react to such matters is not an easy task. On the one hand, I do not find fault with Catholics who believe that Jews will recognize the truth of Christianity at the end of days. I have argued on a number of occasions that there is nothing unethical about such a position any more than it is unethical for Jews to recite the High Holiday prayers for the universal recognition of the God of Israel by nations who will forsake their current beliefs.

At the same time, this prayer for the ultimate conversion of the Jews was written by Pope Benedict, who in his earlier life as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in the Church document Dominus Iesus that a key purpose of interfaith dialogue is mission, which includes the message that conversion is necessary to attain full communion with God. Some interpreters of Dominus Iesus maintained that none of its key assertions apply to Jews because the Jewish people is already with God and requires no further change in its religion. I argued elsewhere that this interpretation is insupportable, and the Pope’s involvement in preparing the new Latin text underscores this argument. (See my “Dominus Iesus and the Jews,” America 185:7 [September 17, 2001]: 7-12. Available here. Reprinted in Sic et Non: Encountering Dominus Iesus, ed. by Stephen J. Pope and Charles C. Hefling, New York, 2002, pp. 39-46.) But I also noted that in other writings, Cardinal Ratzinger is apparently willing to wait until the End of Days for Jewish recognition of the true faith.

In sum, Jews should stop deceiving themselves that the avant-garde Christian position that Jews will not convert even at the End of Days is the mainstream teaching of the Church. They should also stop trying to persuade Catholics to embrace this position, which is almost impossible to square with the traditional Christian belief in the second coming of Jesus. At the same time, I do not think that it is inappropriate to express measured disappointment at a shift in the status quo in the direction of more frequent liturgical expression of the expectation of Jewish conversion. This is not because of the belief itself, but because concern with a long history of efforts to proselytize Jews, not to speak of a history of persecution, argues against raising the profile of this Christian expectation.

In the final analysis, Jewish objections should be carefully formulated and should not indicate that Christian belief in eschatological verification is itself objectionable or tinged with anti-Semitism.

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