Rabbi's synod invite a message of hope

By  Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service
  • September 25, 2008
{mosimage}JERUSALEM - 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.

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, co-existence and peace for generations,” Cohen told Catholic News Service. “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 Cohen, the invitation can also be seen as a declaration of “respect and co-existence 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 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 fulfilment of an ancient daily prayer that seeks a day when all people will join together to worship God.

Cohen noted that a medieval Jewish thinker, Rabbi Moses Maimonides — known as Rambam — said Judaism and Islam came to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah.

“That means there is a positive element in their existence as Abrahamic faiths who believe in one God,” said Cohen. “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.”

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.

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 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,” 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.

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 Cohen. He said ecumenical 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 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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