Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, recently wrote an article in which he noted an "asymmetry" in Jewish-Christian dialogue: that Catholics are pursuing relations but too few Jewish representatives are committed to the cause. In an article for the Italian Jewish monthly magazine Pagine Ebraiche which was later reprinted in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Ambassador Lewy called on Israelis to be more open to dialogue with Christians.
This week, the ambassador, who is an historian and expert in religious history, spoke with Terrasanta.net about this concern. He also discussed the reality of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, the Pope's recent visit to Rome's synagogue, and the current state of talks between the Holy See and Israel over the Fundamental Agreement.
Ambassador, why in your opinion are some Orthodox Jews so reticent about Catholic-Jewish dialogue? Is it because Jewish orthodoxy became less flexible after the Shoah?There are many, many reasons, not only the Shoah. There are serious reasons why they do not participate. But in spite of those serious reasons, they should participate in order to take part in what I see as historical change.
How can their attitudes change?
First of all we need to start to reflect on this question. The more questions, the more reflection and then the end of this process might be change. It's a process; it won't be done today or tomorrow. This process has already started but we can probably try to accelerate it. It will remain a process but it won't be shared by all, also among Catholics it is not shared by all. It is a pious wish to have all Catholics follow Nostra Aetate but I know it is not the case.
Would you say there are elements in Judaism trying to thwart current dialogue?
No, not to stop it, they are simply not taking part in it, they are ignoring it, not thinking it is relevant for them. Those are the attitudes I think. It is not an expressed ‘anti'. It is an ignorance and indifference and, by the way, if you talk about dialogue it often means it in theological terms. I don't mean it in this sense, in terms of theological dialogue. I mean more in its existential dimension.
It's about focusing on what the two religions have in common?
You know, the very point that for 2000 years they saw each other as against the other is already something they already have in common. Instead of looking at each other as opponents, they could see each other as being next to each other.
Could confronting secularism be the issue that brings the two religions closer together?
It's always said the secularist spirit might lead religious to join together - the idea that because of relativism, we see each other as being closer. That might be so, but you're talking with a secularist. I do not belong to the religious sector... But I understand this argument of the secular spirit and normal people who do not normally feel themselves religious and therefore feel all of a sudden in the same camp. I see the historical change coming now because I do recognize that Nostra Aetate is a bold step to seek understanding and this should be met and also fully understood on our side. There are still inhibitions preventing full recognition and we are working on removing those inhibitions, step by step.
Is there a fear of conversion to Christianity?
There is a fear. It is a traumatic fear that exists. I remember Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik [a seminal figure of modern orthodox Judaism] was asked by Cardinal Willebrands in the 1960s, in view of the coming discussions around Nostra Aetate which was then not yet drafted: "What do you think about the conversion of Jews?" He [Soloveitchik] said it was absolutely mandatory to make a signal that it is not conceived any more as a goal because the Jews will consider it as a second Holocaust. So it's very touchy. Not every polemic today is only for the sake of conducting polemics: there are Jews who really understand it as a threat. I think it's unjustified but still, they think like that. So we have to consider it and cope with it.
Is there formal dialogue between Judaism or the State of Israel and Islam?
Yes, but it's a difficult one, it's not easy to find partners. A first condition of dialogue is that you're not cutting the other person's throat. If you have only those people who think like that, you have to ask: is the dialogue viable at all?
So it's no where near close to the level of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
No, but you know what, for religious people, Islam is less prohibitive than Christianity. You would be surprised. I think the iconoclastic approach of Islam, which is about not favouring images, is something which the Orthodox Jew immediately feels he can associate with. He can relate to it. Almost even the kosher / halal food regulations are another dimension on which they can relate, even if it's not really the same. When it comes to pork, yes, but not when it comes to wine or seafood. They eat seafood, we don't.
Does the State of Israel seriously look on Jewish-Muslim dialogue as a possible pathway to peace?
Yes, it's very much favoured, if it is possible. We do participate if we are allowed, even within trilateral dialogue frameworks. But sometimes we have problems, for example with the Saudis. On all Saudi initiatives, which are very welcome, they will always look at the passports of the rabbis. For them, they could be Jewish, but if they have Israeli passports they would be seen as ‘undesired participants'. They won't accept Israeli rabbis with Israeli passports.
Would you like to share any brief reflections on the Pope's recent visit to Rome's synagogue?
Well it was good, it should have been understood by all, but some had reservations and I think the press contributed to this dramatisation which was not well placed in my mind. Of course [the visit] was disputed in the Italian community, also in the Roman, but more in the Italian community. I think we have a clear cut orientation in Israel and so we were very keen to show it, as was seen in the dialogue that followed at the Vatican with the rabbis, and the massive presence of the delegation from Israel.
Also the vice premier coming here and honouring the event. So I think it was very good. I don't know of any event where the Pope who has been invited and was then rebuked [by the President of the Italian Jewish Community]. So it was an event which had to happen and those who questioned it probably could speak like that because they didn't have to assume responsibility, they were not inviting bodies. The invitation came from the Roman community not the Italian one.
Yes there are some things cooking and let's hope for the best. It's difficult, but there are creative minds pushing ideas here and there. I cannot reveal them, I'm sorry, but there is hopefully a grain of hope in the sense that some creative ideas are being exchanged.