A leading Israeli rabbi is speaking out on the sensitive discussions between the Israeli rabbinate and the Vatican in anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s May visit to the Holy Land and about his own connections to Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, who serves as the chief rabbi in the northern port city of Haifa and dean of Israel’s institutions of rabbinical education, has been part of the Israeli dialogue and says many concerns remain as the date of the Pope’s visit nears.
The rabbi said the discrete talks between the two sides have focused on issues such as the Pope’s general reinstatement of the Tridentine Mass and especially with regard to the Good Friday prayer for the Jews’ conversion and sainthood for Pope Pius XII, the Pope during World War II.
Pope John Paul II allowed the Tridentine Mass and the Holy Week rites that were customary during the time of Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s – including the traditional prayer for the Jews conversion – to be used with permission of the local bishop in 1988, but Pope Benedict XVI eliminated the requirement of having to receive a bishop’s permission to use the pre-Vatican II rites in 2007.
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Following Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church eliminated an explicit call for God to convert the Jews from its Good Friday liturgy.
The status of Pius XII, he said, remains a thorny issue for the rabbis in their discussions with the Vatican, as did the issue of several clerics who denied the Holocaust.
“We refer to him as ‘the Holocaust Pope,’” said Rabbi Cohen. “Although he may have helped individual Jews, he did not fulfill his role to protest the mass slaughter of Jews. Rabbi Cohen expressed the view that if the Vatican does claim that Pope Pius XII did extraordinary things to help the Jews during the war, then the Vatican should open its archives to provide documentation of such.”
Rabbi Cohen said he requested the opportunity to visit Rome and discuss these issues directly with the Pope and other senior Vatican officials.
The rabbi received that opportunity last October when the Vatican gave him an unprecedented opportunity to address a gathering of Catholic bishops on the topic of the Holy Scriptures.
He described how the Pope entered the hall with him, arm-in-arm, where he gave a lesson on subject on how portions of the Torah (Old Testament) have been integrated into Jewish prayers. While looking at the Pope during his teaching, Rabbi Cohen noticed the Pope had closed his eyes in an intense meditation, holding his hands to his head.
After his address, Rabbi Cohen expressed his aforementioned concerns.
“We hope that the present leadership will not take any steps that would cause pain to those who have survived the Holocaust,” Rabbi Cohen told the Pope and the assembled Catholic bishops.
He said the response was surprisingly positive.
“I have a feeling that this made the Vatican rethink the whole matter and that this played a role in the decision not to beatify Pope Pius XII,” a discussion of which was scheduled for two days after Rabbi Cohen’s fall visit.
The Vatican made it clear to Rabbi Cohen, on the record, that the Pope would “make every effort to continue a process of dialogue and reconciliation that reached its peak at the time of the visit of Pope Paul II in Jerusalem, in March 2000.”
Three weeks ago, Rabbi Cohen was again invited to Rome, where he led a delegation of rabbis who will form the welcoming committee for the Pope in Jerusalem.
Pope Benedict XVI used the rabbi’s second visit to Rome to clarify that a “mishap” had occurred when he lifted the excommunication of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) who has been on record as denying the Holocaust. The Pope told Rabbi Cohen that he “should have checked the Internet” about the bishop before lifting the excommunication that had been leveled against him by his predecessor, John Paul II.
Rabbi Cohen said the Pope went out of his way to make it clear the Vatican would never question Israel’s sovereignty, nor challenge its rights to rule over the Old City of Jerusalem. Between 1949 and 1967, the Old City remained under Jordan’s Islamic rule, and Jews were barred from entering it.
He said both himself and other Israeli rabbis are open to Pope Benedict’s idea of establishing an inter-religious council where all of the religions represented in the Holy City could be called together to discuss both the practical and spiritual aspects of Jerusalem’s present and future.
The rabbi also discussed the warm interpersonal relations that developed between the rabbis and the Vatican officials.
The chemistry that developed between the Jerusalem rabbinic leadership and the leading figures of the Vatican led to the logical conclusion that they should have lunch together at the one kosher restaurant in Rome. Italian eyebrows were raised when half a dozen rabbis with black skullcaps and half a dozen Catholic cardinals with red skullcaps sauntered into the restaurant to order a kosher lunch.
The rabbi also divulged his long personal connection with Jerusalem, where he will accompany the Pope in May, which has included numerous remarkable events.
In May 1948, Rabbi Cohen was an 18-year-old seminary student who was shot in the Old City during the bloody fighting, in the cobblestone paths of old Jerusalem.
Rabbi Cohen said he was taken to an improvised clinic of the Armenian convent near the Jewish Quarter, where Armenian clerics had treated his wounds and saved his life.
Carried out on a stretcher to a Jordanian prison camp, Rabbi Cohen was the last Jewish civilian to leave the old city of Jerusalem before the Arabs ransacked the Jewish quarter and burnt all 57 synagogues inside the walls of the ancient Jerusalem.
In 1967, after Israel gained control over the ancient old city of Jerusalem, Rabbi Cohen was the first Jewish civilian allowed back into Jerusalem, and in that capacity he served at the time as the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
Later in October 1994, Rabbi Cohen was invited to give the benediction at the Jordan-Israel peace treaty ceremony. During the Pope’s visit, 60 years after he returned from Jordanian captivity, Rabbi Cohen will have the honor of accompanying the Pope through the pathways of the city of Jerusalem that remains Holy to three great religions of God.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org