I first got a sense of the meaning of interfaith dialogue as a 26-year-old student on a Fulbright fellowship in Rome. I was a newly ordained rabbi representing the Reform Jewish movement in a meeting with Pope John XXIII to discuss hunger issues. With the impetuousness of youth, I asked the pontiff about the Church's role in the destruction of European Jewry. I'd been a refugee at age 6, but lucky -- we'd fled Italy just before the war. The pontiff's response was that he planned to do something about it.
That meeting, some 50 years ago, was one of the transformative experiences of my life because Pope John XXIII impressed me as a truly saintly individual who was dedicated to doing great things. Even though I am a Jew, I've returned to the Vatican, seat of Roman Catholicism, many times because I've experienced firsthand there the power of interfaith dialogue in the hands of great leaders. Under Pope John Paul II, the "Prague Accord," which asked for forgiveness of past acts of anti-Judaism, was adopted; diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel were established; we saw the first pope to enter the synagogue in Rome, as well as that profound sight of John Paul, in his frail years, putting a prayer of reconciliation in the Western Wall. On this day of his beatification, it is only appropriate that we celebrate this leader who made a revolutionary impact in Catholic-Jewish relations within our lifetime, and that we of all faiths continue to learn from him.
I had the privilege of meeting with Pope John Paul II on numerous occasions and I remember a vibrant, intense, egoless personality who was concerned with Justice and Mercy and Truth, and how to bring those ideals to life in the modern world. Perhaps the first impression one had in meeting him was his gravitas -- a presence that immediately made you feel that something important is at stake. At the same time, his profound humanity and love shown through at every meeting, and you felt he was interested in you and what you were doing and the topic at hand. Always he looked to how the faiths could come together. In one meeting in Denver, he expressed strong concern that religions work together to offer an objective and universal ethic that could help deal with the pressing problems we face: war, poverty, inequality, the lack of education in so many parts of the world. In another meeting at the Vatican, he was much more theoretical and theological, relating to work our interfaith center had done in educating the interreligious community on the new catechism, and how best to conduct theological dialogue between Christians and Jews. He firmly believed that we who have received -- all people of faith -- are incumbent to do something about the ills of the world.
After establishing the indissoluble connection for Christians of Judaism with Christianity, the pope officially asked Christians to strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of Judaism's religious tradition. The pope emphasized that it was essential for Christians to understand how Jews define themselves. "They [Christians] must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience."
The pope also clearly understood that the attempt to understand must also be mutual, if real dialogue is to take place. So when the pope first met with members of the Jewish community, he said, "You are here, I believe, to help us in our reflection on Judaism and I'm sure that we find in you and in the communities you represent, a real and deep disposition to understand Christianity and the Catholic church in it's proper identity today, so that we may work from both sides toward our common aim of overcoming every kind of prejudice and discrimination." This very important statement says it's not enough for Christians to understand Jews and view them the way they view themselves, it's equally necessary for Jews to understand Christians and the way we view ourselves. I believe this essential element, so clearly articulated by the late pope, remains lacking in Christian-Jewish dialogue.
Pope John Paul understood that the destruction of European Jewry prompted many Christians to discover the true spiritual patrimony that we share. The experience of having survived millennia, from the Jewish point of view, is of extreme theological significance and has much to do with dialogue. Our relationship with God and with oppression is linked at our very core. Jewish thinking, religious structures, self-understanding -- all that serves our spiritual self-preservation -- evolved in part to control, circumvent or contend with a hostile environment. Judaism became what it needed to be in order to survive.
Therefore, the devastating destruction of 6 million Jews made it necessary first, to acknowledge the role that Christian teachings may have had in regard to that horror. The "We Remember" document, The European Bishops' statements, the Papal visit to Israel and the "Fundamental Accord" have significantly dealt with that. I think this was a necessary early step, though here I have to say many Christians still have no sense of the Jewish experience with respect to the precariousness and vulnerability of being a Jew -- this feeling that Jewish identity hangs in the balance and each generation doesn't know whether it will be the last, something John Paul understood well.
In turn, for many Jews the challenge of dialogue, of reconciliation, the challenge of love, is terrifying because it can appear to threaten everything that helped keep Jews, Jews. We as Jews are challenged to dismantle emotional and political defenses that have bolstered us, preserved us and to a great extent, have become us. Dialogue and reconciliation challenge us to breathe new life into a stale, dusty habit, born of oppression; to open the ghetto which still exists in the world, if not in our minds and hearts. In all these years there have been no official statements coming from the Jewish side to clarify Jewish attitudes with respect to Christianity. What has occurred thus far is significant on both sides, but I think remains preliminary to deriving the full benefits and essence of dialogue.
What one was left with after meeting with Pope John Paul was his complete dedication to the next step in dialogue wherein one must be true to one's own faith without being false to the faith of the other -- and how serious and difficult this task is. I believe that is the fundamental question and the fundamental issue of dialogue and should influence every single discussion on every level. "How can I be true to my own faith without being false to yours?" It's not enough for me to say, "Here's what Judaism believes, now you tell me what Christianity believes." It's important for me to say, "I can have a sense of myself without diminishing you in any way. I can affirm my beliefs without restricting, denigrating or distorting yours."
When we attempt to discuss the deepest convictions by which individuals define their very essence and beliefs, upon which one's whole existence is at stake, it requires a special sensitivity and understanding which simply does not apply in other areas of discussion. This is not dialogue between science and religion nor is it the same as the discussion between religion and secularism. Interreligious dialogue has a place of its own. There is an intrinsic humility that must show itself in the presence of discussions dealing with the Divine.
I believe Pope John Paul would agree that our interrelationships have yet to be fully explored in an authentic and honest manner in order to discover the truth that each can offer the other. He understood it was of the utmost importance for us to recognize that we have much to learn from one another, and accomplish together. Ultimately, what is at stake in all interreligious dialogue is the trusteeship that human beings have in the created order.