Dialogika

Christian Conversion of Jews?

Address to Pope Benedict XVI

During the meeting in Jerusalem at Hechal Shlomo of Pope Benedict XVI and the Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger delivered the following remarks. The Chief Rabbi mentions several important concerns in Jewish-Catholic relations, including  the theological significance of Israel, the Shoah, and antisemitism. It is included in this "Themes in Today's Dialogue" section because of the paragraph preceded by an asterisk regarding Christian missions to Jews. The texts and/or private conversation to which Rabbi Metzger refers  here were not specified. Rough translation from Hebrew and notes courtesy of Ruth Langer.



Your honor1 the Pope, blessed is your arrival under the shade of our roof. We greet you in peace in the city of peace, Jerusalem!

Our holy land is the land to which we prayed to return for 2000 years of exile. How many tears flowed from our eyes in order to express our strong desire to nestle against its stones. Thank God, our meeting now takes place in the Land of Israel, in our city Jerusalem - the eternal capital of the People of Israel.

Your honor the Pope! In the course of the years of our exile, the Jewish people knew suffering and many troubles. True, "because of our sins we were exiled from our land and distanced from our country,"2 but all the prophets promised that the day would come when we would return to our Land. Indeed, to our joy, we are currently marking the 61st year of the establishment of our State - in the holy land, the land of the Bible, the land on whose clods our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joseph, David and Solomon trod.

One of the famous prophecies of Ezekiel (37:12, 14b) is that of the Dry Bones, in which G-d promises him, "‘I will open your graves and lift you out of your graves and return you back to the Land of Israel, O My people, ...and you will know that I the Eternal have spoken and have acted,' declares the Eternal."

We feel that this prophecy speaks about us. I am from a family most of whose members were destroyed in the terrible Holocaust; at the conclusion of the war, its remnants truly felt like "dry bones." Yet now, through the merit of this prophetic spirit, we were able to return to the land, to be counted among its founders and builders, to realize this prophetic vision. The bones (atzamot) became independence (atzma'ut).

As is well known, our history is a course of indescribable suffering: pogroms, expulsions, persecutions and killings against an ideological backdrop - religious and of deep hatred. Why and for what purpose? We will never understand this.

Your honor, the Head of the Church, I thought to myself that if such a historic meeting as we are now holding in Jerusalem, between the leader of the world's largest church and leaders of Judaism, had taken place many years earlier, how much innocent blood would have been saved and how much unjustifiable hatred would have been prevented!

Based on these perceptions, I want to express my gratitude that you did not allow a Holocaust-denying bishop (Williamson) to return to the ranks of the Church. Were this not the case, it would give a message to the president of Iran - also a Holocaust denier - that there is somehow legitimacy in his sinful pronouncements, expressing his desire to destroy our state.

I must also mention with esteem your clear declaration that anti-Semitism is not just a sin against Jews, but also against G-d.

I am certain that your predecessor, [Pope John] Paul II, when he came to visit us nine years ago, put an important note between the stones of the Wall on which was a request for forgiveness from the Jews for all the suffering caused to us in the course of history and about the obligations of Christianity to true brotherhood with us.

Your honor, the Pope! Today is a holy day for our nation. We mark Lag BaOmer, commemorating the death of one of the great rabbis who served our people [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] some 2,000 years ago. He was an outstanding personality, wise, righteous, and holy like an angel of G-d. He was persecuted by the Roman regime of the time because he dared to speak against the regime - even though his words were spoken in a closed room with only two other rabbis. Threatened with death, he was forced to escape with his son and to hide in a cave in the northern Galilee for 13 years.

He was one of the people who suffered physically. How much can a person's tongue be fateful - for he was persecuted only because of his words.

Therefore, Israeli children today are accustomed to play with a bow and arrow on this day, to teach about the symbolism in the words of the prophet Jeremiah (9,7), "Their tongue is a sharpened arrow." Our upper lips are shaped like a bow and the tongue is like an arrow. This teaches us that as long as the arrow is in your hand, you rule over it. At the moment that you shoot it, you do not know who it will harm. So too is the human tongue, for after the word leaves your mouth, you do not know how far and where it is likely to cause harm.3

It is told about one of the sages of Israel, Rabbi Shmuel the Prince (HaNagid), who lived in Spain and who was a friend of the Moslem sultan, that they would occasionally take a walk together. Once a Moslem man passed them and began to curse Rabbi Shmuel. The sultan ordered the rabbi, "It is your obligation to cut off the man's tongue." Half a year later, the rabbi and the sultan again took a walk together, and the Moslem man again passed them. This time, instead of cursing, he began to bless Rabbi Shmuel.

The sultan was amazed. "Didn't I order you to cut off his tongue?!" Rabbi Shmuel said, ‘I cut it off." "Then how is he able to speak?" "Because I cut off his tongue of cursing and replaced it with a tongue of blessing."

We give thanks to the G-d of heaven and earth, that in our generation, the language (tongue) between our religions has turned from one of cursing to one of blessing.

It is our obligation to continue in this path and to teach the leaders of other religions that they will not achieve their goals through terror, not through the killing of innocents should they be able to represent their gods. For G-d is merciful, and God commands all of us to honor and love every human being, even those of other religions, for each person (Habakuk 2,4) "shall live by his faith."

* I would like to thank you, Your Honor the Pope, for your historic agreement and for the commitment that we have received from the Vatican, that the Church will henceforth cease all missionary activities and all solicitations to our co-religionists to change their religion. For us, this is news of inestimable importance.

My thanks for your desire to help the captive soldier, Gilad Shalit, and to the support that you gave to his parents and to his family..

I would be most grateful if the Church that you lead would announce that one fixed day a year when church leaders around the globe would be obligated speak out not only against mounting anti-Semitism, but speak well about the Jewish people. It is not sufficient to cut out the cursing tongue, but it must be exchanged for a tongue of blessing.

Your honor the Pope! As is well known, in the time of the Shoah, many parentsentrusted their children to faithful hands in various churches throughout Europe. To our grief, six million Jews did not return. Many of the children who survived, thanks to the Church, grew up not knowing that their origins were Jewish. We expect that the Church that you lead will exhibit transparency and reveal their roots, so that they may choose their own nationality and religion.

A lack of transparency in something so sensitive will perpetuate the suffering of many Jews and achieve the goal of the Nazis, who wanted to make the Jewish people vanish.

Your honor, the Pope! You have just arrived from the Western Wall, the remnant of the Temple, the site of Abraham's binding of Isaac his only son. In your visit in this place, holy to our people, you upheld the words of the prophet Isaiah (56,7), "For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people." Yes! "A house of prayer." But, unfortunately, there are those who have turned their house of prayer into a storehouse of weapons and terror.

Our generation is different than the previous one; the imperialist desires to conquer lands have ceased. Today, Europe is like a single united country. The entire world has become global, communicating and connected online.

Only one thing still clouds the picture: the use of religion to kill innocent people.

As I have proposed in past, we should together establish and international body, a type of United Nations for religions, in parallel with the United Nations for diplomats and statesmen. There will sit side by side, around a single table, representatives of all religions, including those that don't yet have diplomatic relations between them, with the goal of trying to solve arguments and disagreements that flow from religious causes, all this from a belief that a single G-d created us.

My blessing, from the depths of my heart, is that we will merit together to increase in mutual love and honor, that we will bring increased peace to our world, and that we will merit soon to uphold the words of the prophet Micah (4,1-2, 5), "In the days to come, the mount of the Eternal's house shall stand firm about the mountains...and the peoples shall gaze upon it with joy.. and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Eternal and to the House of the G-d of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways and that we may walk in His paths.' For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem...For all the peoples shall walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Eternal our God."


Translator's notes:

[1] This form of address may sound unusual to readers more familiar with the title of "Your Holiness" for the pope. It is a modified traditional Jewish honorific reserved for respect rabbis.

[2] From the festival liturgy, additional service.

[3] This is drawing on rabbinic midrashic traditions about the "evil tongue." There is an implicit sermon here.