Emeritus Pope Benedict

Letter to Cardinal Koch

The Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany

[unofficial translation]


Your Eminence, dear Cardinal Koch,

As Orthodox rabbis, we seek to establish a dialogue of partnership with our Catholic brothers and sisters and seek to deepen this dialogue and our partnership with the Church in order to foster our mutual understanding, to effectively address the challenges of increasingly secular societies, and to anchor our world in fundamental ethical-moral principles. We are looking for ways to improve the world together. Our reflections on Jewish-Christian relations have been set forth in detail in our declaration "Between Jerusalem and Rome," which, with your help, Venerable Cardinal, we were able to present to Pope Francis during an audience on August 31, 2017.

As we stated in that document, we are touched and grateful for the steps toward repentance, especially those taken by the Catholic Church in the years since Nostra Aetate. We acknowledge the almost revolutionary theological changes in the Catholic Church in its relations with Jews and Judaism, which were certainly not always easy, but which enabled us to develop and steadily strengthen the trust and confidence between our respective communities.

Pope Benedict XVI especially represents the continuity of this positive development. This is evidenced by his speech in the Great Synagogue of Rome on January 17, 2010, and not least by his clear and unequivocal rejection of the accusation of "deicide" and the Jewish collective guilt for the death of Jesus in the second volume of his book on Jesus (2011).

You too, dear Cardinal, and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews that you direct, have made an impressive and much-appreciated contribution to the improvement of our ties with the reflections, "For Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable" (Romans 11:29)" for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (No. 4).

In view of this positive development of Jewish-Catholic relations, the recent publication in the journal Communio by Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI entitled "Grace and Vocation without Repentance: Notes on the treatise, De Iudaeis" and also your preface have amazed us. What did you mean, as you wrote in the foreword to this text (which was not intended for publication by its author and was written for internal use only by the commission you direct) that these "theological reflections should be included in the future conversation between the Church and Israel" and that "the present contribution will enrich the Jewish-Catholic conversation"? For us, this essay raises more questions and doubts than positive, forward-looking food for thought.

We are aware that the essay published in the journal Communio is not a magisterial text whose statements bind our Catholic interlocutors. But public attention, which is assured by the authority of its author as emeritus pope, makes it necessary for us to communicate our questions and doubts to you as the curial cardinal responsible for relations with Judaism.

Pope Benedict XVI begins with a brief outline of what is called the "parting of the ways" of Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of our era. One might next expect reflections on the relationship between Christianity and rabbinic Judaism and the current dialogue between Jews and Christians. Instead, however, the emeritus pope focuses on the Christian theological bases of the dialogue, namely the rejection of the so-called substitution theory, according to which the Church has replaced Israel as the covenantal partner of the Eternal, and the doctrine of the unrevoked covenant with the people of Israel.

We know that from the Christian perspective the so-called "Old Covenant" finds its "fulfillment" in the "New Covenant." However, this Christian teaching has not infrequently been understood in Church history to mean that the people of Israel were rejected in favor of the Church. Although Pope Benedict XVI denies that there was supersessionist theology before the Second Vatican Council, he must concede that "the idea of ​​the rejection of Israel largely shaped how Israel was thought to function in the present history of salvation" (p. 321). This supposed "rejection of Israel" has penetrated into Christian iconography (the blind Synagogue and the triumphant Church, the "Jewish sow" depicted on churches, etc.) and has long shaped the Christian imagination. Last but not least, in times of social crisis it served as a religious foundation for the discrimination, persecution, and murder of our ancestors. That is why we are less concerned with the particular points that Benedict XVI addresses (temple cult, law, Messiah) – though there are some things to be noted from the Jewish point of view but rather the very fundamental question of whether the Catholic Church values contemporary Judaism and how this appreciation is theologically expressed.

In recent Church documents, the appreciation of Judaism is expressed not least in the doctrine of the "unrevoked Old Covenant" (see, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 121). Pope Benedict XVI does not believe this phrase to be suitable in the long term (see page 335). But what should take its place? In his essay, we read something about a "reestablishment of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus" (p. 334), but unfortunately nothing about the "present people of the covenant with Moses" (Pope John Paul II in his address on November 17, 1980 in Mainz). We cannot help feeling that Pope Benedict XVI leaves little space in his theological reflections for a religious appreciation of today's Judaism and for a dialogue based on that appreciation.

This is exemplified by his detailed reflections on the promise of the land (pp. 328 - 331). Pope Benedict XVI apodictically states that, according to Christian understanding, a theological interpretation of the State of Israel, which sets the foundation of the state in relation to the biblical promise of the land, is impossible. While he does not deny Israel's right to exist, he does give the impression that the State of Israel is only by historical chance located on its present territory. Would it not make more sense, in dialogue with Jewish perspectives, such as those  developed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his essay "Kol dodi dofek" (1956), to consider what the religious attachment of the Jewish people to the State of Israel might mean for Christians? Could the isolated comment in the essay that the State of Israel "expresses the fidelity of God to the people of Israel" (p.330) not be an idea that could be developed further?

We cannot judge whether the essay of Pope Benedict XVI is important for the internal considerations of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. But we do wonder how this essay can enrich the Jewish-Christian conversation. We also wonder how the reflections of the emeritus pope are consistent with Pope Francis' statements, as they are found for example in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013): "God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and brings forth a treasure of wisdom that springs from their encounter with the divine Word. That is why the Church is enriched by receiving the values of Judaism" (No. 249). 

We would be very grateful to you, dear Cardinal, if you could help us to find answers to our questions and doubts, which are shared by many of our Catholic interlocutors.

Best regards,
The Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany

Rabbi Avichai Apel
Rabbi Mordecai Eliezer Balla
Rabbi Yehuda Pushkin
Rabbi Avraham Radbil
Rabbi Jehoshua Ahrens
Rabbi Arie Folger