The American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs sounded optimistic notes about interfaith relations after making contact with Pope Francis and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Speaking Feb. 27 at a private home in Franklin Lakes, Rabbi David Rosen said he was especially encouraged by his presence as the only Jewish board member of Abdullah’s International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, which Abdullah established in Vienna in 2012.
“No relationship, no matter how chronic, how rotten, and how alienated, is beyond the power of transformation,” said Rosen.
In addition, Rosen, who lives in Jerusalem, has met with Pope Francis five times since the pontiff took office a year ago.
“There is nothing in human history that can be compared to the Christian-Jewish relationship, in particular, the Catholic-Jewish relationship,” the rabbi said.
Rosen recalled the troubled and often tragic relationship between Jews and the church before the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
“Fast forward to where we are today, where three popes have declared the Jewish people to be the dearly beloved elder brothers of the church,” he said. Today the church teaches that “we are the sacred roots of the Christian people and the Christian religion.”
“Three popes have declared as part of their normative teaching that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and man, that you cannot be a Christian and an anti-Semite at the same time. I am not saying there are not anti-Semites in the Catholic Church anymore, but if you are an anti-Semitic priest you cannot express it openly and expect you will be promoted to a bishop. That is an amazing thing,” he said.
Rosen described it as a “sea change” when “a particular community condemned by God as in league with the devil, as the most despised of all people — to go from that to seeing them as a beloved elder brother.”
He had less happy news to report about Jewish-Muslim relations.
“No two religions are closer than Judaism and Islam, but today the relationship is poisoned by the conflict in the Middle East, but it is still possible to build significant bridges in cooperation with the Muslim world,” said the British-born Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland.
He suggested that any outreach to the Muslims combine caution and openness.
“As important as it is to be able to defend ourselves with good military, good intelligence, good security, you cannot succeed in overcoming fundamentalist extremism purely through reactive methods,” he said. “You have to be proactive — reaching out for their constructive voices. You have to be able to empower them so that the moderate voices can be stronger than the extremists.”
He said AJC has facilitated three major meetings of the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, in 2005, 2006, and 2008.
“Obviously this kind of relationship is in our interest. It is in Israel’s interest. We have even had Hindu-Jewish summits. Rabbis have gone to Delhi and we have had major swamis coming over to Jerusalem,” he said. “Hopefully these kinds of encounters will one day inspire the Chief Rabbinate [of Israel] to be as open-minded as the other parts of the Jewish world as a whole.”