Jews and the Vatican: Our Christians, Ourselves

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Inbal Freund-Novick is an organizational consultant and co-founder of The Unmasked Comics Project, a social change comics venture with comics artist Chari Pere. After spending a year as a visiting fellow at JPPPI (The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute), she currently serves in the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress.

inbal freund-novickFreund-Novick is a participant in Discovering Common Values: The Catholic-Jewish Leadership Conference, hosted by the Vatican and held at the Pope’s summer palace of Castel Gandolfo. She’ll be blogging about it all week, only at MJL.

My almighty editor and good friend Matthue Roth told me that I write too much about us Jews and not enough about my encounters with the Christians. But there is a fundamental point to be understood here: at first the Jews were more interesting to me, as things were very dramatic on our end. On the other hand the Christians who are here come with almost one voice. They come mostly from the Focolare movement. They have one authority up there which helps them get to one voice when talking to us Jews. They are dealing with this issue internally — and, considering the power balance of them having a pope who leads millions, we are fundamentally positioned as the reactionaries.

So what about us Jews so far? How do we start looking at our partners for this process? Throughout today, people from the Jewish group keep asserting the point that we speak in different voices. We are a collection of individuals here and G-d forbid we should be seen as one. We are constantly emphasizing that we are individuals and have very clear voices about what we want to do about tfila, about the topics we discuss, about us being vegetarian or not, or what we want the outcome of this to be. In most sessions the Jews speak a lot and the Christians — well, they talk less.

When they do talk, they speak in one voice that basically says, “we are still in process.” For them this dialoging thing is new. It’s actually quite revolutionary considering the past: It has only been about 45 years since Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) was written, opening a door towards creating relationships with the Jewish people, and 45 years are a tiny fraction of time compared to 2000 years of conquering vast parts of the world and making it be in touch with Christianity in a very different way then what the people of our era could even consider as reasonable. I still find it surprising every time I meet Christians* that they are not trying to convert me or make me bow down at a church alter or force me to eat pork and eventually pour holy water all over me until I acknowledge my salvation by Jesus. Things are a little different then that, and that’s our basis for dialogue.

So they are still in a slow process of creating a new theological understanding of how to deal with the Jews. Nostra Aetate described the desired relationship with the other religions, but mostly with Jews. It came out and said that actually we didn’t kill Jesus — which is nice to hear after all those years — but it also goes one step forward in saying that they want to find a way to be in dialogue with us. The thing is, as this is a such a new process for Catholics, they are not yet sure of how to create a relationship with us and are still having an internal debate but are already reaching out to us, to learn more of how to do this. This is important to us for creating this future relationship as partners and not let it be created in other ways which might be less constructive for us.

I had a conversation with a Focolarina (a member of the Focolare movement) over dinner as she was trying to explain to me the meaning of the word “love” -– understood very differently in the Christian world. Her story was, her search for G-d took a wild turn when the Pope came to Mexico. She was so influenced by his personality that she became a devote Christian and went to study theology for many years in a certain Christian sect.

What an influence of one person over the other! Just hearing about it and seeing the sparkles in her eyes talking about him made me think of how much meaning this figure- one leader of a movement has over millions of people, how different it is from our world. So, back to our dinner: Things changed for her after realizing that the Christians she was learning and practicing the faith with were only focusing inwards she switch to the Focolare movement which based itself on teaching to look out and create relationships with others.

This means — as far as I understand things so far — the Focolare movement, the ones who are conducting this dialogue with us, are a special group in the Christian world, willing and wanting to talk to us (probably amongst others which I am just not aware of).

It doesn’t mean that in the Tridentine Mass on Good Friday they have removed the ancient prayer for the Jews to be able to look in the right way. The Catholic Church is not all there yet, and the road is still very bumpy and long, and until the notion of Nostra Aetate reaches all the Christian sects, a lot of water will flow in the river of Jordan and we need mostly patience.

And what about the prayer drama? Today we invited the Christians to mincha, the afternoon prayers. A beautiful Torah scroll was brought to Castel Gandolfo and the turn of the nice Syrian guy to lead the prayers came, so we put the mehitzah up and made a very long and explanatory prayer with the Christians.

I think we built a few more little bridges, and I hope we looked less weird. When I asked my new acquired Focolarina friend from dinner what was the most significant thing for her that she has taken from two days of talking about profound topics she said that just the encounter with us, seeing Jews in real life was fascinating to her.

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* — And I have some very close friends who are Christians, amongst them a very dear friend who came to my wedding from Slovenia, getting a bouquet that was useless to all my Jewish friends but apparently was very helpful to her meeting her future husband as there were no other candidates for it -– mazal tov, Mojca!

Posted on June 24, 2009

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