Israeli rabbis ask Pope Francis to clarify comments on the Old Testament

Francis’ statements about the Torah as “not giving life” caused a scandal in Judaism.

VATICAN. Israel’s top Jewish religious authorities told the Vatican they were concerned about Pope Francis’ comments on their Scriptures and asked for clarification, Reuters news agency reported.

In a letter quoted by Reuters, Rabbi Rasson Arusi, chairman of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate’s Commission for Dialogue with the Holy Seat, said the pontiff’s comments seemed to suggest that “Jewish law” is out of date.

Vatican authorities said they are studying the rabbis’ letter and are considering a response.

Rabbi Arusi wrote to the Vatican the day after the Pope discussed the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, during a general audience on August 11, 2021.

The Torah contains hundreds of commandments or mitzvos that Jews must follow in their daily life. The degree of adherence to a wide range of guiding principles differs between Orthodox and Reform Jews.

During the audience, Pope Francis, reflecting on what the Apostle Paul said about the Torah in the New Testament, noted: “The law (Torah), however, does not give life.” “He does not offer the fulfillment of the promise, because he is not able to fulfill it … Those who seek life need to look at the promise and its fulfillment in Christ,” said the pontiff.

Rabbi Arusi sent a letter on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate – the highest rabbinical authority of Judaism in Israel. The letter is addressed to Cardinal Kurt Koch, whose department in the Roman Curia includes a commission on religious relations with Jews.

“In his sermon, the Pope presents the Christian faith not only as a substitute for the Torah, but also asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the current era is outdated,” the letter to Arusi says. “In fact, this is an integral part of the ‘doctrine of contempt’ for Jews and Judaism, which we thought was completely rejected by the Church,” wrote the rabbi.

There was a revolution in relations between Catholics and Jews in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council rejected the concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus Christ, and decades of interfaith dialogue began. Francis and two of his predecessors visited synagogues.

Two leading Catholic scholars of religious relations with Jews agreed that Pope Francis’s remarks could be viewed as “an unpleasant setback” and needed clarification.

“To say that this fundamental principle of Judaism does not give life is to tarnish the main religious views of Jews and Judaism, ”said Priest John Pawlikowski, former director of the Catholic-Jewish Research Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“I think this is a problem for the ears of Jews, especially because the Pope’s remarks were addressed to a Catholic audience,” said Professor Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “This can be seen as a devaluation of Jewish Torah observance today,” Cunningham said.

Arusi and Pawlikowski said it was possible that part of the pope’s sermon, known as catechesis, was written by aides, and that the controversial phrase was not properly verified.

The office of Cardinal Koch said that he received the letter, “is seriously considering it and considering the answer.”

Previously, Pope Francis had a very good relationship with Jews. While still an archbishop in his native Buenos Aires, he co-authored the book with one of the city’s rabbis, Abraham Skorca, and maintains a long friendship with him.

In his letter to Cardinal Koch, Arusi asked him to “convey our suffering to Pope Francis” and asked for clarification from the pontific to “ensure that any derogatory conclusions drawn from this sermon are clearly rejected.”