Jewish and Catholic scholars are upset over the affirmations of the Vicar General of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch in a recent Famiglia Cristiana interview
Those who know and respect monsignor William Shomali, the Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, were surprised and disturbed by his declarations on the Talmud and on Israeli education in the September 30 issue of Famiglia Cristiana. Commenting on recent episodes of vandalism against Christian holy places by Jewish extremists, he claimed “hatred of Christians” was taught in Israeli schools and the Talmud itself.
“The Talmud, the holy book studied by the ultra-orthodox, more highly venerated than the Bible itself, invites religious hatred, speaks badly of Jesus, and even worse of Mary and, in general, of Christians” he said, adding that “in Israeli schools love for the other is not taught but rather the destruction of the other”.
These blanket, defamatory generalizations produced consternation in Israeli political representatives, Jewish religious authorities and friends engaged in interreligious dialogue. While unanimously condemning the criminal acts committed by a small group of Jewish extremists and “hoodlums” against Christian sites, and calling for action to apprehend the culprits and impede recurrence, they strongly objected to the content of Bishop Shomali’s assertions.
Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem based International Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee sought firstly, to correct Bishop Shomali’s misconception of the role of the Talmud in Jewish life.
“Contrary to the age old canard that has been popular among those Christians who have denigrated Judaism over the centuries” he says, “the Talmud is not ‘more highly venerated than the Bible itself’ and it is not even a ‘holy’ book for Jews’ but rather the all- important compendium of commentaries and debates on the principles and precepts of the Bible and the traditions expounding the latter.”
Regarding Bishop Shomali’s accusations against the Israeli educational system, Rabbi Rosen says that “While there is much that needs to be done to educate about other religions in Israeli schools … it is a totally unjustified defamation to claim that Israel’s schools teach ‘the destruction of the other.’ ”
Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Zion Evrony, also points out that “Monsignor Shomali’s claim that in Israeli schools ‘love for the other’ is not taught but rather the ‘destruction of the other’ is totally false and misleading. The values of human rights, respect for the other and tolerance are central themes in the Israeli educational system. The way to solving problems is only through education and mutual understanding, not through building new hate…As opposed to the situation in most Countries of the Middle East, Christians in Israel live safely, practice their religion freely and their number is increasing.”
Rev. Joseph Sievers, Professor of Jewish History and Literature of the Hellenistic Period at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, says “This characterization of the Talmud as reported in ‘Famiglia Cristiana’ is incorrect and truly unfortunate.” He recalls however that educational problems do exist, referring to a recent, more nuanced statement issued by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land expressing “grave concern about the education of the young in some schools where contempt and intolerance are taught”. He points to the path he hopes will be chosen by citing another Vatican document (Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church”) “…Our two traditions are so related that they cannot ignore each other. Mutual knowledge must be encouraged at every level….”
Rabbi Rosen comments, “I do not deny that there is prejudice among Jews towards Christians and Christianity.…However, this prejudice is the result of the tragic experience of persecution and prejudice that Jews experienced at the hand of Christians over the ages. I deeply regret that such prejudice remains and unreservedly condemn an act of disrespect to Christians, their places of worship and their beliefs. Such actions are a desecration of the Divine Name and in fact insult Judaism even more than Christianity. However it is important to understand where this animosity really comes from and not to avoid that truth by conjuring false scapegoats or regurgitating old prejudices.”
Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni finds that Bishop Shomali’s statements regarding Israeli schools are “reminiscent of a pre-Vatican II attitude towards Judaism we had hoped no longer exists”, in which “love” in the New Testament was falsely set against “legalism” as characterizing the Jewish Bible – or “Old Testament.”
“They are very disturbing proclamations, and contrary to the principles governing our contemporary dialogue” agrees Dr. Luigi De Salvia, President of “Religions for Peace/Italy”, recalling the directives of the Vatican document “Guidelines and Suggestions for implementing the Conciliar Declaration, ‘Nostra Aetate, N.4’ ” which state among other things “…The Old Testament and the Jewish Tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear, and legalism, with no appeal to love of God and neighbor….”
“Hopefully these words will be rescinded or clarified” Dr. De Salvia concludes. Regarding the Talmud’s alleged and disputed references that might or might not pertain to Jesus, both Jewish and Christian experts concord they are still open to contrasting interpretations.
Rabbi Rosen points out, “There is difference of opinion among scholars as to whether the few references in the Talmud that have been attributed to refer to Jesus of Nazareth are in fact just that. The Talmud was not written under Christian Rule but in the main under Babylonian rule, and thus there are few references at all to Christians” he says.
Prof. Sievers, citing the thesis of Peter Schaefer in ‘Jesus in the Talmud’, says these passages “were subject to Christian censorship and may best be understood in the context of Christian-Jewish polemics of late antiquity.”
Rome’s Chief Rabbi warns that in any case, “we must keep a sense of proportion. The material to which Bishop Shomali might be referring occupies, in all, 2 – 3 pages out of a total of 2,700. They are Haggadic narrative, enigmatic and confused, and it is quite unlikely that they refer to Christians. Numerous Christian scholarly studies, including Italian sources, have cast serious doubt that these sentences are about Jesus or Christians. They bear no normative authority and have been used over the centuries as pretexts for the burning of Talmuds.”
“We must contextualize”, continues Rome’s Chief Rabbi. “A serious and valid interreligious dialogue necessitates taking historical evolution into account in textual interpretations.”
“Excessively literal interpretations of the Gospels and Patristic texts, for example, spread hatred and anti-Judaism for hundreds of years, instigating anti-Semitism and violence against Jews.”