By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The first rabbi ever to address a Synod of Bishops today praised the church’s commitment to dialogue with Jews, but he also issued a reminder of Jewish/Catholic tensions by indirectly criticizing the late Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope whose alleged silence during the Holocaust has long been a subject of controversy.
On Thursday, Benedict XVI will lead a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII in 1958.
At the end of a brief speech to the synod this afternoon on the Jewish approach to the Bible, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen alluded to the controversies over Pius XII.
“We cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise a voice in the effort to save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly,” said Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa in Israel.
“We cannot forgive and forget, and we hope you understand our pain, our sorrow,” Cohen said, speaking in English to an audience of some 253 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, as well as Benedict XVI.
Cohen never mentioned Pius XII by name, though in context the reference seemed obvious. Earlier in the day Cohen gave an interview to Reuters in which he said that had he realized his visit to the Vatican would coincide with ceremonies commemorating the death of Pius XII, he might not have come.
His remarks on Pope Pius to the synod were not in Cohen's prepared text, suggesting a last-minute addition.
Cohen's remarks come at a delicate moment, as Benedict XVI weighs whether to move forward in declaring his controversial predecessor a saint. In May 2007, the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints voted to endorse Pius XII's “heroic virtue,” the first formal step in the process, and a document confirming that verdict is now awaiting a papal signature. Only when that occurs can officials move forward with investigation of a miracle, which is required for beatification. Another miracle would be required for eventual canonization.
Cohen also issued a biting, though once again indirect, swipe at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Cohen referred to the “terrible and vicious words of the president of a certain state in the Middle East” in a recent speech at the United Nations. Cohen said these “false and malicious accusations, the threats and anti-Semitic incitement” cannot help but remind Jews of the Holocaust.
As a young man, Cohen was part of a movement linked to the Irgun, an armed group seeking the creation of a Jewish state. During the fighting that surrounded recognition of the nation of Israel in 1948, in which Jewish forces lost control of the Old City in Jerusalem, Cohen was wounded in the leg and spent time in a prisoner of war camp in Jordan. The Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Cohen has long been an advisor and spiritual guide to the Israeli army. He’s also a former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.
Cohen called upon Catholic leaders to “raise your voice, so together with the help of free world defend, we can protect and save Israel from the hands of our enemies.”
“What happened once should not happen again,” Cohen said. “My being here makes me feel that we can expect your help, and I am sure your message will be listened to by influential people all over the world.”
Cohen applauded the Catholic church for its outreach to Jews, which he traced to Pope John XXIII (1958-63), and which he also attributed to Pope John Paul II. He noted that this afternoon, several bishops made reference to Jews as the “older brothers” of Christians, and said “we deeply appreciate this evaluation.”
Since 2002, Cohen has been the Jewish co-chair of a bilateral dialogue between the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
The invitation to address the Synod of Bishops, Cohen said, is an indication “you intend to continue this policy.”
“I thank God that he has kept us alive to be together, to work together for a future of peaceful coexistence the world over,” Cohen said.
The bulk of Cohen’s address was devoted to a description of the role of the Bible in Jewish faith and worship. He described the elaborate rituals, for example, which surround the public proclamation of the Tanakh, the Hebrew term for the law, prophets and wisdom writings of the Old Testament.
Cohen recalled that as a child he was taught to commit the entire Tanakh to heart by his father, who was also a famous rabbi. He said the Bible is at the center of Jewish preaching.
“When we rabbis speak about important matters such as the sanctity of life, resisting promiscuity, the struggle against secularism, or the values of brotherhood, fraternity, peace, equality, and respect of others, we always build our address around Biblical quotations,” he said. “The Scriptures never lose their vitality, their relevance to the issues of our time and age.”
Cohen said that a keen interest in scripture is alive and well in contemporary Israel. During annual Independence Day celebrations, Cohen said, Israel sponsors a national “Bible Quiz” for youth which attracts interest not merely from students in religious schools, but also from secular Jews.
After Cohen finished, French Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, a Jesuit Biblical scholar renowned for his work on the Letter to the Hebrews, and a former secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, spoke on the Christian interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. His remarks drew on a 2001 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission titled “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.”