Dr. Berger Meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican

By: Shanee Markovitz  |  October 19, 2017

On Thursday, August 31, Dr. David Berger, Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) Senior Advisor on Interfaith Affairs, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican along with other representatives of the RCA, the Conference of European Rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. A number of the Rabbis that attended the delegation were ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). At the Vatican, Dr. Berger presented the Pope with a document titled “Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on Fifty Years of Nostra Aetate.” This document is historic, as it provides the first formal statement on Christian-Jewish relations issued by the Orthodox rabbinate. It is also historic due to the Pope’s recognition of its significance. The document expresses gratitude to the Church for having shifted its stance on Judaism from antagonistic to much more accepting and positive. It also emphasizes shared values between Judaism and Christianity. “We hope that the document will help to facilitate continuing improvement in the Jewish community’s  relationship with a very important institution of global research,” wrote Dr. Berger to The Observer.  

Rabbi Arie Folger, Chief Rabbi of Vienna, created the first draft of this document in 2015, and remained very involved throughout its developing stages. Rabbi Folger was inspired to create the document in 2015 because it marked the fifty-year milestone of the Second Vatican Council’s monumental statements on Christian-Jewish relations. Those statements,  considered Christian-Jewish relations through a new theological framework.  It expressed the importance of forming positive relations with the Jewish people, condemned those who treated Jews negatively, and dissociated the Church from the notion that all Jews should be treated as though they are guilty of Jesus’s death. In 2015, the Church released another statement, re-examining Christian-Jewish relations in light of the Second Vatican Council’s statements. It stressed that evangelizing Jews is no longer a part of the Church’s theology.

Once the Jewish rabbinic organizations and Rabbis reached out to the Church to discuss delivering the document, the Church arranged a meeting with the Pope, welcoming the Rabbis, and endorsing the document. In accordance with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s stance that theological exchanges in Christian-Jewish dialogue should be avoided, the document focuses on shared values rather than on theology. However, it does state that Christians have a “special status” due to their belief in one God, the same God that created the universe and chose the Jewish people. The document draws on shared values and interests between the two religions, calling for a promising future which includes combating anti-semitism, and bringing religion and sanctity into the regular daily lives of all people.

Dr. Berger explained to The Observer that the document represents a “moment of unity— on a very sensitive matter—among three Orthodox Rabbinic organizations on different continents with diverse membership and constituencies.”

Dr. Berger shared that at the presentation ceremony, the Pope expressed that “the fact that agreement was reached on such a statement is itself a miracle.” Berger reported to The Observer, “Immediately after the ceremony, I told a group of participants, both Jewish and Catholic, that the truth of this observation is illustrated by a remark attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner regarding the story of the seventy Jewish translators of the Torah into Greek, who were placed in seventy different rooms and miraculously [all] produced the same translation. ‘This,’ said Rav Hutner, ‘is no miracle. [However], if they had been in the same room…’”