By Carmen Elena Villa
ROME, JAN. 20, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's recent visit to Rome's Synagogue was an important step on the way to understanding and reconciliation between Jews and Christians, says the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni.
On Sunday, the Pope became the second Pontiff to visit the Synagogue of Rome. Pope John Paul II was the first, in 1986. It was Benedict XVI's third visit to a synagogue, after visits in Cologne and New York.
Di Segni told ZENIT this week that he believes "it has been an important event, and one that goes beyond all the polemics that have taken place and that in a certain sense continue to take place inevitably."
"We thought it was a necessary moment in the path, an important sign of continuity," he added.
According to the rabbi, who has been Rome's chief rabbi since 2001, the Pope's visit "shows the existence of a foundation of good disposition by both sides, which constitutes the basis on which we can discuss with all frankness, without giving up anything, but going forward."
The rabbi sees two challenges to progress in the dialogue between Catholics and Jews, although he admitted that if he was to make a complete list, "I could stay until tomorrow morning."
In the first place, he clarified, "there is a problem that affects the interpretation of the role of the Church during the Shoa: the responsibility of Christians in anti-Semitism."
"A part of this problem is in fact the responsibility of Pius XII," the rabbi said. "The judgment on Pius XII is very complex, as there is no doubt that in his pontificate many Jews were hidden and saved, but for us there is no doubt that there was an acquiescence, a lack of action, in face of what was happening."
Di Segni said the second problem posed in Judeo-Catholic relations "is the theological role of Jews in the Catholic vision": "Must we be converted or can we arrive at salvation calmly?"
"Moreover," he added, "there are political problems that affect the land of Israel, but they are specifically political."
Finally, among these challenges, the rabbi mentioned the relation of Jews and Christians "with the other religions, with all the problems of modernity."
Rabbi Di Segni said he appreciated what Benedict XVI said during his visit to the synagogue, in particular his quotation of John Paul II in which he asked for forgiveness for the sufferings caused by the children of the Church to the children of the People of the Covenant.
"It is a very noble, very important text on which we must reflect from different points of view, as in Judaism there is no delegation of forgiveness," the rabbi said. "Anyone can forgive the fault suffered personally and ask for forgiveness. It is something that serves above all as commitment for the future and, from this point of view, it is important."
"What sense does it make to ask for forgiveness without identifying the one I do not now say who is responsible, but perhaps indifferent? Then, on this, a discussion is opened which can be somewhat complex at this moment," he added.
According to the rabbi, the proposal of forgiveness presented by the Pope could purify future relations between Jews and Catholics: "For us, forgiveness must be understood as not to do the same again. This is what is important for us."
Bioethics and culture
The rabbi, who continues to practice his medical profession in the Radiology department of St. John's hospital in Rome, believes that the defense of life could become a common point of commitment for Catholics and Jews.
"I am actively involved in the field of bioethics," he said. "Obviously we share the theme of the defense of life from the beginning until the end."
"We have discussions on the way of defining the beginning and the end," the rabbi noted, "as we do not have identical positions." He explained that Jews "do not see conception as the beginning of life."
Finally, speaking about Benedict XVI, the rabbi stressed above all "his doctrinal profundity and his sensitivity to cultural topics."
"He is very different from the preceding pastoral image," Di Segni said. "And I can tell you that we, Jews, love culture."
By Carmen Elena Villa