By Jesús Colina
ROME, JAN. 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Their latest books were the topic of conversation for Benedict XVI and Rabbi Jacob Neusner when they met Monday in the Vatican.
Neusner, regarded as one of the greatest biblicists on the international scene, is the author of “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” The Holy Father says this work “greatly helped” him, and he draws heavily from it in one section of “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Joseph Ratzinger and Neusner are united by an epistolary friendship of many years, (on May 24, 2007, Time magazine called him “The Pope’s Favorite Rabbi”), but they only met personally when the Holy Father visited New York’s synagogue in April of 2008.
“We talked about our books and he confided in me that he has finished writing the second volume on Jesus,” the rabbi told L’Osservatore Romano after the audience Monday.
Neusner himself is one of the most prolific writers in history, having written 950 books, although, as he clarifies, some are new editions of writings that have already been published.
At the Vatican, the rabbi was accompanied by his wife, Suzanne. The conversation between the Bishop of Rome and one of the major living experts on Judaism lasted some 20 minutes.
“Sufficient time to have a lovely meeting between two professors,” Neusner observed. “I have always appreciated scholar Joseph Ratzinger for his honesty and lucidity, and I was very interested in being able to have a meeting and know the person.”
The rabbi of Hartford, Connecticut, born on July 28, 1932, was in Italy to join in the Pope’s visit to the Synagogue of Rome on Sunday and to take part in a public debate on Monday night, with Italian archbishop and theologian, Bruno Forte. The archbishop and rabbi considered the “Sermon on the Mount,” in Rome’s Auditorium.
The rabbi described the papal visit to the synagogue as “a grandiose event, with enormous participation, calm and moving for everyone, which gives me hope for the future.”‘
Neusner contended that the problem that must be addressed today, “and the Pope has understood it well — is that we live in forgetfulness; we forget history and the religious traditions from which we come.”
“For this reason,” he said, “it is important to study history.”
The rabbi continued: “I am thinking of a controversial question such as the historical figure of Pius XII. From my point of view, it is still too soon to judge and, yet, I often hear categorical judgments, in one sense or another. I have the feeling that someone is moving destructively, who is not interested either in Catholicism or Judaism, and much less so in dialogue between these two great traditions.
“It’s sad as, moreover, in the concrete reality, I can see it in my daily life in the United States, relations between Jews and Christians are excellent.
“If the past is ignored, we are condemned to repeat it. Study, from this point of view, is essential. Together with the sense of responsibility: Every generation has a responsibility for the future, and it has it today, here and now.”
In the meeting of these long-distance friends, the rabbi gave the Holy Father two gifts: a copy of the German edition of his 1993 book, which Ratzinger read in the English original, together with a recently published essay in Italy on the Talmud.