Vatican cardinal reassures Jewish leaders over Pope Francis’ comments on Torah

Vatican cardinal reassures Jewish leaders over Pope Francis’ comments on Torah

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in Rome on Oct. 23, 2019. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Sep 10, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

A cardinal has written to Jewish leaders, assuring them that recent comments by Pope Francis did not devalue the Torah, the Vatican confirmed on Friday.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which oversees the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, published two letters on Sept. 10, written by Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is president of both the council and the commission.

The letters, dated Sept. 3, were addressed respectively to Rabbi Rasson Arussi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the Dialogue with the Holy See in Jerusalem, and Rabbi David Sandmel, chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations in New York.

The Pontifical Council said that Arussi had written to Koch on Aug. 12, concerning Pope Francis’ general audience address of Aug. 11, dedicated to the Mosaic Law, also known as the Law of Moses.

It added that Sandmel wrote “a similar letter” to the Swiss cardinal on Aug. 24.

The pope’s address was the fourth installment in his cycle of catechesis on the Epistle to the Galatians, in which St. Paul addresses a dispute in the early Christian community over how closely Christians should follow Jewish law.

The pope said: “The Torah, the Law, in fact, was not included in the promise made to Abraham.”

“Having said this, one should not think, however, that St. Paul was opposed to the Mosaic Law. No, he observed it. Several times in his Letters, he defends its divine origin and says that it possesses a well-defined role in the history of salvation.”

“The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it.”

The word Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but can be used more broadly to signify Jewish law in its entirety.

Reuters reported on Aug. 25 that Arussi expressed concern that the pope’s comments implied that Jewish law was obsolete.

In his identically worded letters, Koch said that he had consulted with Pope Francis and was replying to the rabbi at the pope’s instruction.

“In the Holy Father’s address, the Torah is not devalued, as he expressly affirms that Paul was not opposed to Mosaic law: indeed, Paul observed this Law, emphasized its divine origin, and attributed to it a role in salvation history,” he wrote.

“The phrase ‘The law does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise’ should not be extrapolated from its context, but must be considered within the overall framework of Pauline theology.”

“The abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews.’”

Koch cited a 2015 speech that the pope gave to the International Council of Christians and Jews.

On that occasion, the pope said: “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews, the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word.”

Koch emphasized that in his general audience address, the pope was reflecting “on Pauline theology within the historical context of a given era” and not commenting on contemporary Judaism.

“The fact that the Torah is crucial for modern Judaism is not questioned in any way,” he wrote.

He continued: “Bearing in mind the positive affirmations constantly made by Pope Francis on Judaism, it cannot in any way be presumed that he is returning to a so-called ‘doctrine of contempt.’”

“Pope Francis fully respects the foundations of Judaism and always seeks to deepen the bonds of friendship between the two faith traditions.”

Koch underlined that the pope agreed with the description of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the 2017 document “Between Jerusalem and Rome,” which marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s seminal Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate.

The text, issued by the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said: “The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the international deliberations of the respective faith communities … However, doctrinal differences do not and may not stand in the way of our peaceful collaboration for the betterment of our shared world and the lives of the children of Noah.”

The document was presented to Pope Francis at the Vatican on Aug. 31, 2017.

In an address, he said: “The statement ‘Between Jerusalem and Rome’ does not hide … the theological differences that exist between our faith traditions. All the same, it expresses a firm resolve to collaborate more closely, now and in the future.”

Concluding his letter, Koch wrote: “I trust that this response clarifies the theological background of the Holy Father’s words.”

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