Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni’s article entitled ” The Limits of Dialogue and a Symphony that Sounds Wrong” in which he criticises the symphonic tribute to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Shoah by the Catholic organization “The Neocathechumenal Way” – in particular the concert of homage in Auschwitz, and implicitly the rabbis who attended this event and in particular myself; was brought to my attention the first time it was published by Moked – Pagine Ebraiche – in Italian. Despite the fact that I considered the article to be an unfair misrepresentation, I did not feel that I should reply to it publicly in case this be mistaken as some personal conflict between Rabbi Di Segni and myself. Indeed even when his article was republished in English, I felt that I should wait until I met with Rabbi Di Segni face to face and explain directly my strong reservations regarding his comments and approach. This meeting took place in his office a month and a half ago, where I sought to clarify the events and my position and I mentioned that I had not wanted to contradict him publicly. Rabbi Di Segni told me that on the contrary, if we had a sincere difference of opinion (I had termed it a “makhloket lshem shamayim”, a sincere argument for the sake of Heaven), then he would welcome my public comment. I was nevertheless surprised to see that his article has been reissued again by the Moked International website and therefore in light of Rabbi Di Segni’s own encouragement to me, I have requested this “right of reply” .
I should first of all put matters in fuller context. The Neocatechumenal Way played a critical role in the success of the visit to Israel in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II. In its wake, the Israeli local and national authorities gave permission to this movement to construct an impressive center on the site at Korazim above Lake Kinneret where the Pope had brought hundreds of thousands together. This centre, Domus Galillea, is not only a hospitality and conference center; it is a center devoted to teaching Catholics about the Jewish roots of their identity and to love the Jewish People and the State of Israel. In fact, the movement has a seminary there which educates Arab Christian seminarians among others, in this spirit – the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Any suggestion that this Movement is seeking to encourage syncretism and to confuse the boundaries between the Christian and the Jewish religions, does a profound injustice to the ethos and actions of this Movement. Moreover Domus Galilea has hosted visits of Chief Rabbis of Israel and other leading Israeli Orthodox rabbinic leadership.
Contrary to any implication that may be suggested by Rabbi Di Segni, Kiko Arguello – the founder of this movement – did not write this symphonic tribute to the victims of the Shoah for a Jewish audience; on the contrary. He wrote it as a Christian for Christians using Christian motifs – theological and liturgical. Indeed this symphony uses these in the process of acknowledging Jewish suffering, and the revival of Jewish life; and the climax of the concert is a choral rendition of Shema Yisrael. As I said in the original interview I gave to a Spanish newspaper and which was republished in Osservatore Romano to which Rabbi Di Segni reacted, I consider this work to be a deeply moving Christian tribute to the Jewish people and respect for its survival and renewal, even though as already mentioned, all this is expressed in Christian terms by Christian believers.
After one or two performances, Kiko Arguello had the concert performed at Domus Galilea. A few Israeli Jewish friends were invited (including representatives of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.) The positive reaction was enthusiastic and Kiko was encouraged to invite Jewish observers to future concerts in secular venues. The event at Auschwitz might be described as the culmination of this process.
I believe that Rabbi Di Segni raises two fundamental questions. The first is whether or not it is desirable (let alone morally justifiable) to seek to deny Christians the right to view the Divine presence in history, through the lens of their religious faith. I have heard before of this claim of “the Christianization of the Shoah” which was even levelled at Pope John Paul II by a secular Israeli of Italian provenance, who seems to have difficulty taking yes for an answer (!) and nothing that the Catholic Church does can ever be positive in his eyes. (As opposed to the other article on Pagine Ebraiche International website in which Italian rabbis including Rabbi Di Segni welcome Pope Francis, this gentleman insists that Francis like John Paul II is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing !).
However why should another Faith’s view of history diminish my own as a Jew ? Indeed, the whole of Christianity is an interpretation based on Judaism! Once upon a time that Faith did pose a threat to the Jewish People. The reality today is stunningly reversed. As the late Professor Geoffrey Wigoder declared “the Catholic Church today is the major force in combatting anti-Semitism. Not only is it no longer part of the problem – it is part of the solution”. I do not in the slightest feel that the fact that Christianity bases itself on the Torah, diminishes my commitment and faith in it as a Jew; and I do not see why a Christian tribute to Jewish martyrs should diminish Jewish memory in the slightest – on the contrary.
Perhaps the more important question in my eyes is whether there is a halachic problem of “mar’it ayin”, of misleading other Jews by being present at such a tribute; and whether such might be considered a transgression of “lifnei iver lo titen mickshol”, the prohibition of placing a stumbling block in front of the blind. In my opinion, the average Jew today who sees a rabbi attending a Christian tribute to the Jewish people does not conclude that there are no differences between Judaism and Christianity; but rather concludes that the latter is no longer “the enemy” and that in fact Jews can gather today with Christians even in the latter’s context, without feeling diminished, threatened or insecure. They can meet as proud Jews who represent their authentic faith tradition and thereby perform a “kiddush haShem l’einei hagoyim”, a sanctification of the Divine Name in the world.
*Rabbi David Rosen is the American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs