Pope's 'Breakthrough' Hailed Locally

Posted: April 14, 1986

Local Jewish leaders hailed the Pope's visit yesterday to Rome's main synagogue, but were disappointed by his failure to recognize the state of Israel.

Two Roman Catholic scholars praised the visit, the first ever by a pontiff to a Jewish house of worship, as significant, "a breakthrough sort of thing" as one of them, Temple University religion professor Leonard Swidler, put it.

"It's very difficult for the pope to do anything of political significance at the moment because if he should visit Israel it would anger the Muslim world," Rabbi Albert Lewis of Temple Beth Sholom in Haddon Heights, N.J., said.

Lewis said that despite the troubled political situation, he believed the pope in "a symbolic, indirect way" was trying to recognize Israel through the synagogue visit.

"There's a good possbility that by visiting a synagogue he is stretching out a hand in an area which is less dangerous, politically," he said.

Even though the Second Vatican Council produced much religious good, Lewis said, he thought "a good deal of tension" had built up in recent years over the question of Israel and the pope's meeting several years ago with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

"To the Jewish people, Israel is a religious experience," he said.

Barry Ungar, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, also expressed disappointment at the Vatican's failure to recognize Israel. But he called the synagogue visit "a very good further step" in strengthening Jewish-Catholic relations.

Ungar said "as a practical matter" the Vatican had recognized Israel, ''but not as a legal matter. The pope meets with the head of the state of Israel. It's just a matter of taking this last step."

Rabbi David Wolf Silverman of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, in Center City, expressed a similar desire for recognition of Israel.

But Silverman, noting the pope's wording yesterday when he called Jews the ''elder brothers" of Christians, praised John Paul for re-enforcing the position taken by Vatican II rejecting the charge that Jews as a whole are guilty of deicide - the killing of God - in the death of Christ.

The pope "not only (rejected) the charge of deicide, which has plagued Catholic-Jewish relations for close to two millenia, but the doctrine of supercessionism (the belief that the advent of Christianity eliminated the need for Judaism), which denied religious vitality to the Jewish religion after the founding of the Christian church, especially in its Roman Catholic form," the rabbi said.

Swidler, a liberal Catholic and a professor of religious dogma at Temple, said he understood that "it was a disappointment to some Jewish people that the pope did not recognize the state of Israel in a formal, diplomatic way."

He characterized the visit as "more a formal, ceremonial kind of . . . act of penance and move toward reconciliation on the part of the Roman Catholic Church in relationship to the Jewish people."

Monsignor Joseph W. Devlin, assistant professor of graduate religion at La Salle University, said he also believed the political status of Israel was not raised because of "the delicate situation . . . in the Arab world in which Catholic Arabs and Christian Arabs in general might be subject to persecution . . ."

"I would say that the pope has countered one of the chief obstacles to Jewish-Christian relations, and that is the assumption of Christians that there was no need for Judaism once Christianity had arrived," said Devlin, who has worked in Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue for 20 years.

"This is very significant because much anti-Semitism culturally was based upon the notion that the Jewish people had been discredited by God or by Jesus."

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