A Jewish rabbi and historian has lauded Pope Francis’ visit to the tomb of an important Jewish personality, stating that he is the most accommodating Pope history has seen.
Pope Francis has taken “certainly the most friendly, proactive, accommodating position of any Pope probably in history” toward the Jewish people, Rabbi Ken Spiro explained to CNA May 26.
The fact that the Roman Pontiff has “gone somewhere such as Herzl’s tomb is kind of like closing a circle” he stated.
Spiro, who was born and raised in the United States but has been living and working in Israel for the past 32 years, is a historian who specializes in Jewish-Christian relations.
He is also the host Jerusalem U's education series "The Israel Course," which is a special course designed for Christians to learn about Israel.
Referring to the Pope’s visit earlier today to the tomb of Theodore Herzl, who was a Jewish journalist and writer credited as the father of modern political Zionism, the rabbi explained that Pope Francis’ act of laying a wreath on the tomb is an important symbol in bridging Catholic-Jewish relations.
Calling to mind how Pope Paul VI made the first effort to reconcile divisions between the two faith traditions and how these were solidified by their successors in releasing Jews of former claims the Church had made against them, principally that they were guilty of Jesus’ death, the rabbi noted that “what Pope Francis has done now is the next step.”
“He’s actually come out and said that God never rejected his relationship with the Jewish people and through the Jewish people we basically learn about God, which is a very proactive theological statement.”
Observing how the pontiff has also met with many leaders of other faiths during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Spiro noted that historically the trip is part of a long process of attempting to stifle drawn out conflicts, which he described as being primarily of a religious nature.
Breaking down the complex history of interreligious relations within the State of Israel, Spiro explained that “they call it the Holy Land,” and that the term holy is “originally connected to Judaism.”
“From Abraham onward beginning with the temple on Mt. Jerusalem this has been the holiest spot in the world for Jewish people,” and is “the direction toward which all Jews in the world pray,” he noted.
Since Christianity and Islam “are historically offshoots from Judaism,” there are also strong but different connections for both within the Holy Land, the rabbi continued, stating that “the Christian connection is probably more direct” because “Jesus was Jewish and he lived in Jerusalem, he preached in Jerusalem, he visited the Temple Mount and the Christian Bible contains the Jewish Bible.”
However in the seventh century “a story of Muhammad’s midnight ride was connected” to the same zone, so ever since then “the temple of Mt. Jerusalem where the gold dome stands is the third holiest site” for Muslims.
“So it’s holy to the three great monotheistic faiths,” he observed, explaining that despite the fact that “there is complete freedom of worship and access to holy sites” in Israel, the situation is “extremely complicated because it has to be balanced again by security issues” such as ongoing terror attacks.
The difficulty for Christians, he explained, is that “they’re kind of tugged between the Jewish-Arab-Palestinian-Islamic conflict” since most living in the Holy Land are “are racially-ethnically Arab, and therefore they’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.”
“If you know anything about the Middle East in general the most endangered Christian communities are” there he noted, adding that although Christians are “stuck in the middle,” the tension is “primarily between Jewish national association with Israel and Islamic tradition which is newer and not as central religiously.”
“Like everything in the Middle East it’s extremely complicated. It’s partially a religious conflict, it’s partially a political conflict,” but “the underlying roots in my opinion are really religious roots.”
This, Spiro went on, is because the Islamic world view believes “that Islam is the final religion and the world should recognize that,” and because of this they do not “recognize sovereignty of people over land that was formerly owned by Muslims.”
“It’s something not allowed in their theology. That which was Islamic must remain Islamic,” he stated, recalling how Israel was previously controlled by Muslim dynasties for more than 1,300 years.
“This territory was controlled by different Islamic dynasties and in 1948 when Israel was declared a state” the Arab nations did not accept the partition vote, so they “declared war on the State of Israel and we’ve been in this constant state of conflict ever since,” Spiro observed.
So the Pope’s “intentions are fantastic,” he said, explaining that although he is skeptical “of people’s goodwill overcoming the bad blood and the history in there…it’s a nice move on his part.”