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from issue no. 01/02 - 2009

The Prayer of the Jews

The powerful instrument of the Adveniat regnum tuum. A meeting with Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Rome

Interview with Riccardo Di Segni by Giovanni Cubeddu

Riccardo Di Segni [© Contrasto]

Riccardo Di Segni [© Contrasto]

Rabbi, we are here again to talk about Jewish-Christian dialogue.
RICCARDO DI SEGNI: The problems could be hundreds... Let’s start with the question: “What is the purpose of dialogue?”. In recent times we have had the sensation that the ground was shaking under our feet and everything was jumping in the air. And that the importance of the relationship with us was always in second place compared to other problems which, we acknowledge, are important for the unity of the Church, and yet they sacrifice other achievements made. So, the first thing that dialogue must serve, in the light of what has happened now, is the possibility of exchanging views frankly with mutual respect and see how, despite the road being bumpy, we may continue in this respect and this cooperation. That is, be able to marginalize situations of crisis. The possibility and great good will are needed...
Let’s get down to specifics.
DI SEGNI: There are three levels of issues arising out of the recent, emblematic, incident of the withdrawal of the excommunication of the Lefebvrians, which has sparked a lot of controversy, for that matter justified, on holocaust denial. First, it is clear that the denial is totally out of order in the thinking of the Catholic Church, but the misunderstanding has alarmed everybody, and the criticism has been ninety-nine percent focused on this aspect. The second aspect, very important, is the thinking that lies at the basis of the division of the Lefebvrians, who do not accept the Council and what derives from it – which is essential for enabling respectful dialogue between Jews and Christians – that is Nostra Aetate and the later documents. We are not so much bothered by the obvious controversy on denial, as by the fact that within the Church a type of thinking re-renters with dignity that calls into question what has been achieved. It is no small concern.
DI SEGNI: A consequent problem which has not been discussed at all. That is: what is the official thinking of the Church on the Jewish people and their faith? It’s symptomatic that the day after the announcement of the withdrawal of the excommunication, which occurred in January, on a Saturday, the Pope, in his series of sermons dedicated to St Paul, gave a speech on the conversion of the apostle saying that in reality it was not a matter of conversion because Paul was a “believing Jew”, and hence to pass to faith in Jesus Christ was not a contradictory thing. In that sentence there was probably a veiled polemic against the Lefebvrians, given that for them Judaism is the devil... from which to free oneself by an act of conversion. For this Pope that is not the case, or at least he has always said and repeated that it is the noble and sacred root on which the Christian faith is grafted, but on the other hand Judaism for him is still an incomplete experience, and we are incomplete people because coherently we should do what Paul did.
With denial and the discussion on the state of the dialogue removed, with the storm over, the final “block” remains.
DI SEGNI: How does one get away from it? At least by not talking about it in our relationship. Furthermore we don’t know what the Pope is thinking when he says that dialogue cannot be religious... We don’t know to whom he is referring, whether to the other religions in general or whether an exception is made for Judaism since it is more of an “internal” problem... But, at least from an Orthodox Jewish point of view, it has always been clear that dialogue cannot be on the fundamentals of faith because that leads nowhere.
After the Council the history of religious dialogue has involved not the fundamentals of the historical faiths but some religious contents.
DI SEGNI: Among us Jews much circulation is given to the idea that there should be dialogue not between religions but between religious people, which is something different and much more useful. Between individuals and not between major conceptual systems.
It is for concreteness’ sake that dialogue can be based on tzedek and tzedakah, on justice and charity. It was the topic of the first audience that you as Chief Rabbi of Rome had with the Pope
DI SEGNI: The concreteness of dialogue consists primarily in starting from the assumption that the person in front of you is a man who has an inspiration. He has something that leads him to behave justly in society, and for that reason he is your ally, according to your sense of wanting to do good, and in the common duty to bear this witness. It is an assumption of basic respect. In practice we could find very many fields of application.
Starting from the case of Eluana Englaro.
DI SEGNI: There were two opposing visions, in quotes, one Catholic and one secular, with huge political implications in Italy, and beyond. And given the shape events had taken, the profile the Jewish institutions kept on this subject was as low as possible: we looked on in silence, because we did not want to join in a holy war, an institutional religious-political war.
<I>The struck rock</I>, Marc Chagall, “Marc Chagall” National Museum of the Biblical Message, Nice, France

The struck rock, Marc Chagall, “Marc Chagall” National Museum of the Biblical Message, Nice, France

This, however, remains an area in which to bring our differences or similarities in a non-aggressive form.
DI SEGNI: And that would be important. But it would be necessary to prevent everything turning into a huge media bubble, which would falsify the view of the real problems. In this society, if we stick to ethics, the real issues are quite other, with all due respect for the suffering in the specific case, the pressing problems are very different. There is a bioethics of the extreme case, which is always being prattled about, but there is also the bioethics of everyday life – that of unequal treatment, limited resources, the categories at risk – that should enlist us all together to witness and ask loudly for some law, not the one made the night before the suspension of treatment.
Are we still wondering whether we have shared values? Of course, and on the bioethics of everyday life there isn’t much to discuss, there’s a moral urgency. So let’s do these things together...
You once explicitly said that it is licit to apply political realism to Jewish-Christian dialogue.
DI SEGNI: Political realism means that it shouldn’t cross the mind of any Jew to say to a Christian: “Your faith is strange because it does not correspond to our idea of monotheism”, as it shouldn’t cross the mind of a Catholic to turn to a Jew and say: “Now convert”. That’s how it was once, both from the point of view of the psychology of everyday pressure and from that of violent explosions in this regard. That seems done with, at least throughout the Catholic world, even if it isn’t in sectors of the Evangelical world. Realism means that I don’t work programmatically to change the ideas of those around me and I allow them, according to their conscience, to take their own path. And then we’ll see... Political realism means that if there are urgent ethical problems, we can act together, share experiences as friends. Or there’s another way to go, more delicate and with its dangers: the study of the religious beliefs of others.
What does study mean in this case?
DI SEGNI: The believer, seeing the faithful of other religions, says: “But look how faithful they are to their God,” and asks himself: “What do I do compared to this that I see?” and “how many of us pray with such ardor?” This isn’t at all to do just with relations between Jews and Christians... any Italian must have asked the question looking at the cathedral square in Milan packed with Muslims in prayer. It’s not a matter here of possible political provocation, but such public religiosity, perhaps ostentatious, that in any case posed for a Catholic and for a Jew the question about faith lived by an entire community. “And we instead?” they must both have said. It can happen to a Christian, seeing the Jews celebrate Pesach, the Passover, or a Jew, watching the strong witness of Christians at certain liturgical moments. And to both of them it happens in front of Islam...
It’s a watching, and this watching brings questions: whether what the others are doing is right, why they have so much warmth and me not, whether their method is maybe incoherent, whether there’s an ostentation that goes beyond the basics of faith or whether it is our very own ostentation... It’s a moment when, in Italy as elsewhere in the world, we are emerging from a provincialism in which, in the past, the only diverse group – facing a completely Catholic universe – were Jews. Now everything is more variegated...
What is the prayer for the fullness of redemption, Gheullà Shelemà, for the Jews?
DI SEGNI: One has to start from the premise that Judaism was born with a root that is not merely religious but also national, of the collective, and therefore the model of initial redemption is that of migration from Egypt, in which a people comes out of slavery. In the promise of God to Moses (Exodus 6, 6) there are four basic expressions, which speak of redemption. So in Jewish experience it is also redemption from the yoke, that is collective political independence. Then there are other categories, the material freedom of the individual and finally spiritual liberation. One thing does not exclude the other, they are facets of the same reality. Spiritual redemption means growth. Only in certain parts of Jewish mystical thinking is there a concept that comes close to that of Christian original sin, while the idea of the reconstitution of the original unity is present in various aspects of Jewish thinking, such as putting order in the primordial chaos caused by Adam’s sin, this too considered complete redemption. There are very many facets...
Does the prayer have the same value or not as prayer for conversion, as in the Pro Iudaeis of Good Friday?
DI SEGNI: The expression Gheullà Shelemà appears in the daily prayer of the 18 blessings which is not the universal prayer of the Alenu (the Alenu is the closing formula of daily prayers, the declaration of faith and of hope in the universal acceptance of the kingdom of God, ed). And when we pray for complete redemption it is for the redemption of the people of Israel, in the sense set out earlier. The prayer, disputed by some, is that of the Alenu, which might contain allusions to Christianity, but they are only possible allusions. There are those who see it and those who don’t. I will read it and translate from the Hebrew so there is no possibility of misunderstanding.
[The Rabbi reads passages from the book Preghiere [Prayers], by the Chief Rabbi of Rome David Prato, 1950, with facing Hebrew text, ed].

“We must praise the lord of all and recognize greatness to the author of creation because he has not made us the same as the idolatrous peoples and he has not constituted us like the families of the heathens, for they bow down before nothingness and vanity and call on gods that cannot help them”. Although the text has been interpreted by some as a polemical allusion to Christianity, they are expressions that precede Christianity by a considerable time and this prayer might also have easily been a prayer of the early Christians...

“While we kneel, and prostrate ourselves before the King of Kings, Holy and Blessed be He, who stretched the vault of the sky and founded the earth... So we hope, O our Eternal God, to see at soonest the glory of Your strength so that the impurities vanish from the earth and the false gods be definitively eliminated. With the coming of Your Kingdom the world will be perfect”. The coming of Your Kingdom, a typical Jewish expression, doesn’t it perhaps recall a Christian prayer?
“All mortals will invoke Your name and all the wicked will turn in repentance to You. All the inhabitants of the universe will recognize and know that to You alone must they bend their knees, that every language must invoke You alone. Before You, O our Eternal God, they will stoop and fall, and to the glory of Your name will pay homage. All will accept the yoke of Your Kingdom, and You will reign over them, soon, for ever.” This is the continuous repetition of the concept of the kingdom which must come, which is then the powerful instrument of the Adveniat regnuum Tuum. As you see, we are decidedly kin...

“Because the kingship belongs to You and for ever You will reign gloriously as is said in Your Torah: the Eternal will reign for ever, and it is also said: the Eternal will be king over all the earth, and on that day the Eternal will be One and His name One! And it is also proclaimed: Hear, Israel, our Eternal God, the Eternal, is One”. This began as a prayer for the new year, and among the number of prayers of this time that have their own order some are said that have the theme of divine kingship and God King of the universe is hailed. We don’t know when it was composed, some attribute it to Joshua, others shift it much further down the centuries. Because of its importance it was then decided to read it every day at the end of the daily prayers.
<I>The party</I>, 1925, Marc Chagall, Private Collection

The party, 1925, Marc Chagall, Private Collection

It’s undeniable that there was an interpretation of it by the Jewish faithful in a polemic sense against Christianity.
DI SEGNI: Yes, but now you know the real text. And one fruit of the dialogue, on which I often insist, is precisely this: that the relationship of serenity and respect between religions is a strict outcome of the reduction of the aggressivity of the parties. When there is aggression towards Judaism, it responds by raising fences, “you treat me like this and I say that...”, and vice versa. What is the purpose of dialogue? To ensure that a prayer that began as universal remain such in the minds of those who say it, without turning into something else, without stamping on each other’s feet. Because there is a prayer and there is the potential added value of the polemical allusion, which is elided when the controversy diminishes.
During one of the days of Jewish-Christian dialogue you explained Jewish universalism starting from Noah, a modest and honest man who “went along with God”.
DI SEGNI: According to the Bible, it was enough for Noah to be an ordinary man who obeyed God to save and start a whole new human race. Christianity presents itself as an Abrahamic religion, and instead Abraham “came before” God... Around Noah Judaism has embraced the reality of dual salvation, i.e. that there is no need to submit oneself to the special doctrine of the priesthood of Israel to gain the future prizes. Jewish universalism means that it is enough for everyone to follow the path on which they find themselves at the moment of birth and comply with its rules, namely respect for the creation, for other people and for the relationship with God. I believe that each on their own path, practicing Jews and Christians, can attain salvation. But if Jews and Christians become zealous missionaries of pure faith what’s the point of talking to each other?
Rabbi, you’re a well-known Roma fan. The team supported by the Jewish community of Rome, the Roman, was one of three teams that amalgamated to form A.S. Roma. And the shirt colors of A.S. Roma are those of the Roman. Do you remember that?
DI SEGNI: What am I to say: unfortunately there are still Jewish Lazio fans...

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