Pope and Jews hold differing views on repentance

Most observers of Vatican-Jewish relations have focused exclusively on Pope John Paul II's pronouncements and apologies. But the pope's carefully chosen actions are in fact a reflection of fundamental theological differences between the Catholic and Jewish communities.

Take for example the photo that appeared on front pages throughout the world this week. Pope John Paul II is captured looking toward the hills of Jerusalem from Mount Nebo, where the Book of Deuteronomy states that God showed Moses the Land of Israel. Within this photograph lies a central distinction between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, Moses looked at the land wherein the Jews would settle in accordance with Torah law. For Christians, Moses is the forerunner to the coming of Jesus who would establish a new covenant with God.

This theological distinction lies at the very root of Israel's and the Vatican's differing views on Jerusalem. With minor variations, Israelis are united in the sentiment that Jerusalem should remain the eternal, undivided capital of Israel. That position, however, is theologically unacceptable to the Christian community as it would allow the Jews, who according to Christianity are the people of the Old Testament, to be in control of the spiritual center of Israel.

Other theological differences shed light on the pope's attempt to apologize to the Jewish people. In Christianity, the basis of repentance is admission of guilt. In Judaism, while admission of guilt is important it is only the first step — the basis of repentance is not words but deeds. An act of restoration is required. Hence, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides argues that authentic repentance occurs when a person is faced with the same challenge that led to his or her failure earlier — but this time does not make the same mistake.

Consequently, even if the pope had offered words of contrition at Yad Vashem in Israel concerning the church's actions during the Holocaust, it would not have been enough. After all, he is prepared to grant sainthood to Pope Pius XII, the very pope who was in power during the time when the church turned its back on the Jewish people.

Of course, the pope can never apologize for sins committed by the Vatican during the Shoah as that would implicate Pius XII. Such an admission would undermine the church's doctrine of infallibility. Jews, by contrast, insist that their leaders, including the high priest, are vulnerable and can make serious mistakes.

Even within the pope's spoken words of apology concerning the Crusades and the Inquisition, uttered before his visit to Israel, he has fallen short. In Christianity, general declarations are enough. In Judaism, Maimonides insists, repentance requires a detailed description of what one has done wrong. In Maimonides' words, one states, "I have sinned…and have done thus." The pope's description of some of the church's errors were not described in the detail required for true repentance.

Thus, the pope's contention at Yad Vashem for the "need for silence" rings hollow. Victims have the right to remain silent, but those who stood by silently during the Holocaust must speak with clarity about their wrongdoing. For Maimonides, the articulation of the wrongful act committed is a necessary catharsis for true repentance to take place. Through verbalization the sinner is forced to come face to face with the evil that has been committed.

There is one other difference. In Christianity all sins can be forgiven by God. In Judaism, that would only apply to sins committed against God. Concerning sins committed against other people, only the victims — not even God — can offer forgiveness. Thus, the pope's attempts to apologize for Catholic sins committed during the Inquisition and Crusades fall short, as the victims of these atrocities are not here to forgive. So while an apology has value, true forgiveness cannot take place.

While I am one of those Jews who found the pope's words sorely inadequate I must recognize that my upset relates to how the Jewish approach to t'shuvah, repentance, fundamentally differs from the Christian one. Rather than list a litany of what the pope has or has not said, it behooves us to recognize that Christians and Jews come from a different theological base. And it is these differing theologies that will continue to define the parameters of our relationship into the foreseeable future.