Vatican: The Jewish wait for Messiah is not in vain

BUDAPEST — Jews involved in interfaith dialogue are praising a new Vatican document that appears to represent a turning point in the way Roman Catholic doctrine views the Hebrew Bible.

One of the key points of "The Jewish People and the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible" is that the Church believes the "Old Testament" retains its moral value, not just its literary appeal, Rabbi Arthur Schneier said in a telephone interview from New York.

Schneier is the president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a group that promotes religious freedom.

Released quietly two months ago, the document also explicitly states that "the Jewish wait for the Messiah is not in vain."

Jews and Christians share the wait for the Messiah, it says, but Jews are waiting for the first coming, and Christians for the second.

"The difference consists in the fact that for us, he who will come will have the same traits of that Jesus who has already come," wrote the Vatican's chief theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who signed the document.

The document also expresses regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism. Nowhere in the Christian Bible, it said, can one find passages reflecting "an attitude of scorn, hostility or persecution of Jews as Jews."

Jews involved in interfaith dialogue welcomed the document.

"It seems to be another significant, positive step in the process of increasing Catholic appreciation of Jews and Judaism," said Stanislaw Krajewski, the Warsaw consultant of the American Jewish Committee and a longtime activist in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

The fact that Ratzinger, regarded as a conservative, signed the document also is seen as significant. A document he released last year called "Dominus Iesus" appeared to challenge the idea that "one religion is as good as another."

Vatican chief spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls said the new document now is part of official church doctrine.

The Catholic News Agency wrote, "Commission members said their document was meant to contribute to Jewish-Christian understanding by explaining the importance of the Jewish Scriptures for Christian faith and providing a context for Christians reading references to Jews in the New Testament."

The document has been making news not just for its message, but because it was published with almost no fanfare.

It appeared in some Rome bookshops two months ago as a 210-page volume. But it was not publicized, and released in French and Italian only.

The Vatican usually presents documents officially at press conferences. A Polish translation was released last week to coincide with the "Day of Judaism" marked annually by the Roman Catholic church in Poland on Jan. 17, but no English text has surfaced.

Krajewski said the Polish translation of the document was carried out by the Rev. Ryszard Rubinkiewicz, a professor in Lublin, who also was a member of the commission that researched and wrote it.

He noted that Rubinkiewicz's views on Jews and Judaism were influenced by a trip he made to the United States several years ago within the framework of an American Jewish Committee program aimed at teaching Catholic priests about Jewry and Judaism.

Other Jewish commentators also praised the Vatican document, but some called it less of a breakthrough.

The document is a positive statement, but not a marked departure from Church views in recent years, according to Rabbi Charles Arian, the Jewish staff scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

It is unclear whether the document tries to reconcile Judaism's validity with a contradictory doctrine that claims Jesus' resurrection is of "universal significance."

But the document does come close to a full rejection of the concept that Christianity replaced Judaism, said Eugene Korn, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

Since the document determines that Jewish scriptures are sacred and there is validity to Jews' wait for the Messiah, it implies that the covenant between God and the Jews is valid. That would overturn the traditional Catholic understanding of Judaism, Korn said.

In addition, it is important that the document notes that the Christian Bible must be understood within a Jewish context, and cannot form the basis for anti-Semitism, Korn added.

The pope has made similar declarations over the last 10 years, but the document reaffirms that the negative discussion of Judaism in the New Testament must be understood in terms of an internal debate, not an official Christian view of Jews.

Both Arian and Korn wonder how these messages will transcend the relative obscurity of the document and be disseminated to communities.