The Pope and Rabbi Avraham Skorka

By Rabbi Alan Silverstein

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the component of the 1965 Vatican II document that affirmed Catholicism’s opening itself to other faiths, most notably Judaism. The arrival in New York City of Pope Francis provides the occasion to reflect upon his unique role-modeling of Nostra Aetate’s call for deep friendship and dialogue with Jews, in particular his bonding with Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

Nearly 20 years ago at an interfaith gathering hosted by the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, the pope born Jorge Mario Bergoglio met Rabbi Skorka. Bergoglio was Buenos Aires’ Archbishop, and was soon to become the Chair of the Argentina Conference of Catholic Bishops. Skorka was a senior faculty member of Latin America’s premier rabbinic training institution, the Seminario Rabbinico Latinamericano, soon to be its Rector. He also was the spiritual leader of a Buenos Aires Conservative synagogue.

A special friendship and dialogue ensued. The subsequent two decades witnessed numerous historic milestones in their furthering of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Archbishop Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka hosted a monthly television program on the national Catholic channel. As friends and dialogue partners, they discussed topics from the perspectives of each religion. Rabbi Skorka commented that during the television experience, “We would look into each other’s eyes and know exactly how to proceed. We would have a theme and we’d reach an unspoken understanding. This is something that is only achieved over many years of friendship.” Francis would add, “With Skorka I didn’t ever have to compromise my Catholic identity, just as he did not with his Jewish identity. This was not only because of the respect we have for each other, but also because this is what we consider interreligious dialogue… I consider Skorka a brother and a friend.”

Another milestone was when the Argentina Catholic University in Buenos Aires awarded Rabbi Skorka an honorary doctorate, presented to him by the cardinal. As Rabbi Skorka noted, “This was the first time it has been awarded to a Jew [lay person] or a rabbi in the whole of Latin America…. It was [Archbishop Bergoglio’s] move, he promoted it and it was a very strong sign.” Reflecting the significance of this ceremony, October 30, 2013 Sacred Heart University bestowed a similar honor upon the rabbi.

Also unprecedented was when the former Buenos Aires Archbishop decided that Rabbi Skorka, rather than a fellow Catholic cleric, should compose the prologue to El Jesuita, a book of interviews with Archbishop Bergoglio published in 2010. Moved by this honor, Skorka asked his dear friend why that special gesture had been extended. The Archbishop responded, “because that is what came from my heart.” In gratitude, the rabbi commented, “that touched me deeply.”

Perhaps the highlight of their mutual affection was the 2010 publication of their book, On Heaven and Earth. The volume chronicles hundreds of hours of their dialogue about God, fundamentalism, death, women, abortion, education, globalization, the Holocaust, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, among a range of other topics. Rabbi Skorka noted that it was the pope’s intent that this “should be a book of questions that any man on the street would ask. He believes you can say the most profound things in a very simple way.”

A most important subject addressed by On Heaven and Earth is the nature of the dialogue experience. In Francis’s words, “Dialogue is born of an attitude of respect for another person, and a conviction that the other has something good to say; it assumes to make room in our hearts for his point of view, for his opinions and his suggestions.” He added that “[d]ialogue involves a warm welcome, not condemnation. To dialogue, one must lower defenses, open doors, and provide human warmth.” Pope Francis also cautioned that we ought not “succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgments, and so many others.”

To these profound insights, Rabbi Skorka added that “to have a conversation [dialogue] is to bring one’s soul nearer to another’s in order to reveal and illuminate his or her core… God’s candle… man’s soul.” He affirmed that “when dialogue reaches this level of magnitude, one becomes aware of what he or she has in common with the other person… the same persistent existential questions with their various interpretations.” The rabbi added, “we have transformed our dialogue…exposing our souls. We accept all the risks this implies, yet remain profoundly convinced that this is the only way for us to [be]… moving ever closer to God.”

As this pope has taught the world: Dialogue is not only about words, it is also engaging in deep friendship. Critics of dialogue assert that truth is non-negotiable. Why water down truth? Proponents of dialogue however, accept that God’s truth is infinite. God’s truth is constantly being discerned. The search for the ineffable can be enriched by dialogue with genuine partners of other faith traditions, seeking to connect ever more strongly with the Almighty.