The Argentinian rabbi talks about Jewish-Catholic relations and his longtime friendship with the current pope.
By Josh Tapper
For many years, Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi, carried on an unassuming friendship with the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. The pair co-hosted a televised Bible discussion called Bible, A Dialogue for Today, co-wrote a book of spirited theological discourse, On Heaven and Earth, even ribbed each other about the fortunes of their favorite soccer clubs.
Then, in March, Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis. While Bergoglio has ascended to the top of the Catholic hierarchy, he and Skorka, a member of the Conservative movement and rector at the Buenos Aires-based Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, remain close, emailing often about such lofty projects as the future of Jewish-Catholic relations. Skorka, 63, has already visited the pope at the Vatican and the two men are expected to meet again in Rome next month. They have tentative plans to travel together to Israel next year.
Since assuming the papacy, Francis hasn’t been shy about reaching out to the Jewish community, nor in his condemnation of anti-Semitism. Skorka, meanwhile, has become a unique, and crucial, conduit for his old friend’s views on Judaism. He talked to Moment while on a recent U.S. speaking tour.
Decades after Nostra Aetate, Jews and Catholics continue to have misperceptions of one another. What needs to be done going forward to bring the two religions closer together?
At the beginning of the first century and into the second century, there were discussions and dialogues between Jews and Christians. We have to revitalize those dialogues in order to understand the deep relationship, historically and morally, between the two religions—to know exactly who the other is and what the real and deep significance each religion has for the other.
When we analyze the history of the relationship of Jews and Christians over recent centuries, there are no dialogues. Jews are living off to the side, in ghettos and not maintaining dialogues with Christian congregations. But Jews knew Christians very well, they were aware of the closeness between us. We, just like the Christians, knew that in some way we were brothers, like Jacob and Esau were. Jews in the Middle Ages used to call Catholics and Christians “Esau’s.” But there wasn’t open dialogue between Jewish sages and Christian sages. There were very known, very famous disputations, in Tortosa, in Barcelona, but Jews were under pressure then. So the current challenge is in having a dialogue, which must be heart-to-heart, without any pressure.
And you’ve developed that kind of heart-to-heart dialogue with the world’s highest-ranking Catholic.
What I did with the then-archbishop and the current Pope Francis was to develop a very deep, private relationship, a friendship. But at the same time, we worked together in order to present, firstly to Argentine society and now to the world, a way of dialoguing and, particularly, a way of dialoguing between Jews and Catholics. Pope Francis and I, we have our own plans: To show the world a symbolic image of friendship.
When he became pope, I understood that our friendship changed. It was a private thing between us, but it’s important for the world to know that a rabbi and an archbishop, who today is the pope, had a long history of affection, of love.
What does the Vatican have to do to advances ties with the Jewish community, and what are the next steps in your relationship with Pope Francis?
On an official level, the Vatican has to work with central Jewish institutions to set up a plan for the future. The pope has already given me some ideas about what we have to continue analyzing and discussing in the future. He said to me that the next step must be a theological step; we should analyze theologically what a Jew means to a Catholic and what a Catholic means to a Jew. But I’m not representing the entire Jewish people. I’m speaking as a rabbi. It’s the same for him as well—he’s not making dogmatic statements. Both of us are discussing issues, analyzing issues, studying issues. Maybe in the future we can publish another book of conversations and ideas to bring our relationship to light.
You’ve said a personal dream of yours is to stand and pray with the pope in front of the Western Wall. What conversations must be had about the Vatican’s relationship with Israel?
We need to analyze how the Catholic Church really looks at the State of Israel, how it looks at Israel as a state of the Jewish people and its challenges in forming a Jewish society with the capability to yield a daily expression of Jewish values.
This interview has been edited for clarity.