A conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka
by Andre Mondal
13 November 2019, p. 1 [unofficial translation from Italian]
Unscheduled words, spoken by the Pope at January 25, 2020 general audience, touched the heart of Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who was visiting the editorial staff of L’Osservatore Romano.
“This unexpected and impromptu comment of the Pope is of supreme importance: it reflects his deep commitment to the Jewish people. They are words that arouse in me great emotions and a sense of gratitude, bearing in mind the long history of misunderstandings between the Church and Jews. After so many years I know the Pope’s way of thinking and feeling, and I know that he very often digs deeply and, as he would say, says what comes from the bottom of his heart. This type of intervention on his part is certainly not new, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have great importance, especially in a historical moment like the present one.”
The rabbi wants to linger on this aspect of current affairs, emphasizing the Pope’s concern over recent signs of a revival of antisemitism. “These are very worrying signs. I think of what happens in Italy but also all over the world, even in the U.S. If I look back in my memory I realize that whenever signs of this kind of revival have appeared in the past, the development and consequences of these signs have been disastrous, harbingers of enormous suffering not only for Jews but also for other peoples.”
Why this rebirth today? Conversing with Rabbi Skorka, a first answer is given immediately: the economic crisis, the sense of fear spread within contemporary Western society. “But there is something more. In addition, antisemitism is more than two thousand years old, and already the Greek and Roman world had problems with Jews. In fact, Jews have always been seen as ‘the wrongdoers.’ Even Nazi antisemitism took this idea of the ‘guilt’ of the Jews from the past. There is the joke, Jewish of course (we have developed a capacity to smile even about the greatest tragedies), which tells of a Nazi speaking in public saying that the cause of all the ills of society is due to the presence of two types of people: Jews and cyclists. And the question immediately comes from the audience: why cyclists? A joke that effectively illustrates the logical workings of the ‘guilt’ of the Jews.”
The conversation proceeds and we both feel that it is necessary to dig deeper, dig into this wound that is still bleeding in the heart of human coexistence.
“There is a reflection, born of anthropology, that seems to me convincing: in ancient times men lived within the system and the logic of the herd. So many opposing herds fighting. There was not the individual but the herd. The Jewish Bible responded to this conflictual and evolving situation with the story of a God who calls humanity to personal responsibility. Human society is born, no longer a herd. And yet there is also an antithesis that still persists, up to today, whenever the feeling of the herd regains strength. Nazism was this: the German herd, with the obvious contradiction that this led to the separation and persecution of the Jews who were actually perfectly faithful German citizens. It was not Germany that they wanted to exalt, but Germany as a “herd.” There are two different ways of seeing things: the idea before the human (think of Platonism) or the human before the idea (the Bible).”
Inevitably, the reflection we reach together is bitter: today the clash is between two ideologies, that of the consumer society, which pushes towards extreme individualism, and the opposing thrust of the herd, not of the community of people, who wants to fight this individualism on paper but it is really the other side of the same coin. It ends up trampling on the freedom and dignity of the individual, always seeking a scapegoat on which to pour tensions and social hatreds.
“Hence the extraordinary importance of the words of Pope Francis,” Rabbi Skorka repeated with emotion as he reread the text of the catechesis, “which reminds us that the others are brothers, and the persecution of the Jews is a fact that is ‘neither human nor Christian.’”