The highest Jewish religious authorities in Israel have complained to the Vatican about Pope Francis’s comments regarding Jewish Law and asked for clarification.
According to a letter seen by Reuters, Rabbi Rasson Arousi, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate's Commission for Dialogue with the Holy See, said that, “the comments seemed to suggest that Jewish law was obsolete.”
This letter followed the Pope’s catechesis given during the general audience of August 11, 2021. Francis commented on a passage from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians: “Why then was the Law?” (Gal 3:19). According to the usual commentary, the pope uses this other passage from the same epistle: “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18)
The Law here refers to the Mosaic Law. Now, Francis points out, the Law guaranteed to the Hebrews the benefits of the Covenant that God had established with His people. However, it is not possible to identify the Law with the Covenant, which, still according to St. Paul, is based on faith in the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Israel, as it says in Galatians 3:17-18:
“Now this I say, that the testament which was confirmed by God, the law which was made after four hundred and thirty years, doth not disannul, to make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise. But God gave it to Abraham by promise.”
The Pope therefore draws the logical conclusion: “The Law is not the basis of the Covenant because it came afterwards; it was necessary and just, but before that there was the promise, the Covenant.” Which means that the Law is not a constituent part of the Covenant.
But then why the law? It has a role in the history of salvation, says thePpope and adds what will startle the rabbis of Israel:
“The Law, however, does not give life. It does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it. The Law is a path that takes you forward towards the encounter. Paul uses a very important term, the Law is the “pedagogue” in Christ [Gal 3:24], the teacher towards faith in Christ, that is to say the teacher who leads you by the hand to the encounter. Those who seek life need to look to the promise and its fulfillment in Christ.”
Francis immediately adds: “Dear friends, this first explanation of the apostle Paul to the Galatians presents the radical novelty of the Christian life: all those who have faith in Jesus Christ are called to live in the Holy Spirit, who frees from the Law and, at the same time, leads it to its fulfillment according to the commandment of love.”
The given explanation is that which we find in the Fathers or the exegetes giving: the New law has replaced the Old, the law of charity inscribed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit has replaced the law of fear inscribed on tables of stone.
Rabbi Arousi sent his letter on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate - the supreme rabbinical authority for Judaism in Israel - to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, in charge of relations with Judaism.
“In his homily, the Pope presents the Christian faith as not only replacing the Torah, but affirms that the latter no longer gives life, which implies that the Jewish religious practice at the present time is made obsolete,” says Arousi in the letter.
“It is indeed an integral part of the 'teaching of contempt' towards Jews and Judaism that we thought had been entirely repudiated by the Church,” he adds.
In his letter, Arousi also asked Cardinal Koch to “convey our distress to Pope Francis” and requested clarification from the Pope to “ensure that any derogatory conclusions drawn from this homily are clearly repudiated.”
Some Catholic voices have spoken up in support of the Israeli rabbis’ demands. “To say that this fundamental principle of Judaism does not give life is to denigrate the fundamental religious view of the Jews and of Judaism. It could have been written before the Council,” comments Fr. John Pawlikowski, former director of a Catholic-Jewish studies program in Chicago.
“I think this is a problem for Jewish ears, especially since the pope's words were addressed to a Catholic audience,” said Prof. Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Judeo-Catholic Relations from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. “This could be understood as a devaluation of Jewish observance of Torah today,” he added.
Rabbi Arousi speculated that part of the papal catechesis had been written by assistants and that the wording was not properly verified.
Cardinal Koch's secretariat said on Wednesday that he had received the letter, that he was “seriously considering it and considering a response.”