Op-Ed: Interview: Italy's Chief Rabbi on the Pope's Resignation
MP Fiamma NirensteinHon. Fiamma Nirenstein was the Vice-President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Chair of the Committee for the Inquiry into Antisemitism in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.
From his office located on the second floor of Rome’s Great Synagogue he says, smiling pleasantly: “By meddling in other people’s businesses you run the risk of bad taste”.
But then again, those two cupolas overlooking each other from the Tiber banks can’t help but scrutinize one another and discuss the eternally thorny matter of Catholic-Jewish relations. Professor Riccardo Di Segni, Rome’s Chief Rabbi, a youthful 60 year old, learned and stern, is comfortable discussing the resignation of his neighbour in the city where Jews have lived for 2,000 years. The youth we meet call him “moreh” i.e. master. The pope came here to visit as a friendship signal.
Di Segni is Chief of the Division of Diagnostic Radiology in a Rome hospital, as required by the Jewish mandate that expects their sages to be active in the world. Bioethics, interfaith relations, secularism, and hopes for the future: the Rabbi always says more than what his brief sentences merely convey.
Rabbi, the Pope’s gesture has been both praised and blamed. Who is right?
“If this Pope felt that he lacked the huge amount of energy required to face his enormous work, how could he possibly be blamed? He might also have shed light on a world where the albeit admirable wisdom of its leaders comes with an age which is the oldest than in any other hierarchy. I have not, however, ever noticed in him any sign of fatigue or disease”.
You saw him quite often. You sometimes hinted that you found him more suitable than Pope Woytila …
“I have no criticism about John Paul. I do like, however, the withdrawn character of this Pope, the fact that he was less than a media icon, as well as his intellectual integrity.
He has never talked much about the “Eldest brothers”.
“He did sometimes; he inherited the mandate from his predecessor. He might nevertheless perhaps know that it is a controversial expression to us. He emphasized the continuity with Judaism; when I told him once that we found the repeated use by priests of the name of G-d bothersome (we never pronounce it) he replied it was a "storicismus” and afterward he publicly criticized it.
Maybe it was an issue of his with Protestantism. It was nonetheless a sort of practical alliance. I particularly appreciated that after his election I received in my office a fax announcing that he had been elected. He sent it only to the Jews. The news went viral”.
A very special relationship?
“A clear relationship. I don’t think that he found the interfaith dialogue as set by Assisi appropriate, in which you had on one side the world of believers, on the other the non-believers as the evil ones. So, he re-organized Assisi in his own way, a great encounter, but with much less syncretism”.
What is your stance?
“The best relationship is not the one between believers but among good-hearted people: we as Jews have often been persecuted by devoted worshippers, and to this day, the extreme factions of Islam still hold it against Christians and Jews.
The Pope nonetheless after Regensburg did go to the Blue Mosque …
“Some acts are mandatory to a Pontiff”.
Ratzinger’s dialogue with Jews did not look so brilliant when he stated that dialogue was a fuction of evangelization …
“You see, I still have to find a Christian on earth, who does not think it is bizarre that Jews do not yet believe in Jesus Christ. The issue then is what they do with this diagnosis, if then they think that these "perfidi Giudei” urgently need to be converted, or else if the matter will one day be solved in its eschatological dimension. Mutual respect is actually what is needed … Benedict XVI presented it to us, even more".
When the Pope quoted France’s Chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, who wrote against homosexual marriages and parenthood, I thought about the quest for a common front against secularization.
“Indeed, that episode was very interesting, a Pope that quotes an elected rabbi of France to reinforce his own thoughts.. But on those subjects, we don’t agree on everything though. For instance, we are favorable to the pre-implantation genetic diagnosis on the embryo … Of course not because we are pro-abortion, but because the all- in vitro-fetus juridical status does not enjoy complete juridical capacity, and above all it is mandatory to avert the tragedy of a serious genetic disaster”.
Life is sacred nonetheless.
“Yes, it is from us that Christianity inherited the idea that human life is sacred because he was created in G-d’s own image. That’s why the commandment says “you shall not kill”. It is the life on man which is sacred”.
Secularization, a slacking of faith ... Was Ratzinger perhaps under siege?
“This Pope has never given in on anything, I don’t believe in a possible surrender, as someone says. Secularization, moreover, is an ancient issue; don’t you think the Papacy had an even harder time during Risorgimento’s secularized Italy? In case, it was more internal inconsistency and compromises that must have concerned him”.
The pope expressed more understanding for Palestinians rather than Israel ...
“His travel to Israel was no pleasure cruise. As soon as he reached the Papal throne, that German who was a young man from Nazi times, saw headlines on Israeli newspapers such as “The white smoke turned black”. For pope John Paul Israel, was a place where he met his fellows Polish friends, some from school days, spoke Polish with everybody, was at home.
Imagine Ratzinger with his German accent... Anyhow, he seemed to me mostly as a character deeply absorbed by his Church, his doctrine’s and exegetic topics, and he left us be in theological respect.
What is your wish for next conclave?
“The key issues to us are: survival and world impact. We rejoice that at a time when radical Islam is thriving, the Church is amicable. Luckily Providence created an awkward alternation through the centuries … World impact means creativity, realizing that our push to modernity is a positive drive. Hence, [we welcome] a non-hostile Pope that favours an in-progress alliance with us”.
You are a physician; do you also fear unrestrained science, as Benedict seemed to have been concerned?
“My relation to science is passionate; its application however has to bind to moral rules. Woe betide you if you invent a bigoted division between religious and alleged lay wizards. In this context, the good sense and good moral principles both of religious and lay people have to apply.
A tremendous media aggression to the Church has been reported ...
“Corruption in the Church is one of the most classical and tired topics in the world. We should not overestimate its importance, not even in these dramatic days”.
Translated from Il Giorno and sent to Arutz Sheva by MP Nirenstein.