ROME – In response to Pope Francis’s repeated pleas for an end to the war in Gaza and his recent day of prayer for peace, Rome’s chief rabbi has said that while armed conflict is always “an offense against human dignity,” at times it’s necessary to defeat evil.
Ever since the Israel-Palestine war broke out earlier this month following a surprise attack by Hamas militants that left 1,400 Israelis dead and several others taken hostage to Gaza, prompting Israel to unleash an unrelenting bombing campaign that has so far claimed the lives of 5,000 Palestinians, Pope Francis has issued several appeals for peace.
He has acknowledged Israel’s right to self-defense and has asked that hostages be returned, but has also called for a proportional response and for civilians to be protected in Gaza. He has organized two days of prayer for peace, on Oct. 17 and a second on Oct. 27, which featured a special holy hour in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In response to the pope’s latest day of prayer, fasting and penance on Oct. 27, Rome’s chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni the same day published an open letter in Italian newspaper La Repubblica saying news of global conflicts is troubling, and the hope is “that everything will end as soon as possible.”
Public outcry, demonstrations and political pressure are natural responses, but for believers, there is also prayer, he said, saying prayer “conveys the aspirations of the individual, it is effective in uniting a group, expressing pain and asking for comfort and for an end to it.”
“Those who pray believe and hope that their prayer can be heard and accepted, Di Segni said, but cautioned that prayer is not “automatically an absolute value. It depends on what you’re asking.”
One can pray for peace, he said, “but we need to see what kind of peace it is, if it is a peace in which evil is defeated or a peace that satisfies the aggressors and the violent after they leave the defeated wounded and offended.”
People can also pray for the downfall of their enemies or for victory in war, but “it all depends on who the enemies are,” he said, saying everyone on all sides claim they are fighting a just war.
“Wars are always an offense against human dignity, they bring death and destruction, and must certainly be avoided,” he said, but voiced his belief that “when one’s existence is at stake in the face of an irreducible enemy, the pacifist alternative is also morally questionable.”
“Sometimes someone has to be defeated, only them and forever,” he said, saying the morality of prayer, in his view, “depends on its content.”
Di Segni said it is wonderful to see crowds gather to pray for peace, to plead for an end to suffering, and to look beyond war, but he insisted that an evaluation must be made as to whether “looking beyond does not mean flattening differences and making everyone equal.”
Conflicts are never divided into all bad on one side and all good on another, “but certainly there are the best and the worst ones,” he said, warning, “Prayer can become an alibi to clear one’s conscience, to establish an inappropriate equidistance, to cancel moral evaluations.”
To this end, he quoted the book of Exodus when, after fleeing Egypt, the Jews found themselves facing the sea to one side and the Egyptian army waiting to bring them back to slavery on the other.
At that point, “Moses began to pray,” Di Segni said, noting that in the passage, God responded to Moses saying, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”
“There is a time for prayer and a time for action,” Di Segni said, saying several Biblical prophets criticized “a religion in which formal acts are not preceded by repentance, by the recognition of faults, by the correction of wrong opinions, starting with one’s own and continuing with those of others.”
“With these premises the value of prayer and the invocation of peace will grow, it will be higher, more credible, and more effective,” he said.
Regardless of Di Segni’s letter, Pope Francis in his Sunday Angelus continued to appeal for prayers for peace, thanking everyone who participated in the Oct. 27 day of prayer, fasting and penance, saying “let’s not give up.”
“Let us continue to pray for Ukraine and also for the serious situation in Palestine and Israel and for other regions at war,” he said, saying in Gaza especially “space must be left to guarantee humanitarian aid and the hostages must be released immediately.”
Issuing another appeal for an end to hostilities, Francis said, “Let no one abandon the possibility of stopping the weapons! Stop the fire! Stop the fire! Stop, brothers and sisters! War is always a defeat, always!”
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