ROME — Plaintive pleas and rousing, rhythmic recognitions of God’s goodness filled the air at Rome’s main synagogue as Israeli and Vatican officials celebrated 25 years of formal diplomatic relations.
“A concert of sacred Jewish music in a highly symbolic place like the major synagogue of Rome highlights our special bond that is founded in our common root: the Bible,” Oren David, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, told Catholic News Service.
“Songs from the Psalms show that we have a common heritage, which is reflected in the biblical values that we share, and we want to bring attention to the special and unique bond between us,” said David, who hosted the concert June 13.
Nathan Lam, the cantor of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, was one of four cantors to perform at the concert. He said the singers, who are ordained for service and can preside at weddings and funerals, purposefully chose songs with texts common to Jews and Christians for the celebration.
Jews and Christians will interpret those texts differently, he said, “but the fact that we share them is a very important commonality.”
“I hope this leads to more and more dialogue, to more and more celebrations of relationships that are productive and good,” Lam said.
Celebrating 25 years of formal Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations is not only about the relationship of two states. The ties were built on decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, which first focused on healing a relationship wounded by anti-Jewish church teaching and then moved on to common religious and moral teachings.
Celebrating what has been accomplished does not mean ignoring the sticky issues that remain on a diplomatic, political and religious level: for example, diplomats on both sides continue to try to negotiate an agreement governing church property ownership and taxation issues; the Vatican continues to call for international guarantees of Jerusalem’s status as a city sacred to Jews, Christian and Muslims, and Jewish religious leaders continue to press Catholic theologians involved in dialogue to discuss the religious significance of the land of Israel.
The Israeli ambassador and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, mentioned the three issues in their remarks before the concert. But they both also insisted there was much more to celebrate than to worry about.
“In our relations, political and religious issues are intertwined, this is why they are so special,” the ambassador told CNS.
For Catholics, the “special” relationship includes recognizing that Jesus was a Jew, the apostles were Jews and that Christianity not only recognized the Hebrew Scriptures — the Old Testament — as part of God’s revelation, but Catholics adopted and adapted Jewish liturgy, including the chanting and singing of the Psalms.
“Our liturgy stems from the liturgy of the Jewish people,” said Salesian Father Norbert Hofmann, secretary of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. “For example, reading texts, interpreting texts, giving sermons on texts — that already can be found in Judaism, in Jewish liturgy and practice.”
“Jews and Christians are praying with the same texts,” he said, “but with a different interpretation” because Christians would read those texts in the light of their faith in Jesus.
Lam, the “chazzan” or cantor, prayed that those differing understandings would not overshadow the basic shared faith in one God, the creator of all, and — to a lesser degree — in the power of music to carry prayer and to touch hearts.
Like Christian sacred music, Jewish sacred music includes many styles influenced by the cultures the Jews were living in when the music was written. The cantor and choir of the Rome synagogue, who also performed June 13, had a unique sound and style reflecting what the program described as the Jewish “Roman rite.”
The songs are sacred not because of their style, Lam said, but because the texts are the word of God, and the music upholds, reflects and emphasizes its content.
For Jews and for Christians, the Psalms have a special connection to liturgical music and not just because they are written in a poetic form that makes it natural to chant or sing them.
Lam, who has been the cantor at Stephen Wise Temple for 43 years, said the Psalms seem to be growing in importance for both Jews and Christians “because the Psalms are a great source of comfort, knowledge, joy and wisdom.”
The central piece of the anniversary concert fittingly was Psalm 122 with its prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, peace in the world and, finally a personal, “I pray for your good.”
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