ROME – The Vatican’s top official for dialogue with Jews has attempted to smooth over a rift that opened last month when several prominent rabbis complained about a speech given by Pope Francis in which he said the Torah, meaning Jewish scripture and law, “does not give life.”

Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in an effort to reduce tensions, sent letters to two rabbis representing groups that had public objected to the pope’s remarks. In the letters, Koch tried to explain the theological background of the papal comments and pointed to Francis’s favorable position toward the Jewish community.

The two identical letters, dated Sept. 3, were addressed to Rabbi Rasson Arussi, President of the Commission of the Grand Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, and Rabbi David Sandmel, President of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

Koch assured the rabbis that “in the Holy Father’s address, the Torah is not devalued, as he expressly affirms that Paul was not opposed to Mosaic law.”

“Paul observed this Law, emphasized its divine origin, and attributed to it a role in salvation history,” Koch said, insisting that the phrase, “The Law does not give life, it does not offer the fulfilment of the promise,” should not be taken out of its biblical context, “but must be considered within the overall framework of Pauline theology.”

While Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ offers a new way of salvation, this “does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews,’” Koch said.

The controversy initially sprang up after Pope Francis during his Aug. 11 weekly Wednesday general audience said that the Torah – which refers to the first five books of the Jewish Bible, and on a more general level to the system of law that governs many aspects of Jewish life – “does not give life.”

“It does not offer the fulfilment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfil it,” the pope said in the audience, adding, “Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfilment in Christ.”

That remark was met with immediate backlash from Arussi, who, the following day, accused Pope Francis of returning to the “teaching of contempt” for Judaism by Christianity which the Church abandoned in the 1960s during the Second Vatican Council.

Sandmel quickly followed suit, sending his own letter Aug. 24. Last week Rome’s chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, who heads Rome’s small but symbolically important Jewish community, also joined the chorus.

“These ancient messages are the basis of hostile divisions, in which Judaism is presented as an obsolete religion, formalistic, legalistic, lacking moral principles in daily life,” Di Segni said, and voiced hope that Pope Francis would be more sensitive in the future.

In his letter to Arussi and Sandmel, Koch quoted a June 2015 speech from Pope Francis to the International Council of Christians and Jews in which the pope stated that “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah.”

“Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word,” he said in the speech.

In his letter, Koch noted that Pope Francis when making his remarks about the Torah did not make “any mention of modern Judaism,” but that the pope’s speech was “a reflection on Pauline theology within the historical context of a given era. The fact that the Torah is crucial for modern Judaism is not questioned in any way.”

Pointing to the “positive affirmations constantly made by Pope Francis on Judaism,” Koch argued that it therefore “cannot in any way be presumed that he is returning to a so-called ‘doctrine of contempt.’”

“Pope Francis fully respects the foundations of Judaism and always seeks to deepen the bonds of friendship between the two faith traditions,” he said, and quoted a line from a 2017 document called “Between Jerusalem and Rome” on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, which stated that, “The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated.”

“Their meaning and importance belong to the international deliberations of the respective faith communities … However, doctrinal differences do not and may not stand in the way of our peaceful collaboration for the betterment of our shared world and the lives of the children of Noah,” the document read.

Koch closed his letter voicing confidence that his explanation to Arussi and Sandmel “clarifies the theological background of the Holy Father’s words.”

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