The Singular Significance of the Agreement Between the Vatican and Israel
The agreement signed December 30th, 1993, between the Vatican and the State of Israel has been very positively received by the majority of public opinion, both Jewish and Christian, in Israel and around the world. The agreement came as a long awaited response, yet it is striking that very often the reasons for the affirmative reaction to it are far from being identical.
Some would see in it merely a strictly political agreement, restricted to legal aspects pertaining to two state administrations. Others, more enthusiastic and optimistic, would be tempted to grant this document a theological dimension.
These different viewpoints reflect the singular character of this agreement: neither strictly political nor strictly religious, but at one and the same time ¬both. It is because of the particular identity of the interlocutors that the agreement is indeed so rich in theological significance.
We have before us an agreement between two states, the Vatican State and the State of Israel. But who could deny the fact that both parties represent, each in its own way, a reality beyond itself? Through an encounter which, at first sight, is only political, in the last instance we have recognition between two spiritual identities. When they come face to face, features on both sides appear as revealed in a particular light of likeness.
It is obvious that the Vatican is not a state like others. The authority of the Holy See, of which it is the highest instance, is that of the Pastor of the Church, a spiritual community. In the eyes of faith, this is how the reality is reflected. However, it is equally true that neither is Israel a state as any other. Its existence implies other elements than those of political reality. This is what has to be stressed in order to understand the singularity of the agreement of December 30th.
I often have to give an account of this complex situation to friends, pilgrims or tourists, visiting us in Israel. They are puzzled by the particular character of the relations between the religious and national dimensions of Jewish identity in general, and Israeli Jewish identity in particular. How can one understand from outside an existential situation undoubtedly unique and incommunicable? To help them out, I invite them at once to accept this fundamental paradox: when we say Jew, Judaism and Israel, we say the same thing, and at the same time not the same thing. The Jews as a people, Judaism as a religious tradition, Israel as a political state, are different dimensions of one single reality. Each one points out a singular aspect but, paradoxically, it is only in reference to the other two that one can grasp an understanding of its meaning. What is disconcerting for the exterior observer is the extreme variety of the ways in which these dimensions can interact. In Israel, there are religious and non-religious Jews. In Paris or in Brooklyn there are Jewish people who are not Israelis. In Jerusalem, there are religious Jews who declare themselves as anti-Zionists. And yet all of them are Jews! Moreover, however they express themselves as Jews, they all refer to Jerusalem and to the Land of Israel as the mysterious pole of their identity.
To provide an explanation of the original complexity of Jewish identity, I propose to use the words formerly used by Jacques Maritain, the great Catholic philosopher, in the title of one of his major books. Maritain has written courageously and authentically about the Jewish destiny and the mystery of Israel, but the book I am referring to does not deal with Judaism. It is a treatise of epistemology on "the degrees of knowledge." The exact title was: "Distinguish in Order to Unite." Those are the terms I propose to use in order to give an account of the complexity of Jewish identity, particularly when we speak of the situation in Israel. It seems to me indeed that the golden rule to comprehend these three terms: Jew, Judaism, Israel, consists of distinguishing without disuniting, and in uniting without confusing, these three dimensions which are at the same time different and inseparable.
To grasp and to admit this original complexity, will lead us to a real understanding of the singular significance of the agreement signed on December 30th. As it is important to distinguish without separating and to unite without confusing, the three terms Jew, Judaism and Israel - so must we apply the same rule to the three types of relations resulting from this trilogy: between Jews and Christians on the historical and sociological level, between Judaism and Christianity on the level of theological reflection, between the State of Israel and the Vatican on the diplomatic and political register. These are also similar and different, taking place at different levels and within different perspectives, but they are mutually connected within the unity of a complex existential reality.
It is this complexity which brought many interpreters to stumble, wavering between two extremes. Some emphasize the strictly political aspect, others insist upon the theological implications. It is a mistake to give either to one or to the other interpretation, an exclusive significance. The document is not indeed, as some concluded too hastily, a theological document justifying the respective positions of two religious traditions. And yet we cannot deny that in the realities which are involved in the text of this agreement, there is much more than simple political decisions.
Unlike so many Concordats between the Catholic Church and nations in the world, the agreement between the Vatican and Israel embodies a unique significance. Its originality consists in this fact that it states the conditions for the meeting and mutual recognition of two personalities, two identities, two religious traditions, in brief two theological realities, both of which define themselves through their relation to the same God and refer to the same Book. In this respect the document comprises a religious dimension and connotes a theological signification.
To be convinced about this, it is sufficient to consider the history of the relations between Jews and Christians, as they have developed since the Vatican Council. The agreement signed on 30 December 1993 is, on the level of diplomacy and law, the result of a long ripening process which was made possible by the declaration Nostra Aetate. Indeed, the State of Israel is not mentioned in the texts of the Council. Debating about the attitude of the Church towards the Jews, the Council fathers aimed not to make allusions which could be taken as a political stance. The complexity of the situation in the Middle East and, it must be said, certain diplomatic pressures on the part of Arab governments, together with the opposition of some traditional circles, paralyzed to a certain extent the theological development desired by the majority of the Council members. This is the reason why some have been disappointed. Minds and hearts were not yet ready for such aggionamento. And yet, a theological principle was laid down whose implementation would bring a radical change in the Christian outlook on Jewish reality: "Examining the mystery of the Church, the Council recalls the spiritual link which binds the people of the New Covenant with Abraham's stock. The Church of Christ, truly, recognizes that the beginnings of her faith and her election are to be found, according to the divine mystery of salvation, in the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets." In other words, the Church finds its roots and sources in the vocation of Israel. As Pope John Paul II will express it later, they both "meet together on the very level of their identities." This solemn declaration of awareness expresses the principle of an irreversible process. When we read, document after document, declarations of the Holy See addresses, the texts of the Church, from 1965 to the agreement of December 1993, we perceive, in spite of the apparent slowness, an undeniable progress, as much in the contents as in the approach.
Already on the eve of Pessah 1973, the commission of the French Bishops invited the Christians "to acquire a true and lively awareness of the Jewish tradition" and "to understand the Jew as he understands himself." In such a light, it is impossible to consider Jewish subjectivity without discerning the link between the people and its land in the very name of its Book. This link is much deeper than political Zionism. To acknowledge such a link is, for a Christian, so new that the theological justification remains difficult. We can see it in the brief chapter about the State of Israel in the "notes" published by the Vatican in June 1985. All the elements of the question are present but they are not synthesized. One does not yet see how to combine within a single view, the Jewish consciousness of the link with the land and the political reality of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the theological reservations which existed in the past about the return of the Jewish people to its homeland have gradually disappeared. The obstacle which has for so long postponed the recognition of the State of Israel by the Vatican, is not anymore of theological concern. In fact, it is a matter of political circumstances. The only important factor, serious and in some way decisive, has been the difficult problem of justice towards the Palestinian people. In this respect, it is certain that the actions which took place first in Madrid and especially in Washington, have created a favorable setting for the encounter of the representatives of the Vatican with those of Israel. But we should not forget that this meeting had already been prepared in the hearts of the parties.
For more than thirty years, Jews and Christians have learned to get acquainted with each other. They have created a relationship of mutual respect and friendship on every level of dialogue and encounter. It is striking that the preamble to the accord signed on December 30th mentions with a kind of fervor rather unusual in legal documents, the spirit in which the Holy See and the State of Israel have worked together "attentive to the unique character and the universal significance of the Holy Land, conscious of the unique nature of the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, as well as the historical process of reconciliation and of the growing understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews." Moreover, the preamble expresses the certainty that the agreement as elaborated "will provide a solid and durable basis for a continuous development of the present and future relationship."
Given the spirit in which this document has been conceived, it will from now on be a point of departure for further developing mutual reflective dialogue, and for deepening the understanding between the two communities. At present, it is our task to implement the model proposed in this agreement and to realize the possibilities that it opens up.
We could here repeat the wish that twenty years ago concluded the document published by the French Episcopal commission for relations with Judaism. May Jews and Christians meet together "in a same movement of hope which will be a promise for the whole world." This hope is still stronger now that it has been announced in Jerusalem by a text that ties together the Church and Israel. <