Lerner explores divide between Judaism, Christianity in Rome

BY ALANNA KOEHLER ’15
Campus Life Editor

Scott Lerner, Arthur and Katherine Shadek professor of humanities, French, and Italian, delivered an endowed chair lecture entitled “The Bishop and Synagogue of Rome” at Common Hour Thursday.

Ann Steiner, provost and dean of faculty, lavished Lerner, who attained the position of endowed chair in Summer 2011, with praise over his numerous accomplishments. Endowed chair is the highest rank to which a faculty member can be promoted. Steiner also extended the College’s gratitude for the contributions of the Shadek family.

“Not all colleges have endowed chairs because not all colleges have families and individuals who care deeply enough about the long-term future of the institution to make a gift of such impact and magnitude, but Franklin & Marshall has the Shadek family,” Steiner said.

Not only does Lerner hold this prestigious title, but he also teaches in several departments, has held various chair positions, and next year will take on the role of POSSE mentor.

In his Common Hour lecture, Lerner discussed the divide between Judaism and Christianity as exhibited in Rome, home of both the Catholic Church and the Great Synagogue, which stands in the area that was formerly the Jewish ghetto.

Lerner prepared clips of Pope John Paul II’s monumental 1986 visit to the Great Synagogue in order to analyze the Pope’s speech and the implications the visit had for both religions. Unfortunately, the entirety of the clips was not available due to technical difficulties, but Lerner did not let that affect his message.

“Pope John Paul entered the synagogue,” Lerner said. “This, then, is our event. By definition, events exist only in stories. This is especially the case in Rome, where, like places, events are built up one on top of another over the rubble or on the foundation of what came before. Let us begin by searching for the story.”

Lerner then proposed five potential stories that may account for the Pope’s unprecedented visit.

“Potential story number one: before traveling to Rome, Simon ben Jonah, the Apostle Peter, entered the Catholic Church of Rome, according to the Church’s own foundation story, and entered the Temple of Jerusalem to encourage his fellow Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah,” Lerner said. “Since then, none of the occupants of Peter’s Cathedra, no bishop of Rome, no pope, would enter a Jewish holy space until John Paul crossed the threshold of the Synagogue of Rome.”

With this first story, Lerner introduced the concept of reconciliation, which he wove throughout the remaining four propositions.

“For some, when John Paul entered the Tempio Maggiore, he also crossed the bounds of an historic Jewish space in Rome in a gesture of reconciliation, a symbolic avenue of reconciliation between the Vatican and the Jews,” Lerner said of his second story, involving the Jewish ghetto, the opening of which gave rise to the Great Synagogue itself.

Story three involved Pope Pius XII, whose only actions to protect the Jews during the Holocaust were working behind the scenes to shelter them properties owned by the Church.

“In the prevailing view of Italian Jewry, Pope Pius XII could have done a great deal more to impede the deportation and murder of so many people who resided inthe bounds of his own bishopric,” Lerner said.

In this story, Pope John Paul II’s visit is an attempt to reconcile the alleged shortcomings of his predecessor.

The fourth story proposed yet another idea: Pope John Paul II’s visit continued the Christian tradition of taking a different look at Judaism and the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

“As a consequence of the Holocaust, the Church, under the lead of Pope Pius XXII’s successor, Pope John
XXIII, began to reflect profoundly on
its attitude
towards
Jews and
on its representation of
Jews,”
Lerner
said. “Although a
clear distinction
was made
between the racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime and the traditional anti-Judaism prevalent in Christian cultures over the centuries, the Church took important strides to eliminate anti-Jewish teaching.

“The visit to the synagogue, therefore, stands as a final step on the path of reconciliation, initiated by Vatican II after the Second World War,” Lerner said.

The fifth and final story took this idea of changing attitudes and put it in a different context.

“What began as actions taken for the benefit of the Jews soon lead to deep reflections on the Church’s own theological identity,” Lerner said. “Pope John Paul’s visit to the synagogue presented itself, therefore, as an avenue of reconciliation opening up not to the State, not to the Jews, but to the Church itself, a new means of conceiving Christianity’s own Jewish origins and the implications for the Christian faith of an unrevoked divine qualm to the Jews.”

Lerner moved on to discuss the difficult task of placing the event into a story.

“If we don’t place our event in the story, it will never exist,” Lerner said. “Yet if we impose on it a single story of our own choosing, we will have done it a cruel violence, reducing it to a shadow of itself, denying it the chance to take shape in history. We must strive to interpret the Pope’s visit, but we must not imprison it within any exclusive understanding.”

Perhaps, he argued, the story does not belong in one specific story, as the pope must have had several motivations behind his actions.

“[Pope John Paul II] wanted to perform an act of good will but much more than an act of good will,” Lerner said. “He wanted to atone, but not only to atone. He strived for universal significance, a fundamentally new turn in shared history of Christians and Jews, a novel way for each to conceive of the other, itself, and the world. And that, by any measure, is a tall order, even for a pope.”

Lerner then analyzed the different portions of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the synagogue, including the pope’s used title, his word choices, and the language he used in different contexts. Lerner especially stressed the pope’s choice to thank the audience in Hebrew rather than Italian and whether that was a “gracious” gesture or a “usurpation.”

Lerner also spoke of the difference between being extrinsic and intrinsic.

“It is important that [the pope] is in the synagogue because the Church is no longer extrinsic, he says, but intrinsic to Judaism, and then he makes a declaration saying that the Jews are the elder brothers of the Christians,” Lerner said.

“This brings us to one of the central questions that must be raised by the visit: To what extent can the Synagogue make space within itself for Christianity without compromising its own fundamentals?” he said. “For Christianity, on the other hand, what are the limits of the space for Judaism? How far can Judaism be let in?”

Lerner left the audience members with more questions than answers but also with a guideline for drawing their own conclusions about the significance of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome.

“It is not certain, indeed it is unlikely, that the pope’s visit became an event within the same story for all those who took part in it,” Lerner said. “The difference is not simply between Christians and Jews; from one generation to another, from one year to another when we lead an individual life, the event may take its place in very different stories.”

Questions? Email Alanna at akoehler@fandm.edu.

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