Priests walked into an Israeli yeshiva, and no, you haven't heard this one before
I recently saw worlds being created. My students, 50 Catholic participants in the four-year degree program of the Salesian Pontifical University housed at the Ratisbonne monastery in Jerusalem, together with four priests and I, traveled north to spend a day studying with students at a yeshiva located on Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa.
The monastery was built in 1874 to house the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, an order founded by two Jewish converts to Catholicism, Alphonse and Theodore Ratisbonne. The Brothers and Sisters of Sion were dedicated from the beginning to demonstrate God’s continuing love to the Jews by means of spreading the gospel to Jews. But in the mid-20th century, the members of this congregation came to the realization that God’s love for the Jewish people would be better expressed by helping other Christians to encounter and respect Jews and Judaism. The Brothers and Sisters of Sion have been at the forefront of interreligious understanding in the Catholic Church.
Today, most of the inhabitants of the Ratisbonne Monastery are from a different community, the Salesian order. They join students from other Catholic orders (most prominently the Missionaries of Africa) in their preparation for the priesthood. The curriculum for these students, who come from more than 30 countries, includes courses and lectures about Judaism and Islam, as well as visits to synagogues and Jewish homes. Nevertheless, while the monastery is located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, most of the students have little contact with their Jewish neighbors. When they are not studying, they give of themselves to support the spiritual needs of foreign workers, and to run youth centers in Bethlehem and nearby Cremisan.
There was great excitement for the trip to the yeshiva among students and instructors. In fact, the trip required months of preparation, including finding a yeshiva interested and willing to welcome Catholic students at a time that would work for the schedules of both the yeshiva and Salesian Pontifical.
It has been more than half a century since the Catholic Church produced Nostra Aetate, acknowledging value and truth in other religions. Many documents have since come from the Catholic Church showing appreciation of Judaism and respect for Jews, including guidance on preaching New Testament texts that can paint Jews and Judaism in a negative light.
After a warm welcome from one of the yeshiva’s rabbis, we began our visit with a class studying a rabbinic text about giving tzedakah (charity). The Catholic students were deeply moved by the open methodology of question and answer, and free discussion of different meanings of the text. Most classes at Salesian Pontifical are European-style lectures, with a bit of question and answer at the end, as well as exams testing for the correct answers. The yeshiva’s ethic of Torah Lishma—studying God’s teaching for its own sake—and the open method of learning were new concepts for my students.
Jewish and Catholic students mingled over lunch and began to learn about each other’s lives and backgrounds. Most acknowledged that they had little contact with members of the other group before that day. Many of the Catholics were shocked to learn that even most of the American Jewish students had grown up in neighborhoods where they had no Christian friends. In the same way that few Catholics have experienced lived Judaism, few Jews know of the theological work that has been done by the Catholic Church, work that includes a rejection of all evangelical missionary activity toward Jews, which added to the interest in the yeshiva.
After lunch, the students divided in small groups to study in havruta (learning in pairs). They examined texts about the idea of learning Torah, exploring the connection between intellectual and spiritual experience. A longtime teacher of Talmud myself, I don’t remember another time when I saw a beit midrash (study hall) full of students so eager to learn from one another.
Before this day my Catholic students would have spoken of Jews in positive terms, because they are decent people of faith who have respect for others. I suspect, however, that many believed Jews suffer at a disadvantage because they don’t have faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
This attitude was changed by one day in a yeshiva, due to the generosity of spirit shown by rabbis and yeshiva students.
My students experienced God and lived Judaism in that beit midrash. They learned that rabbis are not legalistic Pharisees rejecting the spirit of life. They learned that they have much to learn from Jews. They were able to experience an idea that is increasingly emphasized by the Catholic Church generally, and which remains at the core of the teachings of the Congregation of our Lady of Sion, founded by the Ratisbonne brothers.
The yeshiva students were also deeply moved by their experience. They saw that they need not fear that Christians they meet will want to kill or convert them. They met Catholic students who were open, friendly, and respectful. They learned about similarities and differences between themselves and the Catholic students. They learned that openness to the other did not endanger their own faith, but actually created the opportunity to see God in the face of the other.
Dr. Marcie Lenk is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, and the institute’s director of Christian leadership programs. She teaches Patristics at the Studium Theologicum Salesianum at Ratisbonne Monastery, as well as Jewish and Christian texts at Ecce Homo Convent, Tantur Ecumenical Center and the Swedish Theological Institute.