Jewish Bible Not Obsolete, Rabbis Tell Pope After Sermon Reignites Centuries-Old Feud

Following comments made by Pope Francis during a teaching before a general audience at the Vatican, Israel's top Jewish leaders issued a letter expressing concern over potentially anti-Jewish comments, asking for further clarification.

In his August 11 address, Pope Francis reflected on the New Testament teachings of St. Paul, saying that, "the law (Torah) however does not give life. It does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it...Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ."

Rabbi Rasson Arousi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, took issue with the comments, expressing in a letter seen by Reuters that the pope's comments could be interpreted to suggest that Jewish law, outlined in the Torah and the Bible's Old Testament, was obsolete.

"In his homily, the pope presents the Christian faith as not just superseding the Torah; but asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the present era is rendered obsolete," Rabbi Arousi said in the letter.

Pope Francis Celebrates Mass On Philadelphia's Benjamin
Pope Francis has historically had a friendly relationship with the Jewish community, leading some to believe the message was made in error. Above, he celebrates mass during the World Meeting of Families on September 27, 2015, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

He said these messages if intended as the rabbinate interpreted them, would represent a "teaching of contempt." Such teachings were phased out by the Catholic Church in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council denied the previously held concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. Since then, Jewish-Catholic relations have been strengthened, with Pope Francis and his two predecessors making visits to Jewish synagogues.

In an interview with Reuters, two scholars focused on Catholic-Jewish relations agreed that the comments could represent a setback and needed further clarification.

Father John Pawlikowski, former director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said: "To say that this fundamental tenet of Judaism does not give life is to denigrate the basic religious outlook of Jews and Judaism." Professor Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said the comments "could be understood as devaluing Jewish observance of the Torah today."

Both of the scholars said it was possible that part of the comments could have been written by aides and may not have been fully vetted. Pope Francis has had a historically positive relationship with the Jewish community. During his days as archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he co-wrote a book centered around his conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka on faith, family, and the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, whose Vatican department includes a commission for religious relations with Jews, was the one who received the initial letter from the rabbinate. His office told Reuters that they received the letter today and that he was "considering it seriously and reflecting on a response."

Newsweek contacted the Vatican for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.