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LA Rabbi: Exoneration Of Jews In Jesus’ Death ‘Critically Important’

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk past Christian pilgrims as they walk through the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's old city during a Good Friday procession. (credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk past Christian pilgrims as they walk through the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s old city during a Good Friday procession. (credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — A Southland rabbi says the Vatican has issued a “critically important” statement from Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday exonerating the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles tells KNX 1070 the statement is especially powerful coming from a German pope in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“Jews suffered historically for over 2,000 years — the call of Hitler and all the anti-Semites were that the Jews were an accursed people because they are responsible for the death of Jesus,” Heir said.

In “Jesus of Nazareth-Part II” excerpts released Wednesday, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.

Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.

“To have Pope Benedict say that the Jews bear no guilt whatsoever for the death of Jesus is one of the most critically important statements ever made by a pope,” Heir said.

The Catholic Church has for five decades taught that Jews weren’t collectively responsible, issuing its most authoritative teaching on the issue in its 1965 Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate,” which revolutionized the church’s relations with Jews by saying Christ’s death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.

Benedict comes to the same conclusion, but he explains how with a thorough, Gospel-by-Gospel analysis that leaves little doubt that he deeply and personally believes it to be the case: That only a few Temple leaders and a small group of supporters were primarily responsible for Christ’s crucifixion.

The book is the second installment to Benedict’s 2007 “Jesus of Nazareth,” his first book as pope, which offered a very personal meditation on the early years of Christ’s life and teachings. This second book, set to be released March 10, concerns the final part of Christ’s life, his death and resurrection.

The Vatican’s publishers provided a few excerpts Wednesday.

In the book, Benedict re-enacts Jesus’ final hours, including his death sentence for blasphemy, then analyzes each Gospel account to explain why Jews as a whole cannot be blamed for it. Rather, Benedict concludes, it was the “Temple aristocracy” and a few supporters of the figure Barabbas who were responsible.

“How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus’ death?” Benedict asks.

He deconstructs one particular biblical account which has the crowd saying, “His blood be on us and on our children” — a phrase frequently cited as evidence of the collective guilt Jews bore and the curse that they carried as a result.

The phrase, from the Gospel of Matthew, has been so incendiary that director Mel Gibson was reportedly forced to drop it from the subtitles of his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” although it remained in the spoken Aramaic.

But Benedict said Jesus’ death wasn’t about punishment, but rather salvation. Jesus’ blood, he said, “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.”

Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child in Nazi Germany, has made improving relations with Jews a priority of his pontificate. He has visited the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

But he also has had a few missteps that have drawn the ire of Jewish groups, most notably when in 2009 he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Catholic bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust by saying no Jews were gassed during World War II.

Benedict has said that had he known Bishop Richard Williamson’s views about Jews he never would have lifted the excommunication, which was imposed in 1988 because Williamson was consecrated without papal consent.

Williamson is a member of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which has rejected many Vatican II teachings, including the outreach to Jews contained in Nostra Aetate.

Separately, Jewish groups have been outraged that Benedict is moving Pope Pius XII closer to beatification, the first main hurdle to possible sainthood. Some Jews and historians have argued the World War II-era pope should have done more to prevent the Holocaust.

(TM and © Copyright 2010 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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