Rabbi's Address to Synod

"My Standing Here Before You Is Very Meaningful"

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is the original English-language text delivered Monday by Shear Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa, to the world Synod of Bishops on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church," under way in the Vatican through Oct. 26.

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Holy Father,
Dear Cardinals and Bishops,
Members of the Synod of Bishops,
Dear Friends!

It is indeed a privilege and a rare honor to be invited to this Assembly as a special guest, representing the Jewish Faith and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I believe this is the first time a Jewish Rabbi is invited to address a plenary session of the Synod of Bishops. We certainly very much appreciate what this gesture implies. There is a long, hard and painful history of the relationship between our people, our faith, and the Catholic Church leadership and followers -- a history of blood and tears. I deeply feel that my standing here before you is very meaningful. It brings with it a signal of hope and a message of love, co-existence, and peace for our generation, and for generations to come.

Indeed, this continues the approach, initiated by the late Pope John XXIII that reached a climax in the life and work of the late Pope John Paul the II -- during his historic visit to the Holy Land. We see in your invitation to me, to lecture here today, a declaration that you intend to continue this policy and doctrine that refers to us as “Our Older Brothers” and “G-d’s Chosen People," with whom He entered into an everlasting covenant. We deeply appreciate this declaration.

May I add that, personally, my friends, leaders and members of the Catholic community of Saint Edigio introduced me to this new Ecumenical spirit? I have had the privilege of participating regularly in their International Meetings inspired by the spirit of the famous prayer of Asissi. Also, for the past several years, I serve as the co-chairman of the Bilateral Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See that is doing wonderful work.
I thank G-d that has kept us alive to be together and work for a future of peace and co-existence, the world over, Amen.

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I was asked to speak about the meaning and the place of The Holy Scriptures, in Judaism and in our tradition of prayer, in the service of the worship of G-d, and in our role as’ leaders and educators of our congregations.

I shall commence by briefly describing the central place of the Holy Scriptures in the practice of the Jewish Religion. In every Synagogue the world over, whenever prayers are offered, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, as well as on special occasions -- the congregation faces [Hebrew text] "The Holy Ark” -- that is placed in the front of the hall of prayer, facing it during the entire service. The Holy Ark contains the scrolls of “The Holy Torah”, i.e., the “Five Books of Moses”, written by hand, by an expert scribe. At least one complete scroll is always in the Ark and frequently it contains several such Holy Scrolls. This Book that is in the form of a Holy Scroll is either wrapped in a beautiful mantel or placed in a specially prepared round receptacle. It is taken out of the Holy Ark in a solemn ritual and carried to the Central Pulpit where it is read to the public three times a week, in a special traditional chant. When carried to the Reading Pulpit, all the congregants stand up, and many turn to kiss it. This ceremony is very impressive.

Every person that is called up to the Torah kisses it before reciting the blessing -- a special benediction -- thanking G-d for giving us the Torah. At the end of his part of the reading, he again kisses the Torah and recites another blessing. The Holy Torah Scroll is the only object kissed by the worshippers during the service. When the reading is completed, the holy “Scroll of the Law” is raised high and shown to the public, and all the worshippers bow with admiration and awe, and say that, “This is the Word of G-d as put before us by [Hebrew text] -- Moses Our Teacher”.

Not only the “portion of the week” from the Humash, the Pentateuch, is read in public every Shabbat. At the conclusion of the reading from the Pentateuch, during which at least seven congregants were called up -- the last one repeats the last few sentences of the pentateuchal reading, and then reads a chapter from the Prophets relevant to the portion of the week. Again, a special blessing before the reading of the Prophet is recited and then at the close of the reading from the Prophets, four more blessings are chanted. In illustration, I shall recite only the first one of these four Benedictions, which praises and stresses the value and importance of the Word of G-d:

"Blessed are You, Lord our G-a King of the universe, Rock of all worlds, righteous for all generations, the faithful G-d who says and does, speaks and fulfils, all of whose words are truth and righteousness. You are faithful, Lord our G-d, and faithful are Your words, not one of which remains unfulfilled, for You G-d, are a faithful and compassionate King. Blessed are You, Lord, Faithful in all His words.” (Cong. Amen)

Indeed this is a good illustration of how important and how central is the Word of G-d in our services and prayers. I should add in passing that several times during the year, lections from the Writings, are also read in our service.

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When we speak of the Holy Scriptures we refer to The Tanach that is composed of the Torah, i.e., the Five Books of Moses, the Nevi’im -- the texts of the Prophets -- and the Ketuvim -- the Additional Holy Writings, the Hagiographa. All of them are the source and inspiration of our prayers and our service of G-d. Every one of us, learned and laity alike, are enjoined to study them, understand them, and cherish them in their heart and mind, and appreciate their perpetual value and relevance to all times.

This description of how central are The Holy Scriptures in our tradition, will certainly not be complete without my describing in some detail how not only the Readings from the Torah, The Prophets and the Writings are a central part of our Service, but further that our prayers are also built around quotations from the Bible.

We pray to G-d using His own words, as related to us in the Scriptures. Likewise, we praise Him -- also using His own words from the Bible. We ask for His mercy -- mentioning what He has promised to our ancestors and to us. Our entire Service is based upon an ancient rule, as related to us by our Rabbis and Teachers: [Hebrew text] -- “Give Him of what is His, because you and yours are His”.

We believe that prayer is the language of the soul in its communion with G-d. We believe sincerely that our soul is His, given to us by Him. Every morning when we awaken, we say, or should I say, pray to Him in words of thanksgiving: “I thank You living and eternal King for giving me back my soul in mercy, great is Your faithfulness”.

After washing our hands, many of us have been taught to recite the following scriptural verses:

1) “Wisdom begins in awe of the Lord, all who fulfill (his commandments) gain good understanding; His promise is everlasting”. (Psalms 111:10)

2) “The Torah, that Moses has commanded us, is the heritage of the congregation of Israel”. (Deuteronomy 33:4)

3) “Listen, my son, to your father’s instructions and do not forsake your mother’s teachings”. (Proverbs 1:8)

Time does not permit me to describe in detail all the biblical quotations that are found at the core of our prayers. Let me just mention that on arriving and entering the House of Prayer in the morning -- we are expected to recite selected verses from the Bible and that this continues throughout the Service, There are “The Verses of Praise” a selection of chapters from the Writings, especially from the Book of Psalms at the close of which we recite the “Song of the Sea” (from the Book of Exodus 14:30-15:19). Then come “The Blessings of Shema that we recite before and after reading the famous chapters from the Book of Deuteronomy and Numbers, that begin with the verse “Listen O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One”.

I could go on for hours, describing how the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur -- that is the Hebrew word for “The Order” -- is built around the Holy Scriptures, without losing the personal and emotional nature of the praying experience, the wonder of praise of the L—d, the joy of thanksgiving, the experience of the feeling of a broken heart -- yearning for forgiveness and atonement.

I should add that not only the Rabbi or the Cantor say the prayers. Every worshipper, each congregant, young and old -- is expected to recite them -- whether reading from the Prayer Book, or knowing them by heart. Thus, the many quotations from the Holy Bible become part of the core personality of he who prays, an integral part of his Heritage.

Every child is taught the Bible from their early childhood. I was taught the Tanach by my own late father, the famous Rabbi -- the Nazir of Jerusalem and learnt it by heart. In every religious school, the teaching of the Bible is a significant part of the compulsory curriculum.

May I add that we, the Rabbis, when we address issues of concern in our Sermons, such as: “The Sanctity of Life”, “Fighting Promiscuity”, “Fighting Secularism”, Promoting the values of Brotherhood and Fraternity, Love and Peace, Equality, and Respect for the “Other and the Different”, we always try to build our address around Biblical quotations, as interpreted by our holy sages, through the generations. Our point of departure stems from the treasures of our Religious Tradition, even while we endeavor to speak in a modern and contemporary language and address present issues. It is amazing to observe how The Holy Scriptures never lose their vitality and relevance to present issues of our time and age. This is the miracle of the everlasting and perpetual “Word of G-d”.

I believe that in order to illustrate how important the Holy Scriptures are in the life of the State of Israel, I should also mention that for the last fifty years, one of the major events of the Independence Day of the State of Israel is a National Bible Quiz. The participants are not only pupils from Religious State-Schools, but also those from the so-called “secular” trend -- boys and girls alike. The participants are from all sectors of our society, as well as from all parts of the world, The final stage of the contest is held in Jerusalem, in the presence of the President of the State of Israel, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education, the Mayor of Jerusalem, as well as many other dignitaries, and the event is well covered by the media. I believe that this is an excellent illustration of how important and basic the study and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is in the life of modern Israeli society.

I feel I cannot conclude my address without expressing our deep shock at the terrible and vicious words of the president of a certain state in the Middle East, in his speech last month at the United Nations General Assembly. The false and malicious accusations, the threats and the Anti-Semitic incitement, have brought back to us the painful memory of the tragedy of our people -- the victims the Holocaust, which we hope and pray will never happen again. We hope to get your help as Religious Leaders -- as well as the help of the entire free world -- to protect, defend and save Israel, the one and only sovereign state of the “People of the Book” from the hands of its enemies,

May I conclude by praying with the famous words taken from the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah, regarding the days to come: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters over the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9)
May we be blessed to have it happen in our own days. Amen!