We are completing the reading of the book of Genesis on this coming Shabbat in our synagogues in Israel and throughout the world. During the reading of Genesis this year, I was mindful of three great stories of reconciliation between brothers.
In the first (Genesis 27:10), the sons of Abraham – Isaac and Ishmael – are reunited at their father’s funeral. According to one midrash, this might be the reason that Abraham is described as “contented” in his old age. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his Torah commentary entitled Etz Hayim (Tree of Life) suggests that this could be a model for family reconciliation. He also raises an important question: “Can it not be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”
The second great reconciliation in Genesis takes place between Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. After a very difficult and troubling history, which led to 20 years of physical and emotional estrangement, Jacob encounters Esau (in chapter 33). In this unforgettable scene, Esau embraces Jacob and “they kissed and wept.” Although many of the traditional commentators question whether “the kiss” was genuine or not, this is certainly a moment of religious reconciliation among brothers. It should be mentioned that in the Jewish understanding of the Biblical story, Esau becomes the people of Edom, who symbolizes Christianity. So perhaps this is a sign for future Jewish-Christian reconciliation.
The third great reconciliation took place last week, in the Torah portion of Vayigash (Chapter 45, verse 4), when Joseph, who is the prince of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and says “I am Joseph your brother.” This is one of the most famous verses in Biblical history. Even among brothers of the same people and the same religion, in which there can be many disagreements and differing ideologies and theologies, forgiving and learning to live together can be possible. This is certainly a lesson we can learn for contemporary Jewish pluralism, whether within Israeli society or within Diaspora Jewish communities, in which there are so many divergent groups today.
It is also a famous sentence in the great story of Jewish-Christian reconciliation in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.
During the 1960s, Pope John XXIII – whose first name was actually Guisippe (Italian for Joseph!) – met with a delegation of Jews in the Vatican and said, “I am Joseph your brother.” This was the beginning of a new relationship between Jews and Catholics, in which long-lost brothers become partners in living together through dialogue.
Inspired by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in the year 2000, my organization – the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel – produced a documentary film entitled “I am Joseph Your Brother.” This film assesses and reflects on the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the often difficult and turbulent relationship that has existed for centuries between Jews and Christians, Judaism and Catholicism, and more recently, between the State of Israel and the Vatican. This troubled relationship centered around sensitive issues such as the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust, and the blood libel accusation made against the Jews in the past.
“I am Joseph Your Brother” discusses the complex issues behind these questions and investigates the significant changes that have been made in recent decades. The changes which are explored include: the Nostra Aetate document from Vatican II (1964), recognition of the State of Israel (1994), and the We Remember document which grapples with the role played by members of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust (1998).
I am Joseph Your Brother explores these controversial issues with sensitivity and insight.
I recently screened this film at a Sunday seminar at Temple Emanuel in New York City, and held a discussion after the film with Fr. Michael McGarry, now president of the Paulist Fathers, and formerly the rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem and a member of the Board of ICCI for many years. We are in a totally new era in Christian-Jewish Relations. As I said in the film, “We have moved from persecution to partnership, from confrontation to cooperation.”
Indeed the reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church – and many Protestant church groups as well – is one of the greatest positive developments of the post-Holocaust Era. It is especially important to keep this in mind during the Christmas/New Year holiday season. Jews and Christians are no longer perpetual enemies who engage in religious polemics; rather, we have become partners in dialogue, education and peaceful coexistence.
Perhaps reconciliation between Jews and Muslims in our lifetime will also be possible. In my interreligious work in recent years, we have made major strides forward in building bridges between moderate Muslims and Jews, both in Israel and in North America, and we plan to increase our activities in this area in the months and years ahead since we are finding more and more people interested in this process.
If we read the book of Genesis carefully, we are mindful that reconciliation between estranged brothers is indeed possible!