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Atonement and forgiveness still have the power to transform relationships

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Tomorrow Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Scotland, and on Friday morning I’ll have the privilege of welcoming him in London on behalf of non Christian faith communities in Britain. But today I’d like to say what his visit means to me personally as a Jew.

Over the centuries the relationship between the Church and the Jews has been one of the saddest stories in the history of religion. Judaism, an ancient faith, eventually found itself challenged by two other religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which defined themselves in terms of Abraham’s God. And because these new faiths incorporated so much of the old, their followers believed that Jews would be only too happy to join them.

By and large, Jews didn’t. They felt, as I feel, that we are bound in loyalty and love to the covenant our ancestors made with God, long before there was either Christianity or Islam.

The result was a feeling of hostility toward Jews that lasted for centuries and cost many Jewish lives. The experience of Jews in Christian Europe added new words to the vocabulary of suffering, words like Expulsion, Disputation, Forced Conversion, Inquisition, Auto da fe, Ghetto and Pogrom.

The story might have continued were it not for the darkest night of all, the Holocaust. In the wake of that event, a very great Pope indeed, Pope John XXIII, who had helped save many lives in the war years, began to reflect on the history of Christian attitudes toward the Jews, and came to the conclusion that those attitudes must change.

In 1962 he convened the Second Vatican Council, setting in motion what became three years later, though he did not live to see it, the declaration Nostra Aetate, “In Our Age.” It redefined the relationship between the Catholic Church and other faiths, especially Judaism and Islam. It was one of the greatest acts of reconciliation in religious history, and today Catholics and Jews meet not as enemies or strangers but as friends.

Pope Benedict’s London meeting with leaders of many faiths will continue that story and widen its embrace. And by one of those coincidences that seem providential, the night of that meeting, this Friday, will be the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, our festival of forgiveness. How moving it will be, this year, to bear witness to how those two ancient ideas, atonement and forgiveness, still have the power to transform relationships and heal the wounds of time.