In 1263, the great Spanish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, better known as Nahmanides, was summoned to Barcelona by King James I of Aragon to engage in a rather stressful form of interfaith dialogue with representatives of the Dominican and Franciscan religious orders.
Their debate is known to history as the Disputation of Barcelona. The purpose of those who initiated the event (principally, an apostate Jew) was to compel the conversion of Spanish Jewry to Christianity. Guaranteed freedom of speech, Nahmanides, the sole Jewish representative in the proceedings, gave as good as he got in a free-wheeling medieval rhetorical brawl, in which both sides made it clear how little they thought of their opponents' faith.
Though given a reward by the king for his performance, Nahmanides was eventually forced to flee the country because of the church's anger. In particular, Pope Clement IV sought to punish the rabbi for his courageous defense of Judaism.
Flash forward 745 years, and some the lessons of the Disputation still stand. Public arguments about matters of faith can be a dangerous game whose outcome often serves the purposes of those who wish to spread intolerance rather than knowledge.
Though the context of the present day couldn't be any more different than the circumstances of 1263 Barcelona, many Jews appear to be thinking about interfaith relations with this piece of sad history still in mind.
The latest irritant in Catholic-Jewish relations is the result of the church's revival of an Easter Week devotion in which believers asked to pray for the conversion of the Jews.
As part of an effort to break down divisions within Catholicism that had grown up around the abandonment of the Latin Mass, last year Pope Benedict XVI allowed the saying of the Tridentine rite. The prayer, which was dropped by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, spoke of Jewish "blindness" and asked the Almighty to "remove the veil from their hearts."
Shocked by this reversion to language that was part of a long history of the teaching of contempt for Judaism, Jewish leaders asked the Vatican to reconsider the move. Last week, the Vatican responded by issuing a new version of the prayer which eliminated the lines about blindness" and the "veil" over Jewish hearts, but did not omit the call for conversion.
The Jewish reaction to this move was anguished. The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to the pope asking that he further amend the prayer. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical movements are all expected to add their pleas soon.
In response, Cardinal Walter Kasper seemed to express bewilderment at the sensitivity of the Jews. He told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, "I don't understand why Jews cannot accept that we can make use of our freedom to formulate our papers." His point was that the prayer "reflects the faith of the church, and furthermore Jews have prayers in their liturgical texts that we Catholics don't like … one must respect differences."
While the cardinal's statement illustrates the slippery slope down which this sort of dispute can soon lead to hurt feelings on all sides, he is, of course, right. Catholics are free to believe whatever they want about the universal truth of the doctrines of their faith. The same right must also apply to everyone else when it comes to their opinions about their own religions and everyone else's. Problems arise not from believing these different things, but how we act on those differences.
On that score, it is important for Jews to understand that the Catholic Church has, in recent generations, moved light years away from the spirit of the Disputation of Barcelona. Under the inspired leadership of Pope John XXIII and later Pope John Paul II, the Vatican discarded the teaching of contempt for Judaism, and introduced new curricula in their schools and churches based on respect for Judaism and recognition of past persecutions.
As for proselytizing, unlike many Protestant denominations, the church has dropped campaigns to specifically target Jews for conversion.
Yet Jewish groups still fear that if the Vatican, in seeking to mollify its own liturgical conservative wing, moves away from the spirit of Vatican II, it will mean that Catholics no longer embrace John Paul II's beliefs that taught Catholics to think of Jews as their theological older brothers whose legitimacy should not be questioned.
That fear is genuine and it is based, in no small part, on the legacy of church-based missionizing that was rooted in compulsion and oppression of Jews.
But as Cardinal Kasper told Vatican Radio in another interview, the revised prayer "does not mean we are embarking on a mission" to convert Jews. Rather, they are just expressing their faith.
Jews and Catholics may have many things in common, but they do not accept the fundamentals of each other's religions. No less than in 1263, Christians believe theirs is the true path to salvation. Jews still disagree. In societies where religion rules all, such as most of the Islamic world, such theological differences are just as much a matter of life and death as they were in Barcelona during the Disputation.
Agreeing to Disagree
But in free societies such as our own, we can merely say, "vive la difference" and leave it at that, knowing none of us will be the worse for wear as a result of our contrasting views about the nature of eternity or divinity.
Genuine interfaith dialogue is not rooted in agreement, but rather, on agreement to disagree. The trick is to do so in a civil manner, and to avoid public attacks on each others faiths that can only lead to discord and prejudice.
So while it is all well and good for Jews to hope that the Catholic Church never chooses to deviate from the path of John Paul II, it is not for Jews to tell Catholics what to say in their prayers, any more than it is legitimate for them to go back to trying to censor the Jewish liturgy as they once did. Respect is a two-way street.
Rather than seek to turn Benedict's revival of the Tridentine mass into a major issue, what we need to to do is to stop worrying about Catholic prayers, and instead continue the work of bringing the two faiths closer together in defense of Western freedoms.
This a moment in history when the greatest challenge to religious freedom is not coming from the traditional sources of reaction within Christianity, such as those that sought to punish Nahmanides for defending Judaism at Barcelona. Instead, our challenge comes from forces within Islam that have already sought to censor the beliefs of Pope Benedict for defending the West. Their goal is to dismantle the entire edifice of tolerance that Jews and Christians have worked so hard to create.
Given that reality, this is not the time to pick fights over other people's prayers.