A delegation of priests from France, led by the Cardinal of Paris André Armand, arrived in Israel last week to discuss the status of religious leadership in a democratic society with academics and rabbis.
Ramat Gan's Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel happily welcomed the senior Catholic guests, "like Abraham did with the three guests who worshipped the dust on their feet, and he welcomed them."
A dialogue between rabbis and Catholic priests is not a routine thing, and that may be the reason why this meeting's attendees avoided discussing interfaith conflicts and preferred what troubles both sides: For example, the place of the spiritual leader in modern society.
"In the general world, there is a process of secularization and a conflict between religion and life," said Rabbi Ariel. "The problems began in the church, when the French Revolution and socialism fought against it, and so there the crisis is deeper.
"In Judaism we did not face a conflict with the fields of science, socialism or democracy, and I think they are intrigued to find out how Judaism dealt with these questions compared to the way they handled it."
Members of the French delegation stressed that they saw the dialogue as highly important, precisely because they believe the Jewish religious leadership is dealing with problems similar to their own.
"There is a moving experience here when senior officials from the Catholic Church say they know Judaism but not the Jews, and ask to get to know the Jewish people and their work in Zion," said Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, Bar-Ilan University's executive vice president. "Two cardinals came here out of 120 cardinals in the world, and the delegation is comprised of influential figures who arrived to get to know the Jews up close."
University President Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz said he had chosen the way of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who preferred to deal with differences through dialogue: "We are a model as far as they're concerned. They came to see a creation which there are not many like in the world, and the State of Israel is becoming a light unto the nations."