The Pope and the Rabbi

The Pope and the Rabbi
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Yom Kippur 5774/2103

One Shabbat morning in June, as a young congregant and I were about to leave my study to begin her bat mitzvah service, she noticed two photos of me, one with President George W. Bush, the other with President Obama. She pronounce one “really cool” and one “not cool.” In the interest of political neutrality, I won’t say which was which. “I’m going to Rome in two weeks to meet Pope Francis,” I told her. “Extremely cool!” she exclaimed. “Do you know the story of the rabbi and the Pope?” “Tell me,” I said. She replied, “The Chief Rabbi of Rome was invited to meet the Pope. It was the first such meeting in history. The rabbi said, ‘Your Holiness, I am honored to present this envelope. I don’t know its contents. It has been passed down for many centuries in the hope that, one day, there would be an opportunity to deliver it.’ The Pope thanked the rabbi, took the envelope and opened it. It contained a bill for the Last Supper.”

There is an entire genre of Jewish jokes about popes. Most have a hostile undertone, deriving from the horrendous history of relations between the Catholic Church and Jews. I was mindful of that history when Susie and I were privileged to join a small group of Jewish leaders in a meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis. For most of the past two thousand years, Catholic-Jewish relations were indescribably atrocious. Jews were reviled as alleged “Christ-killers,” declared by the Church Fathers to be cursed by God, objects of contempt, deemed unworthy of salvation, preserved only to bear witness to the consequences of rejecting Jesus as Christ. Understandably, countless generations of Jews feared and detested the Church.

As early as the ninth century, and continuing until the nineteenth, Jews were subject to compulsory sermonic harangues by Catholic clergy in their own synagogues, aimed at converting them. In 1584, Pope Gregory XIII ordered Jews of Rome and other places in the Papal States to attend a designated church each week to listen such addresses, so as to open their eyes to “the true faith.” Some of the diatribes were delivered by apostates from Judaism, whose fee the Jewish community was forced to pay. During the same period, the obligatory conversionary sermon received the explicit authorization of Pope Nicholas III. King Edward I enforced the decree in England, and in Austria, Emperor Ferdinand II did so in 1630. The practice continued until 1846, when it was abolished by Pope Pius IX.

Perhaps the most horrendous anti-Jewish calumny was the “blood libel,” the obscene and ridiculous accusation that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood in making Passover matzoh. We find this absurd claim made in the second century C.E. by the Church Father, Tertullian, who accused the Jews not just of killing Christian babies, but of eating them. The blood libel led to widespread anti-Jewish hatred, massacres, and dispersion, generation after generation. To his everlasting credit, Pope Innocent IV denounced the blood libel as false in 1247, but his denunciation fell on deaf ears.

Violence was also inflicted on Jewish sacred texts. Beginning in the 13th century at the decree of Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was confiscated and burned in France.Similar actions occurred in England, Spain, and Portugal. Talmud-burning was ordered in subsequent centuries by numerous popes. In 1431, Pope Eugenius IV prohibited Jews from studying the Talmud. In 1553, Pope Marcellus II condemned the Talmud as blasphemous, and a huge number of sacred volumes were consigned to the flames in Rome’s Campo de Fiori, now the site of a charming outdoor food and flower market. Other sixteenth century Popes prohibited publication of the Talmud, and the sacred work continued to be confiscated into the 18th century. In 1757, on the order of a Polish bishop, nearly 1000 copies were thrown into a pit and incinerated.

The sorry saga of relations between the Church and the Jewish People also includes forced conversions, from the fourth century on. Compulsory conversions took place in the Rhineland in the 10th century, during the Crusades in the 11th, in Southern Italy in the 13th century, and in the kingdoms of Christian Spain and Portugal.

One of the most heartrending episodes in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations involved a six year old Jewish boy in Bologna, in 1858. Edgardo Levi Mortara, the son of Salome and Marianna, was kidnapped from his family by Church authorities. Edgardo had allegedly been baptized by a Catholic domestic servant when he fell ill during infancy. Under Catholic doctrine, “emergency” baptism may be administered to a person in danger of imminent death by anyone, man or woman, even a non-Catholic, and is considered valid if done in the proper manner. In the Papal States, it was against the law for non-Catholics to raise Catholic children, hence, the abduction.

Edgardo was adopted by Pope Pius IX and entered seminary in his teens, becoming a Catholic priest. Addressing a delegation of prominent Jews in 1859, the Pope told them, “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.” And in an 1871 speech defending his actions, Pius said of his detractors, “Of these dogs, there are too many…in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets.” The Mortara case became an international cause celebre, with numerous prominent figures and governments calling for Edgardo’s return to his family, but to no avail. Fr. Edgardo Mortara spent his adult life as a missionary to the Jews. He died in Belgium at 88 years old, in 1940. The only positive outcome of the affair was the part it played in motivating a conquest of the Papal States, reducing the sovereign boundaries of the Church to the Vatican City.

The bottom line is this: For nearly 100 generations, Jews experienced humiliation, discrimination, misery, oppression, inquisition, expulsion, and violence, even death, as a direct consequence of Church teachings and Papal decrees. Indeed, the Holocaust could not have happened without centuries of Jew-hatred propagated by the Catholic Church.

Thankfully, Catholic-Jewish relations have undergone a profound transformation since the Second Vatican Council, convoked by Pope John XXIII in 1962, and its unprecedented declaration, Nostra Aetate, which stated that “…the death of Christ…cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures…[T]he Church, mindful of the patrimony it shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Steadily, but not without occasional difficulties, relations between the Catholic Church and world Jewry have progressed for half a century. Jokes that once resonated with pain, suffering, anger and bitterness are now tame, reduced to being modestly amusing. When we met Pope Francis, we knew we were meeting a friend, not an adversary, and certainly not an enemy.

We knew this from the relationship Pope Francis enjoyed with rabbis and the Jewish community in Argentina. He had a warm friendship with Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the CCAR, which I currently head, and with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he wrote his only book. The evening before his inauguration, Pope Francis called Rabbi Skorka in Buenos Aires, saying, “Hello, it’s Bergolio. They trapped me here in Rome and won’t let me come home.”

We also know of the Pope’s intentions from his letter to the chief rabbi of Rome the day of his election to the papacy, writing, “I eagerly hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration, and in service of a world that might be more and more in harmony with the Creator’s will.”

In person, Pope Francis exudes warmth, kindness, humility, good humor, and sincerity. We met with him in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence whose construction began in 1589. The enormous building includes the Papal Apartments, various government offices, public and private chapels, and the Vatican Library and Museum. Although popes have resided in the palace continuously for four centuries, Pope Francis has declined to do so. Rather, he has chosen to live in vastly more modest accommodations at Casa Santa Marta, a guesthouse for visiting cardinals, adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica.

On the way to the meeting, we passed through a number of ornate rooms, some containing elevated thrones, befitting royalty. Our session, however, took place in an intimate, relatively unadorned parlor. The Pope entered without fanfare and sat in an ordinary armchair, garbed in a plain white cassock over black trousers, wearing a silver crucifix, rather than a gold one, and comfortable-looking black shoes, not the formerly customary red Prada slippers. After remarks by our delegation chair, the Pope addressed us in Italian. Fortunately, we were given an English translation. His welcoming words were “Dear elder brothers and sisters, Shalom!” Informing us that we were the first official group of representatives of Jewish organizations and communities with whom he had met, he reaffirmed the key points of Nostra Aetate, recognizing that the “beginnings of [the Church’s] faith…are to be found in the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets,” that “the gifts and the call of God [to the Jews] are irrevocable,” and that “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic.”

He spoke, further, of “the joy of maintaining relations of sincere friendship with leaders of the Jewish world,” of frequent conversations and discussions. “But above all,” the Pope declared, “I met with them…as friends, we enjoyed each other’s company, we were all enriched through encounter and dialogue, and we welcomed each other, and this helped all of us grow as people and believers.” He encouraged us to follow that path, to involve younger generations, and he asserted that, “Humanity needs our joint witness in favor of respect for the dignity of man and woman created in the image and likeness of God and in favor of peace which is above all God’s gift.” Finally, he said, “With this word, Peace – Shalom – I conclude my words, asking for your prayers and assuring you of my own.”

Following the Pope’s remarks, we each had the opportunity to speak briefly with him in person, his warmth and charisma again evident. It was not an occasion for substantive exchanges, but it was exciting and a great photo op, and I greeted the Pope by saying, “Good Yontiff, Pontiff!” Actually, I didn’t. I introduced myself and Susie and told him a bit about the CCAR. When I mentioned our mutual friend, Rabbi Bergman, his face lit up. We wished each other God’s blessing and parted. As we left, we were presented papal medallions. Notably, they bore the profile of Pope Benedict. His unexpected resignation apparently left them to dispose of a considerable inventory!

Given all that is so positive and hopeful about Pope Francis and the developments of the past half century, you may wonder why I felt it necessary to present the litany of abuses Jews have suffered at the hands of the Church and so many of its popes throughout history. I did so for several reasons. The first is simple Many people, including Catholics and Jews, descendants of perpetrators and victims, are unacquainted with this subject. As Santayana reminded us, ignorance of history is not just unfortunate; it is dangerous.

The past is also relevant precisely because relations have been transformed so profoundly. It would be impossible to understand how momentous it is for a pope to welcome Jewish leaders to the Vatican as honored guests without the historical context. I feel similarly when I have the privilege of visiting the White House. For most of our history, even when Jews were not persecuted, we were vulnerable, unequal and powerless. That the Jewish community is of sufficient consequence that its leaders are invited to gatherings with the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and the President of the United States in their official residences demonstrates a change in standing and security of monumental historic importance.

We note the historical context for the same reason we break a glass at a Jewish wedding: to acknowledge, even at a supreme moment of joy, tragic milestones in our People’s past. Jews are a people of memory and, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, “in remembrance lies the secret to redemption.” It would be shameful if we, who are privileged to live in such different times, forgot the suffering and sacrifices of Jews who went before us.

The same is true of visiting the Rome neighborhood that was the site of the Jewish Ghetto for nearly 500 years, now a hip area alive with restaurants, galleries and stores, where tourists and natives, as the NY Times put it, are “busy talking, sipping, pointing, sauntering, [and] forking up something delicious.” Following the papal visit, our group enjoyed a pleasant dinner there with Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican and his wife, in a kosher restaurant along the cobblestone piazza. Seventy years ago, on October 16, 1943, when the Nazis occupied Rome and the ghetto was a prison, trucks loaded with German soldiers pulled up on that piazza. More than 1000 Roman Jews were seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz. Fifteen survived. I am embarrassed that on the balmy evening of our visit, the thought of what our fellow Jews suffered at that very place didn’t cross my mind. That thoughtlessness ranks high on the list of sins for which I atone this year.

Speaking of forgetfulness and remembrance, forty years ago on this holy day, Israel was fighting for its life in the Yom Kippur War. Two thousand six hundred eighty eight Israelis, as a percentage of population, equivalent to 1.7 million Americans, gave their lives in that conflict so that Israel might live.

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had been the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin during the Hitler regime, was the last speaker to address the March on Washington prior to Martin Luther King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech. On that historic day, Prinz declared, “The most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem, is silence.” The silence of Pope Pius XII about the Roman deportation, which occurred, in the words of Germany’s Vatican ambassador, “under the Pope’s windows,” is a central issue in that pontiff’s relation to the Holocaust. While some facts are in dispute, it is established that he knew of the impending seizure in advance and failed to warn the Jewish community. While several thousand Jews found refuge in Rome’s religious properties, including convents and monasteries, a few even within the Vatican itself, the consensus of historians is that the Pope neither ordered nor urged efforts to shelter Jews by such courageous souls as Fr. Pere Marie-Benoit, recognized at Yad Vashem as among the righteous of the nations. Rather, the Pope actively discouraged them.

Another reason to remember the painful past is that Catholic-Jewish relations, though greatly improved, have a considerable way to go. While the Church couldn’t possibly repay in full the debt it owes the Jewish People, it could do much more, including the long-promised and long-delayed opening of the Vatican’s archives pertaining to the Nazi era. Only then will a full and fair assessment of Pius’ wartime record be possible. And recognizing that anti-Semitism is far from fully eradicated, the Church should make a much more intensive and extensive educational effort to ensure that Nostra Aetate’s enlightened views of Jews and Judaism are made known at the grass roots level throughout the Catholic world, including places where there are no living Jews and the change in doctrine is unknown.

While tensions and challenges remain, I am confident that the trajectory of progress will continue. Pope Francis has said he will visit Israel, as soon as next year, where he will be warmly embraced. Consider how far we have come since 1904, when Pope Pius X told Theodore Herzl, “We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you.”

I was living and working in Jerusalem in 2000, when Pope John Paul II journeyed there, went to the Western Wall, and inserted a note. It read, God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.

In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll described that seminal moment this way, “The church was honoring the Temple it had denigrated. It was affirming the presence of the Jewish People at home in Jerusalem. The pope reversed an ancient current of Jew hatred with that act, and the church’s relationship to Israel, present as well as past, would never be the same.” It was a noteworthy milestone on the journey to better relations that Pope Francis vows to continue.

The Catholic-Jewish relationship continues to develop. One basis for closer cooperation is a common challenge faced by Israel and the Vatican – radical Islam – which has had a terrible impact on Christian minorities in the Middle East. The persecution of Christians by Moslem extremists in the Palestinian territories has been widely reported. And it is no coincidence that radical Islamists in Syria and Egypt have burned numerous churches and killed or kidnapped Christian clergy. Ironically, the only country in the region whose Christian population is growing, and is free to practice its faith without fear of violence or discrimination, is Israel. Shared interests offer a fertile field for closer Catholic-Jewish relations.

Jews and Catholics also share domestic concerns in such vital areas as the environment and social justice, despite fundamental differences over others, like reproductive rights and marriage equality. Where we agree, we must make common cause. And while internal Church doctrine is not the business of non-Catholics, comments by Pope Francis – that atheists who do good are “redeemed,” that a “new theology” of women in the church is needed, that “If a person is gay, seeks God, and has good will, who am I to judge?” – and of his new Secretary of State that priestly celibacy is open to discussion, bespeak a profound humanity, open-mindedness, tolerance and compassion that may, in time, transform the Church and, in turn, the world.

As the New Year begins, I pray that relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the State of Israel, and of the Church with the Jewish People as a whole, will continue to deepen and mature. I pray that God will bless Pope Francis with wisdom, fortitude, good health, good humor, and longevity. And I pray that ongoing dialogue and ever-deeper mutual respect will enable Jews and Catholics, courageously, respectfully, and honestly, to confront the past, address critical issues of the present day, and work in sacred partnership for a brighter future, for Catholics, Jews, and the entire human family.

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