Should Israelis and world Jewry be satisfied with the chief rabbis’ pronouncements during Pope Francis’s recent visit to Israel? On the surface, the answer is “yes.”
Rabbi David Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, for instance, declared: “You, the pope, should be our partner in educating about the love of humanity. God created all people, all of humanity... Call upon world religious leaders to join together in declaring that there should be no hatred and no inequity in the name of religion, a call which there is no reason why we should not support... during your visit here you have witnessed freedom of religion; Jews, Muslims, and Christians can practice their religious beliefs, the State of Israel enables this... because we care about every single person, male and female, among the Creator’s creatures.”
But the wide gap between these universalist statements and the conduct of Israel’s religious establishment in reality, regarding both Jews and Christians, creates grave discomfort.
Comparing the new pope’s commitment to social justice, peace and interfaith tolerance with the religious extremism that continues to characterize the official Chief Rabbinate in Israel is no less disturbing. It is embarrassing to realize that when you consider the message of the chief rabbis and their allies contrasted with that of the pope, it is the pontiff who appears to be closer in spirit to the biblical Jewish prophets.
The chief rabbis’ preference to beat on the “other’s” chest is unavoidably visible to the naked eye. They are blind to the soul-searching that they and their predecessors should have been conducting a long time ago. In their recent meeting, the rabbis conveyed a pretentious message about their commitment to freedom of religion and worship, social justice and human equality. They spoke to the pope about the importance of combating religiously- fueled hatred and the need to advance peace.
It is clear, though, that their remarks focused primarily on the important objective of fighting anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Lau’s pleading with the pope to initiate an interfaith conference and international appeal to world religious leaders to fight hatred in the name of religion makes one wonder: Did Rabbi Lau do his part? Has he voiced this plea to his own followers, decrying, for instance, rapidly growing phenomena among religious extremists, such as spitting at and insulting priests? Have the chief rabbis focused their sermons and publications on the need for tolerance and respect toward other religions in Israel and ensuring equality for all? I have spent much time searching for the answer via Google and the rabbinate’s website, but could not find evidence of this noble message in the chief rabbis’ outreach to the Israeli public.
I will be glad to hear otherwise and to know that these lofty words of tolerance, interfaith cooperation, religious freedom and eradication of hatred are viewed as a high priority and assertively voiced by the chief rabbis, not only to visiting VIPs and the international media. For instance, it would be of value if the chief rabbis demonstrated goodwill and established their credibility by voiding their threat to revoke Kashrut certification of hotels if they dare put up a tree around Christmas time to respect and welcome visiting Christian pilgrims.
Glimpses of the rabbinate’s disappointing approach to religious liberty were visible in anticipation of the pope’s visit, when a fierce battle developed over the initiative to expand access for Christian worship in the Room of the Last Supper, adjacent to King David’s Tomb. One could expect the Chief Rabbinate would express enthusiastic support for the initiative in the spirit of religious freedom and freedom of worship, which they prided themselves for while meeting the pope. Instead, the debate was reduced to the petty question over the number of Christian prayer services that could be held at the site, two or five.
The rabbinate was silent amid shrieking threats demanding Christians be denied the ability to pray in the Room of the Last Supper altogether and maintaining it would violate the sanctity of King David’s Tomb. Such an offer to the Catholic Church could have been met with reciprocal gestures, such as access to the Vatican archives that are relevant to Jewish history or the return of Judaica and historical treasures that have been robbed from Jewish communities throughout generations. Instead, a historic opportunity for interfaith tolerance and reconciliation was missed.
The rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, Shmuel Rabinovitch, preached to the pope that it is time to put an end to the era where faith is “the root of dispute, hatred, and pain” and told him that “Jerusalem is the place where we have to rise above all controversies.” He did not mention that his version of religious tolerance is an uncompromising battle against Women of the Wall’s right to worship, and mobilizing police against them. He neglected to mention that his approach to overcoming disputes is by forcing his opinion on those who differ from him.
When Chief Rabbi Lau proudly spoke about the freedom granted to all religions, he must have forgotten that he is forcefully opposing any recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish streams. The Chief Rabbinate’s executive director, who moderated the pope’s reception, wasn’t even willing to utter the title “rabbi” regarding Conservative Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a dear friend of the pope who attended the reception as a part of the pontiff’s entourage.
The fact that the pope has invited President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a prayer meeting and not the chief rabbis is not only because of their non-involvement in the peace process, but because it is well known that the chief rabbis would not agree to participate in such a joint prayer.
It is therefore imperative that we hear the current chief rabbis’ view on their predecessor Bakshi-Doron’s ruling that one should be “careful not to assist Christian pilgrims to conduct idol worship in their holy places.” What is their position regarding the Talmudic edict that one should cite a verse from Proverbs calling for the destruction of churches when passing by them? Do they reject Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s ruling based on the Maimonedean view equating Christianity with idol worship: “in the Land of Israel, it is a commandment to persecute idol worshipers until we eradicate them from the land... if for some reason we do not implement this law, we should at least not assist them or support those who turn the Land of Israel into a place of idol worship.”
Additionally, how do they address the highly disturbing reality, measured in polls and studies, demonstrating a direct correlation between the level of religiosity among Israeli Jews and holding views that deny equal rights to Israeli Arab citizens and express hatred toward them? We have not heard any of these issues addressed in the chief rabbis’ statements. The question that arises therefore is whether they have genuinely turned their back to this harsh tradition, which teaches hatred and revenge against Christianity, and now genuinely embrace religious freedom and equality for all? Otherwise, we may have to conclude, to our chagrin and shame, that this is but another case of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel.