Religious Affairs: Leaps of faith

Why have so many religious-Jewish leaders here been reluctant to accept the pope's gestures of dialogue?

pope at the wall 3 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
pope at the wall 3 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shas ministers were conspicuously absent from reception ceremonies for Pope Benedict XVI this week. That's because Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef instructed them to quietly refrain from participating. His ruling was made out of respect to Holocaust survivors, according to Shas spokesman Ro'i Lachmanovitch. In light of the pope's German background, explained Lachmanovitch - such as membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager and military service during the Hitler regime, as well as the pontiff's controversial decision to reinstate Bishop Richard Williamson, a known Holocaust denier, and his interest in the beatification of Pius XII, who has been accused by Jewish leaders of not doing enough to save Jews during World War II - Yosef felt it was not right for Shas ministers to show Benedict XVI "undue" honor. Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi of Hebron-Kiryat Arba Dov Lior, a popular spiritual leader of the settlement movement, called on his followers to boycott the festivities surrounding the visit. In a halachic opinion which he published under the title, "Unwanted Visit," Lior wrote that "the Church 'succeeded' in taking part in the expulsion of Jews from various lands and either encouraging the oppression of Jews or silently acquiescing to their destruction, like, for instance, during the Holocaust. But in the meantime, with blessed God's loving-kindness, we have merited the return of the Jewish people to its land and to the establishment of an independent state, despite the opposition of the Church, which has a faith based on the endless suffering of the Jewish people." Lior, who lost his family in the Holocaust, pointed out that this period in the Jewish calendar between Pessah and Shavuot is known for the horrendous pogroms and massacres perpetrated against the Jews. He demanded that, as a precondition for meeting with the pope, the Church must apologize for nearly 2,000 years of persecution of the Jews, reject Holocaust denial and recognize the Jewish people's right to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, head of the Tzomet Institute for Technology and Halacha, pointed out the coincidence of the pope's visit during Lag Ba'omer, a celebration with strong kabbalistic leanings that celebrates the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who, according to Jewish tradition, wrote The Zohar, Judaism's central mystical text. In a pamphlet sent to hundreds of synagogues around the country ahead of the pope's visit, Rosen imagined what Bar Yochai, a spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, would have said to the pope if he had been alive to meet him. "Perhaps he would have referred the pontiff to the exegesis of his student, Rabbi Haim Vital [a 16th-century kabbalist], on the verse in Deuteronomy 13, 'If your brother, the son of your mother... entices you secretly, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods' which you have not known... your hand should be first upon him to put him to death and afterward the hand of all the people." This verse is talking about Jesus, who was born, said Vital, to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. "Your hand should be first," refers to the Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death, while the "hand of the people" refers to the Romans who carried out the death sentence. Also, "first" refers to Pessah, the first of the three pilgrimage festivals, in accordance with the tradition that the Last Supper was the Seder. "The only justification for receiving you in the Holy Land," wrote Rosen, addressing Benedict XVI directly, "is if you agree to take our side and preach to your faithful to see in fundamentalist Islam in this part of the world and elsewhere a danger of atomic proportions to all humanity. You must call on your faithful to wipe out these Muslim movements. And that they should break ties with Muslims until they are willing to swear on the beard of Muhammad to abandon the way of suicide bombings and terror." Rosen's far-from-endearing message to the pope was that Jesus was a false messiah who deserved to die, but Catholics could be utilized to help Israel fight a war against fundamentalist Islam. Even Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitz, who met with the pope this week and prayed with him adjacent to the most holy site for the Jewish people, seemed less than thrilled about the visit. "I just did what I was obligated to do, because I did not want to hurt anybody's feelings," Rabinovitz told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting. Sources close to Rabinovitz said that repeated, unsuccessful attempts were made to prevent the pope and the bishops who accompanied him to the Wall from openly wearing their crosses. "At least he did not bring his staff with a huge cross on it with him," said one source. WHY ARE rabbis - whether they be Sephardi or Ashkenazi, haredi or religious Zionist - so wary of meeting with a pope who, at least ostensibly, has shown a willingness to foster dialogue and peace? It would seem to be in the Jewish people's best interest to remain on good terms with a religion that boasts a membership of 1.15 billion - about a sixth of the world's population. Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs, who has been involved in interfaith dialogue with the Catholic Church for about two decades, said that the Jewish people in general, and the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in particular, are still caught up in the trauma of centuries of suffering at the hands of the Catholic Church. "We need to be patient and compassionate until they [the rabbis] face the world with a degree of maturity and openness," said Rosen, who pointed out that many Jews have largely ignored the significant changes that have taken place in the Church since the Second Vatican Conference and the ratification of Nostra Aetate. "In the long exile, there was a genuine fear among Jews, born out of past demonizing of the Jews by the Church. In response, many Jews have demonized the Church and developed widespread conspiracy theories. We have brought with us from the exile these prejudices, and they have remained despite over 60 years of political independence. We had the opportunity to cleanse ourselves of them. Instead, the state of Israel, in agreeing to host the pope in an honorable, respectable fashion, is perceived by many Israelis as playing the duped collaborator." PERHAPS THE most central Jewish text on Judaism's view of Christianity was written by Maimonides at the end of his Mishneh Torah in the midst of a discussion on the messianic age. In most editions of Maimonides's work published in Christian Europe in the past 350 years, this part was censored, due to the critical position he took toward Christianity. But Maimonides's approach to Christianity was not totally negative. He saw in the Christian and Muslim faiths a positive step in the development of humanity toward the messianic era. As more and more people in the world embraced these two monotheistic faiths and abandoned idol worship, humanity's "path is straightened and the world is perfected to the point where all humans can serve God together." This will happen, according Maimonides, after Muslims and Christians reach the realization that their religions are false. Perhaps the theological implications of the reestablishment of the state of Israel might help them to arrive at this realization. At least, that is the claim made by Tzohar rabbis, a group of moderate, modern-Orthodox spiritual leaders, and Komemiut, a religious-Zionist organization with close ties to Rabbi Zalman Melamed of Beit El. "From a theological point of view, the pope's visit to Israel is a slap in the face to Christianity," wrote Tzohar rabbis. "Instead of suffering for not recognizing the Christian savior, the Jews have returned to their land and have their own sovereign state." Meanwhile, Komemiut wrote that "presently, as the messianic era draws nearer, and the Lord of the world reinstates the Shechina in Zion, the Christians are obliged to recognize the chosenness of the Jewish people. Therefore, we recommend taking advantage of this visit... to arouse a repentance movement among Christians to accept the primacy of Judaism as a result of the Jewish people's return to its land." HOWEVER, TEL AVIV Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau engages in interfaith dialogue for an entirely different, more practical, reason. "Jewish people are scattered all over the globe," said Lau in a telephone interview this week. "In many states where Jews can be found, such as Poland, Ukraine and Latin America, the Catholic Church has a large amount of influence. I could not bear it if somewhere in the world a Jew were hurt, and I suspected that he or she were harmed because I, as a rabbinic figure, did not do enough to foster good relations with the Catholic Church. "Obviously, in many cases there is nothing to do against blind hatred and anti-Semitism. But, at least, by being involved in dialogues with other religions, I know I am doing what I can."