No Holds Barred: A Chabad rabbi apologizes for meeting the pope

The moral of the story is that not every dispute in Chabad is about pure ideology.

Pope Francis at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem during his May 2014 visit to Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem during his May 2014 visit to Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Twenty-three years ago I was forced to resign as Chabad rabbi to the Jewish students at Oxford University. The reason: I had some 5,000 non-Jewish student members of our organization, the Oxford University L’Chaim Society, a fact brought into stark relief through the presidency of an African-American Christian student from New Jersey named Cory Booker. The decision made by my Chabad superiors had nothing to do with race or religion but was in response to a perceived dilution of Jewish identity in the organization, even as it was eventually emulated throughout the world for its unique ability to instill unbreakable Jewish pride among its students.
If only my Chabad bosses in the UK could see the irony a quarter-century later, where I now have strong differences on Israel with my close friend, now Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, because of his support of the genocidal Iranian government and president Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement, all while Chabad has now embraced booker wholeheartedly as he sets his sites on higher political office.
The moral of the story is that not every dispute in Chabad is about pure ideology.
Fast-forward a quarter-century and a new Chabad scholar, Rabbi Dovber Pinson, was last week removed from the international roster of emissaries because of a meeting he had with the pope.
By now, many of you might have seen the video of his delegation of hassidic Jews dancing to traditional Jewish tunes in a room with the pope. It reads like a joke, but the video was remarkable. There they were, a slew of black-hatted, bearded men, some wielding guitars while others swayed back and forth, locked arm-in-arm. Together, they were dancing to the traditional melody of “Orech Yamim” as Pope Frances looked on, unable to contain his smile. I’m not sure which was more of a novelty in the Catholic capital, the hassidim or the dancing. In any case, this must have been the first hassidic dance party the papacy had ever witnessed.
I couldn’t help but admire what I saw: the leader of the world’s largest religion looking on at such a powerful display of Jewish joy, charisma and pride.
Apparently, though, some of the very men who organized the meeting went on to utterly denounce it. Rabbi Pinson, a man whom I know and respect, criticized his own initiative. In a statement he said that following “many requests” to “clarify the circumstances surrounding a video that has gone viral, and is a Chilul Lubavitch” – a desecration of the Chabad name – he affirmed that he had received rabbinical permission for the meeting. He continued that he had intended for it to be “private, without music and pomp.” However, he went on, “it didn’t quite turn out that way” and for that, he said, “I apologize.”
When I read the statement, I was confused. What was the scandal? That he had spread the light and joy of the Jewish faith to one of the most prominent men on earth?
The Rebbe’s purpose was to bring Moshiach, the Messiah, which of necessity involves the Jews becoming a light unto the nations. How can that possibly happen if we can’t even talk to the pope of desecrated Jewish cemeteries in Europe, which was one of the topics that delegation discussed?
Do we not say three times a day in the Aleinu prayer that we’re here to “repair the world” and bring “all living flesh to call [God’s] name”? And, if that’s what we’re here for, is there any better place to begin this global mission of spreading God’s light throughout the world than with the leader of the world’s largest faith?
At the helm of world’s single largest religion, Pope Francis commands over 1.2 billion followers. Francis regularly draws crowds that number in the millions for public masses. Two years ago, at a mass in the Philippines, over seven million people turned up, making it one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the history of the world. I myself met both pope Benedict XVI as well as Pope Francis and raised matters pertaining to the dissemination of Jewish values and protecting Israel.
As a Jewish universalist and someone who subscribes wholeheartedly to the Rebbe’s dream of a perfect world, I believe that it is exactly to men of Francis’ standing that we Jews need to display the glories of our faith and the beauty of our tradition.
True, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed strong opposition to meeting the pope. But in a direct and public talk on the matter in 1988, his opposition seemed directed clearly at supplicants to the pope. He did not want Jews to meet the pope as inferiors or as suck-ups. He objected to those who kiss the hand and ring of the Catholic leader, implying a subservience.
I am not surprised the Rebbe said this, given that he was the proudest Jew I have ever met.
From what I saw in the recent video, there was nothing weak or subservient in how the Jewish delegation acted. On the contrary, their open singing and dancing of Jewish songs, sung in Hebrew, seemed to be an act of pure Jewish strength and pride in the heart of the Vatican.
Others might base their opposition to the meeting on the horrific treatment of Jews in the past millennia at the hands of the Catholic Church. For much of its history, antisemitism was a fundamental pillar of Catholic ideology and action, and the pope an open enemy of the Jews.
However, even back then, at the height of Catholic Jew-hatred, Jews did not shy away from public meetings with Catholic leaders but actively sought to influence them with the light of Jewish beliefs and values.
Six hundred years ago, when memories of the crusader pogroms were still fresh in the minds of the Jewish community and Jews were still being accused by bishops of killing Christian children and poisoning Christian wells, there’s actually substantial evidence that the Jewish community was actively trying to positively influence Catholic leaders with Jewish values.
In 1307, Rabbi Nathan ben Shmuel Even Tivon of Próvence prayed in his commentary on the Torah (Ve’eschanan 155B), in a section discussing Christianity, that “[God] should give us the strength and the fortitude, the wisdom and the understanding, to bring those who err to recognize the true faith... that God come to be known, without a doubt, to all nations.”
Most amazing, though, is the existence of Jewish texts which imply that the rabbis then were so hopeful of imparting Jewish values to Christians that they may have sparked the Hussite movement of the 15th century, one of the forebears of the Protestant Reformation. According to Rabbi Zalman of St. Goer, the leading student and compiler of the great Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, it was the Torah commentator and liturgical poet Rabbi Avigdor Karra who first taught Jan Huss, the leader of the Hussite movement, to try and distill his faith. Even more amazingly, he apparently did this through song. In the words of Rabbi Zalman, as printed in the Minhagei Maharil, “[Rav Avigdor Karra] was a composer of songs – in both Hebrew and German – that they [the Hussites] would sing publicly in the streets, such as ‘One, alone, and unified, is God!” (Maharil, Viennese Edition, 144a)
Talk about a fitting precedent. Here we have a rabbi in the 15th century, at the height of Catholic antisemitism, using Jewish song to impart the beauty of the Jewish faith to his Catholic neighbors and their leaders.
Should we behave differently when the Catholic Church has now made a series of phenomenal overtures of friendship to the Jewish people, including by such men as pope John XXIII, greatest of the popes, as well as unyielding friends of global Jewry John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis?
True, there have been recent popes who have betrayed their calling and shamed their office, especially Pius XII, who allowed the Jews of Europe to be exterminated during the Holocaust without ever once publicly protesting. But those popes who are friends of our people must be respected as such.
Rabbi Karra, in the end, seems to have somewhat succeeded. He sparked one of the largest religious movements of the Middle Ages, getting nearly the entire state of Bohemia to renounce all pagan elements of Christianity and embrace a purer form of monotheism.
If he had that impact in the Middle Ages, just imagine the impact we could have now.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @ RabbiShmuley.