July 5, 2013
“This man is a mensch.”
Standing alone, this is an unremarkable sentence.
But from a rabbi about a pope?
This was what Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, the president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said about Pope Francis.
Here’s another thought, from Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the Conservative rabbi who is director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee.
“Pope Francis is the quintessential religious symbol par excellence; unassuming, unscripted, warm. It is a religious experience to be in his presence.”
And a third, from Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn of New Milford, the Orthodox rabbi who is the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.
“He is very warm.”
The three of them were among the 25 or so Jews who met with the pope last week. Each represents his organization in the umbrella group called the International Jewish Committee of Interreligious Consultations (which is abbreviated as Ijcic, uneuphoniously pronounced Idge-kick). Ijcic is the official liaison between the Jewish world and the Vatican.
“The pope always meets with Ijcic first, before any other Jewish organization,” Marans said. “It is a remarkable Jewish organization — not only is it able to represent the Jewish people with the Catholic church, which is in and of itself an enormous miracle, but it also involves intra-Jewish relationships. It combines Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews with defense organizations like the AJC, and ADL, and others — which is a nice blessing.”
Marans was impressed with what he thought of as Francis’s genuine goodness, and talked about the world’s introduction to him when he was elected pope in March. Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — had not expected the elevation. “We all knew, the moment he was introduced to the world when he stepped out on that balcony, that this was a man who had not expected to be remaining in Vatican City,” Marans said.
“And there was an added gift,” he said. “We thought we were in the post-golden age of Catholic-Jewish relations, because how do you top Nostre Aetate?” (That was the 1965 papal declaration, a result of the meeting later called Vatican II, that dealt with the ties between Catholics and Jews, and told Catholics that Jews were not responsible for the death of Christ. It marked a huge turning point in the relationship between Jews and Catholics.)
“And then there was Pope John Paul II and even Benedict XVI, even despite his detractors. How do you top them? What do you do for an encore?
“And then we were given Pope Francis, who has written only one book — and that book was co-authored by a rabbi.” (Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka wrote “Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra” — “On Heaven and Earth” — a theological dialogue on issues of mutual interest.)
“Tell that to your grandparents and see if they believe you!”
And what did Marans think? “Pinch me!” he said.
The four AJCommittee representatives at the meeting gave Francis a copy of a photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Cardinal Augustin Bea, “who was the highest ecumenical officer at the Vatican during Vatican II, and was a key player in the development of Nostra Aetate,” Marans said. Although he got a sense of Francis as a man who “doesn’t light up much — he just lit up. Either he knew the photo or knew the men in it, but he just lit up.”
Much of the meeting was theater, Marans said, but that was fine. Spectacle has its place. “The hard work of Catholic-Jewish relations happens on the sidelines, not in the theatrical moments, but those moments still are meaningful because they are statements to the world.
“Even with all the challenges the Catholic church is facing, people still take the visuals of a pope very seriously.
“For example, when John Paul II put a note into the Kotel,” Jerusalem’s Western Wall, as he did during his 2000 trip to Israel, “look what that did for how the Jewish people perceived him.”
Marans added that something the pope said went well beyond theater and likely will be of lasting importance. The pope, condemning hatred in general and anti-Semitism in particular, said that because of Christianity and Judaism’s common roots, “Christians cannot be anti-Semitic!” That was a powerful sentiment, powerfully expressed.
“It’s not like there are no challenges,” Marans concluded. “The difference, though, is that now the challenges are resolved — or at least discussed — among friends. That is a very different world than the world of Jews being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, that ultimately led to violence and catastrophe for Jews in the Shoah.”
Korn also was struck by Francis’s message. “He said that to be anti-Semitic is in fact to be anti-Christian,” Korn said. “He means believing or true Christians.”
Korn said that each member of the Jewish delegation got a minute or two to talk to the pope. “I thanked him for committing to come to visit the State of Israel,” he reported. “It’s important both for political and religious reasons. I asked him to come as soon as possible.
“One of the significant aspects of his visit would be that he would be the first pope in a row to visit — John Paul did, and so did Benedict. The Jewish understanding is that if you do something three times, it becomes tradition. We hope this would set a tradition in the Vatican, that visiting Israel is something a pope does.”
“It was a fascinating meeting,” Goldin said.
“We stand at a very interesting juncture in our relationship with the church. Over the last 50 years since Nostra Aetate, the church really has rewritten its doctrine. Since that point, there have been a lot of steps taken to cement the relationship between the Jewish community and the church in terms of mutual respect and understanding.
“I had always known, but I guess I still never quite realized, the depth of the change the church needed to do to make that possible.
“The pope’s words were encouraging, and he came across as warm and human and humble,” Goldin concluded. “We walked across the room where his throne is. It’s where the other popes used to sit. He won’t sit on it. When he spoke to us, he was on our level.