It has only been a few hours since I published an appreciation of the Pope in Jewish World Review, and the feedback has already begun, even though it was posted in the middle of the night, East Coast time. Given the popularity of JWR (in my mind, one of the most potent forces of kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s Name), period; read by huge numbers of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews), this was not terribly surprising.
I will anticipate some raised eyebrows from within the Jewish community. Is what happens within the Church any of our business? Does there have to be a Jewish response to the passing of the Pope?
Yes, I say, and for two reasons.
First of all, it is the right thing to do, the correct thing. Our tradition supports it, both because unlike many other faiths, we do not claim a monopoly on Heaven. We fully believe that the righteous of the nations of the world have a place in the World to Come. The Be’er HaGolah (Yoreh Deah 367:1) (clearly commenting about non-Jews who were his contemporaries, which means practicing Christians) speaks approvingly about showing last respects to non-Jews who were good people, who were included among these chasidei umos ha-olam. We also believe that hakaras hatov – acknowledging the good that anyone has shown us – is one of the pillars of Jewish life. Pope John Paul, it would seem to me, represented the confluence of both of these elements, and so we should show appreciation and gratitude.
Centuries ago, the Tiferes Yisrael praised a number of non-Jews to the rafters in his commentary to Avos (3:1 in the Boaz). He includes Jenner (for inventing the smallpox vaccine, thus saving so many lives) and Guttenberg (for inventing the printing press), and Johannes Reuchlin. Reuchlin indeed deserves much credit. In the 16th century, he stood up to a Jewish apostate, Jacob Pfeferkorn and the Dominican hierarchy, who pushed for the burning of all copies of the Talmud in the Empire. We should keep in mind, though, that Reuchlin was not particularly well disposed to Jews, much preferring their books to their beings. He was very much an enthusiastic Christian, who wished Jewish literature preserved primarily so that Christians could use them for their own purposes. None of this stopped the Tiferes Yisrael from appending the title chasid – righteous – to his name. Reuchlin’s accomplishment, I would think, was pretty much localized to his generation. Those of Pope John Paul will hopefully last much longer.
A second argument for Jewish interest in the Pope and succession deals with changed realities concerning the Church. Without ignoring or minimizing the many pockets of anti-Semitism that remain entrenched in the Church, it is still not the same institution that our grandparents knew. Especially in America, where new teachings have had a better chance of replacing old attitudes, younger generations of Catholics are taught positive things about Jews and Israel. (Much of this can be credited to John Paul.) The most cynical among us should ask ourselves whether we prefer a Church continuing the stereotypes of the past, or one that to a large extent preaches the opposite. We are free to write what we wish on this blog to a large extent because Divine Providence has seen to it that the Church has helped diminish the hatred of Jews in this country, and I thank Hashem for that.
A Catholic friend challenged me with a question that is a variation on the Jewish stake in the Vatican. “Do you Orthodox Jews really relish the thought that you may soon become the absolutely last people on the face of the earth to believe that G-d authored the Bible?” It was a sobering question, and it raises some new ones. Do we wish to be the last people to believe, for example, that marriage should be limited to people of opposite gender, or that human life in its terminal stages has a Divine component that must be respected? How easy will it be to navigate a world – socially or politically – where everyone looks upon us as Neanderthals? The papacy has a huge effect upon the attitudes of 1.2 billion Catholics. Pope John Paul held a conservative line on some key issues that we share. His successor will likewise have an important impact on the mores and attitudes of fellow travelers of this planet.
Like so many other complications of life, there is little that we should – or can – do to improve our chances. Ein lanu ela lisha-en al Avinu shebashomayim– we have only to rely upon our Father in Heaven.