The Pope’s Paper: It Ain’t Your Grandmother’s Catholicism

Many Jews are so scarred (rightfully so!) by stories of horrors perpetrated upon us in the name of Christianity, that those stories become a defining part of their reality. Christian hatred of Jews is a given, as real and permanent as gravity. They cannot imagine a world without it. If you are one of those, please stop reading. The rest is not for you.

If you have room in your world view for change in the way some people relate to us, and we to them, you might be interested in learning about salient points of the major document (officially called an apostolic exhortation) that Pope Francis released a short while ago.

Overall, the document is extremely warm and accommodating to Jews and Judaism. It speaks of friendship for a Jewish people that enjoys significance in an irrevocable covenantal relationship with G-d. It owns up to the debt owed to them, and apologizes for their past persecution when done by Christians.

The document includes language important to supporters of Israel looking to defeat the Palestinian and BDS wars against her legitimacy. As I generally eschew political commentary in these pages, I will not write here about that part of the story. BE”H, I hope to publish on it in the general media. I will bring one point, however, to the attention of our readers. I believe it presents an important compliment – and challenge – to frum Jews.

The Vatican regards itself as a sovereign state. It has conducted its own foreign affairs for centuries. Nothing gets out with the imprimatur of the Church without every word and nuance being weighed and measured. There are no haphazard or casual expressions, unless multiple people have blundered. Those people are expert in diplomacy, and assessing the impact their words will have on those who scrutinize them.

This makes it interesting to compare what the document says about Muslims (to whom the Pope also extends the olive branch) with what it says concerning Jews.

Here, in part, is what the document says about Muslims and Islam:

Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”… It is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services.

In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!

The interest in Muslims is magnified by their immigration to Christian countries. There is some sharing of values. Many take G-d seriously. Francis gives them not so subtle mussar about the importance of learning to respect others, and asks for reciprocity of the freedoms and privileges that Christians have given them.

All of this is absent in his treatment of Jews. The connection of Chistianity to Judaism is organic, not accidental. He does not ask anything of them, but talks of friendship and a special relationship.

But most important, at least in my reading, are some key words in Section 249: “G-d continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word.” In other words, there is recognition and expectation that Jews remain an עם חכם ונבון/ a wise and comprehending people. They possess Divine wisdom, and those who seek deeper understanding of His ways ought to listen to what they have to say, when they speak in the name of the Torah.

Some of us – myself included – have witnessed this thirst for Jewish insight again and again, from people light-years away from converting. Some of us realize that we are in the first generation in many centuries that we can even think of trying to apply the Torah’s wisdom to the questions that trouble general society – not as part of a polemic, but simply to enhance the good of humanity, and Hashem’s glory.

It is quite a challenge. How much are we doing to own up to it, and to equip ourselves and our children with the tools to create a kind of Kiddush Hashem that was unthinkable for centuries?

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17 comments to The Pope’s Paper: It Ain’t Your Grandmother’s Catholicism

  • Jill Schaeffer

    Dear Rabbi: The Pope’s statement about Jews is light years and mini -strokes away from what I experienced as a child in the Roman Catholic Church, where hating Jews was a casual pastime and simply taken for granted, especially during Easter season. The critical and pervasive change for me: Supercession in all its forms is out. Divine wisdom from and in Jews, as well as Covenantal continuity throughout the ages with G-d proceeds apace and never has been abrogated by either party: HaShem or Israel. Neither the Jesus of History nor the Christ of Faith or the bearers of both – the Church – can modify, delegitimate, eliminate or make the rules for Jews that govern that relationship. Francis’ statement implies that it is neither necessary nor desirable for Jews to change in relation to Christian truth claims. Rather, it’s the Christians who need to get a grip and engage in a natural and mutually beneficial relationship with Jews so that….the world can benefit from that relationship.

    I certainly look forward to reading your article on BDS and delegitimating Israel in relation to Francis’ document.

    Regarding your last point: Hazoni’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture claims that the message of Israel was invariably universal (not just the Oracles to the Nations), but a semitic way of doing the Greek thing and making universal claims upon the heart from G-d’s mouth to our ears. It has become very difficult for me in my Ethics (secular) classes not to bring up the Holiness Code as a blueprint for being consecrated to G-d in such a way so that the world may thrive. Nor do I always succeed in biting my tongue. Aside from the mixing of weaves (acetate and cotton? silk and rayon? linen and velcro?) it’s not a bad place to start for everybody.

    It may be a dawn in ways unforeseen by all of us.

  • Bob Miller

    I wonder how Pope Francis will get the Vatican bureaucracy on board with this approach.

  • lacosta

    unfortunately , the ethnocentric and often cloistered weltanschaung that haredi life [ and undeniably hassidic life] mostly mandates [ how many hands are needed to count the RYA's of the world?] means that being ohr lagoyim and ‘tikkun olam’ must remain a pipe dream that Mashiach alone can cure….

    [YA It's not quite that lopsided a count. And try we must, right? With so much questioning and soul-searching of where we are going as a community, there has never been a better time to put some of these cards on the table, don't you think?]

  • Raymond

    There is a very old and well-known expression in the world of politics that reminds us that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. I think this applies when it comes to our relations with both Christians and Hindus. While reconciliation between us and them is just not possible on a theological scale, we can have them as valuable political allies when we need to defend ourselves against islamofascist terrorists and any other group who seek to destroy us.

    I strongly suspect that the present Pope had more forceful words to say against the followers of Allah than he did against us, simply because he realizes who the dangerous group actually is. I suppose that is some progress when compared to the Crusades and Inquisitions of past centuries, yet how sad it is when we Jews have to be grateful when any group who has previously enjoyed murdering our people, no longer appears to want to do that anymore.

  • yehudis

    lacosta,
    Not necessarily. Making the shift from a mentality of “kanes” to that of “pazer” (in a generation in which the Torah beloved)is challenging. Fortunately, we are seeing more nuanced presentation of Torah ideas even from chassidic sources (think Hidabroot), and hopefully this will continue to expand.
    A more comprehensive history program in the Beis Yaakov schools would help a lot. It’s hard to be nuanced when you don’t know anything about the way the rest of the world thinks or what underlies its worldview.

  • Harry Maryles

    I cannot agree with you more on this issue. I have noted the change in the Church’s relationship for a long time… and have ahd the same reaction from some of my fellow Orthodox Jews that you mention in your opening words. I think it is imperiative that we see what the reality of our time is and address it more publicly. Perhpas the members of the Agudah Moetzes can make some positive and warm public statements about the Catholic Church (and even Evangelical Christians like Pastor John Hagee) that will get us beyond old and no longer valid hatreds of old.

    I should add that a lot of credit should go to people like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein who has pioneered good relations with Evangelical Chistians. Although he is very controversial (to say the least) and I disagree with some of what he does, you cannot take this acheivement away from him.

  • mycroft

    “Many Jews are so scarred (rightfully so!) by stories of horrors perpetrated upon us in the name of Christianity, that those stories become a defining part of their reality. Christian hatred of Jews is a given, as real and permanent as gravity.”

    Our relationship to Christians has been a complex one throughout the ages-there have been times where we’ve been persecuted and times that we’ve been tolerated and sometimes treated in various ways in between. Even in the past 100 years our relationship to the Catholic Church has been a complex one-there have been Popes very friendly to Jews, others less so and others even from 70 years ago where the historical record is complex and incomplete. Certainly for decades there have been warm relations between many Catholic Cardinals and Rabbis-that certainly does not mean that each one gives up one iota of belief in their own faith. “Nothing gets out with the imprimatur of the Church without every word and nuance being weighed and measured. There are no haphazard or casual expressions”
    As good a likely explanation as any for some who were expert in dealing with Church affairs like Rabbi Soloveitchik ZT”L would compare the Vatican’s English translation on encyclicals with the original Latin to determine the different emphasis and nuance intended for different audiences.

  • Baruch Gitlin

    Thank you for this most thought-provoking and interesting article. I completely agree with the approach of taking the words quoted from section 249 as a challenge to ourselves.

  • ML/NJ

    The Pope’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism is certainly influenced by his friendship with Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Rabbi Skorka spoke for an hour or more about their remarkable relationship at my shul in NJ last month. The Rabbi co-authored a book with Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) entitled =On Heaven and Earth= which is a series of discussions between the two of them on a variety of ethical issues.

  • Pete

    I attended a Catholic school in the 50′s. I was never taught to hate a Jew.

  • Ken M.

    Unlike Jill Schaeffer, apparently, and others perhaps, my upbringing in the Catholic faith and a Catholic education from K to 12 in the 1950s and 60s did not include hostility to Jews or any form of disparagement of Judaism. Indeed, in this at least, EVANGELII GAUDIUM is not at all a departure from what I was taught by the Catholic faith of my parents and grandparents.

  • DF

    It’s a funny paradox. We orthodox Jews are the most conservative, and yet we’ve been far more progressive than our brothers and sisters in recognizing change in the Christian world and the world generally. The fight, as it were, is no longer between Jew and Christian, but between Religion and Atheism. In such times the religious must set aside their differences – which are duly acknowledged – and unite around our common ideals, which are far more numerous than those that separate us. Fortunately this process is already going on, and has been for some time. Most of the murmuring comes from those slow or resistant to recognize change. The way to fight it is through a two-fronted campaign: One front must focus on the inherent and intrinsic good that comes from the brotherhood of man. The other front should be targeted to communities without either a strong catholic or orthodox base, and must fight with fire by adopting the same methods others use to promote their own vehicles of change.

  • Sholom

    “Christian hatred of Jews is a given, as real and permanent as gravity. They cannot imagine a world without it.”

    That perspective is clearly based on the Chazal “Halacha Eisov soneh l’Yaakov”.

    I’ve sometimes felt that times may have changed, but been haunted by this Chazal.

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I’d appreciate your take on this Chazal.

  • Yitzchok Adlerstein

    Not so clearly.

    The original girsa of the medrash appears to be “halo” rather than “halacha.” Makes a huge difference.

    I once ran a search of everything available on Bar-Ilan. Until the late 19th century, all citations of the Chazal referred to —– Esav and Yaakov, the people! Seeing it as including the cultures that ensued from them is not so clear.

    Even if the terms Esav and Yaakov are enlarged to include their progenitors, there is great diversity about who should be included. Ashkenazim and Sephardim differed IIRC about this. I don’t know of any argument that the term Esav would include all non-Jews, rather than a smaller subset.

  • Shades of Gray

    “Until the late 19th century, all citations of the Chazal referred to —– Esav and Yaakov, the people!”

    In “Halacha b’yadu’a Esav soneh l’Yaakov”(December 02, 2012), R. YG Bechhofer writes that “the assertion that Halacha b’yadu’a Esav soneh l’Yaakov is related to general Antisemitism, has no source in Chazal.” In response to my cross-referencing “Is Antisemitism Universal?”(September, 2006 Cross Currents) where you also mentioned the results of the Bar Ilan search, R. Bechhofer wrote in the comment thread:

    “Courtesy of a correspondent, the earliest source is evidently an Abarbanel:

    ספר משמיע ישועה מבשר טוב השלישי – נבואה ז

    שכמו שעשו היה שונא ליעקב ומתנחם ומבקש להרגו, ככה היו הרומיים עם בני
    יהודה צרים ואויבים להם והם החריבו ארצם והגלו אותם. הנה א”כ נתישבה רומי
    וכל איטליא מבני אדום ומלכו מלכיהם והתנהגו במנהגיהם ואת דתי עשו תורותיו
    וחקתיו עשו כמוהו, ומה אוסיף עוד לדבר

    (From another comment on that thread “…R’ Ahron Soloveitchik’s “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind,” p. 77, where he does accept the generalized reading, even though much of the book is about acting with respect to non-Jews and, in fact, being ‘Or LaGoyim’ “)

    [YA - Please read the Abarbanel in the fuller orginal. His topic is the identity of the word Edom. Apostate polemicists denied that Yisrael referred to the Jewish people and that Edom might apply to Rome and its successors. Abarbanel presents arguments against them based on geography, history, and ideology. He argues that the conflict between Esav (progenitor of Edom) and Yaakov is alive and well in the conflict between Rome and Jerusalem. He does not deal with the issue in our post - whether or not such hatred is eternal or hard-wired.

    If anything, I would consider the Abarbanel as clearly in my court. If he were not, he would have cited the passage in Chazal about the hatred of Esav for Yaakov as evidence that it carried over to history. He certainly cites every other Chazal (as well as kabbalah and non-Jewish sources!) to bolster his argument. The absence of our Chazal on his list could very well be indicative of his not seeing its relevance.]

  • Sholom

    Rabbi Adlerstein

    Thanks for your reply re: Esav and Yaakov

    Another reason Jews fear non-Jewish friendship is because they are never sure what non-Jews really harbor in their hearts. Germany was only the latest of many incidents. Many Germans were friendly to Jews, until they had the opportunity to show their real face.

    It’s like a Jew being friendly with an Arab today – do you really know what’s in his heart of hearts? Does he hide a knife there only waiting for the moment to pounce, or is he really sincere in his friendship? Are you willing to take the chance? Better safe than sorry?

    I guess it’s all part of our 2,000 year golus mentality to be suspicious of non-Jewish intentions towards us. Sometimes we were wrong in our suspicions. But how many times were we right?

  • DF

    From my notes to Tanach:

    [Halacha bayadua Esav Sonei es Yaakov] is a corrupted version of the text. Sifri Bamidbar, # 69 states: “halacha beyadua she’esav sonei l’yakov.” This is the reading of the first Venice edition of 1545, and all the subsequent prints followed it, and so is Rashi’s reading in his commentary to Bereshis 33:3. But all other readings of the Sifri preserved in manuscript have: “v’halo beyadua…” This is also the version found in Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar # 722. The word “halacha” is clearly inapposite to the concept of anti-Semitism, despite fanciful attempts to defend the term as a method of saying anti-Semitism is immutable like halacha.