2016-06-30
Bill Clinton was called the nation's first black president, in recognition of African-Americans' sense that he unfailingly identified with their concerns. If Clinton deserved this tribute, then John Paul II could be called the first Jewish pope-at least the first since ancient times (when the very earliest church leaders were all Jews by birth). In John Paul II, Jews found a wellspring of anguished sympathy, and repentance, for the centuries of suffering of God's ancient servant, Israel, at the hands of Christians.

Now Jews are wondering what kind of pope will come next. Since one of the historic accomplishments of John Paul II was to reestablish the papacy as the foremost leadership office in all Christendom, the next pope's attitude toward the Jews and Judaism will have a powerful impact that reaches well beyond the confines of his own church.

While John Paul II was a cherished friend to the Jews, we now need a different sort of pope to move our relationship with the Christian world forward. If the next pope really wants to show respect for the Jews and our faith, he will offer us not pity but partnership.

Even before Karol Wojtyla became pope, his approach toward the Jews was evident. During deliberations over the 1965 "Nostra Aetate", the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," which began the revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations, the assembled cardinals and bishops reached an impasse until the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla spoke up powerfully for what would become the final statement. "Nostra Aetate" renounced the old charge that the Jews of all generations remain responsible for killing the Christian savior, and it rejected the idea that the Jews are "repudiated or cursed by God."


As pope, Wojtyla went further. "Nostra Aetate" was a doctrinal document, but John Paul II's way was to speak on behalf of the heart. His statements about Jewish-Catholic relations were important for the emotions they conveyed-mainly pained regret at the way Jews had been held in contempt or indifference-or actively persecuted-by generations of Christians.

In his book "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews," historian James Carroll identified the high point of John Paul II's pontificate as the 2000 visit to Jerusalem, when the ill and elderly pontiff prayed at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall that once abutted Herod's Temple.

According to Jewish custom, the pope left a note containing a prayer in a crevice of the wall. His note read, "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." The words were drawn from a formal apology to the Jews issued by the Vatican that year, which followed upon a 1998 "confession" regarding the Holocaust, titled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah."

Of the apology given in 2000, Carroll writes critically that it "avoided a direct confrontation with the source of anti-Semitism"-that source being, in Carroll's view, the New Testament Gospels themselves and subsequent normative Christian teachings. Carroll continues, "It was possible to hear that apology as a regret for behavior that was inconsistent with core church teaching, instead of set in motion by it."

Leaders of major Jewish organizations and self-appointed spokesman for world Jewry have seconded Carroll's complaint that John Paul II's repeated confessions and apologies skirted the historical fact as Carroll and others see it that church teachings drove, rather than were distorted by, anti-Semitism. What the pope should have done, these voices say, is repudiate aspects of the foundational layers of Christian tradition, including the New Testament itself, as authoritative sources of instruction on how to regard Jews and Judaism.

The chutzpah of this demand that Catholics (and other Christians) change their very religion in response to Jewish sensitivities is rarely addressed either by Christians or by Jews. What would the Anti-Defamation League say if the pope insisted that the Jews repudiate the more troubling teachings in our own Talmud-for example, about Jesus, his execution at the hand of a Jewish court and subsequent punishment in hell? So it hardly seems fair to hold either John Paul II or his successor responsible for declining to criticize the holy texts of his faith when contemporary Jews would hardly be willing to renounce our own holy books, no matter how earnestly Christians asked us to do so.

From the next pope, these same Jewish leaders will look for a continuation and intensification of the program of regret and apology that characterized John Paul II's pontificate. Along with similarly minded Catholics such as James Carroll, they will ask for still more emphasis on Jewish suffering, for a more stringent reexamination not only of the history of Christian actions but of the history of the Christian idea itself.


The question is whether by acceding to this demand the new pope would really be acting in the best interests not only of Jews but of the world. I believe the answer is that further self-criticism by Catholics, and more pity for the Jews, will do nobody any good.

"Pity" is not too strong a word. Another liberal historian with Catholic roots, Karen Armstrong, wrote of John Paul's visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, "The sight of this pope expressing his sorrow, surrounded by the symbols of Jewish suffering and in the full knowledge that he was being watched closely by millions of people all over the world, was a far more eloquent apology than any sermon or papal document." Maybe true, but the point that comes across in such statements-Armstrong's, but also John Paul II's, for all his noble intentions-is that the meaning of Jewish existence may be equated more or less with words like "suffering" and "sorrow."

Judaism is not about suffering. It is, in the final analysis, about spreading knowledge of the God of Israel to the world. This was the biblical patriarch Abraham's mission. It is the mission implicit in God's commandment to the Jews, through Moses, to serve the world as a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), spiritual ministers at the service of all people.

To his everlasting credit, John Paul II's historic recognition of Jewish suffering made such a joining of forces possible. Without it, the Jews could not trust his church. His contribution to inter-religious friendship was invaluable. But his successor may, if he chooses to act very boldly, take the next step.

The highest mark of honor the next pope could pay the Jews would be to recognize our God-given role in the world. He could enourage us to take up the job God gave us as moral leaders acting in the interest of humanity, a job that-frankly-we currently neglect. That job is one in which the Catholic Church could join hands with us. John Paul II's successor could, in effect, call us to be not only partners but-dare one say it-better Jews.

What exactly would it mean for the next pope to call the Jews to his side not as objects of pity but as partners? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a towering figure in American Jewish life of the 20th century whose prophetic voice speaks equally to Jews and Christians, formulated what could be the collective mission of Jews, Catholics, and other Christians, for the new century. He recognized that Jews and Christians alike have a common foe.

Rabbi Heschel pointed out in a 1966 essay, "No Religion Is An Island," that "Nazism in its very roots was a rebellion against the Bible, against the God of Abraham." Nazi Germany was defeated, but Heschel understood that the same force that animated Hitlerism also was behind a leading ideological force that persisted and drew adherents, including many Jews, with increasing success. This force is called secularism, the will to erase the vestiges of all biblical religion from public life, and to limit its practical application in private life too.

Heschel, a social and political activist and advocate of interfaith dialogue, wrote in the same essay: "The process of eliminating the Bible from the consciousness of the Western world goes on. It is on the issue of saving the radiance of the Hebrew Bible in the minds of man that Jews and Christians are called upon to work together." He presciently called for a Jewish alliance with Christians against secularism.

An aggressively proselytizing quasi-religious faith in its own right, secularism is locked in struggle with the biblical religions.

The gruesome death of Terri Schiavo, arising from the assumption that not God but man decides when a life may be brought to an end, was merely the most recent evidence that secularism has never been more powerful. Christians tried to stop the judicial process by which Mrs. Schiavo finally was dehydrated and starved to death. If only a leader of John Paul II's stature had called upon American Jews not without influence in government and media to rally with Christians on behalf of saving this innocent woman's life.

If John Paul II's successor were to inaugurate his own ascent to Peter's throne by asking Jews to join him in standing up to secularism, on behalf of the God of the Bible and of Israel, his papacy could be as important as John Paul II's, as noble and as beautiful-perhaps much more so.

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