Greeting the pope
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 24, 2000
The media love conflict and exoticism. Best of all are stories that combine elements of the two.
No surprise, then, that the world media has conjured up a haredi public (the exotic) preparing a hostile reception for Pope John Paul II (conflict).
Thus The Washington Post reported last week, "some, especially the most observant religious Jews, are actively hostile [to the pope's visit]." The principal source for that perspective was David Rosen, the Israel director of the Anti Defamation League.
At a March 8 press conference, Rosen charged that the 2,000 rabbis who expressed their concern to the Vatican over the Shabbat desecration occasioned by the pope's visit were seeking a pretext to sour the atmosphere surrounding the pontiff's visit and score "brownie points" within their own constituency.
For good measure, Rosen, whose organization's raison d'etre is combatting slurs against Jews, quipped that those same rabbis would affirm that the world is flat if instructed to do so by the Council of Torah Sages.
Rosen's charge that the haredi world was looking for confrontation will not bear scrutiny. Long before the pope's visit, United Torah Judaism left the government over the issue of government-sponsored Shabbat desecration. The issue is clearly one of great importance to the Torah world.
The request to the pope to alter his schedule to minimize Shabbat desecration was made with the full expectation that the pope, as a man of faith, would be sensitive to the religious sensibilities of the Jewish people, and the pope was in fact responsive to these concerns. One of the guiding principles of the Torah community from time immemorial has been to avoid any action that might provoke the nations of the world and thereby increase enmity towards Jews. The rabbinic leaders of the Torah community view the protection of Jewish lives as one of their paramount responsibilities. They would never deliberately court confrontation with the spiritual leader of one billion Catholics. Thus haredi groups have stood on the sidelines in recent years as relations between the Church and secular Jewish defense organizations grew increasingly testy.
In 1998, the Anti-Defamation League dismissed the Vatican's long awaited "Reflection on the Holocaust" as a hollow "apology full of rationalization for Pope Pius XII and the Church."
Not long ago, the president of the Vatican's Commission on Religious Relations publicly rebuked Jewish agencies for their "aggressive attitudes" and announced it was severing its 30-year relationship with the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation. The rabbinic leaders of the haredi community fear that insistent demands by the Jewish community for an even more detailed list of the sins of the Church and ever more abject requests for forgiveness will inevitably trigger a backlash among Catholics (something already happening in certain Church circles.)
While acknowledging the legitimacy of historical inquiries by Christian and Jewish scholars alike into theological antisemitism and its often violent consequences, the Orthodox view them as largely beside the point. Nothing will bring back to life the hundreds of thousands slaughtered or forcibly converted in the name of the cross.
Neither the pope nor anyone else - no matter how well-intentioned - has the power to seek forgiveness on behalf of others. Nor is it within the power of those living today to grant forgiveness for all those victims. By the same token, Orthodox Jews do not hold Catholics today responsible for the atrocities of the past.
In many respects, religious Jews are uniquely able to forge close relations with people of other faiths. Over the last 35 years, for instance, Agudath Israel of America, the largest American grass-roots Orthodox organization, has enjoyed the warmest of relations with Catholic groups on the basis of mutual respect for other people of faith and shared interests.
The two groups have worked closely together on such issues as school vouchers. Cardinal John O'Connor's open letter last September in which he praised the Jewish people "as a model of faith for all mankind" was a reflection of the warmth of those relations.
Unlike many of their secular brethren, Orthodox Jews do not, for instance, get the heebie-jeebies around deeply religious Christians. Because they define their Judaism positively, and not in terms of what others say about them, they are far less likely to concern themselves with the theological pronouncements of others.
If the president tells a Sunday school class that Jews do not have a share in heaven (as Jimmy Carter once did), or presidential candidates boast of having been "saved," Orthodox Jews do not become hysterical.
Because the haredi continue to live in ways that distinguish them from their non-Jewish neighbors, they never harbored the illusion that Judaism and Christianity could somehow be reconciled. Interfaith theological dialogue is, in their eyes, pointless. They are content to let others live with their beliefs so long as those beliefs do not lead to hostility and discrimination against Jews.
Viewed in those terms, Orthodox Jews have every reason to treat Pope John Paul II with respect. Under his stewardship, there has been a sea change in the attitude of the Church to the Jewish people. Time after time, he has sent an unmistakable message that antisemitism is no longer Church doctrine and that the Church condemns all expressions of antisemitism in word and deed. He will no doubt forcefully reiterate that message while in Israel.
So while haredi Jews will not line the pope's route to catch a glimpse of him, the Orthodox world is not unmindful of all that he has done to lessen the scourge of antisemitism - and honors him for it.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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