Pope Benedict XVI—A Jewish Retrospective

by | Mar 1, 2013 | Other News

Rabbi Arthur Ruberg delivered this Shabbat sermon at Congregation Beth El on Feb. 15, 2013

This has been an eventful week in the life of our country and in the world. There are so many topics I could address today. Of those, I’ve decided to talk about the Pope. Maybe that’s because Pope Benedict has decided to become the first Pope Emeritus in more than 500 years. I’m thinking of sending him a text “Hey Ben, welcome to the club!” You say they’re not going to call him an emeritus? I don’t know why not. It is Latin, isn’t it? That way I will have two things in common with the pope, we both wear a kippah and we’re both emeritus. You think they’ll throw him a big retirement gala? I bet they could raise a lot of money for the Church that way.

I hope you’ll forgive me my flippant beginning to serious talk. The truth is that when this pope first took office, we Jews had a lot of apprehension about him. For one, he was raised in Germany during the Nazi years. Goodness knows, as a teenager he was a member of the Hitler Youth. Then as a cardinal, he was known as a conservative leader who identified with those in the Church who want to roll back the tides of change.

Besides, he followed John Paul II. His predecessor was an extravert, a charismatic leader who knew how to find common ground with all people, Christians and non- Christians alike. John Paul reached out to Jews by becoming the first pope to visit and to speak in the Great Synagogue of Rome. He broke ground when he went on record saying that the Jews are not to be held accountable for the death of Jesus. He acknowledged that the perpetuation of anti-Semitism has been a black mark on the Church going back 2,000 years. As a young parish priest, when Polish Catholics adopted Jewish children who survived the Holocaust and converted them to Christianity, John Paul told them in no uncertain terms to let those children return to their Jewish heritage. For hundreds of years, Catholic leaders maintained it was a “mitzvah” of sorts to convert Jewish children to Christianity regardless of the circumstances. But John Paul II believed that both Christianity and Judaism are both equal authentic paths to the service of the one God.

John Paul II was a revolutionary in Church doctrine; a revolution that was good for Jewish-Catholic relations. In history revolutions are often followed by counter-revolutions. And we had every reason to be concerned that the new, rather cold and dispassionate pope wouldn’t be, as we say, “good for the Jews.”

I’m here this morning to say proudly that we were wrong, that our fears were unfounded. The work of Pope Benedict has been praised by both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Israel, men not usually know for interfaith outreach. He has been spoken of positively by Abe Foxman of the ADL and Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, organizations that are known to call out anti-Semitism when they see it, as well as by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The broad consensus in the Jewish community is that as different as their personalities and backgrounds were, Pope Benedict not only continued, he consolidated and built on the interfaith progress started by John Paul II.

How so? For example, Benedict XVI was the first pope to invite Jewish leaders to his own installation. In fact, it was reported that Benedict greeted the Jewish leaders before he met with the leaders of the other Christian denominations. He then went to Israel; in a visit to Yad Vashem, he accepted full responsibility for Church actions and inaction in saving Jews from the Nazis. He even used the Hebrew word “Shoah” when he referred to the Holocaust. As a Bible scholar, he wrote a book about Jesus of Nazareth. In it he reaffirmed that neither the Jews today or the Jews back then should in any way be blamed for the death of Jesus. The fact that these positions were taken by a liberal pope like John Paul might be expected in this day and age. That they were reaffirmed by a known conservative Catholic goes a long way toward establishing the acceptance of the Jews and Judaism as Church doctrine, not as a liberal deviation. They say that only Nixon could have made the outreach to China happen. In Israel it took the hard-line Menachem Begin to be able to give the Sinai back to Egypt. I would argue that it took the traditionalist Benedict to institutionalize the acceptance of Judaism as an equal partner to Christianity.

If you look hard enough, you can find some tensions that cropped up with the Jewish community during this pope’s tenure. As a traditionalist, he re-introduced the Latin mass in churches that wish to use it. It turns out that in the Latin mass there is still a prayer for conversion of the Jews, one that has been taken out of the English mass. Some Jews jumped on that as a step backward. But when it was brought to the Pope’s attention, he personally wrote an alternative Latin prayer that softens the controversial section. And before we get too worked up about one prayer in the Latin mass, I should tell you that there is a line in the Alenu prayer that is still used in some traditional synagogues that ridicules and puts down those who practice Christianity and other religions. We have had our share of intolerance too.

Also, this pope continued the drive to make Pope Pius XII a saint, the same Pius who many Jews feel missed many so opportunities to save Jews during the Holocaust. But the truth is that the effort to confer sainthood on Pius XII was already started by John Paul, and while Benedict continued the initiative, he didn’t exactly go out of his way to “fast track it” either.

In terms of attitudes towards the political policies of Israel today, the popes are never as supportive of Israel as the Protestant Evangelicals. But on the whole, I think we can say that this pope has been very supportive of good and warm relations with the Jewish people today. And I think his record teaches us something important—the pursuit of good relations with the Jews is no longer just the goal of this pope or that pope. It is now an integral part of Church doctrine. Sometimes I wonder how grateful we should be for the kind of understanding and respect that should come without asking. It shouldn’t be such a big deal. On the other hand, these last popes have been willing to negate 2,000 years of Church ideology; and it’s never easy to change long standing teachings and traditions. But they’ve done it. The Catholic Church today, often so conservative in other areas of life, be it abortion or contraception, has been willing to break from its past to promote interfaith understanding; and I do appreciate their willingness to do so.

Is there still anti-Semitism among Catholics? Of course there is. No one says that anti-Semitism among Catholics is gone for good. A few years ago it flared up in this community when students at a local Catholic high school used some anti-Semitic slurs at a basketball game. But at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, there is good will now. Over the years, I have found that some Jews have harbored stereotypes about Catholics even more than they have other Christian denominations. That is another sermon in itself. And like all stereotypes, they are inaccurate and unhelpful. For now, let me end with this. If anything, in many ways, the Catholics have become our best friends of all the Christian groups.

This pope has earned our respect. And I’d like to think that no matter who the next pope will be, he will continue the pursuit of good relations with us.