There has been near-universal joyous reaction to Pope Francis’s recent proclamation that the Roman Catholic Church needs to focus less on issues like homosexuality, abortion and contraception and more on other, deeper spiritual matters. The Holy Father has been lauded for his humility, and his reasoned stance that the Church needs to find a new sense of balance, lest it increasingly become a “small chapel.”
It is not as if the Pope is changing Roman Catholic doctrine on such matters. It simply means that the Church is going to attempt to re-calibrate itself, and to find a sense of balance, moving away from positions that have only succeeded in alienating huge sections of the flock.
So: is the Pope Catholic?
Yes, in its true meaning – genuinely catholic (universal) in his theological and social tastes. But beyond this: in some ways, the current occupant of the throne of Saint Peter is the most “Jewish” Pope we have ever encountered. It is difficult to remember a Pope who actually had the depth of relationships with the Jewish community as this Pope has enjoyed.
Yes, Pope John XXIII completely transformed Christian doctrine on Judaism and the role of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus. Pope John Paul II had relationships with Jews in his native Poland, and was the first Pope to visit a synagogue, and as a Polish survivor of the carnage of World War II, had a special sensitivity to the Shoah.
But Pope Francis, nee Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, had a real working relationship with the Argentinian Jewish community, especially with its spiritual leaders. His response to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA center in Buenos Aires was notable for its compassion. He has visited synagogues in Argentina. Moreover, he collaborated with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in the creation of Sobre El Cielo Y La Tierra (Regarding Heaven and Earth), which is the transcript of a series of conversations with the rabbi.
It is enough to create Pope envy.
Why? Because the Pope has looked critically at the way the Church has communicated its teachings in the realm of sexuality. Channeling the late Peggy Lee, he has begun singing an updated, theological version of “Is That All There Is?” No, the Pope is saying – this is not all there is to the Church, and it is time for the Church to say that and to act on that, and to find a better sense of balance.
[Related: Pope Francis the Liberal]
So, what would happen if Jewish leaders followed the Pope’s lead?
Let’s start with the chief rabbis of Israel. “We, the chief rabbis of the state of Israel, believe in the primacy of halakha. However, we have focused too narrowly on issues like whether women can worship as equals at the Western Wall; or on “who is a Jew?”; or even on the punctiliousness of kashrut. We still care about those things. But our focus on those issues has alienated huge swaths of the Jewish world and has created hostility for traditional Judaism. We need to focus on issues like the meaning of Torah in the world today, or on the ethics of war and occupation, or on the situation of foreign laborers. We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
Now, let’s move to non-Orthodox rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators: “We have allowed our institutions to become ‘bar mitzvah-centric.’ We train Jewish kids to learn prayers and Torah by rote, without spending enough time discussing their meaning. We need classes on kavannah and ‘awe management.’ We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
Now, let’s imagine if this conversation could have happened thirty years ago. “We American Jewish leaders believe that we must remember the Shoah. But we note with concern the proliferation of local Holocaust memorials and museums. With prophetic vision, we see the day when there will be a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC, to which people will flock. We ask our philanthropists to create more powerful and lasting memorials to the more than two million Jewish children who died in the Shoah by endowing Jewish education. Someday, there will be a program called “Birthright.” But we need a birthright program for Jewish education here, in our country. We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
So, Holy Father, thanks for being our teacher. Thank you for reminding us, and people of all faiths, of the need to balance.