How does a rabbi feel when he meets the pope?
As a 10th-generation rabbi, that’s something I thought was about as likely to happen to me as playing the romantic lead in a Julia Roberts movie. My world is the ivory tower of Jewish academia, not the Vatican. The people I’m used to seeing with yarmulkes on their heads are congregants, not cardinals. The holy city I often visit isn’t Rome but Jerusalem.
So what was a nice Jewish septuagenarian like me doing in the Apostolic Palace standing before the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in the week before what proved to be his final illness? I was blessing the pope.
That has to be about as unlikely a moment as Moses meeting Jesus or Jewish leaders joining the Apostles at the Last Supper. But it happened to me. And it was more than historic. It was the kind of meeting that allowed me to believe it’s at last possible to cast off centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and religious intolerance.
A little personal background is important. My parents came from Poland, and when I was a child they would tell me about their early lives there. On Christmas and Easter they knew they could not dare be out in the street. Their church-going neighbors would search for any of the “Christ killers” who their priest had impressed upon them in his sermon were guilty of killing their Lord. Antisemitic attacks were almost everyday occurrences, the expected price that Jews understood they had to pay for residence in a non-Jewish land. It’s sad to say but, for Jews, Christians were all villains — because we were constantly victims.
Would it ever change? my parents wondered. The Holocaust put an end to whatever optimism they dared to allow themselves. No, they concluded, and constantly reinforced in their admonitions to my siblings and to me. The rift between us and “them,” as they saw it, was unbridgeable. Only a fool, they never failed to tell us, would deny the lesson of so many centuries.
So in my mind, the pope became the general of an opposing army bent on our destruction. Nothing personal, mind you, but surely sufficient to make me suspicious of any gesture on his part to improve our relationship.
And then along came Pope John Paul II. Ironically enough, this pope was Polish, born not far from my ancestors. How was it possible, I wondered, that he was sensitive enough, as he assumed the papacy, to make one of his very first acts a visit to Auschwitz to in order express remorse at the fate of the 6 million victims? Perhaps there was hope, after all.
Then John Paul II became the first pope since Saint Peter to visit a synagogue. He journeyed to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and left an inscribed message within one of its crevices asking for forgiveness. He denounced antisemitism as a “sin against God and humanity.” He normalized diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. He epitomized love, reconciliation and the healing of ancient wounds.
How could a rabbi not respect him?
Perhaps it was destined for me to be asked in January to take part in a mission of 150 rabbis, cantors and leaders offering long overdue thanks to this remarkable man of God. In yet another beautiful gesture of friendship, the pope had agreed to extend a personal invitation for this historic meeting. And that is how I came to be in the pope’s palace, surrounded by walls adorned with the most incredible frescoes created some 500 years ago by Michelangelo, Raphael and other legendary artists.
The cantors started with a song. It was a blessing expressing gratitude to God “Shehecheyanu v’ki’manu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh” — that the Almighty granted us the privilege to live to see this day. The pope responded with the Hebrew words Shalom aleichem — Peace be upon you. And the hall was filled with tears and with thunderous applause. Applause that acknowledged the magnitude of how far two religions had come in breaking down the barriers of enmity between brothers. Applause that rose to the very heavens as it reminded all of us of our common humanity, created equally in the image of our Creator.
Three rabbis, representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry — myself, Rabbi Dov Barry Schwartz and Rabbi Jack Bemporad — then rose to offer a blessing to the pope. I, the son of Polish Jews, most of whose family perished in the Holocaust, stood before the Polish pope as the Orthodox spokesman.
What went through my mind?
I heard the past speaking to me. I don’t know how it was possible for time to become so compressed that in those few moments, I could clearly make out so many conversations in my mind. I heard voices within me. Some were filled with anger. Some were disbelieving. Some advised caution. Some were overcome with joyous emotion. I heard them all battling for my attention. And then, with an assurance I find hard to believe in retrospect, I uttered the blessing recorded in the Talmud for a time when a Jew meets a great leader of “the nations of the world”: We bless You O Lord for having granted of Your glory to Your creations.
All of us there saw the pope visibly moved. All of us felt a surge of emotion, of spirituality, of profound love in that palace. But I was probably the only one in the Vatican who heard one more voice. I swear I could hear my departed father whisper into my ear, “Mazel tov!”
Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and rabbi emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside.