I admit I was a tad nervous today walking into the Congregation Sons of Israel, in Cherry Hill, N.J. Though a warm and nurturing synagogue and community — this being a Torah reading day — I was wondering whether the gabai, the coordinator, would call me up with the formulaic “Ya’amod, haRav Francis.”
You see, I made a bold, albeit an elegantly crafted and prima facie cogent, argument that the name of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor would be John.
But was I really wrong? The eponym, the inspiration for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s new papal name, was Francis of Assisi. Francis was born circa 1181, at a time when his father, a successful textile merchant, was traveling to France for business. It was his mother, Pica, who baptized the newborn. And what name was this child given?
What was his official, authentic baptized name? Giovanni.
You don’t have to be an expert in the field of onomastics — the origins and meanings of names — to be able to deduce that Giovanni in English is John. (Both, by the way, come from the Hebrew yochanan, meaning, “G-d has been gracious.”) It was his father who, upon his return from France, nicknamed the child, Francesco.
So I ask you, fair- and open-minded readers: Was I really wrong?
So far, one cannot help but be impressed with the new pontiff. His first words were gracious and touching. He offered a prayer for his predecessor, Benedict XVI. When he asked the assembled in the square to share a prayer and blessing for him, I thought that was an extraordinary gesture of humility. And so we wish the new pontiff well. Indeed, we share a blessing of mazel tov.
That said, were you to ask me what I think of the new pope, my response would be the same as the proverbial wise Jewish grandmother upon hearing that Babe Ruth hit his 60th homerun. She asked, “But is it good for the Jews?”
Yes, we watched and witnessed history on March 13, 2013. But there was one salient thought that I was thinking the entire time that Pope Francis stood on the loggia of the Vatican. And it was about Jerusalem and Israel. Let me explain.
The first official public act of the newly elected pope is ostensibly a necessary and noble one. He offers a prayer and bestows a blessing: “Urbi et Orbi” – “To the city and for the world.”
But I couldn’t help but remind myself that for the pope of the Catholics — indeed, for 1.2 billion Catholics – the city to which they refer is Rome. Even as I can’t help but remind myself that the Holy City to Islam is Mecca.
When we Jews speak about the Holy City, the place for which all Jewish hearts yearn and to which turn with hope and aspiration, the place to which all Jewish prayers are directed, we refer to Jerusalem.
We are the only people who proclaim her as urbi, the city par excellence — both in creed and in deed. Our connection to her is inexorable as it is intimate, incontrovertible as it is irrefragable.
I wonder aloud whether Pope Francis I will be the first pope to acknowledge this. I guess we shall see how the Holy See proceeds. In the meantime, habemus pesach. A healthy and zisn Passover to all.