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My Encounter with the Pope

My Encounter with the Pope

Was I wrong at that moment to believe it's at last possible to cast off centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and religious intolerance?

by

How does a rabbi feel when he meets the pope?

As a 10th-generation rabbi who has spent a lifetime teaching Torah to Jews, that's something I thought was about as likely to happen to me as winning a gold medal at the Olympics. 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 most often visit isn't Rome but Jerusalem.

But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and Divine providence put me together not just with one pope but with two.

On Christmas and Easter my parents knew they could not dare be out in the street.

Before I share with you the circumstances of these remarkable meetings, 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 Jewish "Christ killers" who their priest had impressed upon them in his sermon were guilty of killing their Lord. Anti-Semitic 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 the villains -- because we were constantly victims.

If my parents ever wondered whether a time might come when this would all change, 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. Nothing personal, mind you, but surely sufficient to make me suspicious of any gesture on his part to improve our relationship.

It was with this mindset that I fortuitously became involved with a gentleman who had connections with the Vatican and offered to help when I informed him that there were many precious Jewish items in the hands of the church that we would love to bring back to their original owners. With his assistance and unbelievable good fortune we were invited to the Vatican Library to view some extremely precious manuscripts and initiate plans to bring some of them out on exhibit in Israel.

And then there was one more remarkable thing that happened. It explains what a nice Jewish septuagenarian like me was 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.

Pope John Paul II was a different kind of pope. With all of my mistrust ingrained since my youth I had to attach significant meaning to the things I learnt about this spiritual leader of others who ironically enough was born in Poland, not far from my ancestors. I discovered that he was someone sensitive enough when 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.

More, he 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 for the sins Christianity committed against the Jews throughout the centuries. He denounced anti-Semitism 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.

Pope John Paul II wanted a blessing from the spiritual leaders of the people who had for so long been the victims of its misplaced, virulent hatred.

And because he had a profound feeling of affection for Jews, he made an amazing decision. Realizing his advanced age he made a personal and private request that was relayed to me. Pope John Paul II indicated that he would like to receive a blessing -- a blessing from the spiritual leaders of the people who had for so long been the victims of its misplaced, virulent hatred. That is how I came to be a part of 150 rabbis and cantors who went to meet with the pope and fulfill his request.

At this historic moment three of us stepped forward to personally recite a blessing. It was then that I uttered the words 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."

Was I wrong at that moment to believe it's at last possible to cast off centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and religious intolerance?

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, all of them vying for my attention, all of them claiming my conviction. Some were filled with anger. Some were disbelieving. Some advised caution. Some were overcome with joyous emotion. All were battling for my agreement. It was simply too difficult for me to decide, too momentous a moment for me to come to any conclusion.

But with all the voices fighting to be heard within me one seemed most recognizable. I could swear that in the Vatican itself I heard my father, of blessed memory, whisper in my ear," Perhaps. Perhaps."

Not too long after that I was invited to be a member of the group that accompanied Pope Benedict, newly appointed after the death of John Paul II, when as one of the first acts of his papacy he too went to Auschwitz to pray, to request forgiveness, and to vow that civilized mankind would never again permit an atrocity of this horrendous magnitude to every again occur. I know that this pope is a German whose biography leaves us with some unanswered questions. I know that he has committed some serious errors of judgment in his response to Holocaust deniers within his own faith. And yet I saw him at Auschwitz. I heard his words. I spoke with him. I know that he, too, in his visit to New York last year chose to go to a synagogue to make clear his warm feelings towards Jews.

Pope Benedict was in Israel last week. He too has placed a prayer in the wall. He too has gone to the memorial for those who perished during the Holocaust. For some he didn't say enough and he didn't do enough. For others there is still the lingering and strong suspicion that he is the head of an organization that forever stands in opposition to our survival, at the very least theologically.

Only time will tell whether we may place our trust in the sincerity of these new gestures of friendship. But I would like to believe, seeing things with my own eyes that I know my parents and grandparents would never have deemed possible, that it is not too far-fetched and too naive to respond to these apparent attempts at reconciliation, with one word: "Perhaps. Perhaps."

Published: May 14, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 66

(66) avi leiman, July 14, 2009 8:10 AM

This was truly a very moving article reflecting the feelings of those whose parents understood what anti-semitism was all about.

(65) Dodi, June 5, 2009 5:26 PM

Thank you so much Rabbi.

I was touched by this. Keep writing away Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Shalom from Asia.

(64) Leonard, June 1, 2009 2:53 PM

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing!!!

The wolf is at Jerusalem's door. All eyes are on Jerusalem--and the Vatican is no exception to the rule of play here. It wants its share of Jerusalem's real estate. Their clandestine goal is to ultimately control Jerusalem as the world's international city. Beware, Beware!!!

(63) Anny Matar, May 24, 2009 4:35 AM

THERE HAS TO BE HOPE SOMEWHERE

I DO THINK IT INCREDIBLE THAT ANY JEW CAN MEET A POPE, CERTAINLY NOT IN OUR LIFETIME. I BELIEVE THAT ONE MUST HOPE ALTHOUGH THIS GERMAN POPE CAN UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES BE COMPARED TO JOHN PAUL. WE ALL FELT THAT POPE JOHN PAUL FELT WHAT HE SAID, THAT HIS POLISH PAST AND HAVING HAD JEWISH FRIENDS IN HIS YOUTH CERTAINLY MADE HIM UNDERSTAND OUR PLIGHT. HE KNEW THAT POPE PIUS WAS "NO SAINT" HE DID NOT A THING FOR HIS OWN PEOPLE, HOW MANY NUNNS AND PRIESTS WERE MURDERED AND RAPED BY THE GERMANS?? THERE HE DID NOTHING EITHER !!! STILL, MAYBE ONE DAY, THEY WILL STOP PREACHING HATRED, TO ADMIT THAT THE JEWS DID n o t KILL JESUS BRINGS CHRISTIANITY DOWN AND THAT WOULD LEAVE US AND THE MUSLIMS ONLY SO NOW, I FEEL WE NEED "THEM"

(62) Sol Hachuel, May 22, 2009 3:15 PM

don't worry

As Jews we know He is in charge and HE has the plan. The crescent will topple the Vatican very soon and Jews will have had nothing to do with it. Read Oriana Fallaci. Rome is covered with mosques and most of EU will be Islamized by 10 years. This is the real reason this POPE must try to pacify and placate Islam. He has shaken hands with a man who openly slanders Israel in his presence just a few days ago. He is not like the man before him who had heart and soul and compassion for ALL humans. No I don't trust him. Not because I think he is hostile to Jews but becasue he lacks understanding of the realities of the differences betweeen the faiths. And has demonstrated such ignorance in his decisions. He has shown his disrespect by going backwards to undo the work of his predecessor and like the Pope during the EU Nazi era he makes the mistake to think appeasing the fascists of Islam will keep HIS CHURCH safe. He is wrong. The crescent will top the Vatican very soon. We need Israel more than ever, but the fate of the world is not ours to dictate. We must trust only G-D.

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