Is Pope Francis Good for the Jews?

September 22, 2015

11 min read

Pope Francis Comes to Israel

On his way to the US, Pope Francis stopped off in Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and to speak to a crowd of thousands in Havana’s Revolution square. The appearance of the Pope alongside murals of Che Guevara in that Communist country symbolized co-existence, a principle Pope Francis emphasizes often, alongside issues of social justice. In fact, the Vatican was instrumental in brokering the resumption of ties between the US and Cuba. On Yom Kippur, Pope Francis will arrive in America and will meet with President Obama.

The Pope’s first trip to north America will take him to the White House and other sections of the nation’s capital, then on to New York and Philadelphia. The fact that the Pope’s meeting with President Obama coincides with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, has not passed without comment. Michelle Rogers, executive director of White House office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, acknowledged that the timing was uncomfortable, but told the AP it was the best arrangement that could be made, given the Pope’s full schedule that includes a conference in Philadelphia and a UN General Assembly meeting. “The Holy Father has a very complicated schedule for this trip, so we worked with that schedule as best we could.” While Jews may miss out on seeing the Pope on Yom Kippur, they can join the crowds on other days in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for Obama, said, “The Vatican was very accommodating, and we were very focused on ensuring that the American Jewish community would be able to participate in important interfaith efforts to be part of the visit of the Pope.”

Pope Francis seen touching the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 26, 2014. (Photo: Nati SHohat/FLASH90)
Pope Francis seen touching the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 26, 2014. (Photo: Nati SHohat/FLASH90)

It should be noted that this year Yom Kippur coincides with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, so the first day of the Pope’s visit isn’t just a scheduling conflict with one religion’s holiday. On the other hand, traditionally, Jews are permitted to travel only by foot on Yom Kippur, and will be fasting and spending the majority of the time in the synagogue, whereas on Eid al-Adha observant Muslims are allowed to conduct business.

Sally Quinn of Faithstreet points out that the timing of the Pope’s visit may not necessarily be resolved by the notion that there are other days Jews can see the Pope, and raises questions about what led to the timing of the event in the first place. One possibility is the Pope, who must have a room full of advisers who have access to a calendar, either wasn’t informed the visit would coincide with Yom Kippur, or because Jews aren’t the Pope’s target audience, it didn’t matter. This means, however, that some Jewish White House staffers will not be able to attend, and Wolf Blitzer on CNN may not be available to cover the story of the Pope’s arrival. Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington DC pointed out that it could have been worse; the Pope could have stuck to his initial plan and addressed Congress on Yom Kippur instead. “It was the talk of the Hill,” Rabbi Zemel told Faithstreet. “They moved his visit here to the day after the holiday because of Jewish sensitivities.” The speech before the House and the Senate was originally scheduled for September 23, Yom Kippur. The Senate is in session on Yom Kippur, but the House is not. Rabbi Jack Moline, head of The Interfaith Alliance, said, “The Jewish community is not his audience. He wants to shore up his community in the United States. I don’t think it was intended as an affront,” but then he added, “I have no idea what goes on in the Vatican. There are two answers. One is that they didn’t know (about the Jewish holiday), and two is that they did. Neither is satisfactory.”

For non-Orthodox Jews who drive to the synagogue, the road congestion caused by the Pope’s visit may be a cross (or a heavy machzor-prayer book) to bear on the way to Yom Kippur services, especially since the Pope is expected to land close to Kol Nidre, the opening service of Yom Kippur on Tuesday night. Some Jewish spiritual leaders seek to transcend the notion of conflict, and harmonize Jewish concepts with ideas expressed by the Pope in honor of his visit. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of Social Justice Programming at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is organizing a climate change speech on Thursday to coincide with the Pope’s address to Congress. Since Yom Kippur is the day of Atonement when the Jewish People ask God to forgive them for their sins, and Pope Francis has stated publicly that global climate change is caused by human activity, Rabbi Liebling is combining the themes of environmentalism and teshuvah- repentance, according to the Washington Post.

Farbrengan, a group named for the Yiddish word meaning “to bring together,” usually has 400 people attending Yom Kippur services at the site of a Presbyterian Church on New York Avenue, and is expecting significant congestion as a result of the Pope’s visit, adding to the difficulty already faced by those who are commuting from as far as Maryland. Farbrengan organizer Clare Feinson is advising congregants to take the Metro, and feels she can’t risk moving the services, which have been held in the same location for 29 years, for fear of losing people. Nevertheless, she has encouraged Farbrengan members to have a good attitude about it and has made stickers for the occasion that say “Good Yontif, Pontiff.” “Yontif” is an Eastern European mispronunciation of the Hebrew Yom Tov-holiday.

Many Jews around the world view Pope Francis favorably, and feel he is sincere about confronting anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and improving relationships between Catholics and Jews. In 2012, Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Judaic studies at New York University, wrote of his impressions in the Jewish Press following his trip to the Vatican with a delegation that met with Pope Francis. He recalls the passion with which Pope Francis spoke against anti-Semitism, and at one point in his speech said, “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite.” In Buenos Aires, where Pope Francis served as archbishop, he showed outstanding solidarity following the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center. In addition, he has made statements indicating that records of the Catholic church’s activities during the Holocaust, which are now classified, should be released to the public. In 2013, the Pope harshly criticized a Catholic splinter group that disrupted the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht—a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians throughout Nazi Germany and Austria, November 9–10 1938. The Buenos Aires hooligans yelled, “Followers of false gods must be kept out of the sacred Temple.” The Pope said that preaching intolerance is “a militancy that must be overcome.” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, praised the Pope’s handling of the incident. “With this meeting, the Pope has once again shown his strong, personal, commitment to building bridges between religions and working together with all of us to secure peace.”

During his visit to Israel in 2014, Pope Francis gave a stirring invocation at Yad Vashem, which implicitly turned the question of where God was during the Holocaust into God asking mankind where they were, what happened to them, that they could perpetrate the Holocaust. “Adam, where are you? (Gen 3.9) Where are you, O man? … Adam, I no longer recognize you. Who are you, O man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths? … not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed yourself, because you made yourself a god … Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the Earth, to which you gave life with the breath of your own life. Never again, Lord. Never again.”

While Pope Francis’ speech was acknowledged as moving, some criticized the universalistic tone of his address that could have been applied to any atrocity, and not specifically the Holocaust, even though the speech was given at Yad Vashem, and the Holocaust seemed to have been the focus of the sermon. Teaneck, New Jersey rabbi Steven Pruzansky was not impressed by the Pope’s visit and wrote in the Jewish Press that the visit was “heavy on the Hoopla, short on substance.” He added, “The greatest danger the Pope faced on his visit was being inundated with a deluge of platitudes and cliches, much of his own making.” Rabbi Pruzansky, who wrote a controversial blog post in 2014 titled “Dealing with Savages” that referred to Arabs in Israel as “enemies,” was highly critical of the fact that the Pope prayed at the wall that surrounds Bethlehem, and said that the prayer “played into the Arab narrative as victims of an oppressive Israel.” The Vatican recently recognized the “State of Palestine” and called for “courageous decisions” toward a two state solution. Israeli officials called the Vatican’s move “a hasty step that damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement.”

In an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in 2014, Pope Francis said that while dialogue between Christians and Jews can sometimes be like handling a “hot potato,” “inside every Christian there is a Jew.” Pope Francis stated the closeness of the relationship more boldly than Pope John Paul II, who said Jews were like “elder brothers” of Christians. Pope Francis added, “I believe the interrreligious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism.” He called Holocaust denial “madness” but defended Pope Pious XII, the Pope during World War II, who is often criticized for having been silent about the Holocaust. Pope Francis said he was upset about “everything that has been thrown at poor Pope Pius XII,” and noted that his controversial predecessor sheltered Jews in monasteries and convents in Italy as well as at his summer residence in Castel Gadolfo. He said Pope Pius XII’s actions “must be read in the context of the times,” and says he breaks out into an “existential rash” when he hears allegations made about the former Pope. He said people should also question the record of the Allies and their inaction during the Holocaust. “Did you know that they knew perfectly well the rail network used by the Nazis to take the Jews to the concentration camps? They had photographs. But they did not bomb these rail lines. Why? It would be nice if we spoke a little bit about everything.”

Yori Yanover raised the question of whether Pope Francis’ quoting St. John Paul II’s statement that Jews are the older brothers of Jews is really meant to be a compliment. At the Kristallnacht commemoration, Pope Francis said, “We renew our closeness and our solidarity with the Jewish People, our big brothers, and pray to God that the memory of the past and of the sins of the past helps us always to be vigilant against every form of hate and intolerance.” Yanover wrote that the Pope used “theologically significant and degrading terminology,” referring Jews as “big brothers” not because the phrase has ominous connotations in the novel 1984 (“Big Brother is watching you”) but because in the spirit of the Bible, it may have the whiff of replacement theology. In the Bible, older brothers tend to be vanquished by younger brothers, whether it is Jacob and Esau, David and his older siblings or Solomon and Adoniah, and the eldest is left to be “brooding, jealous and not the one favored by God,” while the younger is the chosen one. This theme is played out in replacement theology, which asserts that God retracted his covenant with the Jews and made the Christians the Chosen People instead.

Pope Francis called for a joint effort between Jews and Christians to restore dignity to the human race and to counteract the problems of secularism through providing “a joint witness in favor of respect for the dignity of man and woman created in the likeness of God, and in favor of peace which is after all God’s gift.” In 1965, Pope Paul VI oversaw the passing at the Second Vatican Council of the Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) which declared that Christians, Jews and people of other faiths were all unified in their origin. A part of the document renounces the charge of deicide-God-slaying against the Jews, blaming them for killing Jesus, which was a concept that held sway among many Christians for centuries and was responsible for theological anti-Semitism. Fifty years after the Nostra Aetate was passed, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni, who, according to the Vatican Insider, has a “cautious” attitude towards interreligious dialogue, said, “This Pontiff does not cease to surprise.” Previous popes discussed the common roots of Christians and Jews, but Dr. Segni says, “It is the force with which he expresses them, and his capacity of communicating them is astounding.” He noted remarks the Pope had made that not only did God not abandon the covenant with Israel, but the continuing faith and devotion of the Jews has proven to be inspirational to Christians. Pope Francis said, “We will never be sufficiently grateful to them as a Church, but also as human beings.”

Pope Francis visiting the memorial for terror victims on Mount Herzl. (Photo: @IsraeliPM/ Twitter)
Pope Francis visiting the memorial for terror victims on Mount Herzl. (Photo: @IsraeliPM/ Twitter)

Rabbi David Rosen, AJC International Director of Interreligious Affairs, said, “There has never been a Pope with such a deep understanding of Jews as Pope Francis.” He related that as an archbishop in Buenos Aires, he had many friends in the Jewish community. When Rabbi Abraham Sorka visited Rome from Buenos Aires, the Pope gave him a place to stay on Sukkot so he wouldn’t have to drive during the holiday and ensured that all of his food was kosher, according to Ha’aretz. Rabbi Rosen added, “The Jewish response (to Pope Francis) has been remarkably warm.”

However, this love has not been felt by everyone. As reported in July by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz of, the newly formed Jerusalem Sanhedrin, which has no political power but has symbolic value to many Jews, pressed charges against Pope Francis for recognizing a Palestinian State, which would mean, to the Sanhedrin, saying that Israel has no right to a large portion of the land within its borders. The Sanhedrin, comprised of 71 rabbis, sent a letter to Pope Francis and said if he did not recant his recognition of the Palestinian State, they would charge him with anti-Semitism. According to the text of the letter, “The court shall judge the Vatican in its presence or in absentia, and it is possible that the Vatican will be found guilty of anti-Semitism, as has been known to be done several times throughout history, and to place responsibility upon the Vatican for all the outcomes of its actions.” The letter was signed by “The Secretariat of the Court of Mount Zion,” and among the rabbis signing the letter were Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, Rabbi Dov Levanoni, Rabbi Israel Ariel, Rabbi Daniel Stavsky, Rabbi Yehuda Edri and Rabbi Dov Meir Shtein.

Pope Francis has been outspoken on climate change and has given a platform at the Vatican on the issue to secular Jewish feminist Naomi Klein. She told Cruxnow, “This is an alliance on a specific issue, not a merger.” The invitation of Klein to the Vatican represents the Pope’s willingness to enlist support and knowledge from a diversity of sources. Klein said, “We understand the stakes are so high, the time is so short, the task is so large that we cannot allow differences to divide us.”

During a recent visit to the Vatican, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s bureau chief Rivka Ravitz, an Orthodox Jew, could not bow to the Pope, according to the dictates of her faith. Pope Francis covered his cross and bowed to Rivka. The story circulated through the Orthodox press and comments expressed not only admiration for Ravitz, but also for the Pope who showed respect for an observant Jew. “He gets it in his kishkes,” Rabbi Noam Marans, director of an interreligious and interfaith group at the American Jewish Committee, “It’s natural for him. It is a part of who he is,” he told the Forward. One reason many non-Catholics embrace Pope Francis is not so much his stance on religion, but his espousing progressive issues, such as poverty and global warming. One journalist pointed out that if Pope Francis were running for political office, his platform would look not too different from that of agnostic Jewish Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who is flying ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls with his aggressively progressive stance on the issues. Adam Gregerman, assistant director of Jewish-Catholic relations institute at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, told the Forward, “If the pope was up for election, it is likely he would get a strong majority of the Jewish vote. He has many fans in the Jewish community because he is perceived as progressive, tolerant, non-dogmatic.”

The verdict seems to be that almost everybody likes Pope Francis. Among Jews, there is a split, but the Jews who do not like Pope Francis seem not to like him not because he has an historical antipathy towards Jews. Pope Francis seems to like Jews, but he also likes the idea of a Palestinian State. However wrongheaded some feel a few of his positions are, including recognizing a Palestinian State and defending Pope Pious XII, the consensus remains that Pope Francis operates out of a purity of motive and a genuine desire to improve the world. It is hard to ignore things Pope Francis has done that have no tangible political benefit, but appear to come from the heart, because the man seems, as a human being as much as a Pope, to sincerely desire the eradication of hatred and intolerance. In April, the Pope said to a delegation of 30 European rabbis at the Vatican, that Christians must work together with Jews to put an end to anti-Semitism. “Every Christian must be firm in deploring all forms of anti-Semitism and showing solidarity with the Jewish People,” he said, according to the Christian Times. He also said that Jews and Christians must be united in preserving “the religious sense of men and women today, and that of our society, by our witness to the sanctity of God in human life, that the life He has given is holy and inviolable.”

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