“Turn the other cheek” is great advice in theory, but Christians have never practiced it and Jews have not fared well under those regimes that advocated it. Mourning the Holocaust and proclaiming “Never Again!” – as the pope did, and even sincerely – will not prevent the murder of one Jew, or for that matter, the murder or terrorization of Christians who are also targets of radical Islam across the world, in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Yet this new custom of every pope visiting Israel will endure, and these encounters do buttress Israel’s self-image. Pope Francis is a man of contrasts – CEO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise who embraces a simple lifestyle, and yet advocates for a redistribution of wealth that plays well in the Third World but would undoubtedly harm his major donors.
As an outsider, it is interesting for me to watch the aura that surrounds him, in which the faithful immediately ascribe perfection to him and deem him a welcome improvement over his predecessor – who of course received the exact same treatment when he was invested with the office.
This is an observation, not a criticism. It is an office that is replete with symbolism, and at the top of the list of symbols on this trip was the pope laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, a sort-of apology for the dismissal of Herzl and his vision by Pope Pius X in 1904. I am not sure the wreath did much good for Herzl, or, for that matter, the course of Jewish history in the 20th century, but I assume he meant well.
It is fascinating that for all the disruptions and all the hoopla, nothing changes. The pope has come and gone, the hopeful rhetoric enunciated but just as far from realization.
Ironically, for some Israelis less committed to Torah, the pope represents a religion they can take seriously. I still recall Leah Rabin visiting John Paul II in Rome, demurely covering her head with a scarf in his presence – a courtesy she certainly never extended to Israel’s chief rabbis. Shimon Peres actually fawned over Pope Francis, and it was somewhat unsettling to see that, on the receiving line at Ben Gurion Airport, the only person wearing a yarmulke was the Catholic.
But perhaps, amid all the diplomatic theater, the pope’s visit will cause some Jews to better tend to their own vineyards, take a second look at the Torah, and recall that God’s Word emerges from Yerushalayim and nowhere else.
It is that Word that shapes, sustains and enriches Jewish life, not the slings of our foes or the praise of our friends.