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May 26, 2015 / 8 Sivan, 5775
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The Pope’s Got A Point


The pope has generated a bit of controversy.

First, he permitted congregations to go back to the old custom of praying in Latin. (More about that later.) Then he announced that only the Catholic Church qualifies as a real church. Protestants, as far as the pope is concerned, simply don’t make the grade!

And with that, over 40 years of ecumenical dialogue go down the tubes. Protestant leaders are offended. The churches whose founders long ago broke away from the Catholic Church feel they are considered less-than-Christian by an institution they previously rejected as “too Christian.”

No doubt, in short order, a multitude of Jewish leaders will express their own concerns over the pontiff’s lack of tolerance for those whose beliefs are different from his own. After all, a spirit of cooperation fostered by the Second Vatican Council back in 1965 has allowed people of diverse faiths to share their beliefs in mutual respect. Why, we’ve even witnessed the intriguing phenomenon of cardinals, in full “uniform,” visiting rabbinical students to observe the study of Talmud. How, many are asking, could the pope jeopardize this détente with his bigoted condemnation of non-Catholics?

I have one thing to say to the pope: “Here, here!” What do his critics want from the man? He’s got a religion to run!

I, for one, am not at all put off by the fact that the leader of another religion sees that religion as primary. If he thinks his religion is right, he obviously thinks mine is wrong.

I’ve always found it curious that people of different religions get together in a spirit of harmony to share their common faiths. By definition, these people should have strong opposition to the beliefs of their “colleagues” at the table. The mode of prayer of one group should be an affront to the other group. Yet, for some reason it isn’t. Why is that?

I suspect the reason many representatives of diverse religious groups find it easy to pray together is that they don’t really believe very strongly in the uniqueness of their own beliefs.

If my religion is okay and your religion is okay, we can mix and match and share with mutual respect and admiration. Can you envision Elijah the Prophet conducting an ecumenical service on Mount Carmel? “Oh, would you like to have a joint prayer meeting? Great! We’ll do God, and you can do Baal!” I don’t think so!

What the pope is saying – and I agree 100 percent – is that there are irreconcilable differences, and we can’t pretend those differences don’t exist.

Christians believe we are all sinners and that there is only one way to achieve salvation. It starts with believing that the Messiah arrived about 2,000 years ago. I obviously don’t believe that premise to be correct. I can’t. Such a belief is, based upon the teachings of the Torah, theologically indefensible.

If you believe in something, if you really believe in something, you need to have the courage of your convictions and stand up for what you believe. I can respect the pope for making an unambiguous statement of what he believes.

We need to respect all people. All of us are created in God’s image. This does not mean, however, that we have to respect their opinions. Nor does it mean that we should go around trashing the beliefs of other people. What it means is that we don’t need to play games of “I’m okay, your okay” with beliefs we find unacceptable.

The Latin Mass that was dropped many years ago included a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. Now that the Latin Mass is once again acceptable to Catholics, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations has written to the Vatican and expressed “profound concern … that the authorization may have allowed the return of this prayer.” They have requested confirmation that the conversion prayer will not be reintroduced.

I ask you, does this make sense? Where do we Jews get off making demands of Catholics that they only say prayers that meet with our approval?

Next week is Tisha B’Av. Have we forgotten that we are living in exile? The audacity of Jews dictating to Christians how they should pray is simply mind-boggling.

First off, the request implies that we can influence Catholic theology. Face it: Christians believe they are right and we are wrong. They think we should convert, and that attitude will not change until Moshiach comes.

And speaking of Moshiach, if we are going to sit down with the Vatican to negotiate liturgy, should we, l’havdil, offer to take out the second paragraph of Aleinu, in which we pray for the day when gentiles will stop worshipping idols? How about “sheheim mishtachavim” – the line that Christian censors removed from Aleinu, claiming it insulted Christians? Many of us have put it back. Should we allow the Vatican to dictate what we say in our prayers? Or should we, perhaps, do a line-by-line analysis of the Talmud to make sure there is nothing there that people may find offensive?

I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be talking to Catholic leaders. The pope needs to know, for example, that it is good to encourage his millions of followers to support Israel and that it is bad to hate Jews. There needs to be careful dialogue, but it needs to be a secular, common, needs-based dialogue. We should not be studying Talmud together and we should not be discussing prayer.

A Catholic doctor once came to visit me in my office. Someone had told him what I said in a sermon about the murder of pre-born children, and he determined that he and I were on the same page. He invited me to participate in a symposium on abortion, to be made up of doctors, lawyers, and clergy. He was looking for non-Catholics. “After all,” he reasoned, “we orthodox people have to stick together!”

I declined the invitation.

About the Author: Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, NewYork, is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His blog on the weekly Torah portion can be read at TorahTalk.org.


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