Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Pope Goes to Shul

On Friday afternoon, the eve of the Passover holiday a historic event will take place. The leader of the Catholic Church will pay a visit to an Orthodox Shul. He has been invited and accepted an invitation from Rabbi Arthur Schneier to address his congregation, the Park East Synogogue on East 67th Street in Manhattan.

I’m not sure whether there are Halachic issues involved here. Is a leader of a religion which we consider Avodah Zara permitted to address the Jewish people in a Beis HaKenesses? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not even sure where to look for it.

I suspect, however that it is not an issue - if it is not a theological address. It is probably OK if it is done to show respect for the Jewish people and the Torah as I believe is the case here. At least I hope it is. I don’t remember any Halachic issues or protest the first time this happened - when Pope John Paul visited an Orthodox Shul in Rome.

Leaving aside any Halachic problems and assuming there aren’t any – is this a Kiddush HaShem or a Chilul Hashem? I’m not sure. It could be looked at either way. Or perhaps somewhere in-between.

At this point in time I personally have no problems with this event. In fact I think is good thing. It is just another step in the right direction along the lines of Vatican Two which changed the direction of the Catholic Church almost 180 degrees from their previous approach to the Jewish people.

I am sure that there are many people who are opposed – even outraged - by this historic visit. They see a 2000 year history of anti-Semitism that can almost directly traced to the Church’s attitude toward the Jews. Pogroms which included the slaughter and torture of Jews throughout the ages can either directly or indirectly be traced back to the Church.

Whether it was the Crusades, the Inquisition the Chmielnicki massacres of Tach V’Tat, the pogroms and blood libels of Christian Europe against the Jews and grand-daddy of them all - the holocaust. I can surely relate to the last one as my parents and brothers are survivors.

While the holocaust was not a church related event, it was certainly aided and abetted by a 2000 year old tradition of Jew hatred that can be traced to the Church. And carried over in the reformation by Martin Luther and spread to reformist Christian denominations. Furthermore there is the role of the Catholic Church during the holocaust which is at best controversial. I therefore do not blame those who are upset.

But I have a different view. I really think that this is homage being paid to us. The Church has acknowledged a sordid past and is now – trying - to do Teshuva. They may not have done enough, but at least they changed direction - and trying. While the Church hasn’t given up hopes that Jews will ultimately ‘see the light’ and accept Christ, I do not believe that the Pope is using this as an occasion to do it. That is not the purpose of this trip. Since Vatican Two, they no longer consider actively missionizing the Jews to be appropriate.

Bearing that in mind, it does us no good to reject a gesture of friendship from the titular head of billions of religious people around the world. They influenced their flock for bad for 2000 years. But now with acts like this, the Pope is influencing his flock for good. I think we ought to accept that with a friendly countenance.

One may ask, if this is acceptable, why wasn’t a visit by a group of cardinals to YCT acceptable. The answer is that there us a difference between a friendly gesture of friendship by a single leader in what is largely a public relations event, and sitting down with the princes of the Church and teaching them Gemarah during which interfaith dialogue takes place. Interfaith dialogue is wrong. Especially when it is between young impressionable students and elders of the Roman Catholic Church. That is not what happening tomorrow.

We live in a world where the real threat is found in Islam which ironically is not considered Avodah Zara. It is their petro-dollars that fuels world wide anti Semitism. We also live in a world where anti-Semitism in academia is rampant. And it is fomented by misguided leftist notions of political correctness - which always sees the underdog (Palestinians) as victim and the powerful host nation (Israel) as oppressor - without regard to historic causes or reasoned analysis.

We ought to accept and even welcome this opportunity. No matter what our feelings about the history of the Church, we ought to accept this extended and very public hand of friendship. It is a fait accompli. And we can use all the friends we can get.