Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Priest Speaks in Shul

Last week a Roman Catholic Priest was invited to address an Orthodox Shul on Shabbos morning during Shachris. That statement - left alone - is quite shocking. On the surface I can’t think of too many things more shocking to Orthodox Jewish sensitivities than that. And yet it happened. And it was probably a Kiddush HaShem.

How is that possible - one is may ask? Because it was not just an ordinary priest who spoke. It was an extraordinary priest – an extraordinary human being. From the Yated:

Reverend Patrick Debois is no ordinary Roman Catholic priest. He has made it his life’s work to uncover mass Jewish graves in the Ukraine, the final resting place of Jews who were shot by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices in a most brutal way. He goes from village to village in the Ukraine interviewing elderly people and gathering testimony about the atrocities committed. As a priest, he is able to open people’s hearts, minds and mouths as they make what is akin to a “confession” of the sins and atrocities that they saw or in which they were participants or accomplices. He documents and films each of those testimonies and has uncovered many Babi Yar-like mass graves that dot the landscape of the Ukraine.

According to information that Rabbi Billet has publicly provided about him and independent research, he certainly seems to be one of the chasidei umos haolam (righteous gentiles) who deserves our unreserved praise and admiration.

In short this man – because he is a priest - has done what no Jew could have ever done. And he has made it his life’s work.

That should be the beginning and end of it. He deserves our undying gratitude for helping the Jewish people get some small measure of justice from one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. As Rabbi Herschel Billet who invited this priest indicated I can think of no greater Kiddush HaShem than honoring this man. In his own words:

“I believe that it is most appropriate for this event to take place in our main sanctuary. The sanctuary is the place where we try to sanctify Hashem’s name each day. We have the opportunity to do that in receiving Father Desbois this week with respect.”

First a minor quibble. Referring to Father Debois as Reverend Debois in the op-ed dishonors him. I’m not sure why it is that Charedim are so afraid to refer to him by that honorific. Perhaps they think it would imply some sort of recognition or legitimization of Christianity – I don’t know. But it doesn’t. It is just an honorific like the word ‘Rabbi’ is. And it is no different than referring to a Reform rabbi as rabbi. It does not imply validation of a denomination or a religion. ‘Father’ is how they are known. That is what we should call them.

But that is not my main issue here. It is his protestation of the event – mild though it may seem.

I understand where he is coming from. My opening comment should explain why. But at the same time his objection is misplaced. One can quibble about the venue. But that complaint is so overwhelmed by the deeds that this man does that it makes any criticism at all seem petty. In my view it diminishes the very Hakaras HaTov he admits we should have.

There is no holding back praise of this Father Debois. He deserves our full measure of it. Any criticism post facto not only does not serve us well, it may in fact be a Chilul HaShem. Does Rabbi Lazerson think that the Yated is some sort of secret underground paper that only Charedi Jews read? I can assure him that Modern Orthodox Jews read it too, and I’ll bet that there are more than a few Roman Catholics that will read this op-ed – either online or via e-mail or printed copies forwarded to them. Doesn’t he realize that many of our non Jewish friends will put off by such criticism? ...rightly so?

That said I would also expect that Father Debois would not be one of those put off by it. He is an unusual man and I’ll bet he would even be respectful of this kind of criticism – realizing full well that it is sourced in the fact that Jews do not accept the divinity of Jesus. This would be the manner of a man dedicated to in some small measure to righting a wrong done to a very small segment of humanity - the Jewish people.

Sometime I wonder if we aren’t our own worst enemy. Even with the best of intentions.

Was there something wrong with having a priest speak in a Shul? No. Not in this case. Not this priest. He has no interest in converting us. He has no interest in doing anything but the right thing. God bless him - and all the Chasidei Umos HaOlam.