Pope Francis Can’t Save Us

If only we Jews could find such a unifying, inspirational leader.

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As if they didn’t have enough burning subjects to write about, the latest vogue among Jewish columnists is penning paeans to the pope. In recent months, a week hasn’t passed without some august publication in America, Britain or Israel featuring a column by one of its top writers – who also happens to belong to the tribe – extolling the pontiff’s virtues.

Ed. note: Less than a week after this column was published, Time Magazine named Pope Francis Person of the Year.

Not that’s anything wrong with it of course, no reason for the holy father to be off-limits to those who don’t actually recognize his holiness - but there seems to be a particular wistfulness to the regard in which Jewish writers hold Francis I.

Even though few are prepared to express their inner wish in so many words, it could be hardly clearer that they are all saying "Oh Francis, you are so great, why can’t you be one of us?"

In the nine months since his election by the College of Cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio with his humility, folksiness, rejection of the ostentatious trappings of his office and refusal to judge single mothers and homosexuals has achieved the unbelievable public-relations feat of winning over the entire world. He has charmed conservatives, who believe he is restoring established religion to a position of influence in an increasingly unbelieving world, and liberals, who see in him the most effective global voice against greedy capitalism.

On a political level, his appeal is largely a result of the Western leadership vacuum. On the left, the thudding failure of the previous messiah, Barack Obama, and the fizzling out of the Occupy movement and other radical streams have opened up space to this most unlikely of saviors. To the right Francis offers the opportunity to put a friendly face on conservative and traditional values – after all, the liberals are surely deluded in claiming him as one of their own, he is the pope after all. Each side of the political divide projects on him their aspirations, branding him a revolutionary of their cause.

Jewish observers and commentators share these urges and have a further motive for adopting Francis. In the total absence of truly charismatic political or spiritual figures, in a generation where Israel's elected leaders and rabbis constantly make us cringe with their outrageous statements or despair at their hopeless blandness, Bergoglio, who will turn 77 in two weeks, extends some hope that we may yet see some wise old men of faith in our lifetime. And since less than a year into his papacy it seems not too premature to declare him as the most judeophilic vicar of Rome in history, based on his close relations with the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and his intention to visit Israel at the first opportunity, he is even more appealing.

Our yearning only increased this week upon seeing Francis in the same frame with Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu who visited Rome, the day after the absurd figures of their personal expenditure were published, including such items as the NIS 80,000 water bill for the pool in their weekend house and NIS 6,000 for scented candles. What a contrast between the wasteful first couple and the pope who insists on carrying his simple valise himself and traveling around Rome in a Ford Focus.

Francis’ universal appeal was on display in Haaretz this week as two New York-based writers articulated in their weekly columns very different visions based on his popularity. Israeli expatriate journalist Vered Kellner bemoaned the fact that while Catholics under Francis suddenly seem capable of taking their religion lightheartedly, effectively “upstaging” the Jews in “their” domain of comedy, no-one can imagine self-deprecatory Orthodox rabbis cracking jokes. Judaism must learn from Francis, concluded Kellner, if it is ever to escape its dark hidebound existence. New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky on the other hand took heart from the meeting between Francis and Netanyahu, hoping that a new closeness between Jewish and Catholic leaders could spur a moral crusade against the scourge of abortions causing havoc to Jewish demographics both in Israel and America. Yes, together with Francis we can save a million unborn Jewish babies.

Maybe this pope does hold the keys to heaven if he can inspire such opposing passions.

But that’s the thing about the pope. You don’t get to choose. If Benedict XVI hadn’t been forced to resign the papacy through a combination of ill-health and threat of scandal, a billion Catholics would have still had an out-of-touch grouchy old German as their pope; and Jewish columnists would be writing about other things. Or else things could have gone differently in the five rounds of voting at February’s papal conclave. Who knows what went through the heads of the 115 cardinal-electors cut off from the world in the Sistine Chapel; what deals were made and why Bergoglio ultimately was elected? By all accounts, he wasn’t regarded as a front-runner or an obvious choice to begin with. For now it seems that Catholics were lucky to get him, but he won’t remain all things to all people for ever, at some stage it will become evident whether he is a real reformist or simply a friendly conservative priest adept at glossing over the church's inherent inability to adapt itself to the 21st century. Either way, his success, or lack of it, will affect only Catholics.

The Jewish love affair with Francis will almost certainly intensify over the next six months during the build-up toward his visit, now scheduled for May 2014. We will continue to contrast him with our politicians and rabbis and find them woefully lacking in comparison. But if we have anyone to blame for their deficiencies, it is ourselves.

Since the abolishment of the Sanhedrin (on orders from Rome) upon the death of its last Nasi (president), the sixth Raban Gamliel, in 425 CE, the Jews have not had one universally recognized leader and unless you believe in the coming of the Messiah, most likely never will again. The chief rabbis are the sub-mediocre result of nepotistic horse-trading, respected and revered by no one because few, if any, of us feel the need for real spiritual leadership. Chief rabbis abroad and the rabbinical leaders of the progressive streams of Judaism may be more respectable, but are hardly inspiring either, and for the same reason.

There is no real demand for a rabbi with universal appeal. Jews who feel the need for a rabbi are perfectly capable of finding one who fits their particular specifications themselves. The rest of us, who yearn for some historic stroke of luck to gift us with our own Chief Rabbi Francis, forget that in democracies we have the responsibility to choose our leaders.

If what Israel has today is the profligate Netanyahus, the ever-present Shimon Peres and their dismal supporting cast of Naftali Bennet, Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid, it’s because voters have succumbed to the politics of fear and empty promises. No pope or messiah is on the way to save us from ourselves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, presents Pope Francis with a Menorah during their meeting at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013.Credit: AP

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