There is a popular Jewish folktale that opens with a young boy and his rabbinic father playing chess together. One day, the boy is kidnapped from his home and taken to live among the gentiles. He is told that his father is dead, and over time the boy forgets about his past, becomes a parish priest, and, recognized for his superior learning acumen, rises through the ranks and becomes the pope.
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And so the story goes, it is at the very moment when this same pope is about to sign a papal edict against the local Jewish community that the boy's father is chosen by the Jewish community to plead their case before the pope. It is at the very moment that the two sit down to play a game of chess, the boy pope and his father realize what has happened, and the two live happily ever after.
Or so we might have thought. Because the story ends with the pope, despite being now aware of his Jewish roots, remaining the pope. In spite of his otherwise traumatic ordeal, he does not convert back and become a Talmud scholar.
This leaves us asking: Why would a Jewish folktale choose to end a story this way?
In some ways, the conclusion of the story serves as a perfect metaphor for the complex relationship that has existed for centuries between Jews and Catholics. Chess, like Israel and the Jewish people's relationship with the Vatican, has always been rather complicated. Yet, as the story sees a happy ending in the boy's decision to remain the pope, so too there has always a hope among Jewish community for a happy ending, in which the papacy (even if the pope is really a nice Jewish boy) wields its power to help improve the lot of the Jewish community.
Often throughout Jewish history the fortunes of the Jewish people would turn from better to worse or worse to better on the whim of a pope. More often than not it was the former. All of that changed when Pope John Paul II stepped into the scene. As a Polish pope who grew up with Jewish friends before and during the Holocaust, Pope John Paul II displayed a unique kindness and sensitivity to the Jewish people throughout his tenor as pope.
However, Pope Benedict XVI has earned mixed reviews. While he has publicly repudiated traditional anti-Semitism, in a move that sparked controversy among the Jewish community he revived the Tridentine Mass, in which one of the prayers calls for the conversion of the Jews. When there were angry calls from the Jewish community for this prayer to be removed, he amended some of the language, but still left in the call for the Jews to convert. Pope Benedict did visit both Auschwitz and Yad Vashem, but his legacy was certainly tarnished by lifting the ban of excommunication from radical and Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson. And, unlike his predecessor who took groundbreaking steps to establish warm relations with the State of Israel (including formal diplomatic relations), Benedict - who has visited the Jewish State -only recently warmly welcomed a unilaterally declared Palestinian State and has at times been critical of Israeli policies.
Today we stand at a crossroads for Catholic-Jewish relations. Writer Adam Gregerman in the Jewish Forward astutely observed that the next pope's perspectives will not be shaped by the Holocaust as it was for the previous two popes. Unlike his predecessors, Gregerman points out that the next pope will also not have sat in on the Vatican II Council, which, for the first time in centuries, denounced Christian anti-Semitism.
With Passover around the corner, we cannot forget the story of Joseph. When a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt, the new Pharaoh forgot all about Joseph and the good that their mutual relationship did for the world. Which is why as Jews, I suspect we might have a lot to worry about with the next pontiff. On the other hand, lest we be too pessimistic, we must also note that with each new pope also comes new opportunity. There will likely never be a "Jewish pope," but with each time cardinals gather to select a new pope, the Jewish people never give up hope that each new pontiff may act in accordance with Jewish values and interests, by teaching mutual understanding for people of different faiths, and peace.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.