Jews Need the Pope

It's impossible to imagine an Israeli chief rabbi with the guts and vision of Pope Francis. Even worse, it looks like the Catholics now have all the best jokes.

Vered Kellner
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Pope Francis.Credit: AFP
Vered Kellner

A rabbi, a priest and a Muslim imam are on an airplane. Or maybe they are marooned on a desert island. It doesn’t make much difference. If a rabbi, a priest and an imam are the players in a joke, I want to be there, knowing with quiet confidence that the representative Jew would deliver the punchline, a victory for our entire ethnic-religious team; it would be a line characteristically miserable but brilliant, slightly scarred but with a twinkle of healthy self-irony. But all that changed over the past year.

I didn't pay attention at first to the upstaging of the Jews.

I continued watching Jon Stewart as usual as my chest swelled with pride, as though we were second cousins once removed at the most. I celebrated when the winning word in the Scripps National Spelling Bee was “knaidel.” And I read the book of Genesis again with the profound knowledge that no other myth or ethos could hold a candle to the wonderful soap opera it contains.

And then Francis was elected pope. It was quite clear that anyone who succeeded his yekke predecessor would be a smashing success. Pope Benedict XVI was not a hard act to follow, to put it politely. But nobody could have imagined that Pope Francis would turn Catholicism into the next hot trend less than a year after he was elected, and he's done it without being a pin-up for camp style with haute-couture red leather shoes, either. One gets the impression that Pope Francis, like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, has come to give the Church a good kick in the butt and remind them of what we all have forgotten religion’s message is supposed to be: Caring for the weak, helping the poor, embracing the excluded.

Only last week, issued a comprehensive manifesto, a relaunch for the Catholic Church which will no longer be confined to wine and wafers on a Sunday morning, but rather offers a meaty alternative to the 'tyranny' of capitalist culture. "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills," he wrote.

Suddenly, all those high-sounding words that historical Christianity succeeded in robbing of their real meaning, and which those of us, alienated from institutional religion, had customarily rolled our eyes at — words such as “love” and “compassion” — reverberate once more with their original meaning.

For those living in peace with their own private religious identities, having lost faith with or need for the religious establishment, as well as those with an already developed antipathy to institutions in general, it feels like visiting a parallel reality. Of all people, it is the Catholic leadership, which for centuries insisted on praying in a language that nobody but its priests, monks and nuns understood, that suddenly begun an intimate conversation with the human race. This time, it did not bring along any terrifying descriptions of hell or, for that matter, any simpering descriptions of heaven either. Moreover, in an astonishing move, Pope Francis has freed the Church of the trinity of its most embarrassing obsessions: abortion, contraception and homosexuality. And as if all that were not enough to transform the Holy See into a leader in social justice and a trendsetter, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, marked the death of Lou Reed with a quote from his song “Perfect Day” — and on Twitter, no less.

Seeing my Jewish triumphalism punctured, you will tell me –gently - that one religion does not have to thrive at the expense of another. That we are not participants in some kind of Hunger Games of the world's religions. I believe that. But then came the annual white-tie event of New York’s Catholic elite, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. Suddenly I felt that someone had crossed the borders of his own court and come into mine. “I have great respect to Cardinal Dolan,” said the evening’s master of ceremonies, the comedian , Jon Stewart’s protégé. “Although I do have to say, sir, it is not easy when you are wearing that outfit.” He did not stop there, but went on: “In that cape and red sash, you look like a matador who’s really let himself go. Did you see the invite? It said ‘white tie,’ not ‘flamboyant Zorro.’”

That’s how it was. At $1500 a plate and with high-quality humor, the Catholics celebrated their surprising rejuvenation. The absent Pope Francis also took a few ricochets, which only added to the general appeal. If the pope had attended the event, Colbert said, “His Humbleness would be out washing the feet of the coat-check guy or something.” Stopping to make room for the laughter, he added, “We get it — you’re modest.”

Colbert is not the first comedian to understand that religion is fertile ground for sharp barbs. Like Israel’s Lior Schlein, the U.S.’s Louis C.K. has made a career of it. What differed at this Catholic event was the response of the religious establishment, which attended in all its ceremonial splendor. The photographs that came out of the dinner showed , the archbishop of New York, bursting out in the kind of laughter so overwhelming it brings tears. The photograph hypnotized me. I could not take my eyes from it. It took me some time to understand why: I cannot imagine any similar situation involving the Jewish religious establishment.

It is not just that I cannot imagine a situation where the heads of the Jewish religious establishment (let’s say the chief rabbis of Israel or other representatives of any sect’s Council of Torah Sages or the Aguda convention) would laugh at themselves. I just cannot imagine them laughing, period. Maybe they might crack a smile. But belly-laughs? Not at all. They are so uptight and self-important. They are so locked into their reproachful seriousness that for a moment I find myself wanting to quote what Benjamin Netanyahu whispered about “the left” in the ear of the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri back in the 1999 elections campaign: that they had “forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”

Maybe after 200 years of secularism, the Jewish religious establishment still does not feel comfortable letting its hair down a little. It certainly does not help that on Israel’s satire programs, the punchline is always aimed at religion’s most pathetic and primitive representations. Still, when we consider the power that the religious establishment in Israel holds, one might think that it could afford to be a bit magnanimous.

Yes — the time has come for them to stop playing defense. They need to take a deep breath and look for a moment at our brethren in the Vatican and the miracle that befell them with the election of a pope who peeled away thousands of years of moral corruption in a single moment. To paraphrase the prayer marking the end of Shabbat, how much light and gladness, rejoicing and honor the Jews could have if gentle and moderate men (and women) of intellect and religion and a sense of humor attained positions of influence. What a sanctification of God’s name it would be.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York a year ago.

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