Why 'Cool Pope Francis' but No Rabbi Makes the Cover of Rolling Stone

Where are the rabbis who can win over even hip Americans, like the Pope has done?

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I never really followed Rolling Stone magazine, not even when I – like every other kid in college – followed rock n’ roll culture. Still, as a ba’al teshuva (someone who makes a transition to Orthodoxy), I couldn’t help but feel pride when "we" got our proverbial “picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone” in 1977.

Of course, it wasn’t really the cover but a rather sympathetic feature article entitled "Next Year In Jerusalem", written by Ellen Willis, featuring Ellen's younger brother and his unexpected embrace of Orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem. But that was good enough. Whether one read it or not, it was understood that Rolling Stone was the arbiter of cool. And the mere existence of such an article now meant that being a ba’al teshuva was cool.

That was several decades ago. Many things have changed. But not everything. In many ways what Rolling Stone represents has not changed that much. And so I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous when I read that Pope Francis had actually just made it onto that magazine’s cover. Not jealousy that I personally could hope to appear on the cover. Instead, I was struck by how hopelessly unthinkable it was that any leading rabbi could hope to appear there today.

As the 1977 article showed, the coverage given the Pope is not because he is the singular leader of a much larger and more influential religion than Judaism (though this obviously doesn’t hurt). It is because his message is one that most people want to get from religion, no matter where they stand on the political and cultural spectrum.

It is true that the religiously orthodox, including the pope and the Catholic Church may share much of the same social agenda with political conservatives. Nonetheless, true religion is much bigger than that and that is exactly what the Pope has reminded people of, both within and without the church. Hence a magazine that certainly attempts to be avant-garde culturally and is as far to the left as one can get in mainstream America still finds a social conservative like as the Pope attractive.

The Pope’s basic message is actually pretty simple – if we really love God, we need to be passionately concerned about the wellbeing of others. And that serious concern needs to be translated into, among other things, living in relative simplicity. It also needs to be translated into seeking contact with the masses and finding out what troubles them. It is not a question of openness to changing religious policies as much as a desire to hear and feel the concerns of others, even when these concerns challenge such policies, knowing that people matter and that they matter a great deal.

But there is something else that makes Rolling Stone dub the new pontiff “Cool Pope Francis.” True religion has always been a movement of protest. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary nor even counter-cultural, though it can often be either. But it always needs to question the assumptions of a society in the same ways that it asks every person to question their own personal ethics. In the words of Protestant thinker Stanley Heurwas, “Part of the fun of being a theologian is locating the incoherencies built into the secular.” The Pope has been doing that in a way that too few religious leaders of late have even dared to think about.

It is not that there aren’t many leading rabbis concerned about poverty and connecting with the masses. Only recently, one of the world’s most important rabbis, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz expressed just such concerns:" The leader is supposed to sense the problems and feel the pains of everyone… The pertinent question for our generation is: Are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?" Perhaps Rabbi Steinsaltz is too modest to look in the mirror and discover that he himself can be such a leader. But whatever the reason, the failure of our religious leaders to take these concerns and run with them is something that should disturb us.

After all, it is perhaps the first time in history when rabbis have the opportunity to not just influence their own community but much of humanity as well, in a very direct way. If our numbers are smaller, the depth and profundity of Judaism is not. But if we have any hope of getting our messages out, we may need to first read Rolling Stone and learn some very simple lessons from the Pope’s success.

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator, writer and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the books of the Torah (Urim Publications).

A copy of Rolling Stone magazine is read on January 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.Credit: AP

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