ROME - Where I grew up, there were a number of persistent myths regarding the Vatican. One was that directly beneath the pope's throne, in a subterranean cavern, lies the Menorah, the golden candelabra plundered by the Roman legions from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. And as long as it is there, the head of the Christian faith can still feel that he is superior to the Jews.
Long before Dan Brown came along with his Da Vinci Code, this myth had sprouted additional layers of legend, like the story of the Mossad agent sent by David Ben-Gurion to recover the Menorah but who died in the attempt. You would be surprised by how widespread this myth is and the number of serious people - including some quite prominent rabbis and academics who really should know better - who believe it.
Of course, even a cursory knowledge of Roman history is enough to convince that even if the Menorah ever made into the Vatican's vaults, they have been plundered by so many conquerors and corrupt popes that it would have been spirited away and melted down centuries ago.
Another less well-known but nevertheless pervasive myth is more recent. According to it, immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, the Eshkol government sent an urgent diplomatic emissary to the Vatican in the belief that Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia would never allow the Jews to control the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City and were about to proclaim a holy crusade against Israel.
If possible, this is even more ridiculous than the Menorah story. It's true that some delicate diplomacy was necessary to smooth over issues of custodianship of Christian sites in East Jerusalem, but the idea that a 20th-century pope would even dream of being capable of embarking on a crusade - especially not Paul, who only a couple of years earlier had presided over the completion of the Second Vatican Council which adopted the Nostra Aetate, the declaration that the Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus, were not accursed and shared a joint religious patrimony with Christians.
None of this goes to say that many generations of bloody persecution of Jews by the Roman church never took place or that even after Vatican II anti-Semitism was no longer prevalent among Catholic priests, but it did go to show that many Jews are just as clueless as Catholics when it comes to actually knowing something accurate about the other religion.
Facile comparisons between religious establishments are very easy, and this week in Rome, observing the papal conclave (or as much as one can observe if you are not actually a cardinal-elector ), I turned some of these around in my mind.
Two days after the monthly morning prayers by the Women of the Wall, joined this time by Knesset members and for once not disrupted by the police, topless women tried to protest in St. Peter's Square against the all-male conclave. And yes, the Chief Rabbinate council in Israel also contains no women - and if the electing body of the new chief rabbis due to convene in two months includes a few women, that in itself will be a small breakthrough. (As tempting as it will be to call it the Jewish conclave, believe me, I have now been at both and can assure you there is no resemblance ).
But is this about religion or more about the way conservative societies are always male-dominated? After all, it may be scandalous that no women are involved in electing the pope or the chief rabbis, but national governments are much more powerful in the 21st century and women are still woefully underrepresented there.
Next week, less than 20 percent of the ministers being sworn in to the new Israeli government will be women - and this is the much-vaunted coalition without ultra-Orthodox parties. None of the four female ministers will be in senior positions. In fact, while Haredi parties have been in less than half the governments since Israel's independence, only two women, Golda Meir and Tzipi Livni, have ever served in top posts. Indeed, there is little to rejoice about a government that excludes the country's two main minority groups - Arabs and Haredim - and at the same time, it's good that Shas and United Torah Judaism have been left out.
The tragedy is that none of the mainstream parties have included Arab or Haredi members in leadership positions - at most they have been tokens. So why is a coalition without Haredi parties better? Because their very existence as religious parties controlled by rabbis has made it that much harder to make the necessary separation between religion and state. Here is where we could perhaps take a page out of the Catholic book.
Of course, the Jews as a nation were around much earlier, but as a political and religious establishment the Roman Catholic church is much older than the Rabbinical Jewry that came into its present framework only in the early 20th century as a reaction to Haskala ("Enlightenment" ), communism and Zionism. As such, the rabbis' experience of being part of a national government and having a say in its budget, defense and foreign affairs, is much too short to afford any perspective and nothing in Halakhic literature, not even the Maimonides' Laws of Kings (which Haredi rabbis don't normally study anyway ), prepares them to deal with affairs of state.
The Vatican, on the other hand, for the past 500 years, practically since Martin Luther erupted on the scene, has been going through a long and painful transition from an empire in which the pope commanded kings, vast territories and armies, to a tiny enclave which is careful not to intervene in the politics of any nation.
True, many priests still dabble in politics, including Archbishop Angelo Scola, the man who until this week many believed would be the new pope. Some are already saying in Rome that Scola lost the job because of his involvement with corruption-ridden right-wing conservative movements in northern Italy.
But as a whole, over the last century the consensus within the church has been that it should steer clear of party politics and focus on its social and religious roles. This trend will intensify under Pope Francis I, who as a priest in Argentina focused on social justice and tried to keep out of politics (some say too much ).
Religious (and secular ) Israelis of every stripe and hue must play their part in the country's leadership and their personal beliefs should help form their political positions, but the religious establishment is only harming itself and the country by playing the game. It took the Vatican half a millennium to understand this - let's hope the Jewish state can learn a bit faster than that.
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