Benedict XVI and Me

As official Jewish spokespeople weigh in on the new Pope, I find their analysis comes up short for my tastes.

Most concentrated on his membership in Hitler Youth (forgivable- it wasn’t his choice; there has been no trace of antisemitism in his work since) and the specific content of some of the works touching on Jews under his imprimatur (some liked it, some had it coming up short). All were at least mildly pleased, relieved, I suspect, that the choice wasn’t someone from a part of the world where Jews don’t matter, and where Liberation theology holds sway. In those circles, people with power, like Americans – or people thought to have power, like Jews – are sometimes seen automatically as the cause of oppression.

As a traditional Jew, separated by an unbridgeable chasm of belief, I nonetheless feel a certain affinity for Joseph Ratzinger, and I more than suspect that it is reciprocated.

Seems to me that there are three kinds of religious attitudes towards “the other.”

Some people place their intuitive sense of the brotherhood of Man upon a pedestal, and demote any denominational teaching that gets in the way of their singing Kumbaya in Gregorian chant, or Yiddish, or whatever. Religious teaching is sacrificed for the higher good of universality, which then becomes a religion in its own right..

Another group would never think of compromising any part of their religious tradition, even if it means dissing the better part of humanity. These are not necessarily bad people, but they are quick to quash any strong intuitions of universal embrace, sacrificing them for the higher good of Revealed Rectitude.

Then there those who refuse to sacrifice either. They will not water down their religious principles, their strong conviction that the Word of G-d trumps all other arguments. But they are also resistant to sacrificing the voice within that they understand to be G-d given as well, that hearkens to the tzelem Elokim, the image of G-d that they find in all human beings.

Throughout his career, Joseph Ratzinger showed himself to be a member of this third group. I am far less concerned with how well he synthesized unflinching religious devotion with love of humankind than with the undeniable fact that he made the attempt.

I admire it, because most of my colleagues do the same. We may not fully succeed, but we try to emphasize to ourselves, our children, and our students the many sources within Torah that speak of our care and concern for others, as well as the Jewish dream for redemption of the entire world through the acceptance of the One G-d. We recall Rav Kook’s many affirmations of the widening circles of Divine Love – directed first at self, then family, then friends, community, nation, but eventually reaching all of mankind. We think of the reasoning of Maharal and Ramchal about the universality of Torah – even while declaring the specialness of the Chosen People.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a theological conservative, unwilling to let go of what he believed to be G-d given truth merely because social mores had changed. He nonetheless made a career of interpreting old teaching in a manner that upheld the religious dignity of others – Jews in particular. Even as guardian of the old, he could not give up his feeling and understanding that G-d cared deeply for others.

If we had to pick a passion to share, I can’t think of a better one.

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18 Responses

  1. DovBear says:

    Why do you admire somone who “refuses refuse to.. water down their religious principles,” when those principles (a)are wrong, and (b) have led to untold Jewish suffering.

    If you disagree with (b) you really must begin looking past JP II’s publicity stunts, and instead do some serious reading about the Church and its history.
    If you disagree with (a) how can you call yourself a truth-loving person? And, to be a bit blunter, how can you admire ovdei avoda zara, and call yourself a Jew? His principles are false. You shouldn’t be glad he’s adhering to them. You should be praying for the day he realizes his error.

    Fially, why do the Rabbis on this blog spend so much time and so much effort seeking to justify and rehabilitate Christianity. Why are you so intent on softening us up for Jesus?

  2. Yoinoson Schreiber says:

    So are you suggesting that the important thing is to cling on to tradition; being right is of little consequence?

    I think you are broadcasting a deep inconfidence in your own belief. You seem to be content with simply continuing within the tradition of your own belief system. If a Roman Catholic (an oivaid avoidah zarah!!)clings on to his belief system he is just as good.

    These are ideas that would be espoused in any Reform Temple. They do not have a place on a chareidi blog.

  3. manny says:

    I’d like to share a feeling and thought I had yesterday. Over talk radio, I heard one after another christian express his or her excitement over the entire phenomenon of the selection of the new pope. I felt a sense of sadness, of emptiness. At first, I didn’t understand why I should feel this way. I know intellectually that I really couldn’t care less about the whole selection; I don’t believe the cardinals were somehow inspired by a true ruach as an aid in their selection. Why was I sad? Why did I even care. Thren it dawned on me. The feeling that I heard expressed by the callers, that filled the airways and the newspapers, the excitement of it all is what we Jews SHOULD be feeling. But not, of course, over the selection of a pope. We should be feeling this excitement over the selection of a new Kohen Gadol, the appointment of an adam gadol to the Sanhedrin, the appointment of a new Nasi. Can you imagine the excitment felt by a simple yid 2000 years ago during such days? And how we now yearn for those feelins now! May they come again – bimheyra veyameynu!

  4. DovBear says:

    I have a suggestion. Why don’t you dedicate your next post to the president of the flat earth society? He also clings to a belief that, like Benedict’s belief in Jesus, is demonstratably false.

    After all, if I take your meaning, any very old belief is worth keeping, no matter how stupid it may be, and those who stubbornly cling to their falsehoods, in the face of all the evidence, deserve our praise.

  5. joel rich says:

    Without commenting on the general thrust of the piece (which sounds like one seeker acknowledging another without reference to the validity of the approach), might I ask Yoinoson and DovBear to check with their halachik authorities to see if it is true that the majority of ashkenazic poskim held catholics to be ovdei avodah zara? IIRC this is not the case.
    Joel Rich

  6. Max says:

    While I don’t know if I agree with the statements of DovBear and Yonosan, I share their spirit. We, the Jewish people have so many challenges in front of us, that are really worth discussing, why waste time and intellectual power on discussion of whether the selection of Pope is good for us or not. The heart of Pope as of any authority is in the hand of Hashem. We don’t know how long he will be in this world and what he will or will not do. What is the nafka minei? Our relationship with the world, other nations can not be in its ideal state, until we fix the problems in our own house. I enjoy the the thoughtful essays written on this blog by many including Rav Adlerstein, but let’s focus inward on matters that require our attention, and the matters where our choices can bear fruit. I would like to suggest some themes for the future essays in hope they would be addressed and debated:
    1) Furthering unity within Torah observant Jewry
    2) Living in Erets Yisroel vs. Diaspora
    3) Solving the problem of chronological poverty which plagues parts while maintaining high standards of Torah scholarship and observancee or Elevating standards of Torah scholarship and observance while preserving sound economic standards

    I am certain there are many other worthwhile topics.
    Hag Kosher v’Someyach!

  7. Hanan says:

    To Max:

    You speak as if this website has only been devoted to the topic of the Pope. You must be new here because there has been many discussions on topics that you bring forth. And regarding what you say here:

    “Our relationship with the world, other nations can not be in its ideal state, until we fix the problems in our own house.”

    “Our house” will always have problems, does that mean that we should just neglect our relationhip with the world. Who knows, maybe inhancing our relationships with the rest of the world will only improve our “own house”. Perhaps Jews that have left Judaism due to them feeling they must make a choice between living a Jewish Life or relating to the rest of world will come back. Who knows? We will always be focusing inwards on different mattters, thats what we do, but we shouldent ignore other topics as well. They are all infact worthwhile topics

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    First of all, Joel is right — there seems to be consensus that Catholics are not ovdei avoda zara. They are certainly far, far closer to our theology than either the ovdei akum of past millenia (and present-day Tibet), and liberal athiests. The “untold Jewish suffering” to which DovBear refers is not merely characteristic of Catholicism, but to Protestant Christianity, and Islam, and pagan Rulers whether Babylonian, Greek or Roman. And none of them, not one, managed to create an era as bloody as the one created by that pinnacle of modern, sophisticated, democratic, liberal life — Germany, circa 1940. Athiest Russia was hardly better, as it systematically destroyed both Jews and Judaism for decades.

    So you have two choices. Either you adopt the philosophy that there’s no such thing as an admirable trait in anyone who isn’t a Jew, or you recognize each individual for who he or she is and does. Mockery of the Pope is unwarranted, unjustified, undignified, and counter-productive. Leave it to others.

    It’s wonderful how traditional Jews are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” They are condemned for being too insular and not respecting non-Jews, and condemned for being too open and showing too much respect for non-Jews.

    The new Pope’s ability to be dedicated to his beliefs, yet attempt to “synthesize unflinching religious devotion with love of humankind” is not merely noble. It is worthy of emulation, even on the part of some of those contributing their comments…

  9. Hanan says:

    I dont believe that Dovbear can grasp the concept of finding admirable traits in anyone who isn’t Jewish. By definition, anyone who isn’t Jewish believes in falsehoods. Whether Christian, Bhuddist, Muslim or Athiest, it doesent matter, they are all the same, so why should we respect them for who they are or for what has been taught to them for centuries. For Dovbear its an easy solution. Put all non-Jews in a rocket and send them to mars. After all, God created Earth only for us Jews.

    And don’t use this argument:

    “and those who stubbornly cling to their falsehoods, in the face of all the evidence, deserve our praise.”

    We as Jews face the same “evidence” from critics everyday. Those same critics that argue against Christianity use the same ammo against Judaism. Its a weak argument for anyone that is faithful to his religion.

  10. Alvin Kimel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I thank you for this thoughtful and charitable posting on the new Pope.

  11. Elie says:

    I’d like to suggest withholding judgement for a bit. This new Pope’s predecessor moved the ‘mountain’ of Catholic institutional teaching and position quiet a bit forward, and away from its previous historical antisemitism. Far more than mere public relations, the previous Pope’s activities were commitments made good… the catechism of the church changed towards we Jews, and changed radically, as did relations between the Vatican and Israel, for example.

    The point is that Ratzinger was his predecessor’s right hand in many of the changes. It is quite possible to respect Catholic belief without endorsing it. There’s room for more dialogue, and reason for optimism.

    We traditional Jews have to work amongst ourselves against the easy shtetl mentality that served our European great-grandparents, recognizing that we live in a global village, where isolation is a dream. Our garden edges overlap and is in relation with the Catholic garden, and we must accept that we must tend our own plot with regard to the dignity and needs of the other, and of course demand the same for ourselves.

  12. Joel Rich says:

    So as you understand it, keepers of the 7 mitzvot of bnai noach believe in falsehood?
    Joel Rich

  13. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    It may be worthwhile to remember that as Jews we do not get to vote for the Pope, but merely to comment on whether or not we think he will lead Catholicism in a direction favorable to our people’s safety and mission. The former seems certain; the latter, when weighed against the alternative of hedonism and secularism seems certain, too.

  14. Yoinoson Schreiber says:

    ‘there seems to be consensus that Catholics are not ovdei avoda zara’ Yaakov Menken

    The Rambam paskens clearly that they are Ovdei Avodah Zorah. Many Rishonim agree. It is true that in ceratin areas we are ‘maikel’ but the Rishonim themselves struggle to understand why (study the first big tosfos on Daf 1 of Avoidah Zorah ), but on this blog u are going out of your way to heap praise on the head of a Christian Church. You are not being forced to do this. You could just ignore the topic. I think there is a concensus in Halocho that that would be ossur.

  15. DovBear says:

    I dont believe that Dovbear can grasp the concept of finding admirable traits in anyone who isn’t Jewish.

    Of course, I can find admirable traits in people who aren’t Jewish. I just don’t think they should be praised for traits that are not admirable, and that’s what YA did.

    He praised the pope for worshipping a man, and he praised the pope for clinging to a man-made theology, a theology that both reason and our own theology say is false.

    Why is it “admirable” to be in the grips of a man-made ideology that has been denoundced by our faith and disproven by reason? Why is it “admirable” to be a fool? (and if you’re a Jew, you must hold that Christian theology is both wrong and foolish) Only YA can say for sure.

  16. Hanan says:


    No I don’t believe its false, I was trying to be sarcastic. Sorry it was’nt more obvious 🙂

  17. We Jews live in the world, whether we like it or not. The reality is that G-d placed us here in order to have on influence on the people and the world around us. Certainly as religious Jews we must acknowledge, discuss and think about things that fall outside of what we are comfortable with. This is G-d’s world. G-d’s power is not limited to the “religious” subjects — it includes medicine, science, history, and politics as well. It’s well time that we remember that. Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for a thoughtful article.

  18. DovBear says:

    I wonder if Rabbi Adlerstein would be so ready to congratulate a Reform Rabbi who “refuse[d] to… water down their religious principles, their strong conviction that the Word of G-d trumps all other arguments” And what if that Reform Rabbi was “also resistant to sacrificing the voice within that they understand to be G-d given as well, that hearkens to the tzelem Elokim, the image of G-d that they find in all human beings” Would Rabbi Adlerstein take time to praise him?

    I sort of doubt it, but who knows?


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