We Jews have every reason to be pleased with the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul II was the best pope in history as far as Catholic-Jewish relations are concerned; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger played an important role in building that legacy, and as pope can be expected to carry it on.
Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Tuesday that the new pontiff is “our most serious partner in the Catholic Church, and he has been for the last 26 years,” crediting him as a key force behind the Vatican’s recognition of Israel in 1993 and John Paul II’s atonement at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000 — an act that affirmed the validity of a uniquely Jewish method of communication with God, placing a written prayer in a crack of the wall. “I believe that he is the man who created the theological underpinnings for the good relations between Catholics and Jews during the last papacy,” said Singer of Ratzinger. “He writes what’s kosher and what’s not kosher for Catholics. He said, ‘Not only is it kosher to like Jews, but it’s kosher to like the state of Israel.'”
But some people can’t be satisfied. Michael Lerner, the San Francisco Rabbi who edits the lefty Jewish bimonthly Tikkun, greeted the “Habemus Papam” announcement with an unhinged rant on the tikkun.org website, declaring that “The New Pope is a Disaster for the World and for the Jews.”
Throughout, Lerner pretends to speak for all Jews. He writes that “Jews have a powerful stake and commitment in ending global poverty and oppression,” as if we all agreed that his prescriptions could accomplish that, and that “it was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past twenty-five years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa,” as if we all ascribed to Rome such mystical powers over a continent filled not only with Catholics but with Protestants, Muslims, and animists. If Lerner means “leftists,” he oughtn’t write “Jews.”
This pope has been a menace to the world since “the days in which he served in the Nazi army,” according to Lerner, who is mangling the facts. Ratzinger wasn’t an SS officer, he was a conscript in the regular German Army — and he deserted. Yes, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, as was compulsory at the time, and like most Germans he did little to resist Nazism. But no less vigilant (some would say alarmist) an observer of gentiles’ attitudes toward Jews as Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman has noted that Ratzinger has “never denied the past, never hid it. His whole life has been atonement for those few years. His whole life is an open book of sensitivity against bigotry and anti-Semitism.” On the Church’s behavior during the Holocaust, Lerner claims that “Ratzinger has sought to whitewash this disgraceful moment in Church history.” Not true. Ratzinger strongly condemned Christian complicity in the Holocaust head on in a 2000 column for L’Osservatore Romano: “It cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians,” he wrote.
It’s easy to see why a liberal Catholic would object to Benedict XVI for “his role as the leader of the forces that suppressed the liberatory aspects of Vatican II,” as Lerner puts it. But why on Earth is a rabbi inserting himself into doctrinal disputes among Catholics? No rearrangement of the details changes the fundamentals, after all. As Jews, we believe that Christians worship a false Messiah. We usually don’t put it like that, just as Christians don’t normally make a habit of instructing us on what sort of postmortem nastiness they believe we have in store. But we all know the score, don’t we?
Perhaps not. Lerner seems to think Jews should be deeply worried that the Pope believes exclusively in Christianity — that he “publicly critiques all those inside the Church who are tolerant enough to think that other religions may have equal validity as a path to God.” This, in Lerner’s mind, is “a slippery slope toward anti-Semitism and a return to the chauvinistic and triumphalist views that led the Church, when it had the power to do so, to develop its infamous crusades and inquisitions.” Lerner goes on to denounce Ratzinger’s views on Hinduism and Buddhism (i.e., that Catholicism is better than either of them).
One might be tempted to ask who’s on the slippery slope toward anti-Semitism here. The fear that attempting to convert gentiles to Judaism would provoke an anti-Semitic backlash, after all, is a primary reason for Jews’ traditional reluctance to proselytize. And yet here’s Rabbi Lerner, proselytizing not merely for Judaism but for everything and nothing. Indeed, the ecumenical leftism he seems to be advocating has little to do with Judaism per se at all.
Lerner rightly blasted his own comrades when they banned him from speaking at an antiwar rally two years ago for the crime of believing that Israel has a right to exist. There, on the fringe of the Left, is the place to watch out for the ugly head of Jew-hatred to be reared. From the philo-Semitic Pope Benedict XVI, we have no such thing to fear.