Witnesses of this performance could only have hoped and prayed that the translator leaning over the pontiff’s shoulder was wise enough to realize what was going on. If not for our sakes, then at least for the sake of civility. One could only hope that he took care to translate selectively, not every exact word, not everything that was said.
As was widely publicized, the pope was joined on this tour by his close friend, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka, a Conservative rabbi who heads the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. In order to overcome the awkward situation (a Conservative rabbi in the hallowed halls of the Chief Rabbinate!) and create an acceptable balance, another rabbi was invited, Rabbi Yitzhak Saka, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served in Buenos Aires when the pope was the cardinal there.
When the master of ceremonies introduced the guests, he inadvertently omitted – purely by mistake, of course – the title "rabbi" when announcing Rabbi Skorka’s name, an omission he was naturally very careful not to make when presenting Rabbi Yitzhak Saka. In this way, the chief rabbis could nod their heads in satisfaction that they had not shown respect to a Conservative rabbi, God forbid.
Let’s, however, put aside such trivial matters and look at the main issue – the speeches made by the chief rabbis. Now there is respect. The MC called "His honor, the chief rabbi of Israel, the Rishon LeZion and president of the High Rabbinical Court, the rabbi, the gaon (gifted person), Yitzhak Yosef, Shlita (may he live a good long life, Amen)!"
His honor the rabbi walked ceremoniously to the podium, greeted the pope laconically ("Your grace, the pope" – nothing more), and then turned to munificently welcome the rabbi serving alongside him: "His honor, my esteemed colleague, the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, Shlita."
After that he acknowledged "the esteemed rabbis, members of the Chief Rabbinate Council; his honor, the minister of religious affairs and his deputy minister; honored guests, each according to their distinction and rank…"
It must be understood that greetings of this sort are like codes. The rabbi was codifying his thoughts about the guest to the assembled rabbis: The goy dressed in his white robe doesn’t really impress me; he is, after all, a goy.
Freedom of religion? Not for Jews
Let’s leave aside the greetings and take a look at the speech. Well, it wasn’t exactly a speech; it was more of a sermon, an off-the-cuff sermon.
"What is written in the Ten Commandments? Let us take a closer look…" the rabbi began and told his guest about the Commandments. He went on to recount the midrash about Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, who bought a donkey ("once the donkey was like a Volvo, a first-class means of conveyance…") and when he found that the donkey had a precious stone hidden in it, he returned it to the animal’s non-Jewish former owner, who was so amazed by this act of righteousness that he accepted the Lord and blessed him.
"Among the Jewish people," the rabbi explained to the pope, “there is no separation! Where there is fear of God there is respect between man and his fellow man!"
It is common practice to greet a guest, to mention his good qualities, his deeds. Not in this case. The Rabbi ended his sermon with one lone reference to his guest: "I commend the pope’s words of condemnation about what occurred yesterday in Brussels. The Church should always denounce acts of terror and violence against innocent people."
After Rabbi Yosef concluded his address, "His honor, the gaon, president of the Chief Rabbinate Council, Rabbi David Lau, Shlita" was called to the podium. Rabbi Lau did not bat an eye when he opened his remarks by addressing his esteemed colleague rather than showing respect to his guest: "His honor, my esteemed colleague, the gaon, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Shlita, the Rishon LeZion."
Only after that did he acknowledge "our honored guest, his eminence, the pope," and then immediately turned to "my colleagues of the Chief Rabbinate Council and, above all, my father and teacher, Shlita…"
He went on to list more and more people, until everyone’s name was mentioned; well, not quite everyone. The clerical leadership present in the hall – the senior Church officials who were accompanying the pope – were not recognized even once by name or by position; pure arrogance cloaked in clearly understood codes by the initiated few.
Rabbi Lau also sought to teach the guest how good we are: "You came to Israel today and witnessed freedom of religion. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are able to follow their beliefs because we are concerned about each and every being created by the Creator of the Universe."
Unbelievable! Of all the things to say, Lau chose to speak about freedom of religion. He just forgot to mention that Jews don’t enjoy this freedom. Like his predecessor, he did not speak about the guest, and only thanked him for his "important outcry against anti-Semitism." He didn’t say one word about the "price tag" graffiti ("Jesus is a monkey"), or about the spitting incidents experienced by Christian clerics on a daily basis in Jerusalem.
What an historic blunder. What provincialism. This meeting could have brought us to new heights of conciliation and brotherhood, given our long history with Christianity. Jews have been humiliated and condemned to the stake for hundreds of years in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Yet the pope comes to Jerusalem, prays at the Western Well, visits Mount Herzl, and even goes to the seat of the Chief Rabbinate to pay his respects to the chief rabbis, in their official residence, and they respond to him with hypocritical, scornful, artificial sophistication.
Surprising? Perhaps not. By the way, "Shlita" is an acronym for "he should enjoy a long and good life." What would it have cost them to bestow just one "Shlita" to their guest?
Yizhar Hess is the director of the Masorti Movement.