Published in The Jerusalem Post on April 2, 2000
You have to ask yourself why everybody got *so* excited about the Pope’s appearances and speeches during his visit to Israel.
The answer goes beyond the accurate assertion that this Pope has driven a dramatic, revolutionary sea-change in Church attitudes to Jews and Israel. The drama of inter-faith reconciliation does not sufficiently explain the exulting, emotional media coverage.
I can’t remember another moment in our history – not even in 1977 when Anwar Sadat made the historic first visit to Jerusalem by an Arab leader — when the usually-very-jaded correspondents of Israel Radio have been so overcome with awe.
At the Western Wall, at Yad Vashem, at Mass in the Galilee and even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, these seasoned reporters couldn’t stop blabbering into the microphone with wonder at just how “emotional”, “thrilling”, “exciting”, “electrifying”, “rousing”, “exhilarating”, “overwhelming”, “astounding”, and again “exciting” the Pope’s appearances were.
Israel Television – that bastion of cynicism and endless snide about religion –deferentially ran promotional adverts for a whole week about “the Religious Pilgrimage” to “the Holy Land” and to “the Promised Land”; about the “Holy Pontiff”, “His Holiness”, and other “holy”, “holy”, “holy” things.
Prior to the visit to Israel of Jesus Christ’s official representative I don’t think Israel Television *ever* before had referred to the Land of Israel as “the Holy Land”! Certainly not when Gush Emunim was promoting the concept.
A Filipino pilgrim mumbling about Mother Mary and Jesus while shedding tears for joy at the sight of her Pontiff kissing a holy stone was treated by Haim Yavin on Israel TV with the utmost of enlightened respect and admiration, even affection. (You know Yavin’s famous faces). I’m quite sure, however, that a head-covered Sephardic woman praying and crying for G-d’s mercy at the grave of a *tzaddik* in the Galilee would most likely be portrayed by Israel TV as primitive and unenlightened.
So why this obeisance for the Pope and Christian religious fervor?
To me, the reverent treatment of the Pope is proof that deep down in our psyche we Israelis also yearn for enlightened, compassionate spiritual guidance. We seek a pastor – gulp, like John Paul II! – who in a profound way combines a kind-hearted and up-lifting worldview with deep (even conservative) religious faith.
Why don’t we embrace Jewish religious faith and knowledge with the same excitement and self-esteem that we impute to our Christian visitors? Undoubtedly, part of the explanation lies in the poverty of Jewish knowledge that has become the lot of most Israelis.
Eminently at fault is the fact that too many of our Jewish religious leaders are more proficient in nastiness, condescension and the radiation of rancor than they are masters of brotherly love or the articulation of faith in terms relevant to the modern world. We have rabbis who are big experts at lashing-out, instead of reaching-out.
Take Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for example. This authentic Torah giant has bound his sharp tongue to the political fortunes of Shas and descended to street-level mudslinging. Rabbi Yosef has covered the gamut, from his nasty remark that the acronym “Mafdal” (the NRP) stands for “fools who believe anything”; to his aside about Netanyahu being “a blind sheep”; to his appendage of the term “nidda rapists” to Supreme Court justices; to the labeling of Yossi Sarid as the super-evil Amalek. Can you imagine John Paul II speaking this way?
My comparison of the Pontiff to Rav Ovadia is not accidental. Shas supporters made clear this week that they view their leader as infallible, like the Pope. “*Maran* is above the law”, barked Shas parliamentarians after the Attorney General ordered a police investigation into his Amalek remarks. “Rav Ovadia is the holiest thing the Jewish people ever have had in their entire history!”, idiotically gushed an over-heated Yitzhak Sudri, Shas Party spokesman.
To question Rabbi Yosef, you see, is tantamount to challenging God himself, according to the Shasniks. This is *emunat hahamim* (faith in the sages) taken to an absurd, obscene, non-Jewish extreme.
How about apologizing? Theological restraints and all, the infallible Chief Christian repeatedly begged forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews. Rabbi Yosef, however, is never sorry for any of his intemperate remarks. He can talk about having his enemies killed (although he doesn’t really want anybody “but God” to do it), yet feel no need to retract anything.
Listening to choleric Shas rabbis like Moshe Maya (“Elyakim Rubinstein is an anti-God blasphemer who should be excommunicated”) is a course in hostility and disdain for anybody who is different, scorn for democratic institutions, and an insufferable overflow of self-righteousness.
It should not be so. Ancient Jewish tradition — Orthodox thinking — laid the foundations for the principles of democracy, for equality and freedom, for the importance of individual autonomy, for tolerance, even for pluralism. Respect, civility, moderation and restraint all are *halachic* concepts.
Instead, Shas is propagating an angry, belligerent and intolerant religion at war with rest of Israeli society and the world. And you wonder why some Israelis fell over themselves in delight with the Pope?