I have written previously in this blog and in other media about my admiration for Pope Francis. It is not my place to comment either on Catholic theology or to expect that church doctrine will follow the priorities or positions I hold which I believe are reflective of Jewish values but I do believe that how the Pope presents religion in general and the values he chooses to espouse are critically important to the world in general.
I believe that this pope has identified and clearly expressed certain values which should be at the heart of all religions: less emphasis on amassing wealth and power and more emphasis on human interaction and concern for all. There are still, to be sure, trappings of the church and we may still have disagreements over certain positions taken by the church and the pope, but Pope Francis’ humility and concern should inspire us all.
Pope Francis’ trip to Israel and the West Bank this week raised a lot of eyebrows and concern to both Israelis and Palestinians. But many were significantly impressed. I, quite frankly, was moved by his recognition of the Palestinian people and their struggles and touched by his kindness and compassion to holocaust survivors and to the families of victims of terror. His quiet and gentle manner provided a much needed opportunity for a deep breath as the conflict continues without, apparently, hope for resolution.
But, it was his invitation to President Abbas and President Peres to come to the Vatican for prayer that touched me most deeply. That offer was accepted and I am optimistic that such a moment will take place. I do not believe that prayer will solve this crisis. It will take much more than quiet meditation to bring peace, security and justice to Israelis and Palestinians. But, it is important to note as Heschel wrote “that prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy to be saved”.
Perhaps the moment of prayer is just what our leaders need to remind them of what is at stake here. The author Yossi Klein Halevi is quoted in today’s New York Times as saying that: “what we’re missing around the negotiating table are chaplains…I’d like to replace some of the diplomats with genuine religious leaders, people who understand that this conflict is primarily about intangibles and not a line on a map”. The injection of a spiritual element to attempts to solve a political crisis is risky especially if it turns out to be nothing more than a photo opportunity. But, if there is any religious leader in the world today who could inspire a renewed effort at negotiations, I think it is Pope Francis and I admire him greatly for taking this step.
Today is Jerusalem Day, a day of celebration in many ways. It is a day when Jews were able to return to the Western Wall and to the Old City of Jerusalem and the border which ran through the city for 19 years was dismantled. It is a day of celebrating what has been called the “reunification” of Jerusalem.
I have written extensively in this blog of my love for the city of Jerusalem which I have been visited on 13 occasions and truly was privileged to call my home for an entire academic year. Jerusalem Day brings back many inspiring memories for me. But, as much as we celebrate the ability to return to holy sites closed to Jews for years and as much as we legitimately proclaim our people’s and our faith’s more than 2000 year old love affair with Jerusalem, it is difficult to celebrate Jerusalem Day today with a full heart. The city is not “unified”. As long as Palestinians are evicted from the homes in deference to Jewish settlers; as long as Palestinian neighborhoods are neglected while Jewish neighborhoods flourish and as long as the voices of racism and bigotry and violence are heard on both sides of the conflict, Jerusalem will not be the city of our dreams.
Whether the simple gesture offered by Pope Francis bears fruit or not, it is worth a try and I will pray along with him and those gathered around him for peace and coexistence in the holy city.