By Michael Schudrich
Chief Rabbi of Poland
I am just back from giving a lecture honoring Pope John Paul II, at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. I delivered my lecture in the same hall where John Paul, the student, attended classes. What a humbling, and particularly relevant experience…
But what do I know about Popes and Catholicism? I was born in New York in 1955; my father was a Rabbi. My first clear memory of anything Christian was one Shabbat morning when I was seven. On the way synagogue, I saw large black banners hanging on a nearby church. My Father explained that a great man called Pope John XXIII had died, and that he had done many great things. I remember understanding, for the first time, that goodness and greatness existed outside of my group. A crucial lesson for a child.
By 1979 I was in Rabbinical school, studying at a university in Poland that summer. I remember my surprise seeing a photo of Pope John Paul II hanging in a Jewish friend’s home in Warsaw. By 1990, I was working in Warsaw full time and heard many stories about the Pope’s lifelong dedication to learning from others.
John Paul profoundly explained: “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.” Christianity’s unique relationship with Judaism creates special responsibilities — an essential lesson for Christians. But it’s a lesson for us Jews, too, who have learned from bitter historical experience to close our doors to the outside.
Pope John Paul understood the Jewish concept of “the other”. When one is well rooted in one’s own tradition, then one only benefits by studying and experiencing other religious traditions. The more one is open, the more one enriches his or her belief and gains greater respect and appreciation for “the other”.
Pope John Paul II understood that all are created in God’s image — he could talk to kings and presidents, children and the common person. He was both the Pope and a true shepherd. I remember the one time in my life that I had the honor to speak privately to him. It was during the tenth anniversary of the Day of Judaism, a Vatican celebration. I remember how he held my hand, my hand in his hand, communicating far more in that human touch than can be transmitted through language that is inherently limited. How much I learned from that experience.
The end of Pope John Paul’s life was a very difficult time in Poland. The funeral was on a Friday. My synagogue in Warsaw announced a memorial prayer for the Pope at the start of Shabbat. As I approached the synagogue, I was shocked.
The line of those waiting to get inside the synagogue was huge. Over 1,000 people attended — a few hundred were local Polish Jews and the rest were Polish Catholics. Just think – hundreds of Catholics accepting that it was normal to share prayer for the Pope in a synagogue in Poland! In one clear moment, I saw before my eyes how Pope John Paul II had changed the world. How so much of what he practiced during his own life had truly inspired others to act similarly. For me, this is the ultimate tribute to the teachings and life of Pope John Paul II.
The recent Bishop controversy serves to underscore the need to be open to “the other” and to continue John Paul’s interreligious work. We have learned in the past two months that there will be difficult periods in our relationship, but it is thanks to the last 40 years of dialogue and debate that we can productively face these complex times and continue to move forward, in deeper dialogue with all faiths.
As a Jew and as a Rabbi, I have learned from Pope John Paul II that the more I am open to other religions, the better Jew I become and the more I am able to fulfill the teachings of the Talmud. Furthermore, when I close myself off from the outside world, I limit my access to rays of light, truth, and wisdom. This philosophy so changed my view of the world, of my God and of myself, that all I can say is thank you, Pope John Paul II for teaching me how to become a better person and a better Jew. Thank you.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich has been Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004. His recent keynote address at Angelicum, in Rome, is part of the 2nd Annual Pope John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding , sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation of Teaneck, NJ, a leading foundation with a focus on Jewish identity, religious pluralism, and interreligious dialogue.