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While the selection of a new pope is the selection of the leader of the Catholic Church, the newly instated Pope Francis of Argentina, is also a world leader whose decisions may have implications far beyond the bounds of the church itself. Even more, in a world where meaning and holiness have become so difficult to recognize, we all look to our leaders hoping to find inspiration and hope. We look for a pope who will symbolize the best of what is possible in a world leader. Indeed, for those of us who are committed to any religious tradition, we know that for many unconvinced of the righteousness or plausibility of belief, the pope may reflect on belief itself.
I am encouraged to learn that the Catholic Church’s new pope, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, displayed honorable solidarity with the Jewish people following the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in 1994. In that moment, he certainly demonstrated the essential qualities of compassion and worldliness, both of which are desperately needed in today’s spiritual leaders. I only pray that Pope Francis finds within himself the courage and wisdom to extend such compassion and sense throughout all of his decisions as leader of over 1.2 billion of our Catholic neighbors.
We Jews have never had religious leaders quite in the mold of the pope. We have had, however, a priesthood in our ancient Israelite days. Chief among those priests was the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, of whom Aaron the brother of Moses was the first. Not unlike the pope, the high priest was an exalted figure. The Torah describes his officiating at the most sacred of functions, dressed in divinely-prescribed garments, wearing a special diadem upon which the words, ‘holy to God’ were inscribed. Our ancient rabbis teach us that, even more than Moses himself, Aaron merited the high priesthood because he had a unique gift of compassion.
Our rabbis say that Aaron was “A lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, a lover of all God’s creatures, bringing them close to Torah.” Our ancient midrashic tradition of rabbinic stories are replete with accounts of Aaron-the-peacemaker. He would go to extraordinary lengths in the service of bringing people together, of healing enmity. While Moses might rail angrily against the Israelites for their disobedience, it was Aaron who would be still with them, present with them, patient with them. When Moses and Aaron died, it was for Aaron whom the Israelites mourned the longest, so beloved was he to all the people.
There is a special lesson in the Israelite high priesthood for a new pope. Holiness is best expressed through peace and compassion. The ancient Israelite tabernacle, like the Vatican itself, was a place of strictly prescribed rules and rituals. The priests and Levites who served there strove to obey divine will. Yet the leader of this cohort dedicated to God, where the service of God was each man’s vocation, was distinguished by kindness. Aaron knew all too well the danger of straying from God’s instruction, yet compassion was his defining trait. The highest Israelite office could only be held by one who knew that human relationships were the highest good, the purest source of holiness.
Through the centuries, the rabbis extended this wisdom to all aspects of Jewish laws and rituals. Every rabbinic generation engaged in conversation on how to ensure that our sacred rules best served human beings in bringing them close to God. The ever-present danger was always the threat of the rules themselves becoming a burden, beyond the ability and understanding of the people to live out in their lives. In a sense, religious leadership requires the guiding compassionate spirit of Aaron above all else in order to ensure that religion is living, breathing, dynamic, evolving and caring. The scope and power of today’s church make the compassionate spirit of Aaron all the more necessary in a new pope. Complex institutions, with thousands of employees and policies and budgets and bureaucracy demand that every task, every meeting, every decision must be handled with the utmost awareness of the sanctity of human relationships and the paramount importance of compassionate action. There can be no mundane decisions.
Today’s Catholic world needs a pope who knows, more than anything else, that what matters to such a powerful church is the people it serves, the relationships it builds, so much more than the protection of priestly orders and institutional prerogatives. It needs a new pope who is willing to engage in open conversation about the nature of the priesthood and institutionalized hierarchies–acknowledging the blessings they bring along with their deeply flawed problems. It needs a new pope with a vision of a church with a willingness at times even to question the traditions and institutional patterns of the church that no longer serve its essential holiness. It needs a pope willing to consciously evolve the church in a direction of greater compassion. The Catholic Church is already a source of so much blessing and compassion and goodness to countless lives. May Pope Francis place this strength of the church above all others, loving and pursuing peace, loving all beings, and bringing them close to God.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.