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Good Yom Tov to the Pontiff

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November 24, 2016 23:21

Pope Francis met the Chief Rabbi of Turkey in Istanbul last week. Hacham Bashi Isak Haleva is popular in the Turkish media for his ever-present, all-embracing smile and high spirits. At a time when Turkish Jewry feels insecure after recent extreme anti-Zionist comments by President Erdogan, the papal show of solidarity with Jews is of great significance to us all.

For the first time since Peter the Fisherman, 2,000 years ago, his successors have started coming back to the synagogue. The new, healing spirit in Catholic-Jewish relations is spectacularly shown by shul visits by the Pontiff, and other meetings with prominent Rabbis.

John Chrisostomum, father of the church and "saint," used to complain jealously about the beauty of synagogue services pulling in Christians in Constantiople, and causing his own flock to come closer to Jews. How times have changed! How many synagogues today make any effort to enhance our prayers with aesthetics? Many congregants come to synagogue under duress. Joan Rivers, though a proud Jewess, even expressed a fear of attending her own funeral - "I don't want some rabbi rambling on." She had a point. The Shulchan Aruch (code of religious law) tells us that if a congregation cannot afford both a cantor and rabbi, it should prioritise the cantor. Services must be made as attractive as possible, as they were in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Why, then, have Popes started coming to shul? Is it for the sumptuous Kiddush at the end of the service? No. They come to extend a brotherly hand - and we must grasp it with both of ours.

When the Pontiff joins the minyan, we give him a far warmer welcome than the shabby way we often do for our own, and we also attend to the beauty of the service.

John Paul II was outstandingly pro-Jewish and respectful of Jewish continuity, even refusing to baptise Jewish babies (a first in Ecclesiastical history for a Pope). Accompanied by his future successor, Benedict, John Paul came to the magnificent central shul in Rome, where Chief Rabbi Toaff so charmed him, that he was one of only three individuals expressly mentioned in the Pope's will. On that seminal occasion, John Paul addressed Jews as the "Older Brothers" of Christians. It established a happy precedent.

Benedict XVI, a distinguished theologian in his own right, came to shul in his native Germany in Cologne, not for the water (Eau de Cologne), but for the sweet wine of our shared heritage. Benedict is highly musical and a devoted pianist. The community wisely brought in a top class chazan, Israeli Chaim Adler, for which the Pope was thankful, declaring: "You sang straight into my heart." When the Pope crossed the Pond to the New World, he joined a service in Park East Shul, Manhattan, where Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a survivor of Kristallnacht and a doughty builder of bridges to the gentile world, is a moving orator. For he always focuses on the most important issues in life. On that occasion, Benedict recalled, "Jesus, as a young boy, heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this." It was on Pesach eve, making the rabbi's "Good Yom Tov, Pontiff" and his gift of a box of matzahs, most appropriate.

The Popes are showing us the way. They recognise that synagogues and ancient Jewish wisdom have much for us all. Indeed, our own souls are hungry for the challah - the spiritual bread - of the spirit. We can fill our pews, as in the days of John Chrisostomum, by making our services uplifting, with heroic chazanim, and relevant to today, with enlightened rabbinic rhetoric. We need more of both. As the Siddur prayer says: "Chadesh yameinu kekedem" (Restore our days like yesteryear).

November 24, 2016 23:21

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