Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pope in Israel -- Continued

Limits of interfaith


Perhaps we expect too much of priests, rabbis and imams. We want our clergy to be spiritual beacons, above the temporal fray; and to be politically savvy. Alas, on this earth there is no unscrambling politics and religion. And this inevitable mingling of the holy and the profane sometimes leaves us dismayed that those who claim a deeper understanding of the Creator's will should behave parochially.

Still, man is a political animal and in his image did he create religion.

At Yad Vashem on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke mostly as a theologian - which left many Jews wanting. Granted, the German-born pontiff expressed opposition to Holocaust denial: "May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled, or forgotten!" Yet his pledge on arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport to "honor the memory of the six million" would have been better fulfilled had he referenced the relationship between the Church's age-old "teaching of contempt" and what the Nazis did.

It was a stark contrast to the March 2000 visit by the charismatic John Paul II, who found a way, politically, to combine personal testimony with the Catholic attestation: "The Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."

At the Western Wall on Tuesday, Benedict's decision to speak briefly in Latin in theological vein, citing the Book of Lamentations, seemed eminently sensible. Moments earlier, on the Temple Mount, visiting what the Holy See diplomatically referred to as "Mosques Square," he also delivered an altogether apolitical, mildly theological statement about the children of Abraham.

Only at Hechal Shlomo, where his Orthodox audience received his denunciation of moral relativism with silent approval, did the pope manage the right combination of politics and religion, saying: "The Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to the path chosen at the Second Vatican Council."

We found ourselves feeling oddly positive about the Chief Rabbinate yesterday.

Politically and theologically, the Jewish world speaks to the Church in three ways - via world Jewish bodies; via biannual meetings between the chief rabbinate and the Vatican; and via the Israel Foreign Ministry. Hechal Shlomo united all three channels. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and his Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Yona Metzger acquitted themselves well - they could have been mistaken for the national religious chief rabbis of old. Their performances almost justified their annual budget.

And yet, to Palestinian Arab ears, their remarks must have sounded politically loaded.

WITH HIS vitriolic Monday night performance at Notre Dame, the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, embodied the most awful combination of politics and religion.

Tamimi stole the podium to deliver a harangue bereft of spirituality and drenched in the politically profane. Remember that Tamimi represents - not Hamas, but the moderate side of Palestinian religiosity. His Christian compatriots, no more moderate, waved PLO flags at yesterday's papal mass in the Kidron Valley, amid a sea of Vatican and Israeli flags. And if you missed the Palestinian Authority's apology for Tamimi's theatrics, so did we. The dirty little secret about interfaith work is that it's invariably spearheaded by non-Muslims.

The pope, visibly discomfited by Tamimi's tirade - though he didn't understand it - left earlier than scheduled, after a forced handshake with the Muslim cleric. Dozens of Arabs in the interfaith audience applauded the sheikh's anti-Israel calumnies.

The Vatican, to its credit, criticized Tamimi for this "direct negation of what a dialogue should be." To that, amen.

Tamimi will be delighted to learn that the Protestant World Council of Churches is planning its own week-long blitz in June: agitation against the "occupation," "settlements" and Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Fortunately, WCC-affiliated churches are in decline, whereas evangelical denominations displaying profound empathy with the Jewish state are thriving.

Since there is no separating politics from religion, the best we can strive for is that the spiritual in religion informs our politics more than the worst in our politics informs our religion.

Pray we have the wisdom to know the difference.

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