The significance of holy gestures

The significance of holy gestures

Nearly all Jews and Catholics are aware that Pope Francis visited the State of Israel last week, on May 25 and May 26.

The visit was brief – a mere 28 hours in Israel proper – and short on substantive discussion. Many Jews culturally attuned to the written and spoken word have interpreted the visit’s brevity and its absence of groundbreaking statements as indications of the visit’s minimal importance. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In the realm of the spirit and the sphere of human relations, gestures often speak more loudly than verbiage, and on this visit Francis proved a master of grand gestures, ones that will cast strategic influence on the church, the Jewish state, and Jewish-Catholic relations. Against the background of the long, tortured history of Jewish-Catholic relations, Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, so rich in symbolism, was of momentous importance.

Most significant was Francis’ visit to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and the Jewish state. Only 110 years ago, the naïve Herzl went to the Vatican to enlist support for his idea of a Jewish state from Pope Pius X. Herzl recorded in his diary that Pius rebuked him harshly, rejecting out of hand any legitimacy of a Jewish return to Zion:

“It is not in our power to prevent you to go to Jerusalem, but we will never give our support. As the head of the Church, I cannot give you any other answer. The Jews do not recognize our Lord, hence we cannot recognize the Jewish people. So when you come to Palestine, we will be there to baptize all of you.”

Thus, when Francis paid tribute to Herzl by laying a wreath on his grave on May 26, this act was suffused with historical and theological meaning. In doing so, Francis was explicitly reversing the almost 1,900-year-old Christian theology that denied the validity of the Jews’ place in history after the advent of Christianity and the continuing living covenant between the Jewish people and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

While the church and Israel established diplomatic relations some 20 years ago, Francis’ gesture last week told all the world loudly that the church finally has come to terms with the fact that Jews have come home to the land that God promised them in the distant mists of biblical history, that Israel is here to stay, and that the church acknowledges that the Jewish state is a sacred desideratum. No longer can a faithful Catholic reject Zionism and the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

The pope also chose to be photographed in the Palestinian territories, next to the security barrier. As a head of state and an international moral figure, he understood the obligation to call attention to the plight of the Palestinians. Only hard ideologues far removed from the reality of the conflict could think that the pope would tell the world about Jewish legitimacy while ignoring the hopes and welfare of the Palestinians. He consistently preached the message of peace and compromise during his trip, because he knows that Palestinian interests must be acknowledged for peace to have any chance.

We also should not lose sight of the important fact that Francis chose to make this trip to the Holy Land his first official visit beyond the walls of the Vatican, before America or even his beloved home, Argentina. Moreover, Francis is the third consecutive pope (after John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009) to visit Israel. In Jewish tradition, performing an act three times creates a presumption (hazakah) of permanence and regularity. While the Vatican is not bound to this Jewish legal construct, I suspect that any future pope will be expected to follow in the footsteps of his three predecessors by visiting the Jewish state. Should he choose not do so, he will need to explain that decision to both the Catholic world and the Jewish people.

I was honored to be part of the rabbinic delegation that greeted Francis in Heichal Shlomo on the morning of Monday, May 26. While the pope’s itinerary was tightly scripted and carefully controlled, he nevertheless arrived late at Heichal Shlomo. It seems that he chose to linger a moment longer during his previous stop at Yad Vashem, even kissing the hands of Holocaust survivors he met there. It is hard to overestimate how touched to the core Jews were by the image of the head of the church – who is considered royalty – bending in humility to kiss the hands of those elderly Jews who survived the unspeakable tortures of the Shoah. This was not the Ecclesia Triumphant of the past, but a very human church humbly extending compassion and empathy to those Jews who were the true suffering servants of history.

We should not misunderstand Francis’ homage to the Shoah at Yad Vashem. As the pope’s dear friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, intimated last week, in our relations with the 1.2 billion members of Christendom, Jews should learn to focus more on the future than on our tragic past. I can testify personally that Jewish-Catholic dialogue at its highest levels is turning more toward meeting the common challenges that the future poses to each community, rather than reviewing our painful and tragic past, which cannot be reversed. While continuing to revere our ancestors and their historical experiences, our primary religious duty today is to build a world together that is safe for our children and grandchildren.

It was therefore no accident that Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, which contains the names of hundreds of innocent Israeli citizens killed by Arab attacks. Although these horrific terrorist acts occurred in the past, it is religious intolerance, terror, and intolerant exclusivism that constitute the real common threats to both Jews and Christians alike, both today and in the future. Recognizing and fighting this violent extremism are tasks that the church and the Jewish people must perform to make the future safer for our two communities and for the entire human family. By doing this together, we create a place in the world for the God of Israel to enter.