A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Mezuzah: A Story of Interfaith Friendship
I was saddened to hear the news this week of the passing of Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame. There will continue to be numerous tributes written, stories recounted of the many lives he touched, and recollections made of the wonderful accomplishments he achieved in his lifetime. Yet, as I think back to my several meetings with him, I remember one special occasion that is probably not well known.
My late husband, Rabbi Michael Signer, came to the University of Notre Dame in 1993 as the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture. Although a medievalist, he taught Jewish text and was very involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Upon my husband’s arrival at the university, Father Hesburgh invited Michael up to his library office to welcome him. They spent an hour discussing world politics, Nostra aetate, and Michael’s role at the university as a Jewish presence on campus. Father Hesburgh was very proud that a Catholic University was open to having a voice of another faith in the rheology department.
Their friendship and discussions continued throughout the years and helped in Michael’s formulation of Dabru Emet. Written in 2000, Dabru Emet is a statement about the relationship of Jews and Christians. The title was taken from Zechariah 8:16 and means "speak the truth." Father Hesburgh was a courageous man who always spoke the truth for all humanity, rich and poor, white or of color, and for all religions.
One day, when Michael was paying a visit to Father Ted, as he was known, he was asked if he would perform a rabbinical function and do the honor of putting up a mezuzah on the chapel door. Michael felt very privileged to be asked, but he was also a bit bemused.
Why did Father Ted have a mezuzah, and why did he want to affix it to his door? As it turned out, he was close friends with Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem (1965-1993), who had given him the mezuzah as a gift. He said he was waiting for the right person to be able to hang it.
Michael, humbled by this honor, told Father Ted that he was quite qualified to do the prayers - but not to count on him to nail the mezuzah straight on the door. Luckily, someone with better hand/eye coordination was on call to do that part.
The day of the service, about 10 people – myself included – were invited to witness the hanging of the mezuzah. Michael recited the prayers, gave a special blessing to Father Ted for his health and continued work, and then hung the mezuzah (or rather, called upon someone else to do the last part). Afterward, we were all invited for cookies, tea, and sweet wine, and then Father Hesburgh took us into the chapel, where he showed Michael that the liturgical reading for the day was Deuteronomy 11-20: “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates,” one of the verses typically inscribed on the kosher parchment scroll inside mezuzot. They hugged and enjoyed the moment, a true coming together of different traditions with respect, understanding, and affection.
May they both now rest in peace continuing with their Jewish-Christian discussions. As we come upon the anniversary of Nosta aetate, this memory is a reminder that dialogue and friendship lead to greater understanding and respect of others.
Betty Signer is the coordinator of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project (1996-2011) and a long-time member of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action and a member of Temple Beth-El in South Bend, IN. She serves on the board of the Jewish Women’s Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley.