On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayigash: Jewish-Catholic Relations: On Reconnecting

In Parashat Vayigash, Joseph, now a high-ranking Egyptian leader, finally reunites with the brothers who sold him into slavery. The moment where Joseph reveals himself has been a dramatic analog in the history of Jewish/Catholic relations. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs describes some major events in the history of Jewish/Catholic relations, and his own relationship with the Catholic Church. 

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches about Parashat Vayigash, and he wants to know how do you connect to your brothers and sisters in the most hopeful way?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayigash, the third of the Torah portions of the Joseph narrative. And this is the one with the big reveal. It's that moment. Remember, Joseph has been sold into slavery, carried off, has become this brilliant second-in-command only to Pharaoh, and has in a sense saved the region through his interpretation and enactment of policies from the Pharaoh's dreams. And now, his brothers have come down again from the land of Canaan because of the famine. And it's this very dramatic moment. They do not suspect that this man who's this powerful Egyptian is in fact their long-lost brother. They probably assume that he died and that they were responsible for that death. And so, in that moment, Joseph can't hold himself back any more and he says to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" In Hebrew, "Ani Yosef, ha'od avi chai?" Is my father still alive -- just longing to be connected not only to them, but to their father.

Now, this story and this reveal has a very dramatic analogue in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations. And I'm going to reflect a little bit in this podcast on the contours of that relationship, which at times have been basically horrific and at other moments, because of leadership, some of the pain and the hatred and institutionalized prejudice against Jews in Judaism have been healed by the courage of certain leaders. I am, of course, well aware that the Catholic Church has been undergoing a lot of both scrutiny and criticism about some of the scandals that have not been properly and fully addressed, so I'm well aware. But I still ask you to join me on this journey of discovery. And I'm thinking of one particular Pope, John XXIII, who I'm guessing that many of you, unless you're one of our older listeners don't remember his becoming pope in 1958. But when Popes become the leader of the Catholic world, they get to choose their name, and his name [at the] time was Angello Giuseppi Roncalli, and he chose John XXIII. But you should know that Giuseppi in Italian means Joseph. So here is this amazing frame that when the pope was welcoming a group of rabbis to the Vatican early in his papacy, he said, "I am Joseph." Identifying the exact biblical words in this story and also identifying himself as having in a sense been estranged, having been separated from, and the thought of that estrangement is only appreciated if you actually listen to the following litany.

Before John XXIII, there was-- there were many popes, but I'm particularly going to lift up Pope Pius X. Now remember Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He wanted to enlist Pope Pius's support for the project of finding the Jewish people a homeland, particularly to allow us to have a safe place that we could always go to. And here's what Pope Pius said to Theodore Herzl, he wrote it in his diary -- Herzl did, he said that the pope said: "We will not be able to recognize you, because you did not recognize our Lord. We will not be able to prevent Jews from returning to Palestine, but our clergy will be ready with holy water in order to baptize them all." He wanted no part of helping at a very dramatic moment for the Jewish people [to] find a safe place in their Biblical homeland. And that wasn't the only pope. Before Pope Pius -- let me just share with you some of the history of that leadership role and the Jewish people. So, Leo VII, a 10th Century pope, encouraged the newly elected Archbishop of Mainz, Germany to expel Jews who refuse to be baptized. Innocent III, a 13th Century Pope, mandated that Jews wear distinctive garb -- a forerunner of the ugly developments of the 20th Century, when Jews were compelled to wear, you remember, of course, the Star of David so they could be identified, harassed, and persecuted. Callixtus III, a 15th Century Pope revived harsh anti-Jewish legislation banning all communication between Christians and Jews. Paul III (*Ed: it was Pope Paul IV) In the 16th century confined Jews to a special court or ghetto in Rome and required them to wear distinctive gear. I think you get the idea, then, the history of Catholic-Jewish relations. Until John XXIII, we didn't have very many sympathetic, friendly, and, frankly, loving leaders to embrace.

But what John XXIII did was a revolution. In 1962, he convened a group of bishops of the Catholic Church and asked them to rethink the church's attitude towards Jews and Judaism. And it's the first time there is a declaration negating any claim that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus. And if somebody were thinking, "Really?" And the answer is yes, really. That had carried with our people, the pain, through the centuries that we were accused of having basically committed deicide, having killed Jesus of Nazareth. And out of the John XXIII revolution came this document Nostra Aetate, which declared that the rejection, [that] the Jews have been cast out of the church and by God, was not true. And it established the notion of the eternity of the Covenant, the brit between God and the Jewish people, and it included a firm condemnation of anti-Semitism. It's pretty remarkable. And yet after John XXIII, it didn't all go perfectly. In 1964, Pope Paul VI visited Israel. He never once referred to it by its name -- Israel. And he refused to meet with the Chief Rabbi, and he wouldn't go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. So, after John XXIII, everything didn't automatically get better.

But, then we had Pope John Paul II, who was an unbelievable friend of the Jews. In 1979, he prayed at Auschwitz, and in later years, asked forgiveness for Catholics who contributed to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust and Inquisition. In 1980, he affirmed not only God's continued covenant of Jewish people, but the ongoing vitality of Jewish faith. And in 1993, Pope John Paul II led the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. One of the most inspiring things is that when he visited Israel, he went to the Western Wall, and I always think that whatever you pray for and put in the wall should be private. But they wanted to share the text of what he put in the wall. And here's the prayer that John Paul II put in: he said, "God of our fathers you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant." It warms the heart. But it changes, frankly, Jewish history. And anti-Semitism had been built on much of the church's hatred and persecution.

The most positive note I'll say is that I was privileged in May of 2017 to have an audience with Pope Francis, and I think a pretty remarkable leader -- not without flaws, without criticisms. But we had a sit down, one-on-one, and I began. First, I brought him a gift -- you always should bring the Pope a gift, as my mother taught me. So, we brought him a wonderful copy of the Torah commentary, and I began the conversation saying, "We have a mutual mentor." And he looked at me and kind of was curious -- "Who that might be?" I said, "Rabbi Marshall Meyer, of blessed memory, was in Argentina not only leading the non-Orthodox Jewish community, but founding a seminary and being a justice advocate," and the pope lit up. The pope understood that I wasn't just saying a story, that Marshall Meyer was somebody that he knew and admired and learned from. And then we had a chance to share. The pope had convened a conference on migrants and refugees and asylum seekers, because he understood that being a religious leader means to address the hard and important issues facing the wider world, not just the Catholic Church. And during that time, I was so impressed by not only his thinking but his warmth, and his openness, and I imagine that he couldn't have been that way had it not been for Pope John Paul II, had it not been for John XXIII. And they changed the course of Catholic-Jewish history, that changed the course of Jewish history by rooting out the institutionalized prejudice and hatred of the Jewish people. It tells us, to me, the power of leadership to change directions to not only ask forgiveness, but to live out a noble forgiving way.

So, Joseph, he reveals himself to his brothers and they reconnect. John XXIII revealed himself to his brothers, and they were able to connect. And we have built a new relationship with the church and with so many of those who now lead the church. It is certainly a complex institution, as are we the Jewish people. But leadership matters, and leaders of courage, leaders of imagination, leaders of goodness, cannot only reshape little moments and private journeys. They can redirect the course of history. I would say John -- Pope John XXIII did that, John Paul II did that. I hope Pope Francis can continue to do that, and I hope that we'll be able to with all the things that we don't agree on, and that we're concerned about, we'll be able to forge a more hopeful and more integrated interfaith relationship with this large and historic church that we call the Catholic Church.

“Ani Yosef. Ha'od avi chai?” I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? Let us find the ways to say that in whatever way we can, and to in so doing, become reconnected with those with whom we not only are estranged, but maybe, actually have been in a very antagonistic and hurtful and very painful state. It happened. It can happen again. That's the Joseph story -- inspiring us to reconnect, to heal, and to lead.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did. You can find new episodes each week a tReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!