Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
From the middle to the end of last week, I was having conversations about Pope Francis’ speeches each and every day with my congregants. A great many of them were attentively listening to each of his major presentations – to the joint session of congress, at the United Nations, and at the 9/11 memorial. I, too, was drawn in by the pope’s message. Why are Jews, and people of all faiths and no faith so tuned in to the pope’s message? Here are four reasons:
1. We want a faith that has real consequence for the kind of world we create together. This year, the focus of my High Holy Day sermons was the question of our purpose. What are we here for? Had Pope Francis delivered his sermons just a few days earlier there would have been no need for most of what I wrote to deliver on Yom Kippur. He said so much that responded to this question. We are called upon to make choices, develop policies, provide assistance, to raise up those in poverty and those whose basic needs have not been met – to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, provide shelter for the refugee. Whether through a call for moral action or a call for political leadership, we respond to those who can set out a clear vision of what we are called to and how we can live a life of consequence.
2. His face exudes a genuine warmth and presence of engagement with those he meets. We all know people who light up others by their simple and graceful presence. Pope Francis is one of those people. He expresses a kindness that is immediately felt and touches something in people that opens them up. This is what holiness feels like. These are spiritual experiences.
3. He appears to us as a model of someone who is walking his talk. We’ve heard of the pope’s choices with regard to his residence, his car, his decision to spend time feeding the poor rather than attending a state dinner. We feel admiration for someone who appears to consistently live his values and is making conscious choices at each opportunity to choose something good and something higher that is of service to others. This is a kind of mindful living and leadership that so many of us aspire to in our lives but, if we are honest with ourselves, we often fail to live up to.
4. Even when we hear things that we disagree with (liberals who are heartened by his message of tackling social inequalities and welcoming the immigrant but might disagree with his definition of the family or when life begins, and conservatives who are drawn to or reject precisely the opposite parts of the speeches), there is an admiration for a consistency of moral code. We’ve heard it said multiple times that Pope Francis isn’t going to be changing Catholic doctrine. As a religious progressive, I certainly wish he would reconsider the role of women in Catholic religious leadership, or embrace the presence of monogamous, loving, same-sex couples. He isn’t going to do either of those things, and yet his approach to these issues to stand his ground with a gentle touch, and a reminder that these are not positions to be used to spread a religious message of hate enables all of us to hear fully with respect even when we disagree.
Pope Francis’ message was deeply spiritual but simultaneously universal. I was struck by the fact that this leader of the Catholic church did not invoke Jesus in his primary speeches. He spoke of role models that Americans could relate to. Rabbis Without Borders began, when I was part of the first cohort of fellows, as a response to the question of how rabbis could be more effective at distilling the wisdom embedded in our tradition and sharing it in the public square in a way that was relevant and expansive. Last week the pope demonstrated that he is deeply skilled at doing precisely this. We can all learn from his example.