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Jewish Leaders Assess John Paul II's Pontificate

Rabbi Daniel Lapin and Riccardo di Segni offer their thoughts on John Paul II.

A Rabbinic Eulogy for the Pope

by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Rabbi and Pope

Rabbi Elio Toaff pictured above on the occasion of his visit to the Jewish Synagogue in 1986.

In this edition of Religion & Liberty, we look at the life and legacy of John Paul II. In his many travels abroad, some of his most stirring encounters were with leaders of the Jewish faith. In his historic address at the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986, John Paul said: “In a society which is often lost in agnosticism and individualism and which is suffering the bitter consequences of selfishness and violence, Jews and Christians are the trustees and witnesses of an ethic marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom. To promote a common reflection and collaboration on this point is one of the great duties of the hour.”

What follows are two articles that offer Jewish perspectives on John Paul. The first is “A Rabbinic Eulogy for the Pope” by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. That is followed by a 2003 interview conducted by Zenit with Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.

What meaningful eulogy can a rabbi possibly add to the many heartfelt tributes being paid to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II?

Ancient Jewish wisdom advised that in this world a man is known by his father. Not only a man's last name but much of his identity comes from his father. However, after the process of death transforms us to spirit, we look to our children and grandchildren for clues to our eternity. In the future world of the spirit where all is light and truth, Judaism teaches that each of us will be known by the actions of his or her children.

But children are not the only building blocks people leave behind. In the world to come we will be known by all our lasting accomplishments, including worthy children and powerful ideas.

Pope John Paul II is now being warmly greeted in heaven as the father of a billion worthy children and the progenitor of one powerful idea. We can condense the vast repertoire of courage and compassion, the dazzling virtuosity exhibited over decades by Pope John Paul II into one idea. This idea is so powerful that it welded the many facets of his life into one brilliant beam of clarity.

The Pope's singular coherence was the sanctity of life. His beam of clarity was the triumph of life over death. Terri Schiavo, clinging to life, alerted all Americans to the real distinction between the culture of death and that of life. Perhaps her final role was to herald on high, the imminent arrival of Karol Wojtyla.

In the political sphere, the pope's role in bringing about the overthrow of communism is well known. Why did he hate communism? Not only because he witnessed its evil but also because it violated his reverence for life. Communism is by definition the doctrine of materialism. If there is any difference at all between matter and spirit, it is that matter is mortal whereas spirit is eternal. Communism's innate mortality springs from its exclusive emphasis on matter. Freedom is a matter of spirit and is eternal. By fighting communism all his life the Pope was making a courageous commitment to freedom's spiritual underpinning— life.

Pope John Paul II aroused controversy. However his views were never capricious; they were unified by the theme of life. He was utterly consistent in his unwavering defense of the culture of life. Did I personally agree with every single one of his papal positions? Of course not; he was the pope and I am a rabbi. Theologically and practically he did not speak for me. However that is not the issue. The issue is that he made the world a better place for all who love life and for all who revere the words in Deuteronomy, “…therefore choose life.”

Without Pope John Paul II the culture of death would have made far greater inroads. An airliner remains aloft only because jet engines convert fuel into thrust. In the absence of that energy, gravity alone would doom the airplane. Similarly, in the absence of the spiritual life force such as that which Pope John Paul II injected into the world every day of his life, the gravitational pull of death would surely have spread even more widely. Whatever your faith, that is reason enough for gratitude.

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Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, said John Paul II's pontificate opened a new era in relations between Catholics and Jews. Segni became chief rabbi in 2002, replacing Elio Toaff, who held the office for 50 years. He was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in 2003, at the 25th anniversary of John Paul's pontificate.

“There has been no Pope in history who has fostered such good relations between Judaism and the Catholic Church as John Paul II,” Rabbi di Segni said. “From our point of view, we are before situations which are uncommon in the history of the Church and of its relations with the Jewish community.”

In what way has John Paul II changed relations with Judaism?

Rabbi Segni: In history, there have been different problems in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially prejudices in regard to Jews. For centuries we have had the perception that it was a distrust nourished by ideologies and old practices. This type of approach to Jewish differences has been dismantled by a series of actions of John Paul II even more than his speeches.

I am referring, in particular, to the Pope's visit to the Synagogue of Rome and his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

John Paul II has removed the attitudes of contempt and has established a relationship based on respect and reciprocal dignity.

There are many shared values between Jews and Christians.

Rabbi Segni: It stems from the fact that these two religions have their origin in the Bible. Biblical tradition underlines the importance of the dignity and of the life of man, the sense that life must have an ideal, the sense of social solidarity. These are fundamental values—biblical values that are intrinsic and shared between Jews and Christians.

From this point of view, the two worlds have always come together and even imitated one another, often in a virtuous circle.

What is your assessment of John Paul II's pontificate?

Rabbi Segni: It is positive, although problematic aspects of a theological order remain. With this pontificate we have certainly arrived at a full respect of human dignity and of religious traditions, but on many other questions the discussion is still open.

What value do you attribute to this pontificate?

Rabbi Segni: John Paul II was able to give a great positive picture of his work and of what the Church does. I do not know to what extent the faithful accept his exhortations with a sufficient sense of responsibility.

What do you mean?

Rabbi Segni: The majority of people have a boundless admiration for this Pope, who has great personal impact—a media impact, insofar as he has had to endure suffering; the ability he has to attract hundreds of millions of people around his initiatives. But I don't know how much this can change people's behavior. I don't know, for example, how many people share his opposition to divorce, or his opposition to certain forms of sexual behavior as indicated by Catholic morality.

Defense of life, opposition to euthanasia, defense of the dignity of the person and of human rights, are issues that are dear to you.

Rabbi Segni: Regarding opposition to euthanasia, our position is similar to that of the Catholic Church. But we have different positions in regard to what Catholics understand as defense of life. Not because we do not defend unborn life, but because according to Jewish theology, the beginning of life is juridically regulated with criteria that are different from those proclaimed by the Catholic Church, with all due respect for what the Church affirms. Therefore, the doctrinal positions are not always identical.

We have the highest respect as regards human rights and the rights of the person.