A Church celebrating Judaism? Well, not exactly; it’s actually many Catholic Churches making a gesture to the Jewish people once a year in the form of a “Day of Judaism”. This idea originated in Italy in 1990 with the Roman Catholic Church initiating a day of lectures by rabbis, joint prayers and a moment of reflection of Jewish-Christian relations. Seven years later it spread to Churches throughout Europe, specifically, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Poland.
The day does not have a pretense; it is not going to magically repair fifteen-hundred years of intermittent polemics, persecution and outright violence to the Jewish people by the Church. Nor is it about ignoring the complicated past and wearing a façade of Nuevo-politically correct theology. It is simply a gesture, a starting point, a symbol of a new attitude pervading the Church, beginning in the 20th century with Pope John XXIII and culminating with Pope John Paul II.
After giving a lecture at the JCC Krakow on Judaism and Christianity last year, a Priest named Lukasz Kamykowski introduced himself as the Director of the Institute of Fundamental theology, Ecumenism and Dialogue in Krakow. He had been coordinating the Day of Judaism for the past 17 years and he invited me to be the guest speaker at the event on January 17. I accepted his offer with one caveat, that I could not speak in a Church. He assured me that they would find a venue which would accommodate my religious requirements. From the start, Lukasz conveyed warmth, respect and a desire for sincere dialogue. I am looking forward to working together with him in the years to come.
In front of a crowd of nearly 100 Jews and Christians I began my lecture in polish, thanking the Church for the opportunity to present a lecture entitled: “Moses: the Choosing and Making of a Leader”. I mentioned my background, about growing up in New York and attending Yeshiva University for ordination, but then I referred to how my entire family was from Poland originally. My grandparents were born or lived in Buczacz, Lemberg, Sczawnicza, Lublin, Debica, While my grandparents escaped before the war or during the war their entire families did not. I relayed my initial ambivalence about going to become a rabbi in Krakow so many years and so much heartache later. Would I experience anti-Semitism? Are there any Jews left in Poland? Shouldn’t they just all move away from such a sad place?
When I arrived here in Krakow and met young Jewish Poles with a thirst for knowledge and for building a Jewish future and encountered respect from the Non-Jewish Poles, I knew I had made the right decision. Poland in 2014 is a different country. Those who survived and are still somehow in Poland, they deserve the right to learn about what it means to be Jewish. Those non-Jews who are trying to rebuild Poland physically and meta-physically, including the government, the Church, and the young generation I encounter, they are optimistic about a life in Poland celebrating the rich heritage of Jews for a thousand years and the notion that Jewish life is part of today’s Poland.
Every day is an inspiration and I know my grandfather were he alive, would be proud of me since just as he left Poland in 1930 to bring Jewish flavor to the nascent Jewish community in New York, eighty years later I am able to give back to the Jewish and I hope Non-Jewish community in Poland.
I am not painting a broad, bright shiny stroke of optimism over a very complicated Polish-Jewish past. I am also aware that though I personally have not experienced it, anti-Semitism still exists and it must be combatted. I have not deluded myself into thinking that Poland is a philo-Semitic country but I have dismissed the notion that the fifty non-Jewish volunteers at the JCC have some innate antipathy to me and my people. I have simply seen too much chesed on the part of young Poles to categorically indict an entire nation.
The Church and the Jew have had a complex and often tragic history. There are no quick solutions to a millennium of theological sparring and physical strife. Theologically we are still on quite shaky terms: does the Church replace Judaism still today? Must the Christian convert me as part of their faith? Is there room in their religion for an unbroken covenant of God to the Jewish people? These questions are not simple and require many more years of dialogue and religious innovation to resolve. However, small steps such as Judaism Day and finding ways we can join together to acknowledge what we do have in common, those are certainly steps in the right direction.
The Church asked me to lecture on Moses and leadership and I responded in kind. I titled my lecture the Choosing and Making of a Savior and it addressed what it was about Moses that God chose. I present a few opening paragraphs and some closing ones of the lecture to illustrate the points I was trying to convey:
“Moses is an unlikely savior. He doesn’t seem to fit the characteristics of what the Hebrews expected the Messiah to be, nor what we the readers expect. He did not share the burden of slavery; he did not come from the line of Judah; he was not at first a religious being, nor a man of peace!
Moses starts out his life slaying. He continues fighting throughout his life, not the peacemaker savior, more like the warrior king! For hundreds of years of servitude the ancient Hebrews were conjuring in their minds the type of messiah who would save them from their suffering. And in the end he surprises all. A nobleman who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace; from the tribe of Levi; With a temper! How should we process this? What is the Torah telling us?
I would like to take this time in this lecture to journey with you through the nascent steps of this man’s life. This man who will become the leader of the Israelites, starts out quite ambivalent, secular, unrelated to the past and at first uninterested in the future. And yet, HE is CHOSEN!
We will emerge with a Biblical portrayal of leadership; an understanding of the vital qualities God looks for in people and the important of the process of becoming a great person, of the essential ‘humanness’ of this man and how the Torah chose a mere mortal with all the inconsistencies and imperfections that come along with him, aiming to cultivate this human being to be as close as one can get to the divine…
Why does the Torah spend so much time discussing Moshe’s hesitations, ambivalence, and inability to immediately follow God’s word?
I believe the Torah is teaching us about Jewish leadership. The Torah conveys that certain qualities must be innate, without which no leader is worth their title: integrity, justice, action, truth, transparency, such that never can a constituent come and take a moral high-ground against him. Moshe possessed these innate qualities. These attributes rendered him ‘chosen’. But these alone do not a complete leader create!
The rest the leader must acquire; from family, from friends, from students, from God, each to their own. Moses must learn how to handle the prophecy; he must learn how to deal with people (sometimes he succeeds in his life, sometimes fails miserably). He must learn how to balance public life and personal life; he must learn how to inspire people; he must be a grand teacher; he cannot be their friend, he must learn how to rebuke when necessary, wage war I need be, and make peace when possible.
All these components are the learned qualities that a Jewish leader works on during their life. Joshua followed Moses and Deborah, Ruth and Boaz, even Samson. Samuel and then David followed by Solomon, with Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Chizkiyah, Josiah and Ezra and Nechemiah. Esther and Mordechai, the men of the Great Assembly, Tannaim, Amoraim, Geonim, Medieval leaders until modern day.
Was Moses perfect? No. yet, that is perfect! God does not create perfect beings in our world; he leaves them to the celestial spheres. Instead, God gives us choice, complex backgrounds, good and evil inclinations, the ability to rise above our animalistic desire and touch the divine, and the ability to crush our souls and venerate our earthly desires. Moshe teaches us about how human he was and how powerful it is for believers in 2014 to read the Bible and understand that a man by the name of Moses, starting out without pedigree, without identity, without spiritual election, yet with innate qualities of justice, integrity and truth, that man can earn a seat on Mount Sinai besides God himself, seeing God’s back, yearning for more, and entering into a lifelong relationship with the divine.
We live in very critical times and in a very powerful place. The Jewish and Christian worlds have lived in Poland for close to a thousand years, often peacefully, sometimes adversarially and tragically, yet we have survived. The Jewish community in particular barely survived as the horrors of the 20th century eradicated much of our heritage.
But not all of it. We managed in the last twenty five years to come back to life. Yes, in small measure but the numbers keep growing. This past week I met a young girl who told me she wasn’t Jewish but her mother’s mother was. I explained to her that according to Jewish law she IS Jewish. She was shocked and delighted and said those magical words—“so now, please teach me”. These are remarkable times.
And they call for remarkable leaders to navigate these waters and keep the course of Godliness and spirit. The Jewish and Christian communities in Poland can work together towards championing the rights of the underprivileged, seeking justice, ensuring freedom of religion and spreading God’s name throughout the land.
In order to achieve this we should work in parallel, respecting each other’s faith communities while at the same time find ways for dialogue and mutual respect. We should direct members of each other’s faiths to the respective Synagogue or Church; we should teach about tolerance even when we disagree on fundamental theological beliefs. We should cultivate future leaders found in your Churches and our Synagogues.
Ultimately we should learn, pray, love and prepare ourselves for a possibility that we too might be chosen one day to take that mantle of leadership and be ready to accept the will of the God in our lifetimes.”
I believe that true leadership will steer society on the right course; that great men and women have the capacity to see through the stereotypes and preconceived notions and find a common bond of good that transcends history and seeks true peace. Our job is to take small steps in cultivating that leadership and to prepare the way for a just and respectful co-existence in our different faith communities in Poland, in Israel and throughout the world.