Francis Nataf

A Hanukah Message for the Pope – What A Jewish Prime Minister Should be Saying

When avowedly undiplomatic Avigdor Lieberman criticized his own government for having become a “nudnick” on Iran, he may have been closer to the truth than many would like to admit. It’s not that Iran is not a threat. It is. Nor is it that the agreements made were the best deal the West could attain. They were not. But without belittling the importance of the Iranian nuclear program for Israel, pressuring the West on this issue is certainly not the only card upon which the life and death of the Jewish state will be determined.

Unfortunately, the tone and intensity of the campaign waged by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government against Iran has furthered the impression that all Israel cares about is itself. And as the most important Jewish leader in the world, Netanyahu should think about this as he prepares to meet with the Pope tomorrow.

Jewish pundits happily write that Pope Francis is sincerely concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people and that he has shown respect for Judaism and the State of Israel. In short, that he is a friend of the Jews. There is no question that these are important things, for which he deserves praise. Nevertheless, when Jews limit their praise to Francis being “good for the Jews,” it reinforces a perception paradoxically shared by many anti-Semites.

But our sometimes obsessive concern with what is good for the Jews is not just a tactical mistake. More importantly, exclusive concern with our own physical survival allows us to forget why we believe the Jewish nation is supposed to survive in the first place. And in case we truly have forgotten, we may get some insight from the holiday of Hanukah

In this regard, Netanyahu started on the right foot when he spoke on the second night of Hanukah recalling what the Lubavitcher Rebbe had once told him: “Remember that even when you are in a world that is all dark and you light one candle, one candle of truth, the light – the precious light that this candle gives off, is seen from afar.” But from there Netanyahu continued with his familiar refrain; “We have come to banish the darkness and the greatest darkness that threatens the world today is that of a nuclear Iran.”

Is this really the greatest darkness that threatens the world? Perhaps the Pope had it more correct when he issued a call last week against the incredible ethical injustice when thousands of people die from malnutrition and exposure around the world every day, mostly because countries with stronger economies (including Israel) don’t view it as a priority. As a result, the Pope wrote an eloquent prayer for “the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.” As someone who attempts to be a seriously religious Jew, I can only pray with him, adding the hope that many of these politicians be Jewish. Not because Jews should be better. Simply because the Pope’s message is actually a touchstone of the Jewish tradition.

Hence the small light that banishes the darkness is not Israeli foreign and defense policy. Rather it is the Torah’s categorical demand that we help all who are in serious need when it is in our ability to do so. And, among other things, the story of Hanukah is the story of leaders whose hearts were with the needs of the common people, both their religious needs and otherwise, and who revolted against a Jewish aristocracy who had too easily sacrificed those needs to impress their powerful Hellenist overlords.

Maybe it would be too much to ask our Prime Minister to tell that story over to the Pope. But if he would, he might also tell the Pope that the Torah teaches that we not just pray, but that we also act. He would then tell the Pope that Israel will be the first country to put aside, let’s say, two percent of gross taxable income towards fighting global poverty, and finally he would call on all other developed nations to do the same.

In his candle-lighting talk, Netanyahu speaks in the words of the prophet that Israel be “a light unto the nations” in its actions towards Iran. But how much more so could he show that, by being the first to demonstrate that, even more than prayer against the deepest darkness, it is the light of action that is called for.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.