Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The High Priest, the Pope and I

Part 2 of My Struggle with Persuasion and the Truth Concerning other Religions

Tenth of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz  (For the first question, click here. For the second question, click here. For the third question, click here. For the fourth question, click here. For the fifth question, click here. For the sixth question, click here. For part one of the seventh question, click here.  For part two of the seventh question, click here. For the eighth question, click here. For the first part of the ninth question, click here.  For the second part of the ninth question, click here. For the third part of the ninth question, click here.  For the fourth part of the ninth question, click here. For the first part of the tenth question, click here.)

Question 10, Part 2:

In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of “Rabbi Cardozo” suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them? 

Nathan Lopes Cardozo:

Now, I’m going to make an unexpected switch. I know that I’m running the risk of having some readers not understand what I’m trying to get at, having them accuse me of arrogance, and even infuriating them. Still, I’ll take that risk for reasons that I will try to explain:

I often wonder how I would have done had I been the pope. Yes, that’s a strange question to ask. But I believe I would have done pretty well. The reason is obvious. There is no greater spiritual business opportunity than the papacy. The Catholic Church consists of 1.2 billion people spread throughout the world. When you follow the life of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), you can see how great is the power of speech and how many people you can bring into “the faith.” John Paul was larger than life and possessed unusual charisma. He was known as “the flying pope,” because much of his time was spent in airplanes that took him to every corner of the world to preach the gospel. When you watch the massive Masses he conducted, where a gathering of a million—largely consisting of young people—was considered a small crowd, or if you see what happened at St. Peter’s Square in Rome when he appeared for the first time as pope, or how millions of people including non-Catholics came to bid him farewell after he died, you are utterly astonished by the outpouring of religious spontaneity, emotional responses, and spiritual upheaval.

This is unprecedented. The same seems to happen with the current Pope Francis. He, too, has a great deal of charisma; and his humility and desire to live an austere life makes him extremely popular and influential.  

One must realize that the pontificate was originally founded on the position of the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) in the days of the Temple in Yerushalayim. Later on, the Church disconnected it from the position of High Priest and transferred it to Paul in the New Testament. So that’s really a later invention to avoid admitting that the papacy has its roots in Judaism, and is an attempt to reject Judaism in its entirety. While the High Priest was to primarily serve the Jewish people, the truth is that his task was to serve all of humankind, since the Temple was to be a place where all the nations of the world could worship God (Yeshayahu 56: 6-7); and it was the Kohein Gadol who stood at the center of the Temple service.

However blasphemous this may sound, the Kohein Gadol was to be the original pope. Basically, the papacy is a Jewish function, tasked not with the mission of spreading the gospel, but rather promulgating monotheism, morality and the Torah, as far as it is applicable to the non-Jewish world. I therefore claim that, while I doubt I have the charisma of John Paul II, or of Francis, I could have done a reasonable job as a Jewish pope. And so could other rabbis.

In fact, I can think of rabbis of the past and present who could have done a much better job than I could ever do: Maimonides, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel and, lehavdil ben chayim lechayim, Rav Yitz Greenberg, one of the most important Orthodox rabbis in the United States and, sadly, almost completely unknown in Israel. (By the way, Rav Kook was a Kohein, and so is Rav Greenberg. I, however, am not!)

Although I am not a follower of Chabad, I believe that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l, would have been an excellent candidate. While he was a fervent traditionalist, he possessed a messianic and universal vision in which Judaism would play an important role in the future. Not only did he build the largest Jewish outreach program worldwide, which despite its shortcomings was and is remarkably successful even after his passing, but his shlichim (emissaries) are to be found in every corner of the world. (Not much different from the Catholic Church, but on a much smaller scale!) Moreover, he constantly emphasized the need to make contact with the non-Jewish world and promulgate “the seven mitzvot of Noach,” as expressed by the sages in the Talmud and by Maimonides (Sanhedrin 56a-60b, and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:10; 10:12). These laws may be called the “Ten Commandments” for the non-Jewish world. They are the basis of all monotheistic morality and played an enormous role in the development of international law. (See the works of the great non-Jewish jurists: Hugo Grotius’s De Jure Belli ac Pacis, 1625, and John Selden’s De Jure Naturali et Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum, 1640.) The Rebbe asked President Ronald Reagan to publicly emphasize these seven commandments, which the president did on April 4, 1982, in celebration of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday.    


However, the truth is that over time the Kohein Gadol was unable to do the job. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the position of High Priest was compromised in the days after Yehudah the Maccabee, when it was taken over by the Hasmonean dynasty in defiance of Jewish law. After the Roman conquest (63 BCE), and especially during Herod’s rule (37-4 BCE), the position of Kohein Gadol deteriorated and ultimately became a political tool in the hands of the Romans. It later fell into the hands of the Sadducees who rejected the Oral Law, after which the sages of Israel denied it any authority.     

Secondly, convincing the non-Jews to accept pure monotheism was a very difficult, if not impossible, task. It required enormous manpower and power of persuasion, which the Jews were unable to provide. The non-Jewish, hedonistic world was deeply committed to idol worship. It just could not buy into pure, uncompromising monotheism. Nor were they ready to accept the moral values taught by the Torah, because they were deeply rooted in unethical practices including (possible) child sacrifices and other abominable rituals.

Thirdly, the Jews themselves had great difficulty extricating themselves from every form of idolatry and immoral practice, and they just could not muster the strength to take up this task of spreading monotheism and morality with the High Priest at its center. They also suffered from severe infighting and consequently didn’t have the time or energy to turn outward and focus on the non-Jewish world.

Somewhere along the way, we Jews lost the plot and left it to the non-Jews and the Church to take over. Instead of the High Priest or the chief rabbi becoming the pope, the task was left to a non-Jew. This is not a kind of “replacement theology”—as the Church wanted to see it—by which the Jews stopped being the Chosen People, but a “theology of missed opportunity.”

There may however be another primary reason why the task of High Priest fell into the hands of the pope. As mentioned before, the hedonistic world just could not fully accept monotheism and its ethical values. It was still too grounded in modes of idol-worship and immoral practices. The famous concept of Maimonides in relation to sacrifices in the Temple is that one cannot just go from one extreme to the other overnight and completely abolish sacrifices, which the (non-)Jewish world was originally used to as a major expression of religiosity. Based on this concept, a compromise to human weakness was necessary, and sacrifices were still permitted, but this time in the service of God (see A Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32), with the hope that one day it would just vanish.

One could argue that Catholicism is built on the Maimonidean concept of compromise due to human weakness. It provided and still provides a compromised kind of monotheism, which includes ideas such as the trinity and incarnation.

It was therefore not possible for the Kohein Gadol to take on the task of what would later be the pope’s, since there was one thing that Judaism could never compromise on and that was unadulterated monotheism. To put it differently: Judaism could never allow a compromised monotheism, even as an intermediate stage, and even if it was due to human weakness. It may have permitted this (according to Maimonides) with the sacrifices, but not with something as fundamental as monotheism. So it had to leave this to the Church and the papacy, until the Church would grow out of these beliefs and practices. I would even argue that “this was from God” (Tehillim 118:23). And so it fell into the hands of the Catholic Church and the pope, with the hope that one day they would grow out of these ideas (I think there are already signs of this) and would give up on these beliefs.

Then, the papacy would return to its original task, which means returning to its full glory by way of the High Priest. In other words: The pope is a compromised and diluted Kohein Gadol; and once the Church purifies itself from its weaknesses, it will have to return this task to the real High Priest in Yerushalayim.

This is closely related to the fact that—to use an expression by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg—we may be living (since the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel) in the third epoch of Jewish history, which requires a new approach to religion, Halacha, and our attitude toward gentiles. It seems that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was aware of this, at least to a certain degree. (For a comprehensive overview of Rabbi Greenberg’s ideas, see A Torah Giant: The Intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, ed. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Ktav-Urim Publications, Jerusalem/New York, 2018. See also LeNevuchei HaDor by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.)

It is important to mention that whether there will indeed be a third Temple built on the Temple Mount is a matter of debate. It may be a metaphysical concept with no physical manifestation (See Rabbi Ovadia Sforno on Shemot 25:9 s.v. ve-chein ta’asu). Whether this will affect the position of the Kohein Gadol is unclear. That position may slowly transform into the role of the Mashiach. But we’ll have to leave that discussion for another time.

Well, I still have not answered all your questions, so we’ll continue next week.


Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond—for which I apologize—but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
Related Topics
Related Posts