Pope Francis is an extraordinary man.
In the months since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires became the head of the Roman Catholic Church he has changed the atmospherics of the Vatican more profoundly — and most observers would emphatically say for the better — than anyone since Pope John XXIII more than 50 years ago.
It would be the height of presumption for me as a Jew even to comment on the pope’s overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy and Catholic theological priorities. But on the human and spiritual levels, in his compassion for the suffering and anguish of others, he has already become a role model to the world.
With a few perfectly chosen words — “Who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized” — he has not just demonstrated a kind-hearted tolerance for the gays and lesbians in his Church, but he has in effect emancipated them, allowing them to feel that his love, and by extension God’s, embraces them, too.
He has also reached out publicly to nonbelievers. In a letter to Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist founder of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, the pope wrote that God’s forgiveness was not reserved exclusively for those who believe in Christ, but that, “if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.”
Pope Francis’ sensitivity toward Judaism and the Jewish community is similarly unprecedented. He counts numerous Argentine Jews, including my colleague Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, among his close personal friends, and he has made his respect and genuine affection for the Jewish people a key building block if not a cornerstone of his papacy.
At a private audience with Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and other senior WJC leaders shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Pope Francis reiterated his conviction that a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic because, among other things, both Jesus and his mother were Jews.
Following that meeting, Ambassador Lauder told me, “Pope Francis is one of the best and most sincere friends of the Jewish people I have ever met.”
In his letter to Eugenio Scalfari the pope wrote, “In the friendship I cultivated in the course of all these years with Jewish brothers in Argentina, often in prayer, I also questioned God, especially when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoah.”
Recently, I was privileged to receive a message from Pope Francis that further evidences his willingness to posit the Holocaust in an unconventional theological context.
On the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I delivered a guest sermon at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan in which I discussed my personal search for God in the horrors of the Shoah. Specifically, I concluded, contrary to that day’s Torah reading, which speaks about God hiding his countenance from the Israelites during the moments of their greatest distress, God was in fact present during the Holocaust.
God was within those men and women who, even at Auschwitz and Treblinka sought to save the lives of their fellow prisoners, or to alleviate their suffering. And the Shekhinah, the mystical divine manifestation of God, was within my mother and a group of other women inmates as they kept 149 Jewish children alive at Bergen-Belsen during the bitter winter of 1945 until that Nazi concentration camp’s liberation.
I took the liberty of sending a copy of that sermon to the pope. Most unexpectedly, he replied to me in a moving message in which he wrote:
“When you, with humility, are telling us where God was in that moment, I felt within me that you had transcended all possible explanations and that, after a long pilgrimage — sometimes sad, tedious or dull — you came to discover a certain logic and it is from there that you were speaking to us; the logic of First Kings 19:12, the logic of that ‘gentle breeze’ (I know that it is a very poor translation of the rich Hebrew expression) that constitutes the only possible hermeneutic interpretation.
“Thank you from my heart. And, please, do not forget to pray for me. May the Lord bless you.”
The very fact that Pope Francis reached out to me, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, to express his empathetic understanding of my attempt to reconcile the existence of God with the nightmarish realities of the Holocaust is remarkable. His biblical citation of First Kings is even more so.
He referred to the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God in which Elijah is told that God was not in a mountain-shattering wind, nor in an earthquake, nor in a fire, but only in a still small sound or voice, which Pope Francis beautifully and poetically translated as “a gentle breeze.”
Viewing the Shoah through a decidedly Jewish theological prism, Pope Francis effectively affirms that God was not in the horrors, in the gas chambers and crematoria, and that He did not cause the mass murder of millions. Nor did God reside within the perpetrators of the Holocaust or other genocides, whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or elsewhere. Rather, the divine presence can only be found in the unfathomable inner strength of those who do not allow themselves to be dehumanized by evil.
The pope’s message was a tremendous gift. Perhaps his unambiguous validation of a Jewish rather than a Christological religious approach toward the Holocaust will result in a more broad-based interfaith dialogue about the consequences and implications of not just the Shoah but all genocides and other atrocities committed out of ethnic or religious bigotry and hatred.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)