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It is not every day that a Jewish kid gets to sit at the right hand of the Holy Father. Yesterday was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so. Together with Cantor Schwartz, who offered an incredibly powerful memorial prayer, it was an altogether humbling honor to represent the Jewish community at the multi-religious gathering with Pope Francis at the 9/11 Memorial. It was an event, in the words of one of my children, “even bigger than my Bar Mitzvah” and a wonderful way to cap off an otherwise quiet week on the Jewish calendar.
There are so many parts of the day that I will never forget and want to share with you this morning. It is an experience like no other to meet the pope, with whom I exchanged warm greetings of peace and fellowship on behalf of our community. He exuded a gentle warmth and kindness, and despite his whirlwind schedule, struck me as totally “in the moment” for the historic gathering. For those of us assembled on that hallowed ground where the twin towers once stood, the iconic value of the event was extraordinary. This pope, we know, understands the power of an image. An assembly of diverse faith leaders at the very site where religion was leveraged towards acts of horrific violence was a statement to all those present and, I imagine, to the entire world. Every clergyman shares a pastoral calling to provide comfort, and it is my hope that the event succeeded in that sacred gesture. For me personally, two of the most moving exchanges of the day occurred off-camera. First, a conversation I shared with the wife of one of the airline pilots murdered on 9/11, who told me of her commitments to honor her late husband’s memory. Then, as we were leaving the event, my family bumped into a PAS congregant who had lost family in the North Tower on that fateful day. I listened intently as he graciously (and age appropriately) answered the questions of my children (who had not yet been born in 2001) on what it was like to lose a sibling that day and how much it means to him to honor the memory of all those who died that day. If you have not done so yet, I encourage you to block off a day and visit the 9/11 Memorial. The day was a reminder to me that as New Yorkers and a nation, we must remain fully committed to remembering those who perished on 9/11, must grapple with the permanent scar that day has on our collective psyche, and must communicate that commitment to our children.
There are so many parts of the day I will always want to remember. There was the memorial prayer offered by Cantor Schwartz. Sublime as we know his voice is, you can only imagine what it felt like to hear the other voices join in as he concluded with a warm rendition of Oseh Shalom. There was the “bro-hug” with my new friend and colleague Imam Khalid Latif just before our shared invocation. I am so very excited to build on these new interfaith relationships. There was the green room where we all sat, so many faith traditions linked together by a common search for an iPhone charger and WiFi password. There was the text my urologist older brother sent to my whole family that read: “See that rabbi standing there next to the pope? His brother . . . he’s a doctor.” And then of course, my mother in LA, who in the past twenty-four hours has spoken to everyone from the kosher butcher to the attendant at the dry cleaners about her son and the pope. For a glorious and fleeting moment, all my failings as a son have given way to a tsunami of kvelling that I hope will last, please God, at least through the end of the weekend.
Beyond my own experiences, the pope’s visit to New York bears the potential to be a springboard to a much larger conversation. While I will fully admit to still being somewhat star-struck, I am unabashed in my belief that Pope Francis is perhaps the most exciting religious leader of our time. A pope whose model of leadership is relevant not just for the Catholic community, not just for interfaith relations, but for every faith leader to consider in their own work. So before the buzz of his visit subsides, I want to use this window to reflect on the message of his visit thus far, and what the enduring lessons of his papacy may be for all of us here today, and – more importantly – tomorrow and the day after.
First and foremost, in a relatively brief amount of time, Pope Francis has instituted a dramatic change in the tone and temperament of the church. What is interesting is that, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no dramatic doctrinal changes, but rather a refreshing new face of this church to the rest of the world. It was not so long ago that the Catholic conversation, at least from my outsider status, appeared to be driven by prohibitions regarding abortion and homosexuality, not to mention internal scandals. Think about just how great a distance the church has traveled from Pope Benedict’s warnings regarding “the dictatorship of relativism” to Pope Francis, whose response when asked about his views on gay priests was “who am I to judge?” Religious leaders understand that style is substance, and the Catholic Church is no longer leading with its chin. To the great credit of Pope Francis, he has shifted the conversation away from who is out to who is in; away from what behaviors will preclude you from the services of the church to how the services of the church must be better deployed to serve those at the periphery of society. It is not hard, not hard at all, to think of pockets of Jewish religious leadership who would do well to adopt Pope Francis’s posture. We would do well to remember that the divine pronouncements of today’s Torah reading, even those bearing a sting, are described as having been delivered “like dew.” I, for one, do not believe that respecting tradition and a demeanor of menschlichkeit are mutually exclusive propositions. Certainly in terms of our own community, I hope that it is this posture of inclusion, not exclusion, that guides all our efforts.
I encourage you to read Pope Francis’s words before Congress, before the UN, and at the 9/11 gathering. Because aside from the change of tone, what I find most refreshing about Pope Francis is the inability of the media or political establishment to fit him into any ideological box. He preaches on family values and environmentalism. He speaks to an ethic of personal responsibility and social welfare. He is tough on abortion and same-sex marriage, and he is also unflinching on immigration. This pope isn’t really a conservative or liberal – his leanings don’t fit tidily into any chart – and I think that is great. The point is not whether you agree or disagree with him. The appeal is rather that the model of Pope Francis is a powerful counterargument to the polarized debates of our time. His model suggests that ideological consistency has nothing to do with political affiliation, but with a litmus test of a much higher integrity. One of the many ills afflicting us this political season is the fact that a candidate can not be, for instance, a social liberal and a fiscal conservative or the other way around. We don’t permit subtlety or complexity in our leaders, but because this pope isn’t running for office, he can be both subtle and complex. I think this is an important lesson for all religious leaders. God is neither conservative nor liberal, Republican nor Democrat, hawk nor dove. This pope gets that and it is a model well worth considering.
Although it is somewhat premature to do so, I believe we can identify a thread that connects Pope Francis’s calls for environmental stewardship, theological humility, global responsibility, economic justice, and more. In each case, it is the abiding belief that every human being is created in the infinite dignity of God’s image that demands that we care for our world and each other. Theologically, no matter what our differences, in insisting on a rigid uniformity of belief, we diminish the dignity of another person’s right to their beliefs. As stewards of God’s creation, we are obligated to care for our “common home” in a manner that speaks not only to our present needs, but to those of the unborn generations to come. So, too, in our attention to the plight of the poor and the refugee, our obligations are founded not merely on the golden rule of “do unto others,” but also on an awareness, as Pope Francis said to Congress, that we, as a nation of immigrants, must be attentive to the present humanitarian crisis engulfing Europe. This is a message that the Jewish community knows well. It is our awareness that we were once strangers in a strange land that calls us to care for the condition of the strangers in our own midst and era. As a Jewish community, we would do well to study the contours of Pope Francis’s vision to find points of common cause and collaboration.
We may agree or disagree with the stands Pope Francis has taken, but the very fact that he has insisted on speaking to the issues of the day is a model for us all. His words and actions remind us that the point of religion is not descriptive, to describe the world as it is; rather it is prescriptive, to describe the world as it ought to be. In his insistence that faith be an instrument of peace, not violence, in his insistence that the church be “a field hospital after battle,” healing wounds and warming hearts, in his insistence that religion speak forcefully to the issues of the day, Pope Francis has given all people of faith a model which we can aspire to emulate. And he has done so with a deep and abiding humility. His demeanor, and I was sitting next to him yesterday, is not overbearing. Whatever his rank may be, there is a humanity to the man, a humanity that strikes me as being deeply concerned with the condition not just of every human being, but of a common humanity. That, my friends, is something we can all take to heart.
My warmest memory of all from yesterday relates not directly to the pope, but to my dear friend His Eminence Cardinal Dolan, to whom the city of New York owes a great debt of gratitude for his inspired leadership. The formal part of the program had ended, and as participants were greeting each other, the pope stood for pictures with assorted dignitaries. Off to the side, Cardinal Dolan and I greeted each other warmly, and he said, “Elliot, aren’t your children here?” When I signaled to him where they were sitting, Cardinal Dolan insisted, “Well bring them up here, they should be up here!” I turned around, caught my children’s eye, waved them over, and to make a long story short, was able to give them each the gift of a handshake and smile from the pope that they will never forget.
It is this story, more than any other, to which I have returned in the hours since the event concluded. That in the split second of the chaotic recessional Cardinal Dolan saw me and didn’t see a rabbi, or even necessarily a Jew, but friend and a dad who probably wanted what every dad wants: to make his children happy. It was a gesture of supreme menschlichkeit, and it speaks volumes of Cardinal Dolan and the church he represents. If each one of us had it within ourselves to recognize each other not for our titles, stature, or faith, but for the human beings we are, and then performed acts of friendship and service to validate that common humanity, well then, just think how much better off this world would be. I am grateful to Cardinal Dolan for many things, but it is that one gesture as much as anything, exemplifying the spirit of his ministry, that is worthy of emulation. May we all similarly seek, with humanity and humility, to do so in our own lives, and may the spirit of Pope Francis’s visit continue to inspire our great city for many years to come.