As I write this column, Roman Catholic cardinals from around the globe are assembling in the Vatican to begin the process of selecting a new Pope. There is no shortage of commentary on that intricate process. On a daily basis we’ve been treated to reports on the security measures undertaken to help insure a secret ballot, on where the now-retired head of the Church–the Emeritus Pope–will spend his days and what kind of shoes he will wear, and what kinds of odds bookmakers around the world are placing on various potential successors. The reaction of non-Catholics ranges from bemusement to indifference.
Not infrequently I am asked by Catholics if Judaism has the equivalent of a Pope. Is there an over-arching human authority, they wish to know, to whom all Jews are answerable? When I reply that there is no such person I often detect a bit of envy, notwithstanding the reverence with which most Catholics regards the Pope.
It has long been a fundamental tenet of Judaism that no human intermediary stands between the individual Jew and God. While, in ancient times, Jewish priests and prophets played roles that may be understood as that of a link between the people and God, that phase of Judaism passed long ago. With the possible exception of the role of the rebbe in Chasidic Judaism, who is often perceived by his devotees as having a closer and more efficacious link to God than they themselves might attain, Judaism has long asserted that we are the agents in control of our spiritual lives and that we have no need of an intermediary to stand in relationship to God who is understood to be ever-present and ever-available, as the following joke suggests:
A Rabbi visiting Rome had the good fortune to have an audience with the Pope. While talking about things, the Rabbi noticed a red phone on the Pope's desk. The Rabbi asked what the phone was for. The Pope informed him that it's a direct line to God.
The Rabbi asked if he might use the phone and the Pope says, “Of course!” but that he should leave $100 for the call. The Rabbi thanked him, set down $100, and used the phone.
A few months later, the Pope visited the U.S. and made sure to make a stop to visit his new Rabbi friend. While talking, the Pope noticed a red phone on the Rabbi's desk. The Pope asked if the phone is what he thinks it is and the Rabbi said, “Of course!” The Pope asked if he might use the phone and the Rabbi said that he may certainly do so but that he needed to leave $0.50 for the call.
The Pope is surprised and asks, "You used my phone and I asked you to leave $100 and, yet, when I use your phone I am to leave only $0.50. Why is that?"
The Rabbi smiled and replied, "Because here it’s a local call."
Whomever is selected to sit on the Throne of St. Peter and to wear the red shoes will face unprecedented challenges for the Roman Catholic Church not limited to a shifting global demographic for Catholics that favors the Southern Hemisphere, an increasingly rightward theological shift within the Church and the enduring scandal of sexual abuse. Many Jews wistfully long for the equivalent of Pope John XXIII who oversaw a liberalization of the Church and a rapprochement with Jews that represented a high-point on Jewish-Catholic relations.
Josef Stalin, in 1935, sarcastically asked, “The Pope! How many [army] divisions has he got?” While the Pope commands no army, we cannot deny the power a Pope can still wield in this world. Let us hope that, when that white smoke wafts over the Vatican, the College of Cardinals chose well.