THE SECRET OF the POPE and JERUSALEM

By Rabbi Benjamin Blech

VIEWPOINT, SUMMER, 1996:31-32.

I think it's the best kept secret in the world today.

People still think that the peace process is all about politics. The untold truth is that there is something far more significant involved. What's even more amazing is that it is not the confrontation between Arab and Jew that is the most crucial issue. To understand the real meaning of contemporary events is to grasp that what we are witnessing is a theological moment unparalleled in history, pitting the prophetic truths of two major religions against one another. For what is at stake is not simply a claim to territory; it is the claim to eternal truth which hangs in the balance. And with regard to the future of Jerusalem, it is not the Palestinians but rather the Pope who is most concerned.

Perhaps it's about time for us to publicize something the Church would rather not talk about. Surely it is very embarrassing to try to deal with a religious dogma that has been historically refuted. But that is exactly what has taken place in Christian thought. And the aftermath of this shocking truth is what - behind the scenes - is responsible for deliberations and decisions from the Vatican with tremendous import for Israel.

Let me explain by taking you back almost two millennia. It was just about forty years after the death of Jesus that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. It was a tragedy as seemingly inexplicable in its day as the holocaust in ours. The Sages of the time sought to find some religious justification for the apparent abandonment of the Jewish people by their G-d. Indeed, guided by Divine spirit, they acknowledged that it was a measure of sin that was the cause of their sorrow. The Jews had been guilty of "Sinat Chinam - baseless hatred." Destruction was not caused by the enemy as much as by our own hand. Lack of brotherly love brought about national punishment.

So went the Rabbinic interpretation. The Talmud identified the particular story which most disturbed the Al-Mighty. And we accepted the fact that when we despise each other for no valid reason, G-d may well choose to respond to us in similar manner.

But the early Christians saw something quite different in the events of their day. After all, if the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 of the Common Era could the cause not be attributed to the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah? Coming so soon one after the other, it was quite tempting to connect a catastrophe with a religious conviction; the Jewish people who refused to accept Jesus as Savior were condemned to be defeated and cast into exile.

It was this very line of reasoning which became the basis of the pejorative, "the wandering Jew". Throughout history the phrase carried with it both curse and prediction: it is the fate of the Jew to wander evermore over the face of the earth, without permanent residence or homeland, until such a time that he atones for his crime of faithlessness by embracing the truth of the divinity of Jesus.

Accepted as fundamental Christian doctrine, the idea of the wandering Jew represented a very unique and dangerous kind of prophecy. It is after all possible to predict that something will happen at some point in the future and not be threatened by its failure to come to pass. All one needs to say in response is that it has not yet occurred. A request for patience is as valid as the initial pronouncement.

Precisely this is the way in which Christianity has dealt for almost two thousand years with the fact that Jesus, after his death, did not return for the promised second coming. He didn't, they say, but he will - and there is no possible way to firmly refute their teaching.

But what is so very special about the prediction of the Church involving the Jew is that a doctrine of faith made clear that something - i.e. the return of the Jews to Israel from their decreed lands of dispersion - will never take place unless Jews embrace Jesus. If a religion stakes a claim on credibility by affirming that an event cannot ever happen - and it does - it would appear that the damage is irreparable.

That is indeed what happened to Christian theology in the twentieth century. The birth of modern day Israel may have been threatening to the Arab world as a conflict of homelands. For the Vatican, however, the problem was far more profound: it was a conflict of creeds which clearly crowned one as a victor.

It was my revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, ZT"L, who oft pointed out that after 1948 Christian scholars were frantically trying to come to terms with a political reality they had for so long deemed a religious impossibility. In the privacy of scholarly conclaves and in carefully guarded gatherings of theologians, it was decided that aside from the Church not granting recognition to Israel's existence - perhaps if you say it isn't really there you can make it go away - the solution to the "refutation of the prediction" was that Israel without Jerusalem did not really represent a return of the holy land to the Jewish people. Without the sanctity of the holiest city, there is no sanctity to the rest of events of 1967. When Israel won the Six Day War, military strategists were dumfounded - but Christian leaders were devastated. How could they explain now a miracle that wasn't suppose to happen? And how deal with a state that even proclaimed its holiest city once more its capital?

Only one way remained for Rome to deal with this unacceptable reality. Jerusalem could simply not be recognized as the capital city nor could the Jews be accepted as its master. Unspoken aloud is a powerful truth confirmed to me by a leading political figure in Israel. So sensitive is the subject, however, that he has not only forbidden me to quote him but warned me that if I did so he would deny ever having said so. Behind the scenes, he advised me, there is more pressure for the internationalization of Jerusalem coming from the Christian world than from the Arab. It is not hard to understand. A Jewish Jerusalem does not deprive them of territory - it takes from them the validity of a Testament.

Let no one be misled. There is simply no way in which the Church can be accommodating in this matter. Compromise is out of the question. The matter is just too heavily weighted with theological considerations. When Leah Rabin visited with the Pope she thought she heard allusions to "a new approach" to the Jerusalem question. Her naivete should not be shared by anyone aware of the deeper dimensions of this issue. The Pope, after all, has no choice. As the religious leader of a faith sorely tested by the Divine message of our generation, he can only hope to undo what Jerusalem proclaims to the "wandering Jews" of our times who have at last come home.

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Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Oceanside, New York, is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.


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