Why Pope John Paul II Was the Best Pope Ever for Jews

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Prominent Rabbi and Former Chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council Calls Pope John PaulÂ?s Historical Record Â?A Â?Theological TrifectaÂ? For JewsÂ? and says, Â?He Was the Pope who went where no Pope Had Gone before.Â?

For Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg of New York City, one of the most respected scholars of Jewish thought and one of today’s most important leaders in advancing an interfaith dialog between Christians and Jews, the historical record speaks for itself: “John Paul was the best Pope for our people--ever. With him, the Jews hit, as it were, a ‘theological trifecta’: affirmation of Judaism as an ongoing valid covenant, admission of the Holocaust as a theological turning point (combined with acknowledgement that Christians need to repent because they bear some of the guilt due to spreading hateful images of Jewry) and diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Greenberg’s statements, some made public in a recent article “Pope John Paul II and the Jews” that appeared in The Forward Newspaper, echo that of other prominent Jews honoring the Pope, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently stated that “Pope John Paul II was a man of peace, a friend of the Jewish nation.”

In retrospect, Rabbi Greenberg believes that John Paul II was underestimated by liberal Jews and Catholics alike. They feared that his conservatism inevitably would lead to triumphalism and denial of the dignity of other religions. “Up to his reign, a willingness to expand the post-Vatican II trends and pursue more positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism went hand-in-hand with theological liberalism. Both policies involved critique of the tradition and acknowledgment of past failures. But John Paul cut that connection. While he bent the church to his will to check liberal trends, he extended Vatican II’s opening to Jews and Judaism.”

Rabbi Greenberg speculates that two primary factors moved John Paul to put his personal stamp on Catholic policies to the benefit of Jews. One was his friendship with Jews from his youth. In this the Pope is a role model because the dialogue and the renewal of Jewish-Christian relations has been driven by the relationships between people. The experience of the full humanity of believers of the other faith leads to recovery of respect for their faith, the religion that nurtures such good people. The other force was his searing encounter with the Holocaust, with the consequent emotional internalization of the suffering of Jews and Poles under the Nazis. In his reaction to the Shoah, he was determined to undo the evils of the past; thus he repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism as a sin. The mystery of Jewish suffering and survival gave him the strength to affirm the ongoing life of Judaism.

According to Greenberg, whose new book, For The Sake of Heaven And Earth ($20 paperback), is considered by many to be the most comprehensive and affirmative Jewish theology of Christianity written in the past century, Pope John Paul went toward the Jews where no Pope had ever gone before. “I daresay that when the dust of history settles,” Rabbi Greenberg writes, “the Jewish community will recognize him as one of the righteous of the Gentile nations.”

About Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

Rabbi Greenberg is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, holding a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, and president emeritus and cofounder of CLAL—The National Center for Learning and Leadership. He has served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, professor at Yeshiva University, and founder/chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at City College of the City University of New York.

In 1975, he, along with Elie Wiesel, founded Zachor, a Holocaust Resource Center and served as executive Director of the President's Commission on the Holocaust under President Carter. Rabbi Greenberg also served as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Council from 1980 to 1988, and was again appointed to the Council by President Clinton in 1997. Rabbi Greenberg has written extensively on the Holocaust and Jewish matters. His most recent book is For The Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.

To speak with Rabbi Greenberg or for a review copy of for the Sake of Heaven and Earth, please contact Laurie Schlesinger, Jewish Publications Society at 800-234-3151 ext. 5613 or lschlesinger@jewishpub.org.

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