Friday, March 15, 2013

Illi Habent Papam

A little bit, I’m jealous. Of the media frenzy, not so much. Nor, not really, of the pageantry, of the splendor, of the gorgeousness of it all, or of the life lived amidst the Caravaggios and the Michelangelos and the Leonardos. Maybe a little bit of the Caravaggios. And maybe also a little bit of the not tens of thousands but scores of millions of people watching intently to see whether the puff of smoke is going to be white or black, good news or bad news, game over or game on (or just time out)—maybe of that I find myself just a little bit envious. What would it be like, I wonder—not in a self-deprecating way particularly, but just out of a sense of reasonable curiosity—what would it be like if there were 1.2 billion Jews in the world instead of a paltry 13.5 million? Then I bet you’d be able to get a decent kosher meal on an airplane! (Okay, so maybe 13.5 million people isn’t that paltry. But it’s not 1.2 billion. Not by about 1,186,500,000.)

If the Shoah hadn’t befallen our people, most demographers estimate there would be about 27,000,000 Jews in the world today, about the same number as there are citizens of Nepal or Venezuela. (As things actually stand, the real post-Shoah world has fewer Jews than Cambodians.) But that’s not the particular fantasy I want to pursue today, although it’s a fascinating one. (Just to digress for a moment now that I think of it, how odd is it that no one has written that novel? Michael Chabon skated by some version of that fantasy in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I didn’t like as much as I expected I would, but he didn’t really see the fantasy through all the way. Is the fear that such a book could somehow inadvertently end up as a tool for evil in the hands of Holocaust deniers? Do people really take fiction that seriously? I’ll have to consider the issue more carefully and be back in touch. But what a remarkable work of intermingled history and fantasy a novel based on that premise could be in the right author’s hands!)

Instead,all the publicity related to the naming of a new pope leads me to wonder, of all things, what the Jewish world would be like if cooler heads had prevailed in Roman times, if Jerusalem hadn’t been destroyed, if the Temple hadn’t been razed by the Romans in unwitting (or possibly not unwitting) mimicry of the Babylonians who had demolished the city six centuries earlier. Would the Temple still be standing? Would Judea have eventually morphed into some sort of Jewish state once Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, five hundred years almost to the day before my birth, and Byzantium was no more?  That, probably not: the Turkish sultan, Mehmet II, who defeated the Byzantines incorporated Israel into his empire, just as he did the rest of the lands his minions conquered, and surely would have done so even if the Temple had still been standing on its hill in Jerusalem. Would the Turks have torn it down as a way of demonstrating the supremacy of Islam over its so-called “parent” faiths? The Turks turned Hagia Sophia, the largest Catholic church in Constantinople, into a mosque. But that was more about politics than religion, and Mehmet, seeing no reason to make enemies unnecessarily, permitted other Christian churches in the capital city to remain open. Nor was Mehmet particularly hostile to Jews or Judaism. Indeed, it was he who established the Chief Rabbinate in the Ottoman Empire and appointed Rabbi Moshe Capsali to the post of Chief Rabbi. And it was only forty years later that thousands of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal found refuge in Mehmet’s empire. So why would he have cared that an ancient Temple continued to stand on a high hill in what the sultan himself, who was all of twenty-one years of age when he suddenly ruled the world, would no doubt have considered a dusty backwater of his enormous empire?

So let’s go with that fantasy for a bit and see where it leads us. The Temple still occupying the Temple Mount, the skyline of Jerusalem would be completely different. No Mosque of Omar. No Dome of the Rock.  As the centuries would have passed, serious architectural shoring-up would almost undoubtedly have been in order: the Second Temple was inaugurated for use in the year 515 BCE, but even Herod’s massive first century CE renovation of the original structure would itself be more than two thousand years old today if it were still standing.

Would it by now be the oldest building in the world? Not exactly—the Minoan Palace at Knossos is still mostly there and it was built even before the First Temple was built in Solomon’s day, and the Temple of Hera in Paestum, Greece (which was built while the Second Temple was under construction in Jerusalem) still exists, as do many other pyramids and tombs of various sorts scattered across Asia, Europe, and northern Africa. But it would still be up there with the very oldest structures of its kind. Would we still be conducting the traditional worship service there by slaughtering goats daily at dawn and dusk, then worshipfully flinging their blood at the corners of the altar before immolating their dismembered carcasses atop the bronze altar in the Temple forecourt? Would there still be priests carefully attending to the various grain offerings and wine libations that accompanied the daily sacrifices? Would the Temple management have opened a gift shop by now?

More to the point, would there still be a High Priest, the individual Scripture plainly calls “the priest greater than his own brethren,” presiding over the whole operation? Would he be our pope, our infallible leader? Or would the cup long since have passed to the rabbis, who would be in a position of having to tolerate the formal leadership of the HP while it would all along be they themselves who really call the shots? If the Temple still stood, would there still be a Sanhedrin meeting regularly in its Chamber of Hewn Stone? Would its rabbinic members relate to the HP somewhat in the formally polite and respectful way the British Prime Minister must by law relate to the Queen or King and acknowledge her or him whenever necessary as the head of state, while understanding all along that the power democratically vested by the nation in its leadership rests on the shoulders of its elected officials and specifically not on the shoulders of its royalty? 

The Torah depicts Moses as pursuing two different plans for national leadership. The priesthood he hands off to Aaron and, indeed, Scripture depicts the office passing after Aaron’s death to his son Eleazar, and then from Eleazar to Eleazar’s son Pinchas. So that chain of heritable authority seems to be well underway as the Torah draws to a close. Yet when Moses actually begins to feel his own end approaching and asks God to appoint “a leader over the community who will go out before them and who will come in after them, who will personally lead them forward and who will oversee their return,” God doesn’t respond by pointing out patiently or impatiently that the nation already has such a leader in Moses’s great-nephew Pinchas, but by instructing Moses to bring forth his young amanuensis Joshua, then to lay his hand on his head and, in so doing, to transfer to him some of the charism of governance that has enabled Moses to function so ably as his nation’s leader  at this point in the narrative for four long decades.

You could say that the scene is now set for a state of ongoing insecurity with respect to national leadership: the “real” power vested in Moses will be transferred in a non-heritable way to the one most up to the task rather than to his own sons, whereas the inherited mantle of priestly leadership will pass from generation to generation but without its wearer granted anything like real power to govern or to lead. It is specifically not Joshua’s sons—if indeed he had any—who take over when he himself passes on. Indeed, the history of the nation’s leadership now features a series of unrelated personalities called shoftim (sometimes translated a bit misleadingly into English as “judges”) who rise up in times of trouble to assume the mantle of national leadership and who are mostly unrelated to each other. Of course, there were also priests and a High Priest. But when the age of the shoftim came to an end, they were replaced by a long series of kings.

The model, therefore, is not one of a huge pyramid with an infallible leader seated comfortably or uncomfortably at its pinnacle, but rather of something more or less akin to the way the Jewish people actually has chosen to self-govern over all these centuries with different kind of leaders stepping forward to lead militarily, politically, spiritually, intellectually, and every other which way.  Rather than to opt for infallibility, the model seems actually designed to encourage endless debate and argumentation, and, even more to the point, a valorization of indecision so that all issues appear to remain endlessly open for continued discussion and ongoing, inconclusive deliberation. Perhaps the right way to conceptualize the approach is to imagine the people’s leaders gathered on the top of a mesa staring warily at each other instead of at the foot of a pyramid worshipfully looking up at someone seated atop its peak. It’s not necessarily a better way to self-govern, but it’s our way. And, for better or worse, it seems to have served us well over all these years. The key is simply not to confuse endless argumentation with actual dysfunction. As I mentioned last week, we are a very fractious people. But we seem somehow to be strengthened rather than debilitated by our fractiousness. 

Jewish people should only wish good things for Pope Francis. He speaks in a slightly self-deprecating way, but seems fully aware of the power to do good in the world that has been placed in his hands. Instead of focusing on this or that regretful remark he may have made in the past, therefore, the more productive response for those of us outside the Catholic world should be, I think, to encourage a man who seems truly humble, yet who has been called upon to lead move than a billion people forward along their chosen spiritual path. Jews could never thrive in a system that rests on the infallibility of its leader. But the system seems to work well enough for Catholics and our job, therefore, is simply to wish the new pontiff well as he pursues the common mission of Jews and Christians to bring redemption to an unredeemed world.  

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