When Shmuel Goldin was a small boy, growing up in Brooklyn, it never occurred to him to want to shake the pope’s hand, much less that someday he would grow up to do it.
In one year.
Both times, he found the experience to be both promising and unsettling, hopeful and inescapably alienating.
The first time, in late June, Goldin, the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, was part of a delegation of rabbis sponsored by the International Jewish Committee of Interreligious Consultations, the official liaison between the Vatican and the American Jewish Committee.
This time, at least in part through his work with IJCIC, he was a guest and panelist at an interfaith conference organized by Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization that was “founded with the belief that religion should serve as the moral voice for the world, and that voice should be a combined voice when it comes to moral issues, and issues of concern to the world at large,” Goldin said. Among the work it does is memorializing both the Shoah and its victims, and in fact one of the panels during the meeting was on that topic; “apparently it is the only Catholic group that does that kind of work,” Goldin added.
The conference, which ran from Sunday, September 29, through Wednesday, October 2, is an annual event that brings together about 300 religious leaders from across the world; “from every stripe and denomination, representing religions I’ve never even heard of,” Goldin said. It is held once a year, bringing together mostly the same participants — Goldin expects to be invited again next year — and moves to various European cities. Next year it will be in Antwerp. The conference always focuses on peace; this year, the theme was “the strength to hope.”
The conference was not at all convenient — Goldin had to leave right after the Shabbat that began just as Simchat Torah, the last chag in the four-week-long series of observances that deepened our spirituality but wreaked pure havoc on our schedules. And he had a cold. Downtime beckoned. He was tempted not to go — but the push from Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs, was too hard to resist.
Once in Rome, “they assigned a priest to be my angel,” Goldin say; the imagery is nearly irresistible, but the priest was merely his guide.
Goldin was tired, he reports, so his impressions were filtered through some fatigue, but he found the opening session “disconcerting.” There was a Muslim cleric on the panel, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, the grand mufti of Egypt, “and his contributions were basically limited to how wonderful the Muslim religion is,” Goldin said. So was the entire event a show, pabulum, an empty feel-good display?
“So I turned to Oded Weiner” — the director-general of the Israeli chief rabbis’ office, who was there representing both newly elected chief rabbis, the Askhenazi David Lau and the Sephardi Yitzhak Yosef — “and I asked why they are putting a guy like that on the panel, and he said, ‘Where else would you have a panel where this guy is willing to sit next to David Rosen?’
“So I wasn’t sure what to make of it,” Goldin continued. “And then I went to sleep that night, and when I woke up slowly the whole thing began to work on me. I was meeting Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants — everybody.”
Some of those clerics, he added, were women, and there were other Jews, as well, although no one else from this area.
Goldin also met a group of young rabbis, mainly from Europe, mainly Orthodox but including a Conservative/Masorti rabbi from Argentina. “They underscored how important Sant’Egidio has been to them in helping them deal with their non-Jewish neighbors,” he said. “It made me aware of the very different experiences they have, living in the shadow of the Christian community.”
The panels were open to the public; there were more than 1,000 people at the opening ceremony, Goldin reported. The city’s beauty and antiquity — so different from Jerusalem’s, and in so many ways so alien to Jews, but still so very old and beautiful — were potent.
The first time that Goldin met the pope, he was overwhelmed by the grandeur and strangeness of that meeting, and by what he saw and reported then as Pope Francis’s genuine charisma and decency. This time, because it was not new, “I was a little more in touch with myself,” he said, and he was able to look around him with a bit more objectivity.
“The opulence is amazing,” he said. “When you say the introductory prayers in the morning, the p’sukei d’zimrah, they are meant to prepare you for an audience with God. You are supposed to walk through God’s palace, looking at the world’s wonders, until you get there.
“Now I understand what the importance of having a palace for a king was. There is something very telling about having to walk for half and hour to go to speak to a guy, in a palace where every room is grander than the one before.”
“At the same time, I had a constant sense of discomfort, because this is the papacy. This was the root and the source of the anti-Semitism that destroyed us throughout European history. So on the one hand, I am drawn into the sense that it is important to be part of a world community, yet I am feeling a personal conflict.”
The world that he sees — the iconography, the history, the worldview, is familiar to him as it is to all of us, as westerners who live in the world, but it is profoundly alien nonetheless. “We cannot wipe way thousands of years of history, and this church was the source of the European history that led to the Holocaust,” Goldin said.
“On the one hand, we have to be thankful that we’re living in the time when this is not the case. The church really has made major changes over the last decades.
“I never really understood exactly how monumental those changes were until I went to the Vatican the first time. They really had to rewrite their dogma to allow them to say that other faiths have relevance. It was very wrenching for them, and still controversial.
“So when a hand is outstretched to you, you take it — but still you may not forget the past.”
The church’s new relationship to Jews was apparent in the food they were served, Goldin said. There were two tables with kosher food, with the hecksher of the chief rabbi of Rome, at every reception. “They were very carefully watching out for us,” he said.
Goldin was a panelist for a discussion on ecology; he talked about the Torah’s instructions on the jubilee year, its mandate that farmers leave gleanings for the poor, and its message that those gleanings are not the farmer’s gift to the poor but belong to them; that everyone, rich and poor, must work, and gain dignity through that work; that it is neither necessary nor even acceptable for the landowner to scrabble for the last bits of grain, and that in the end the land does not belong to its titular owner but to God. The panelists found that worldview helpful, he noted.
The closing ceremony, which could have been pure kitsch, was not, Goldin said.
“Every faith tradition does its own prayers for peace, and then you come together for the closing ceremony. They understood that the Jews could not do a prayer together. We went back to the synagogue, and Jews from the local community came, too. We did a regular Minchah, and then a special prayer for peace.”
Next, everyone met, in a plaza designed by Michelangelo, listened to speeches, and then hugged and shook hands, depending on their traditions, with representatives of other faiths. “Then each one of the 300 people got up to light a flame, and children came up to meet us.
“It was beautiful.”
Now that he has been home for almost a week, Goldin has had a chance to reflect on his experiences.
“It did work for me, but the conflict remains,” he said. “We have to be citizens of the world. It is easy to preach this when we are sitting in our own cubits. It is much more difficult to go out and do it, yet it has to be done.
“We have to have a voice, and it is a Kiddush haShem for us to be involved in moral choices in the world.
“But at the same time, we have to do that without compromising our values.
“When we meet again, I will be forthright, and talk about these concerns.
“Is it possible to have a real dialogue? Can we actually get to some of the real issues that divide us, as opposed to just doing this nice feel-good stuff?
“We are supposed to be our own particular community, and also a light unto the nations.”