Habemus Papam? Habemus Controversy!

By Oz-Salzberger, Fania | Newsweek, March 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Habemus Papam? Habemus Controversy!


Oz-Salzberger, Fania, Newsweek


Byline: Fania Oz-Salzberger

Why Jews could never have a pope.

In our co-authored book, Jews and Words (Yale, 2012), my father, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and I, a historian of ideas, combined our differing outlooks to propose a new take on Jewish identity. Being Jewish, we suggest, is about wordiness, textuality, and, above all, familial disagreement sprinkled with a healthy dose of self-effacing humor. In passing, we claimed that the Jews never had a pope because they could not possibly have one. Now, with a new pontiff in the headlines, we took that conversation further. Amos is on a reading tour in Germany and Poland, which made the conversation more poignant (and more high tech). We had a long telephone chat, swapped a couple of emails and text messages, savored a skirmish or two, and edited it all into the text below. We still disagree a little. That's the secret spice.

Dad, can you imagine a Jewish pope installed in Jerusalem?

Never in a thousand years. Or in three and a half millennia, for that matter. A Jewish pontiff shepherding the entire flock of the faithful was impossible in the days of Moses, and it is even less possible today.

How so?

Well, imagine the Jews electing a pope. As he steps out into the balcony, everyone would be slapping him on the shoulder.

Or her.

Or her. "Hey, pope!" they'd say. "Shalom! You don't know me, but my grandmother knew your great-uncle back in Marrakech!" Or, "Our grandparents did business together back in Minsk!" And then unavoidably: "So now, let me tell you once and for all what God is really expecting from us. And, while we're at it, I'll give you a piece of my mind about politics and the economy." You see, we are far too familiar, intimate, and chutzpadik to allow any one person, even the greatest and holiest of rabbis, to rise above everyday human critique.

But wasn't Moses something of a shepherd to the ancient Hebrews? We are just celebrating Passover. It was Moses, an Egyptian prince by adoption, who led the nation from Egypt to the holy land, from slavery to freedom. They all followed him to the desert, where he brought down the Torah from Mount Sinai. Surely Moses could have fathered, spiritually speaking, a lineage of divine shepherds?

Far from it. From start to end, the Hebrews' journey was fraught with theological debate, political rebelliousness, and plain human bickering. Moses himself was a flawed human being, both physically and morally. Think of it this way: the Torah is the first book in history that had to be published in two editions on the same day. An exasperated Moses broke the first pair of tablets when he found his people dancing around a golden calf, having kicked off his authority as soon as he turned his back on them. The poor man had to trudge up the mountain again and request the Author of the Universe to produce the second edition. I'd give a lot to know what was written in the first.

Strangely enough, Moses is totally absent from the hallowed Passover text that we all read around the festive table, the Haggadah. He is not mentioned even once. Imagine the Christian Gospel without St. Peter.

One possible explanation for this mysterious absence is precisely this: the Jews of medieval Christendom, who created the Haggadah, did not want their children to think of Moses as anything resembling a Jewish St. Peter. …

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