Why John Paul II was Good for the Jews (Ideas #65)

It is the nature of funerals to evoke exclusively positive memories of the deceased. If this is true of average people, it is all the more true of great people. Accordingly with the death of Pope John Paul II, Jews have also joined the nearly universal chorus of praise for this truly great man.

While it is quite proper for Jews to praise John Paul II, the praise coming from the Jewish world ironically often ignores a truly theological Jewish perspective: Inevitably, one reads that John Paul was sincerely concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people, of how he showed respect for Judaism and the State of Israel in short, he was a friend of the Jews. There is no question that these are important things, for which he does indeed deserve praise. Nevertheless, when Jews limit their praise to he was good for the Jews, it reinforces a perception paradoxically shared by many anti-Semites that the Jews really only care about themselves. But our, sometimes, obsessive concern with being good for the Jews is not just a tactical mistake. More importantly, exclusive concern with our physical survival allows us to forget the fundamental question of why we believe the Jewish people is supposed to survive.

Jews have to remember that our historical role is not just to exist - it is to bring about universal recognition of G-d's Kingship. Whether we should be embarrassed by it or not, John Paul did more towards this goal than almost any Jew alive today. Obviously he was in a better position to do so, but that doesn't take away from his accomplishment. More than embarrassment, however, we need to show appreciation for his genuinely positive impact on mankind. If imperfectly and less accurately than we would like, John Paul brought mankind a little bit closer to the historical Jewish ideal of bringing about universal submission to the rule of G-d. 

Yet what we read in our media could give one the impression that Jews don't care that much if the pope advanced the interests of faith and morality to millions of people around the world. Perhaps we have actually forgotten that this should be of far greater consequence to the Jews than how nicely he treated us. Granted, true morality is at loggerheads with anti-Semitism, but it is the former more than the latter that should be our overriding concern. As originally formulated by Rambam(1), Western religions bring people closer to a religious understanding of the world, promotion of which is the main raison d'etre of the Jewish people.

True, the official anti-Semitism of the classical Church has been the source of much persecution and worse. Being only human, it is hard for many Jews to think of the Church as anything but a vicious and intolerant oppressor. Even while that has been an extremely unfortunate manifestation of Christian theology, thinking Jews cannot allow the hurts of the past to blind them to the profound realities of the present. It is thus incumbent that we look beyond Church policy towards the Jews and utilize the larger Jewish worldview in evaluating the Church and its impact on mankind.

When I was in college, many of my friends were devout Christians. No doubt, for some the friendship was motivated by ulterior and ridiculous hopes of seeing me convert. For most, however, what brought us together was much more a case of our common interest in faith and morality. In the context of contemporary American society, we felt a shared cause in wanting to see modern society move towards a G-d who cares about all of mankind and demands behavior that reflects His existence.

Obviously, we Jews don't agree with much of Christian theology. On an important level, however, religious Jews and Christians are very much on the same side of the Kulturkampf that rages in the Western world today. That means that in the real world, when contemporary Christianity makes strides against secular agnosticism,  that is almost always good for the Jews. When it loses, it is not Judaism that will come to fill the vacuum, but rather G-dlessness. As a result, it is important for us to recognize that John Paul's personality and teachings brought many closer to G-d.

Let us honor and praise the righteous gentiles that treat Jews with respect and kindness. But let us also praise gentiles who help us in our historical mission of bringing mankind to its potential. The former pope was good for the Jews certainly because he was our friend, but more importantly because he was our ally.

(1) Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:4  (uncensored version).