Why Jews Don’t Elect a Pope, and What Might Happen if They Did

By Shalom Goldman, Duke University

While the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics eagerly awaited the decision of the Cardinals who were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, members of the world’s other religions, among them many of the world’s 14 million Jews, were also closely following developments in Rome. But as is often the case, there was no Jewish consensus on this issue, or on any other. As the well-known maxim has it, “one Jew, three opinions.”

Behind the differences between Catholic and Jewish approaches to consensus lies some difficult shared history. Roman Catholic hostility to Judaism has a long and venerable history, and Jewish suspicion of the Catholic hierarchy has persisted for centuries. The past century witnessed great changes in the Catholic Church’s relationship with other faiths, and the changes in its relationship to Judaism were among the most dramatic. The decision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to re-evaluate and improve Catholic understandings of other faiths, particularly Judaism, was expressed in the Church document Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”). According to that document, the old Church teaching of contempt for the Jews was no longer acceptable; Judaism was now to be thought of a “sister religion,” a faith with an integrity of its own. Other forms of Christianity, including Eastern Orthodoxy and other religions, including Islam, were referred to in a positive way in the document, but mention of them was brief and general.  Jews and Judaism were the focus of Nostra Aetate.

Two Popes, John XXIII (from 1958-63) and John Paul II (from 1978-2005), were key players in this radical change in Catholic relations with other faiths, particularly with Judaism. As young priests, both of them had close contact with non-Christian communities: the future John XXIII with Jews and Muslims in Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey during World War Two, and the future John Paul II with Jews in his native Poland during and after that war.

These dramatic changes in Catholic attitudes towards other faiths, and particularly toward Judaism, highlight the great differences between the religious systems of Roman Catholics and Jews. Beyond issues of doctrine and ritual, where the differences are perhaps obvious, one might look at the question of religious organization. Catholicism is hierarchical – too hierarchical for many of its current Catholic critics – while Judaism is not.

Why is that? Why don’t Jews have a “Church,” a hierarchy, and a supreme authority? If Catholics, with a church membership some one hundred times greater than that of Jews, maintain loyalty (though in modernity at times a shaky loyalty) to a hierarchy headed by one person, why don’t Jews?  Wouldn’t such leadership make Judaism a “stronger” religion? One answer is that the Hebrew Bible often expresses ambivalence about absolute authority. And this is an ambivalence that Judaism has internalized. Even Moses the Lawgiver is not exempt from deep flaws and failings, and he is told by God to appoint a council of elders to assist him. When the Israelites want a king, the prophet Samuel warns them of the harm that a monarch can do to his people. The Israelites reject his sage advice, with dire consequences.

In contrast to Catholicism, Judaism draws on another model of religious organization, one in which resistance to the centralization of authority seems to work to the religion’s advantage. Not having a “Chief Rabbi” or other venerated leader seems to confer the advantages of flexibility and adaptability.

There is no “head” of Judaism; in fact, there are no national “Chief Rabbis” with anything comparable to Papal power, despite the many attempts to establish such hierarchical structures.  It is not that Judaism rejects authority – the very idea of Rabbinic Judaism is predicated on the authority of the Rabbis. It is the Rabbis who are entrusted with studying and teaching the tradition and making decisions about how its laws are applied in their own time.  What the tradition rejects, rather, is the centralization of that authority. Though the Rabbinate – in its dazzling array of forms, especially on the American religious landscape – persists, Rabbinic hierarchy does not.  And in the past two centuries, attempts to establish Rabbinic hierarchies have failed dismally.

One hears of Chief Rabbis in some countries – England and Israel are examples. But in neither country does the Chief Rabbi have authority over a majority of their co-religionists (in the case of Israel, this applies to both Chief Rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi). In England, only Orthodox Jews (and not of all of them) pay attention to the Chief Rabbis’ dictates. In Israel, the Rabbis are government functionaries, their “sanctity” tainted by association with a cumbersome bureaucracy. In the United States, a late-nineteenth-century attempt to appoint a Chief Rabbi of New York City proved a comic failure. A great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, was appointed to the post but had to resign a few years later; some Orthodox and most Reform Jews refused to recognize his leadership.

Some observers attribute this resistance to authority to Jewish assimilation into Western culture and the emergence of “secular” forms of Jewishness. But sociologists of Jewish communal life – and sociologists of modern Israel – have demonstrated that these anti-authoritarian tendencies persist in “non-religious” forms of Jewish life as well.

In fact, one of the most cogent reflections on why there is no “Pope of the Jews” comes from the pen of an Israeli writer who is ideologically distant from any form of traditional Rabbinic Judaism. According to Amos Oz, novelist and public intellectual, Jews might feel the need to elect a Pope – but as soon as they did, age-old anti-authoritarian tendencies would arise. As Oz is a story-teller, and not a social scientist or historian, he tells the tale in a way that brings the point home most forcefully. In an attempt to explain Jewish and Israeli culture to Italian readers,

Oz wrote the following in 2007 in the Italian newspaper La Stampa:

If a Jewish pope were ever to appear, every co-religionist would go and give him a good slap on the back, saying: Listen, you don’t know me nor do I know you, but your grandfather and my uncle used to do business together, in Zithomir, or in Marrakesh… So give me two minutes so I can explain once and for all what exactly God wants from us.

That was just the kind of interference and chutzpah that the Cardinals, who have now chosen a Pope, did not have to worry about.

Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University


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