By Ben Tinsley
More than two years ago, Rabbi Adam Raskin, a former president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas, wrote a heartfelt letter to Pope Francis comparing the pontiff to Moses.
He didn’t really think he would get a return letter.
But a response did come — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join the Pope in a service. Rabbi Raskin, the current spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom synagogue in Potomac, Maryland was one of the leaders invited to a Sept. 25 multireligious service at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
This narrative account was taken from a sermon by the rabbi.
The invitation was delightful news for the rabbi, who considers Pope Francis a role model. (He said he doesn’t have a lot of role models in the rabbinate.)
Raskin, who was a rabbi at Beth Torah and associated rabbi at Shearith Israel, said the way Pope Francis conducts himself inspired him to strive toward greater humility, simplicity, and servanthood.
“I originally wrote to Pope Francis soon after he was elected,” he explained. “… When Francis was elected I was fascinated by how he eschewed the royal trappings of the papacy.”
The Pope, for example, carried his own bags, taking the bus with his fellow cardinals rather than the papal limousine, Raskin said.
“He lives in a small room in the Vatican hotel rather than in the Apostolic palace,” he said. “He even wears the same shoes as my father-in-law, black orthotics, not the handmade red velvet shoes of his predecessors. … I wrote to him that his actions reminded me of what the Torah said of Moses in Numbers 12:3 that he was the humblest of men.”
Ultimately, Pope Francis represents a very different kind of religious leadership, Raskin said.
“After addressing Congress, he declined a lunch invitation with Congressional leaders to instead have lunch with the homeless,” the rabbi said as an example.
Rabbi Raskin’s letter to the pope, meanwhile, traveled further than he dared dream.
“The letter I wrote to the Pope crossed the desks of Cardinal Weurl and the Apostolic Nuncio who wrote me thanking me for the greetings to the Holy Father,” the rabbi stated. “Months later I met Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis’s dear friend from Argentina with whom he wrote a book on interfaith relations. He spoke at the Argentine Embassy some months ago, and I mentioned to the Apostolic Nuncio (who also happened to be there) that I would love to be a part of the interfaith delegation to welcome the Pope to America.”
After that exchange, Raskin didn’t hear anything back for months.
“I was reading, as I’m sure all of you were, about the developing plans for the Pope’s visit,” the rabbi said. “And then, on the Friday before Rosh Hashanah, I received an invitation from the Archdiocese in New York to attend this event … two days after Yom Kippur and two days before Sukkot.”
Rabbi Raskin said outside the museum before the program began, the Pope came to offer greetings to families of the victims of the terrorist attacks.
“I mingled with some of those family members while waiting to enter the museum,” the rabbi said. “Behind me was a widow, a mother of twins who were only a few months old when their father was killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center.”
The mother pulled out her phone to show the rabbi a picture of her daughters — their prom picture in fact.
“Both were beautiful, dressed in identical emerald green gowns,” he said. “She told me how well they are doing in school, how successfully they are growing up. She stood in line with her mother, who has helped her raise the girls since their father died.”
Then, in front of the rabbi, a woman pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair turned around.
“She said that her brother, and the only son of the elderly woman died in the south tower,” the rabbi said. “He too was a father of twins. These girls, however, have been estranged from their father’s family since the attack.”
Their girls’ mother only allowed sporadic contact, and this woman, their aunt, wept as she told the rabbi how much she missed them and wished they could be closer.
“All around me were people wearing buttons with pictures of their loved ones, firefighters and police officers paying homage to fallen comrades, and a growing line up of clergy and religious leaders as well,” he said.
Eventually, attendees gathered in Foundation Hall, an area that was once in the middle of the two towers.
“It was there that I got a sense of who was there for this encounter with Pope Francis,” Raskin stated. “The spectacle was truly beautiful, and I mean that both symbolically and literally. The representatives of the world’s great faiths were there in their full array of religious regalia: scarves, stoles, robes, headgear, sashes, face paint, hair braids, turbans, frocks, it was truly a beautiful palate of color and symbolism. I felt so plain in my dark suit and yarmulke — though I did wear a white one in honor of the Pope.”
Raskin mingled around the room meeting bishops, metropolitans, monks and prelates.
Audience members were given a translation audio device to listen to the pope, who spoke to them in both English and Spanish.
“I was seated with a Catholic priest on one side and a Jain on the other,” he said. “I asked the priest, who was from Liverpool, England, how he liked this pope, who is as controversial within the church as he is outside it. He responded, ‘He’s the man! I love him! But I worry about him.’ I asked him why, and he told me that he is too beloved. What’s wrong with that, I wondered. He told me that a true agent of change can’t be so loved. A change agent should agitate and disrupt, not cause people to swoon over him. That was a perspective that I hadn’t considered. I told him what drew me to this event.”
Everyone stood when the Pope arrived and an orchestra played a pretty dramatic musical number for his entrance.
“He began by saying, ‘I’m sorry I’m not speaking to you in English. I can’t do it!’ he said. “Everyone laughed and we put on our listening devices for simultaneous translation. For a world leader who excites crowds into a frenzy, he is remarkably soft-spoken and unassuming.”
The Pope talked about the horror of 9/11 and pleaded with the people there to lead their flocks to embrace peace and unity.
“There was not a hint of superiority or an inkling that he possessed a greater truth than anyone else in the room,” the rabbi said. “He did not speak of Jesus directly and didn’t convey his message in a way that could be exclusionary to anyone in the room.”
True bridge builder
That was a feat in and of itself, and a great lesson to all those pastors who feel the need to pray in Jesus’ name in order to get their point across — even when they know the audience is made up of people of different faiths, he said.
The word “pontiff” is Latin for “bridge builder,” and as Rabbi Raskin scanned this room of representatives from so many diverse faith communities, it was clear to him that no one but this pontiff could have built so many bridges among all who were there.
“I thought of our long complex history with the papacy; popes who issued papal bills forbidding the publication of the Talmud or censoring Jewish prayer books or instigating Crusades and Inquisitions,” he said.
Here was a pope who could not be further from that past, he said.
“With great hope for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, and feeling inspired by Francis’s call for peace and humility, it was with a full heart that I recited the prayer: Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam she’natan michvodo l’vasar vadam,” he said.
Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has imparted some of His glory to human beings.”
Ultimately, it is difficult not to perceive the Pope as a head of state, Rabbi Raskin said.
Technically speaking, the Pope is a head of state; it may be the smallest state on the planet, but it is a state nonetheless, the rabbi said.
“He commands an army of Swiss guards, an economy, a diplomatic corps,” he said. “In fact, the Pope is one of the only absolute monarchs left in the world.”
The Vatican is a country, with a flag, even its own country code Internet domain “VA,” he said.
“The truth is that even if the Pope didn’t fit the halachic bill as head of state, the words ‘she’natan michvodo l’vasar vadam’ are an incredibly accurate description of what it feels like to be in the same room with this man,” he said.
“There is divine kavod, if you will, a sense that you are in the presence of a true holy man.”