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Benedict and the Rabbi

A Christian pope on the Hebrew Bible.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By MEIR Y. SOLOVEICHIK
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Benedict then turns to more particularly Christian aspects of religious thought, but the encyclical is remarkable for its sensitive philosophical and exegetical engagement of Hebraic ideas. Let us now flash-forward to 2012, and the pope’s annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia. The world’s one billion Catholics did not know—but Benedict undoubtedly did—that this would be the last Christmas address he would deliver as the leader of the Catholic faith. In his speech, Benedict defended the age-old definition of marriage as the union of man and woman. This of course is unsurprising; yet what was unexpected is that the pope chose to do so by citing another European religious leader, one who is not a bishop or cardinal, but rather the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim. In a recent lengthy essay defending his opposition to same-sex marriage, Bernheim stressed the importance of the Genesis account in teaching us philosophically about the nature of marriage and identity, and emphasized the ideal of a child being raised by both father and mother. Benedict referred to Bernheim’s essay as “profoundly moving” and cited it extensively in his address. 

This elevated Bernheim’s document from an essay written on behalf of French Orthodox Jewry to a statement studied by Catholics all over the world. Because it was written in French, many Orthodox Jews around the world knew little about it. Yet after Benedict’s address, Bernheim’s piece was read and translated by Ralph Hancock, a political philosopher at Brigham Young University, and thereby made available to Jewish thinkers everywhere. Recently published in First Things magazine, Hancock’s translation can be read at firstthings.com.

Let us consider, in summation, this remarkable turn of events. A rabbi, writing in Paris, defends Judaism’s traditional notion of marriage. This essay is read and cited in Latin by a Catholic leader and thinker in Rome, who from the very beginning of his papacy exhibited a deep interest in Jewish thinking about love and marriage. The pope’s endorsement thereby leads to the translation of the essay by a Mormon philosopher living in Utah. The essay is then exposed to diverse communities of faith in the English-speaking world. 

All eyes now turn to the conclave of cardinals who will select Pope Benedict’s successor. One of the questions the cardinals will unquestionably consider is which Catholic leader can most eloquently and effectively defend a traditional moral worldview that is no longer taken for granted in the West. Members of other faiths are equally concerned with this task, and one of the lessons of Benedict’s writings is that different religious communities can learn from each other in this moral and philosophical endeavor. As such, the statements and encyclicals that bracketed this brief but important papacy are a possible sign of more enduring intellectual interfaith engagements yet to come.

Meir Y. Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.

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