Was Pope Francis Speaking To The Jews?


If you are looking for prophetic words that rail against injustice and hypocrisy, you are probably not going to find them emanating from the lips of those who hold positions of power. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish moral spokesman of the 20th century, constantly goaded the Jewish community into thinking deeply about why synagogues and Jewish institutions should even exist: “The problem is not how to fill the buildings but how to inspire the hearts.” He was greatly concerned about the bureaucracy of Jewish life, and he believed that the Jewish community was not asking the tough questions that demanded response.

That is why it is rare, and refreshing, to find a religious leader who will speak prophetic words of truth to his or her own leadership body. A few weeks ago, in his second Christmas address to the Curia (the leadership of the Catholic Church), Pope Francis gave every Catholic in the world (approximately 1.2 billion of them) something to think about. 

And not just the Catholics. Us — we Jews — as well.

What did he say? He indicted the Vatican bureaucracy. He called for not only structural reform, but spiritual reform as well. In tones reminiscent of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” he listed 15 “ailments of the Curia,” coupled with a powerful call for change. He coined a haunting term — “spiritual Alzheimer’s” — an ailment that forces leaders to forget why they entered their professions, and that forces them to become too occupied with perpetuating their own organizational systems.

True, the pope was speaking to Vatican leadership. But his call should not end there. It should prompt American Jewish communal leaders to examine our own communal “ailments.” Indeed, this is not to say that there are not many positive developments and programs in the Jewish community. But I am concerned that addressing our ailments is not a top priority.

Here is a short list: assimilation; alienation; the high costs of Jewish living; pervasive confusion about Jewish organizational missions; tension about the different ways that the Jewish community engages with Israel; the need for greater Jewish presence on campus, to name just a few. As we begin 2015, there are three ailments that require the reflection and honest self-assessment of all Jewish institutions: synagogues, JCCs, federations, etc. Although examples always run the risk of overstating or simplifying the issue, I believe each example provides a lens into major issues that need to be addressed in the Jewish community.

The ailment of feeling “immortal or essential”: The pope was alluding to communal and personal narcissism, criticizing those who worship their own power more than their own commitment to service. Jewish leaders must continue to ask: Am I fulfilling the responsibilities that were both implicit and explicit when I was elected or appointed? Am I ensuring that the institution I serve is remaining true to its mission? Jewish organizations — especially local Jewish federations — need to ask: Are we evolving to respond to the needs of the times? Have we become mired in bureaucracy? Have we become afraid of change? Are we listening to all sectors of Jewish life or only the voices that have seats at the table? Have we allocated enough resources to emerging groups?

The ailment of “deifying leaders”: The pope spoke of “careerism and opportunism,” reminding leaders to remember that they were called to serve. To be fair, most people enter public service out of a deep yearning to help others, especially those in great need. But it is worth asking: Do our systems reward thoughtful questioning and self-assessment? Or do they more often reward blind loyalty and obedience, and simply advance those who do not question or challenge authority? Are our seminaries training rabbinic, educational and communal leaders to be effective and creative leaders and change agents, as well as reflective practitioners? 

In particular and for example, let’s just focus on the Reform movement. (I am proud to be part of this movement and a former dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.) Question: Does the movement really need four campuses? More important: Can the movement still afford four campuses? How else might those precious moneys be allocated?  Each campus does play a unique role in its own community, but I often wonder if that justifies the expense.

The ailment of “bad coordination”: Are we doing our communal planning in a strategic, coherent, effective, cooperative and creative way? Why are we continuing to spend billions of dollars on new buildings, cultural centers, museums and new synagogue buildings, when we might well be figuring out how to share facilities? True: those structures are often exquisite, but do we need such elaborate ones when so many people cannot afford the costs of participating in Jewish life? We lack significant funding for dynamic youth program, scholarship money for camps and Israel trips as well as supporting more innovative projects that connect with Jews who do not relate to our current institutions. I sometimes wonder if we fully educate donors to the real needs of the Jewish community beyond bricks and mortar. Should we not invest in Jewish communities that are working collaboratively and examining priorities and a vision for the total Jewish community?

Pope Francis gave the Curia a remarkable gift — a gift of honest and loving words, asking those Catholic leaders to question and assess their roles. By extension, that gift can become our gift as well.

In 2015, let us summon some of his courage and integrity, and ask the questions we often avoid. Let us engage in institutional self-assessments that might lead to real transformation.

Bottom line: Leaders need to take risks. That is what the pope did. We would all benefit greatly by speaking truth to power in thoughtful, honest and committed ways to the organizations we care so deeply about.

Lee Bycel is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice.