Why Jews Could Never Have a Pope

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 15, 2010. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

In our co-authored book, Jews and Words (Yale, 2012), my father, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and I, a historian of ideas, combined our differing outlooks to propose a new take on Jewish identity. Being Jewish, we suggest, is about wordiness, textuality, and, above all, familial disagreement sprinkled with a healthy dose of self-effacing humor. In passing, we claimed that the Jews never had a pope because they could not possibly have one. Now, with a new pontiff in the headlines, we took that conversation further. Amos is on a reading tour in Germany and Poland, which made the conversation more poignant (and more high tech). We had a long telephone chat, swapped a couple of emails and text messages, savored a skirmish or two, and edited it all into the text below. We still disagree a little. That's the secret spice.

Dad, can you imagine a Jewish pope installed in Jerusalem?

Never in a thousand years. Or in three and a half millennia, for that matter. A Jewish pontiff shepherding the entire flock of the faithful was impossible in the days of Moses, and it is even less possible today.

How so?

Well, imagine the Jews electing a pope. As he steps out into the balcony, everyone would be slapping him on the shoulder.

Or her.

Or her. "Hey, pope!" they'd say. "Shalom! You don't know me, but my grandmother knew your great-uncle back in Marrakech!" Or, "Our grandparents did business together back in Minsk!" And then unavoidably: "So now, let me tell you once and for all what God is really expecting from us. And, while we're at it, I'll give you a piece of my mind about politics and the economy." You see, we are far too familiar, intimate, and chutzpadik to allow any one person, even the greatest and holiest of rabbis, to rise above everyday human critique.

But wasn't Moses something of a shepherd to the ancient Hebrews? We are just celebrating Passover. It was Moses, an Egyptian prince by adoption, who led the nation from Egypt to the holy land, from slavery to freedom. They all followed him to the desert, where he brought down the Torah from Mount Sinai. Surely Moses could have fathered, spiritually speaking, a lineage of divine shepherds?

Far from it. From start to end, the Hebrews' journey was fraught with theological debate, political rebelliousness, and plain human bickering. Moses himself was a flawed human being, both physically and morally. Think of it this way: the Torah is the first book in history that had to be published in two editions on the same day. An exasperated Moses broke the first pair of tablets when he found his people dancing around a golden calf, having kicked off his authority as soon as he turned his back on them. The poor man had to trudge up the mountain again and request the Author of the Universe to produce the second edition. I'd give a lot to know what was written in the first.

Strangely enough, Moses is totally absent from the hallowed Passover text that we all read around the festive table, the Haggadah. He is not mentioned even once. Imagine the Christian Gospel without St. Peter.

One possible explanation for this mysterious absence is precisely this: the Jews of medieval Christendom, who created the Haggadah, did not want their children to think of Moses as anything resembling a Jewish St. Peter. He did not generate an apostolic dynasty. We had priests and Levites, prophets and sages aplenty. But no chain of saintly spiritual shepherds emerged to guide the flock. The Jews are not a flock.

But we did have anointed leaders. King David, of course.

David was quintessentially fallible. The Bible has him sinning, erring, and full of human weakness. Almost all great Jews were straddled by weakness and dissent. Many of them had bad press. Jewish peer review was often merciless.

It seems that purity and innocence are not our thing. The Tree of Knowledge coincides with human imperfection. For example, the Haggadah makes children a crucial focus of the Passover night, but these are not innocent lambs. Not the kind of children whose company Christ sought, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

The Jewish children of the Haggadah, theirs is the kingdom of query. They learn to ask questions, tough questions. It's fine to interrogate your elders. Youngsters were actively encouraged to interpret the holy books afresh. The Jewish festive table, with texts and food heaped upon it, deftly channeled childish and adolescent rebellion into intellectual tug-of-war on a full stomach. It's a great way to keep your kids around, disagreeing and fascinated.

I disagree. You are idealizing. You overstate the love of novelty in Jewish orthodoxy. There is so much obedient repetition. Today's ultra-Orthodox (though not the modern Orthodox) seem chained to the ancient wisdom. They are not so different from other faiths in their past-gazing adoration.

Every time the Jews lived in submission, obedience, and blind religious discipline, rather than in open interpretation, was a bad time for Jews.

But I find great beauty in the Catholic adherence to a unique divinity invested in a human frame. As Michelangelo put it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God and man almost touch.

Beautiful indeed. And yet, the Jewish proposal is different. God inhabits law and justice, not the blue angelic heavens. Therefore we must argue with him. The very name "Israel" means "he who struggles with God." Even when we stop believing in him, we keep arguing.

Let's go back to our imaginary Jewish pope. Some great rabbis today, in the eyes of their believers, are holier than holy. They can't go wrong. How is that different from the Roman pontiff?

Simple. There are dozens of such rabbis. Every rabbi has a counter-rabbi. Recall the joke about the Jew stranded alone on a desert island? When rescued, it turned out he had built one hut and two synagogues. Why two? Well, he said, I worship in the first, and will never set foot in the second.

So individualism, plurality, and discord kept us together?

A bookshelf, a penchant for debating the bookshelf, and kids who ask questions. These kept us together.

Can we offer this insight to other religions or cultures?

We can offer it to any faith-centered group, not just the religious kind. We can offer it to anyone seeking identity but fleeing from fanaticism. Instead of being a shepherded flock, try redefining yourself, your group, as an ongoing dinner-table family argument. It worked for us.