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Emeritus: Pope and Rabbi

On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI gave his farewell address to the crowd outside the very cooly named Castle Gandolfo.

“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth. But I would still, thank you, I would still—with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength”

While this was an essential moment for Catholics around the world, rabbis need to pay attention to this too. The Pope is demonstrating on the world stage what it means to be an emertius rabbi.


Watching the hundreds of rabbis at the CCAR Convention, I see my childhood rabbi, now an emeritus, and the emeritus of the synagogue I currently work with. Rabbis will be emeritus for many more years, on average, than in the past as life span and health allow it.

PopeAs the first Emeritus Pope in at least 600 years, Benedict made a slew of choices that will dramatically affect his successor’s ability to lead. Working with rabbis emeritus in several congregations and seeing them in nearby synagogues, their choices, the congregation’s, and the new rabbi’s, among others, enabled the relationship to be a healthy, bright, and productive or sometimes troublesome and even destructive.

While there may not be simple absolutes, I hope the Vatican has developed a series of rules like the guidelines the Reform Movement has. Knowing the Vatican, they are likely in several big books all in Latin. In the URJ/CCAR guidelines, it states (emphasis added), “Only one Rabbi can carry the responsibility for the administration of rabbinic functions in the Congregation. When a new Rabbi is elected and enters into office, this responsibility is automatically transferred to him/her. The Rabbi Emeritus should help to establish the successor in the position, and should guide lay people to understand that the new Rabbi is the Rabbi of the Congregation.” Two popes would be a real challenge as the Pope is infallible. [I suggest you insert your own “rabbi as infallible” joke here – perhaps using “mother thinks he/she is” or “that one lay leader is sure he is not”]

That the Pope has become Emeritus Pope is not a big deal, as long as he focuses on the 1st word and not the 2nd. That he has chosen to continue to wear white is maybe not a great thing. Moving from the red shoes the handcrafted Mexican brown ones? Good idea. Living in Castle Gandolfo (presumably with Gandalf and Dumbledore) is understandable – it’s close to the Vatican, 40 minutes by car, much less by helicopter – but it’s not underfoot (red or brown). Keeping his Pope name, Benedict? Not so keen on that – he’s only had it for 8 years. But maybe he never liked Joseph Ratzinger.

For an emeritus, the ability to create tzimtum – a contraction of one’s self after a lifetime of expansion – is essential in creating the space and authority for the new leader of a community – synagogue or church.

The new pope will have a tricky job in appropriately honoring and celebrating Emeritus Pope Benedict while maintain his unique role. Certainly the emeritus pontiff’s heath will be at play, but even in word and reflection, how the new pope refers to the previous pope will help diffuse any tension and will smooth the divided loyalities of the Catholic faithful. For new rabbis, there is tzimtzum needed too. Appropriate and honored space needs to be created to recognize the previous rabbi.

I have been blessed with the rabbis emeritus I have worked with. One moved away. One lives right near the synagogue. One had an office he came to every day. When the rabbi emeritus refers to the new rabbi as “my rabbi,” it makes a world of difference. I await the emeritus pope’s statements on the newly selected pope.

At its best, the new rabbi-emeritus rabbi relationship is a blessing of collegiality, history, wisdom, and support. We’ll watch it unfold for the first time in Catholic Church on an international stage in the coming months. And we can all learn something from it for our own synagogues.

Rabbi Mark Kaiserman

Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA

www.RaMaKblog.com

One reply on “Emeritus: Pope and Rabbi”

Thank you for your wonderful blog post! Your thoughts about the role of rabbi (or pope) emeritus are illuminating and insightful. I thought I’d add that it IS indeed possible to have two Rabbis “carry the responsibility for the administration of rabbinic functions in a synagogue,” just not the emertitus and his/her successor. In my congregation we have two senior rabbis (co-senior rabbis). They are not a married couple, and they do not ‘share’ one job. They are both full-time rabbis and share the role of spearheading our congregation. It is a beautiful model and one that works extraordinarily well. It allows each of them to focus on their strengths, and since they have different and complementary strengths, it works to the benefit of our whole community. I personally have two mentors and role models, and it has been a blessing working in a congregation with both of them at the helm.
-Rabbi Nicki Greninger (Lafayette, CA)

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