interfaith Rabbinic Reflections

‘We Stand on Common Ground’: Rabbi John A. Linder on Meeting Pope Francis 

Our rabbinates give us the opportunity to be in places we’d never imagined. Though the quiet, unheralded encounters and relationships sustain me the most, I’ll hold this one particularly close to my heart. 

We live our respective faiths most deeply by being in covenantal relationship with one another; bound by our shared humanity. For me, this was never validated more powerfully than during a recent, unexpected trip to Rome. I was invited to join a delegation of twenty interfaith leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to meet with Pope Francis for a conversation in his residence in Vatican City. I embarked with the blessings of the leadership of Temple Solel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At the beginning of our meeting, the Pope thanked us for inconveniencing ourselves to come and see him. Imagine that!   

What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement (I was one of five non-Spanish speaking leaders, fully participating thanks to headphones and a translator!). The encounter was filled with many blessed exchanges about the joys and struggles of our work; affirming the central role faith institutions play in building community through the pursuit of justice, especially for those on the margins. 

As we shared our community organizing experiences, we were all struck by how carefully Pope Francis listened. I was profoundly moved by his humility. He listens lovingly, from a place of curiosity, openness, and humor. He loves to smile and laugh! The Pope was just fun to be with!   

The Pope heard us tell stories of organizing around our local issues. He was touched when hearing about how becoming a public person restores dignity and develops a sense of one’s agency. What really struck the Pope is that we were not talking about theory or ideology, but rather real-life stories that described experiencing God through encounters with the other. The room was filled with kindred spirits.   

Pope Francis stressed the importance of being with people, of paying attention to their reality, emphasizing what he referred to as “amor concreto,” concrete love. The Pope lives in love. He’s been walking the talk of his ministry from the barrios of Argentina to the Vatican—seeing and hearing injustice, acting for systemic change, and being changed in return. He celebrated the value that we place on leadership development and strategic action; of doing rather than complaining about what’s not being done; of acting without disparaging or demonizing. The Pope, though just learning about us, remarked that the IAF is “good news for the United States.”   

What profound validation for the local work of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), our IAF network affiliate. I feel great pride that Temple Solel has been a member of VIP for fifteen years, acting together within a broad-based interfaith organization to carry words of Torah into the real world. Throughout his encyclicals and many writings, the Pope appreciates the radical nature of the Hebrew Bible, as the foundation of Christian Scripture. He understands that it’s impossible to realize words of scripture without entering into the fray of the public square, without ruffling some feathers. He has never sought refuge in an ivory tower. Pope Francis, looking at each of us directly in the eye, said, “the only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping to lift them up.”   

At the conclusion of our conversation, I presented Pope Francis with a leatherbound and gold leaf Hebrew Bible. I said to him, through a translator, “Your Holiness, I have never been more certain, that we stand on common ground.” The Pope got a kick out of it when I told him that my (almost) 94-year-old mother-in-law inscribed the book the night before my flight to Rome.   

I think about the unlikely paths that brought each of the twenty members of the IAF delegation together—paths paved by the common values of our sacred texts, which merged into a collective pilgrimage to Rome, to be touched by the presence and soul of this magnificent man, all of us recognizing that the ground upon which we stand as brothers and sisters is, indeed, holy ground. Now back home, we are strengthened by one another, interconnected through our respective faiths, emboldened and blessed by Pope Francis to continue our sacred work, channeling the words of Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” 

Rabbi John A. Linder serves Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Alone with Yitzhak Rabin: Reflections on CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

I travelled to Israel at the end of July, one of 13 rabbis, organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as a solidarity mission while the war raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.  The goal of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” is to disable Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel, now capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.  And to destroy the network of tunnels Hamas has been digging and reinforcing with cement intended to build schools, hospitals and homes; tunnels dug across Israel’s border as a terrorist tactic to instill fear in those communities underneath which the tunnels reach, intended to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers.  Any sovereign nation has the right, actually the obligation, to defend itself against enemy attack.  Israel can claim that right to justify its extensive military operation.  I wanted to travel to Israel, on behalf of Temple Solel, to show up for our brothers and sisters, collect and bring needed supplies to IDF soldiers, understand more deeply the complicated politics at play in Israel and the surrounding region, and return to share my experiences within Solel and the greater community.  Here’s one story from the beginning of my trip.

It was motzei Shabbat, the end of Shabbat, and I heard on the news that there was going to be an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square.  I took a cab from my hotel to the square.  On the radio in the cab, driven by a Russian Jew who made aliya in the mid ‘90’s, played the traditional music marking havdalah, the ritual that moves us from Shabbat into the new week.   What other country would you hear a cabbie play such music?  The music concluded with the prayer of hope that Eliyahu ha’navi, that Elijah the prophet, who in our tradition will usher in the Messianic age, will arrive soon.  Such an irony, as I stepped out of the cab to an anti-war rally.  There were no signs of Elijah.

The square was quite a sight to behold.  An estimated 5,000 Israelis were gathered peacefully, with speaker after speaker denouncing the level of force Israel chose to use in Gaza, the resulting high number of civilian deaths, physical devastation, and the emerging humanitarian crisis.  These were not fringe Israelis.  These were proud citizens, with children fighting in Gaza, who themselves had served in the IDF.  And, of course, there was a counter rally.  A few hundred flag-waving Israelis,  shouting loudly at their fellow citizens, denouncing them as traitors, who had turned their backs on the IDF soldiers fighting on the front lines.   And, literally in the middle, was a large police force, on foot and horses, protecting the anti-war protesters from the counter protesters; Jews protecting Jews (and some, very few, Israeli Arabs) from Jews. It actually was a powerful reflection of Israel’s democracy in action – freedom of speech.  If only the peoples of the surrounding Arab countries could speak so freely.

The square is named after Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) who, on November 4, 1995, was assassinated by an Israeli Jewish religious extremist, Yigal Amir.  Rabin, a military man, a warrior who fought for the modern State of Israel, as an elder statesman, led with the greatest courage of his life, for peace.  As Israel’s Prime Minister during this time, Rabin took the bold steps to put a halt to further building in the West Bank settlements, and was prepared to make land concessions with the Palestinians, for the sake of peace – bold steps for which he would pay with his life.  Rabin, to garner public support for his actions, held a massive peace rally, in this very square (previously known as Kings of Israel Square).  After an inspiring speech, challenging Israel to seize this window of opportunity for peace, departing the square, Amir shot Rabin in cold blood.

Now, almost 20 years later, off the square, down a  dimly-lit pathway, in ear-shot of the rally, I stood alone, next to the memorial statue of Yitzhak Rabin, in the very spot he was assassinated.   For any number of contributing factors, mostly a lack of political will and courage on both sides of the table, Israeli and Palestinian, the prospects for peace has taken a detour in the past two decades, a peace now barely discernible.   Alone with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the barely illuminated dark, I could see the bronze bust of his proud, pensive, determined demeanor, shaking his head from side to side, with a tear rolling down his cheek.  Had all for which he sacrificed been in vain?

Israel, indeed, needs to defend her borders and her people.   Yet, as a warrior amongst warriors, Rabin understood, with the hard-gained wisdom of battle and age, only a political solution will break the cycle of violence.  If  we are ever to see the Prophet Elijah, it will take men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, with the imagination, creativity and courage of Yitzhak Rabin to reach across the table to one another, for the sake of peace.  Someday, God-willing, I, or my son, or my grandchildren will stand in this place, along side Elijah, and see Rabin nod up and down, with a smile on his face.

Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel, Phoenix, Arizona.

Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Standing Together: Reflections from CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

These past five days have been dizzying, both in terms of places we’ve visited and people we’ve met.  More than being filled with a much greater understanding of this very complex, and tragic war, I have been emotionally drained.

Let me offer one highlight from this morning. Our group of 13 rabbis visited Mount Herzl Cemetery. This is where some of Israel’s greatest pioneers and leaders are buried, along with those men and woman who gave their lives in battle, protecting the State of Israel. Unfortunately, with the mounting number of IDF soldier killed in battle in the current war, there were some fresh burial sites.

Each of us took some private time paying our respects at the graves of these brave young men. We then walked down the steps of the terraced cemetery, to find some shade and in hushed tones, together, recited El Malei Rachamin, the special Memorial prayer for fallen soldiers and the Mourner’s Kaddish. That we could be present in this place, rabbis who came to Mount Herzl from America, to create a minyan at this devastating time, was itself quite remarkable. Each of us was touched.

Just as we concluded, I noticed a soldier ascending the stairs to the graves from which we just came. I was moved to follow this young soldier up the stairs. I watched him slowly approach the graves, overflowing with fresh-flowered wreaths of mourning, and kneel beside his comrades. Sensitive to the soldier’s grief, I unobtrusively captured this scene with my camera. I proceeded to quietly walk next to this young man, still kneeling, and offered a hand to hold, which he accepted. He gently turned his head to me, eyes met for a brief second, clenched one another’s hand, as we exchanged a tear. I placed my hand on his shoulder, on the strap from which his rifle hung, gave him a loving squeeze, and moved on.   I travelled to Israel to stand with my brothers and sisters. Indeed, this morning, on the hallowed, sacred ground of Mount Herzl, two brothers embraced.

 Rabbi John Linder is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, AZ.