On April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue of Rome for Sabbath services.  He became the first Pope – ever – to visit a synagogue.  It was among a number of “firsts” for him in connection with the larger Jewish world which included making a formal Papal trip to Israel in March, 2000 and a visit to Auschwitz in 1979.  He also issued in 1998: “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.”  The memory of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the first Polish Pope – who lived through the Holocaust – is that of a good name which will endure throughout Jewish and world history.

In that spirit of Pope John Paul II, the Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piché, representing the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, visited Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park on January 29, 2011.  He was warmly welcomed by the congregation and its Rabbis, Alexander Davis and Avi Olitzky.

Archbishops, bishops and other leading Catholic figures in the Twin Cities have long been visiting synagogues and paying their respects to their Jewish neighbors and congregations.  Many Catholic institutions such as the Jay Phillips Center at the University of St. Thomas have long been involved in providing high level Jewish studies and dialogue between Catholics and Jews.  The JCRC has for many years partnered with the Minnesota Catholic Conference (as well as with the Minnesota Council of Churches and Islamic Center of Minnesota) on Minnesota’s unique Joint Religious Legislative Coalition and with Catholic Charities, the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, and the St. Paul Area Council of Churches in support of Minnesota FoodShare.  The relationship of Temple Israel and the Basilica of St. Mary’s – neighbors in Minneapolis – is a moving story of interfaith cooperation among congregations, as was the deep friendship of Rabbi Max Shapiro and Monsignor Terrence Murphy.

Building upon this foundation of Jewish-Catholic friendship in the Twin Cities, the JCRC (with the assistance of Father Erich Rutten of the University of St. Thomas) facilitated the giving of a d’var Torah (a commentary on the Torah portion) at a Beth El Synagogue Shabbat service.  (Thank you to Beth El Synagogue and Rabbis Alexander Davis and Avi Olitzky for their openness and graciousness in providing their bima – pulpit – to Bishop Piché.)

Before even delivering the d’var Torah, Bishop Piché made a great and lasting impression upon the congregation – a Conservative synagogue founded in 1929 on the north side of Minneapolis.  Rabbi Davis invited Bishop Piché to join the processional following the Torah which winds its way through the congregation at the conclusion of the Torah service.  Following the Torah held by the Bat Mitzvah, Delia Koolick and the rabbis with the congregation singing a prayer, Bishop Piché exchanged warm greetings with congregants – many of whom were eager to shake his hand and welcome him to Beth El.  Wearing his Bishop’s cassock, zucchetto (skull cap) and pectoral cross, Bishop Piché appeared as much at home in the Beth El sanctuary under the stained glass depicting Isaiah’s vision of beating swords into plowshares as he might be at the Cathedral of St. Paul.  Metaphorically, it represents the distance traveled between Jews and Catholics in the Twin Cities.  (Capture the scene in your mind’s eye because there are no photographs or videotape due to the observance of Shabbat prohibitions in the synagogue.)

Following the Torah processional, Bishop Piché ascended the bima and stood before the Aron Hakodesh – the holy ark – as the Torah was returned to it.  Respectfully, the Bishop stood with the congregation as Etz Chaim (“Tree of Life” representing the Torah) was sung.  From a few feet behind the Bat Mitzvah, the Bishop heard Ms. Koolick recite her special Bat Mitzvah prayer.

A few minutes later, Rabbi Davis welcomed Bishop Piché to the Beth El bima with his interpretation of a passage for interfaith relationships.  (Please click here for comments from Rabbi Davis.)

Bishop Piché then delivered his d’var Torah – a talk/homily/sermon about the meaning of the Shabbat Torah portion.  (Each Shabbat a different parseh – portion – is read in the synagogue chanted by the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and other congregants.)  The Torah portion was Mishpatim which Bishop Piché interpreted with evident study and reflection demonstrating great erudition, faith, love for God and gentle flashes of warm humor.  This brought smiles to the faces of a rapt congregation – there was barely a whisper, cough or sound as the congregants listened intently.

Here are a few highlights of the Bishop’s d’var Torah which does not do justice to the experience of hearing the d’var Torah at Beth El in the “House of God”, Beth El’s English translation.  (Please click here for the text of Bishop Piché’s d’var Torah.):

  • Dayenu, it would have been enough to be welcomed to the synagogue but I’ve been given the honor of commenting on the “very word of God.  This is truly a great honor.”;
  • I feel connected to you because we have a shared reverence for the word, the divinely revealed truth that comes from God;
  • The revelation and discussion of rules in the Torah portion – Mishpatim – stands out in our society where people increasingly flout the rules.  Moreover, acceptance of rules also “implies a living relationship with the law giver” – this provides for closeness and communion with God;
  • The rules of Mishpatim are also an expression of a covenantal relationship with God.  The rules of Mishpatim are also about “protecting and advancing the relationships within the human community – creating an environment of peace, trust and security in which human life can prosper.”;
  • The importance of the rules of Mishpatim in breaking cycles of violence and cycles of greed.

Take time to read the Bishop’s d’var Torah.  This summary paraphrasing does not do it justice.

Concluding with the words “[f]or you welcomed the stranger into your midst today.  Not only did you not oppress the stranger, but quite to the contrary you honored him.”  Bishop Piché finished his d’var Torah.  There was a moment of silence – then, a loud round of applause.

This is highly unusual – indeed, rare – during a Shabbat or holy day service for it is not consistent with decorum in the sanctuary on these days.  Spontaneously, though, this reservation was temporarily set aside in favor of expressing deep appreciation for the special visit and important and indelible words spoken.  Indeed, the Bishop spoke and the congregation applauded.

As Rabbi Olitzky noted: 

“I was warmed to see how "at home" Bishop was speaking from the bima.  There was a very present and strong connection to a sense of kodesh/kedushah (holiness) within our shared scriptural tradition--one that I'm not sure members of the Jewish community usually recognize.  However, in Bishop Piche's presentation of the text, it was clear we are brothers in faith and in peace.  And in the world today, for the Church to be a true friend of the Jewish community speaks volumes--some of which the Bishop eloquently relayed on this past Shabbat morning.”

In this vein, Father Rutten commented: 

“Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both been clear that we consider Jews to be our elder brothers and sisters in the faith. 

While it is obvious intellectually that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, I suspect we don't know very deeply just what this means.  My attendance at the Shabbat service gave me a greater glimpse at who Jesus really is.  As Bishop Piché said, we begin to feel a great closeness to our Jewish brothers and sisters. 

It is a tremendous joy when tensions are relieved and when strangers become friends.  When the congregation applauded I felt a great sense of gratitude and relief and hope that even more can be done.

At this time, when it seems that tensions seem to be rising all over the world between people of differing faiths, it is important that we not allow extremists and/or the media to get in the way of face to face, neighbor to neighbor, relationship building.”

I had the honor of thanking Bishop Piché after his d’var Torah.  I told the Bishop we were praying for the safety of all people in the Middle East during this time of upheaval including Christians who have been subject to persecution and terrorism in the cradle of Christianity where Christians have lived since antiquity.

Then it was my turn to smile as I presented gifts to Father Piché – first, a book by the great Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham).  Next, I told the story about Bishop Piché teaching me the name for Bishop Piché’s skullcap – zucchetto – Italian for “little gourd.”  I then presented Bishop Piché with a skullcap which we, Jews, call a yamulke or kippah.  And with a smile, Bishop Piché carefully removed his zucchetto and donned his kippah.

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