My Father, the Rabbi, and His Friend, the Pope
Ahead of Benedict’s funeral Thursday, the son of his friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner reflects on their relationship.
Somewhere, I’d like to imagine, my late father, Professor and Rabbi Jacob Neusner, is greeting Pope Benedict XVI in the heavenly abode, ready to renew their friendship and the scholarly disputation that occupied their final decades.
These two men had done something that was practically impossible for roughly a millennia — here, a Jewish scholar and a Church authority engaged in serious intellectual combat over the truth of Torah and the divinity of Jesus, all without the threats to Jewish life implicit in such disputations.
There was yet another distinctive character to these debates, though nobody made much mention of it at the time. My father’s family came from what became the bloodlands of the Shoah; Pope Benedict XVI was raised in Nazi Germany. You would have thought that the two would be confined to discussions of post-Shoah theology and German guilt. It came up, but it wasn’t what they focused on.
On the contrary, they generally avoided the typical content of interfaith dialogue — the appeal to a shared or universal theology, the finding of common ground in the culture wars, or the cynical horse-trading of political support for redemption and forgiveness.
Instead, they explored the hard drives of each other’s faiths: My father questioned the very premise that Jesus’ teachings overrode those of Torah. The pope, for his part, affirmed the divinity of Jesus and saw in him a constancy of God’s love for his people. They didn’t agree to disagree. They disagreed — but saw that disagreement as essential to the strengthening of faith.
The relationship began in 1993 with my father’s publication of “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus” — a short but packed theological response to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and related teachings in the Book of Matthew. The book sought to answer the question: Why don’t Jews accept Jesus? My father thought it deserved a forthright response and gave it.
At Rome, Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger took note. He called the book “a challenge especially to Christians, who will have to ponder the analysis of the contrast between Moses and Jesus.” In the end, the archbishop’s response to my father’s challenge was a book of his own, “Jesus of Nazareth,” issued in 2007. Benedict called it “my personal search for the face of the Lord.”
Benedict devoted significant space responding directly to “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” That got people talking about the “pope’s favorite rabbi.” Journalists liked the story, and most of their stories stressed the odd couple aspect. What most reporters missed was that these were just two scholars doing the work that scholars do. They corresponded regularly, sharing articles, books, and lecture notes. For each man, there was always another book to write. It was just a question of time.
In 2012, when they met at the Vatican, my father came prepared with a pitch: To write a book together, this time about Paul. Saul of Tarsus drew the dividing line between the two faiths. What greater project is there than two theological scholars grappling with Paul’s teachings?
It was a bit of a moonshot, and my dad knew it. He was roughly a decade into suffering with Parkinson’s Disease and the physical ravages were starting to take a toll. He believed, though, in the project and had developed an outline for the book, designed to let each man work independently, but in response to each other. I remember when he went to Rome, excited to make the pitch.
His audience with the pope was a delight, but the pope had news of his own: He was finishing a follow-up book to Jesus of Nazareth, and that, he declared, was his last. The demands of his other job, he said, left no time for more books and scholarship. My dad dropped the subject — he understood.
When my parents left the pontiff, they saw waiting a group of Irish bishops, there to discuss one of the great trials of Benedict’s papacy — the abuse of children by priests. Pope Benedict XVI could not be spared to do scholarship in the face of such a moral test. Nobody could.
Perhaps now the two men are in their own corner of what the Talmud calls the Yeshivah shel Ma’lah, the Academy on High. At last, they can devote themselves fully to their projects and books, unbound from the weighty responsibilities of the papacy, or the limits of disease, or time itself.