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Notes from Limmud 2006

How to Convert the Pope: Successful and Failed Attempts to Bring the Messiah

David Solomon

Converting the Pope is not easy. Merely getting an audience is not easy, and even if you got one, this particular Pope is a particularly difficult one to convert, being perhaps the theologically deepest-thinking Pope for five hundred years.

Why bother converting the Pope to Judaism? Consider who the Pope is from a Jewish metaphysical perspective? In Kabbalistic and ancient sources the Pope is known as הכהן אדום—the [High] Priest of Edom. Edom in the Bible is Esau, the brother of the Patriarch Jacob; in Rabbinic thought, however, Edom, is Rome. Edom is steeped in עבודה זרה—idol worship—which can take subtle forms. You can believe in a monotheistic position but still have a mode of worship which is עבודה זרה [this is how Christianity is perceived from the Jewish perspective]. Being the High Priest of Edom, the Pope is very spiritually powerful to the Cabbalists.

Now world peace is a very desirable thing from a Jewish perspective; but this is not going to happen until there is a full reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. Such a full reconciliation is not going to happen unless both religious systems are overtaken by a world religion that is a syntheis of the two. This won't happen tomorrow, but history says its eventual happening is an inevitability.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we find a world very similar to ours: Christians fighting Muslims, both in the Holy Land— the Crusades—and in Spain. The mystics of the time felt this strongly. The year 1240 CE was, in the Jewish calendar, the year 5000 AM. For Jewish mystics [working from the Psalms 90:4, in which a thousand years are described as but a single day to G-d], this is the start of Sixth Day of Creation. The Rambam—who lived (almost) contemporary to this—explains that this is the ushering in of Friday, when Mankind will reach its identity.

In this year Abraham Abulafia was born, in Zaragosa. In his youth he went on long wanderings in search of the mystical river Sambatyon, which cannot be crossed except on Shabbos, when the boulders carried down it by the flow come to rest. Why would one want to cross this river? Because on the other side of it, according to Jewish myth, live the lost Ten Tribes [of the northern kingdom of Israel, sent into exile by Sennacherib two thousand years earlier]. This river is referred to in the Midrash, and the Ten Tribes went on to acquire a status similar to that of Prester John in Christianity. Abulafia went looking for this river, and didn't quite find it, but after wandering throughout the Jewish world he became convinced that redemption is at hand.

At this time of High Scholasticism, the Popes were concerned with the conversion of the Jews, because for them Jesus could not come back until the Jews were converted. So there were papal bulls supporting the Jews at the same time as degrading them. In 1279 Pope Nicholas III issued a particularly severe edict that forced Jews to listen to conversion sermons.

The big rationalist par excellence of the Middle Ages was the Rambam [Maimonides]. No one believed he was a mystic... except Abulafia, who is convinced that the Guide to the Perplexed was a mystical book, and the Rambam was a Caballist. He wrote a mystical commentary on the Guide to the Perplexed. He knew the doctrine of the sefirot was being developed around him, and develops yogic techniques to bring on prophecy. Prophecy was one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah—and who was going to be the Messiah when he came? Himself, Abulafia. In 1280, Abulafia decides it was time to pay a visit to Nicholas III, to convert him. In the later terms of the Ari [R. Isaac Luria], to go to Edom and bring that spark back to Judaism.

Abulafia didn't make a secret of this; he told everyone about it, Jews and non-Jews. By the time he arrived in Rome, Nicholas III had told the guards outside the Vatican that when Abulafia turns up, to take every piece of wood they can find, and make the biggest pyre you've ever seen, and stake him in the middle and burn him.

Abulafia turned up and was duly imprisoned, in a cell where he can see the pyre being constructed. He was told he will be burned on the morrow. In the morning, though, they opened the door and tell him... Unfortunately the Pope has died overnight and he is free to go. (He was then rearrested and spent another four weeks in jail, but they couldn't burn him; it was clearly a stroke of fate.)

Abulafia realised he was now a cause celebre and went around the world with it. But he also realised this particular mission is fraught with danger and went around telling everyone else not to try this.


We now move on to 1525, at the height of the Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions. The Jews have been kicked out of both these countries, which has sent shockwaves resonating around the Jewish world; there was no Jewish community which was not affected. Yet two positive things did happen at this time: When Spain kicked its Jews out, the Ottoman Empire opened its doors, and it controlled the Land of Israel. This is why Safed developed as a Cabbalistic centre at this time. Secondly, three successive Medici Popes at this time are very favourably disposed towards the Jews: Leo X, Clement VII and Paul III.

In 1523, in Venice—just before the Ghetto was instituted—a guy turned up claiming to be a representative of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel living on the other side of the mystical river Sambatyon. His name was David haReuveni. (We have his diaries, so know a lot about this era.) He was of dwarflike stature, had dark complexion, and looked weird, wearing exotic garments and carrying a flag of the Ten Tribes. He claimed to be the commander of their armies, and wanted assistance in gaining an audience with the Pope. He had something very important to tell him.

David haReuveni rides into Rome on a white horse and tells Pope Clement VII he wants to make a pact between the Ten Tribes, ruled by his brother Joseph, and the Pope. He says he would also like some letters of support from him. The Pope agrees. As a result of this, Clement VII becomes known as the friend of the Jews.

David haReuveni then went around Europe soliciting support for his project. Not long after, he arrives in Portugal. Bear in mind that the expulsion of the Jews did not stop the Inquisition: as there were definitively no Jews there any longer, everyone had to be Christian.

Diogo Pires was born, circa 1500, into a converso family; he was a court recorder. When David haReuveni turned up at the court of the king, the king greeted David haReuveni and accorded him full diplomatic respect. Diogo Pires was most impressed and looked into his own roots. He went up to David haReuveni and asked him to circumcise him. David haReuveni replied, "Do you realise what would happen to me if I assisted you to return to Judaism?"

Undaunted, Pires went home, circumcised himself, and changed his name to Shlomo Molcho. The two now realised they had to get out of Portugal pretty fast. So they went off and, along the way, they came to the conclusion that one of the two is the Messiah.

Molcho now had a huge conversion and mystical revelations. He prophesied, predicting several events: an earthquake here, a flood there. One day he decided to go and see the Pope. HaReuveni tried to dissuade him and failed.

The Talmud says (Sanhedrin 98), "Where is the Messiah? He is sitting at the gates of Rome." Most people take this figuratively, but Molcho took it literally. He went to Rome, and sat on the bridge over the Tiber, sitting amongst the beggars fasting for thirty days.

He then went to Pope Clement—who took to him. Others did not take to him so kindly, and overrode the Pope and condemned him to death. Clement took another man and put him in his place to be burned to death (!).

Molcho said "We are going to take all of the armies of Christian Europe, and the armies of the Lost Tribes, and put them together and have one last big Crusade, and establish an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel, backed by western Christianity"—because everyone knew you have to have this before the Messiah can come.

So the Pope gave him letters of support. He met up with haReuveni, who was now happy to associate with him again, and they went back to the king of Portugal. The king was fine to go along with it, but he no longer called the shots around here. The big emperor dude was Charles V—the grandchild of the Ferdinand and Isabella who kicked the Jews out of Spain, the convergence of several monarchies and the founder of the Habsburg lineage. He had just presided over the Diet of Worms which excommunicated Luther, his uncle Henry VIII of England had just taken an entire country out of Christianity, and he was in no mood for Jewish fun and games. He took Molcho and burned him, and sent haReuveni back in chains to Spain.

This story has a tragic ending, but for the first time in 1500 years we had the consciousness of a Jewish state in Palestine. Though this was several hundred years before Zionism, it did change the view of the Jews towards their place in the world (and may have informed the plans of [the false messiah] Shabbetai Tsevi a hundred years later).


Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, never got as far an audience with the Pope, but was certainly tending that way. He was born in Livorno, in Italy, in 1707. He was a complete prodigy, not just in Torah and Caballah by the age of fourteen, but also Italian literature. At twenty he went to Padua, where there was a great university—the only university which allowed Jewish men in to study medicine. Communities would send one or two Jewish boys a generation to Padua to study medicine.

When Luzzatto turned up, he did not enroll but simply talked to medical students. They would have been astonished at his prodigy—he is known as the grandfather of modern Judaism; much of modern halacha derives from him. But there were two sides to him: He was also gathering around him a group of boys dropping out of their medical studies to study with him.

The European communities put pressure on the rabbis of Venice—which had rabbinic jurisdiction over Padua—who summoned the Ramchal to excommunicated not him, but his writings. Boxes upon boxes of them were destroyed.

He ran away to Amsterdam, where he made a living grinding lenses—like Spinoza, sixty years earlier. They told him he could not write anything new until he was forty. When he was forty, he left for Israel with his family, where unfortunately they were all killed by a plague.

Whereas Shabbetai Tsevi held that the lost sparks were in Islam—which is why he went to the Sultan, not the Pope—the Ramchal held that the seeds of redemption lie in Christianity. He alluded to a very profound possibility. To him, everything in this world has a purpose, even that which causes us suffering as a people. Surely, then, there could not be a discourse in the world as influential as Christianity without there being a purpose to it! There must be a seed of truth, a spark of the divine in it, or it could not exist. Therefore that spark must be brought out.

These are very dangerous, antinomian ideas; Abulafia even lost some students to Christianity as a result. Anyone who tries to say that Jesus of Nazareth is משיח בן יוסף [the Messiah the son of Joseph, who will precede the Messiah the son of David] is treading a very dangerous path, but is not alone on that path. There has always been the idea that when the Messiah comes the Torah of today will be superseded by the Torah of the future, of חן [grace], חסד [lovingkindness] and so forth, when all of the festivals will be abolished, save only Yom Kippur (IIRC) and Purim. The problem with Christianity is that they did it too early. There are ideas in Christianity that cause problems, [The speaker went too fast for me to get the rest of this sentence down, I'm sorry]

Islam is highly focused on the idea of G-d as transcendent. Everything that happens is the will of G-d, and G-d is way above us. Christianity is the exact opposite; it's an over-immanentisation of G-d; it brings G-d down into humanity so far that G-d becomes a man. It is only in the balance between these two ideas that Judaism can thrive. It must also be in the balance between these two ideas that a common successor religion could be founded. The two other religions must go back to their roots—to Judaism.

The parallels between Esau (Christianity) and Ishmael (Islam) are astonishing. Esau fights with us on the ground of the Torah, Ishmael fights with us on the ground of our land. Amalek fights with us on the ground of our love. These are the elements of Jewish spirituality.

So, if granted the audience with Pope Benedict, what would the speaker do? The key to the Pope's conversion lies in a deep understanding of Jewish history. We have survived, and will survive, only because we have Divine protection, and Torah, and the memory of the land of Israel.

If the Pope were to look at the Book of Genesis, from his perspective the message of the book would be about one thing only: the Fall. The entirety of the rest of the book is about living with the repercussions of that, and trying to make up for it. But from the Jewish perspective, the Torah is not about theology; it's not about the Fall [which (largely) does not exist in Jewish thought anyway]. We know it has huge mystical dimnensions, and ethical and moral principles, but at the end of the day it's about the מצות [commandments/precepts], how you live. And what is the one מצוה in פרשת בראשית [the opening pericope of Genesis]? פרו ורבו—be fruitful and multiply. And what is the one thing the Pope never does?

Until the Pope partakes in that project, the whole world cannot be redeemed. This is the ultimate of imitatio Dei. The Pope sees people, essentially, as units of death—when they die they are going to be redeemed. But there is something about his theology that is dead. Judaism is living religion.

As the speaker concluded, "If you are going to convert the Pope, that is where I would recommend that you start."

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2007-01-13 08:55 pm (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
Very odd.

I am not convinced by any thesis that says "history says its eventual happening is an inevitability," regardless of the value of "it."

From another angle, if your goal is to convert the Pope, you have to work with the Pope you have, and less theologically minded popes have not converted. I suspect, though, that if a pope were to announce his conversion to Judaism (or any other non-Christian religion, or simply to declare one fine Sunday that there is no God), he would either be said to have died quietly in his bed (if he spoke to his staff before getting up in public) or the College of Cardinals would choose another pope and claim that the one who had converted wasn't the real pope.

Date: 2007-01-13 09:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I am not convinced by any thesis that says "history says its eventual happening is an inevitability," regardless of the value of "it."

Well, nothing lasts forever.

From another angle, if your goal is to convert the Pope, you have to work with the Pope you have, and less theologically minded popes have not converted.

I don't think the speaker was actually expecting this ever to be possible (or even advisable).

Date: 2007-01-15 03:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rysmiel.livejournal.com
but history says its eventual happening is an inevitability.

I think my brain just exploded.

Date: 2007-01-15 05:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Do you have a spare?

Date: 2007-01-23 12:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
So you have to get a Jewish woman to have a child with the Pope, am I reading that right?

Date: 2007-01-23 01:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
*boggle* Where do you get that from?

Date: 2007-01-23 02:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
"Be fruitful and multiply. What is the one thing the Pope never does? Until the Pope partakes of that project..."

So, um, what were they actually suggesting?

Date: 2007-01-23 05:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Oh, I see. Aside from the fact I don't think the speaker was seriously suggesting this as a task that should either be attempted or had a cat in hell's chance of succeeding, I get the impression that the idea was, rather than simply converting the Pope, bringing about a wholesale change in Christian theology. Carrying out the former without the latter would merely result in rifting the Church. (Again.)

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