Meeting with Pope John Paul taught Jews feminist lesson

On Saturday, Oct. 8, shortly after the conclusion of Shabbat, I participated in a meeting of 24 Jewish leaders with Pope John Paul II.

Like so many others, I have found the pope to be a fascinating figure. He has spoken with rare moral power on the dangers of moral relativism and the degradation of popular culture, and on our communal obligation to rescue those whom society has victimized. I was grateful for the meeting, and managed to learn something about the pope — and something about Jews.

The meeting took place in New York City at the residence of Cardinal John O'Connor; it lasted approximately 15 minutes and was essentially a "walk-through." We were each able, at best, to exchange a few words with John Paul.

When he had gone through the line, Cardinal O'Connor informed us that the pope hoped to make another visit to Jerusalem — news that we obviously greeted with enthusiasm. The pope then said a few concluding words and bid us "Shalom."

We would have preferred a longer visit and an opportunity for substantive discussion, but this was not possible in view of the hectic pace and short duration of this papal trip. Relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews are positive and strong.

While some contentious issues remain on the agenda, this pope is considered a good friend of the Jewish people. The New York meeting was ceremonial in nature, a symbol of the Vatican's concern for continuing to develop its dialogue with the Jews.

The meeting left me with two overriding impressions. First, the pope is an individual in whom the spirit of God manifestly resides. All people bear God's presence, of course, but often it is less than readily apparent. Yet even in a momentary encounter with John Paul II — elderly, recently ill and completely exhausted — one could sense the religious power of this person.

For Jews, the language of Torah provides us the means to realize the presence of God in the world; by embracing Torah's mitzvot, its commandments, we advance the cause of God's redemption. But we have learned, surely, that God is manifest through other vehicles of religious expression, and that the task of redemption is not effected by Jews alone.

In the few moments of our meeting, I got a sense of why John Paul has been such a successful articulator of a sacred language other than my own, and why he has so effectively led the world's Catholics in their search for spiritual life.

My second reaction was my distress and embarrassment at the absence of women in our group. All 24 individuals greeting the pope that night on behalf of the Jewish community were men. Not one woman was present.

Was this perhaps a result of the Church's selection process, a reflection of its own patriarchal patterns? Surely not. Church officials had been exceedingly careful in assembling their guest list. Leaders of national agencies and national congregational and rabbinical groups were invited, as were rabbis of major New York congregations. The Church clearly took pains to select a diverse group and one that the Jewish community itself would see as representative.

And the invitees were, in fact, representative — a group of devoted and accomplished leaders and activists. The problem is simply that those at our highest levels of leadership in national agencies, national religious bodies and major congregations are virtually all male.

A Hebrew-language anthology, edited by Yael Atzmon and titled "A Window on the Lives of Women in Jewish Society," was recently published in Israel. The lead article — by Ms. Atzmon herself — argues that exclusion of women from the public arena constitutes a common denominator for every Jewish community in the history of our people, from ancient times until now. Despite the progress women have made here in the last generation, the American Jewish community does not yet constitute an exception to this profoundly unfortunate pattern.

We all have to do better — much better. Let us hope that women one day soon will head national communal and religious agencies as a matter of course, and that the diverse group of Jewish leaders who greet the next visiting pope will be gender-diverse as well.