02/19/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

The Pope and the Rabbi: Different Perspectives on Humility

There's an old story about the pope and the Jews. Several centuries ago, thepPope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the pope offered a deal: He'd have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the pope won, they'd have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a "silent" debate.

On the chosen day the pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that, the pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy.

Later the Cardinals met with the pope and asked him what had happened. The pope said, "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there is still only one God common to both our faiths. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and host to show that through the perfect sacrifice Jesus has atoned for our sins, but the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue."

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he'd won. "I haven't a clue," said the rabbi. "First, he told me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here." "And then what?" asked a woman. "Who knows?" said the rabbi. "He took out his lunch, so I took out mine."

Last week, a pope and a rabbi were in the news. On Monday, Pope Benedict became the first leader of the Catholic Church in some 600 years to resign rather than die in office. That same day, one of the great rabbis of our era, Rabbi David Hartman, was laid to rest in Jerusalem. I never had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Hartman, but through his writings and recorded lectures and interviews he has become a spiritual hero of mine.

On the surface, the death of Rabbi Hartman and the resignation of Pope Benedict occurring at the same time was a mere coincidence, two separate news items in two separate parts of the world, affecting two different religious communities.

Upon further reflection, there are lessons to learn from both men. In different ways, they each left a legacy of the importance of humility. Before going into detail, let me reflect on a piece of last week's Torah reading, Parashat Terumah, which begins a major section of the Book of Shemot, primarily focusing on building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary carried by our ancestors in the desert period. In great detail we read of the furnishings, even the measurements.

Among the most prominent of furniture in the sanctuary was the Aron, or Ark, which contained the tablets of the law. To this day, the Ark containing the Sefrei Torah is the focal point of the synagogue. Commentators note that the directive to construct the Aron is plural -- the verb ve asoo. According to Rabbi Moshe Alshekh, of 16th c. Safed, the plural language is to emphasize that the Torah and its inspiring and enduring message is the property of all Jews and our task, each of us, is to be engaged in its teachings. He writes that "the Torah is not like the crown of the monarchy or the crown of priesthood, which were awarded by heredity to the descendants of David and Aaron, respectively. The Torah, on the other hand, is the heritage of all of Israel, and [quoting the Talmud] 'a child of an adulterous relationship who is a Torah scholar is greater than a high priest who is an ignoramus.' The verse states, 'they will make' in the plural, to teach us that everyone has an equal share in the Torah." The Alshekh's interpretation of this verse teaches the importance of humility. The Torah is not a monopoly for any elite group, but is available for all to embrace and to interpret through his or her own eyes.

Pope Benedict, through one speech and a momentous decision, instantly forged a legacy of humility for an office that has long propagated the notion of papal infallibility. I don't wish to judge Catholicism or Catholic theology. However, I think the message that he sent through his resignation is positive for Catholicism and for religions around the world. New York's Cardinal Dolan said about Benedict that it was as if he was saying, "I feel weak, I feel fragile, I am frail." Dolan said, "Here you have a man who's aware of the gifts that God has given him, the high office to which the Lord has called him, but is also aware of his own limitations, as we all have to be." Benedict's legacy in other aspects of his papacy will certainly be closely analyzed, as it has been already. But for today, I'm moved by the spiritual message of humility he sent by his resignation.

Rabbi Hartman also taught humility in a different sort of way. An Orthodox rabbi, he worked tirelessly to bring Jews together from across the religious spectrum to study traditional Jewish texts and to envision the meaning of traditional Judaism in constant dialogue with the modern world. He was eulogized this week by Conservative and Reform rabbis alike. Rabbi Hartman's legacy was promoting an appreciation of the pluralism of Jewish thought. Judaism suffers, he taught, when it gets caught up in dogmatism that fails to address the needs of our time. In a brief video clip on the website of the Shalom Hartman Institute, the center of Jewish thought that he founded, he says the following:

Judaism survived because it allowed for interpretive boldness of the text. The word was not a frozen word. It was a word that was heard ... Jews heard the word so differently in each generation.

Each generation has to receive the Torah in its time. There's the eternal voice that come out of Sinai but it's heard very differently in every generation. Therefore one must renew the interpretive boldness that exists [in every generation]. We have never been fundamentalists. We have never been literalists. That's the meaning of the Talmudic tradition. Anyone has to read the Bible and look at the rabbis and see what they do with the text. Fundamentalism is founded in ignorance -- in the false need for feeling I've got the final word. I don't have to think anymore. I can now go to sleep because the truth is in my pocket. If you go to sleep with the feeling that the truth is in your pocket, that's the best way to lose it."

Ve'asu Aron -- "you shall make an Ark" -- teaches that each one of us is empowered to create a vessel of Torah It is a call to each one of us to engage in the text, to make the Torah our own and to contribute to the Jewish conversation. May we each be so blessed.