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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pope John Paul II, the Holocaust, and Star Trek

The Western Wall in Jerusalem.

In March 2000, eleven years ago, Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial in Israel.  He also made history by going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he left the following note:

"We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the 
course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, 
and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to 
genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

As part of an address he gave he said, "I assure the Jewish people the Catholic Church...is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."  He added that there were "no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust."

Pope John Paul II in Denver in 1993.

Israeli cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchios commented on the Pope's gesture stating, "It was beyond history, beyond memory"

It is not surprising that the Pontiff had such strong feelings about the Holocaust. He had spent his formative years with close relationships within the Jewish community of his hometown.  As a young priest in his native Poland, he had to hide in his uncle's attic from the Nazis, and according to B'nai B'rith and others, he helped protect many Polish Jews from the Nazis.

In January 2005, John Paul II became the first pope in history to receive a priestly blessing from a rabbi.  Rabbis Benjamin Blech, Barry Dov Schwartz, and Jack Bemporad were visiting Pope John Paul II at Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace when they bestowed it.  The priestly blessing is a Jewish prayer based on scriptural verse (Numbers 6:24-27).  It can only be performed by a Kohen (plural Kohanim), a Jewish priest.  It is the oldest Biblical text that has been found, and is said to be connected to the three Patriarchs:  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

During the course of the blessing the Kohen holds up his hands with the fingers separated to make five spaces between them, his head and hands covered so neither he nor the congregation can see his hands.  The position of each hand forms a Hebrew letter which is the first letter in the name of God that refers to him as a protector.

The hands are divided into twenty-eight sections, each with a Hebrew letter.
At the bottom of the hand are two letters, which combined are the name of God. 

In the mid-60s, Leonard Nimoy created a one-handed version of this gesture to accompany Spock's Vulcan greeting, "Live Long and Prosper".  He explained that as a child, raised in a traditional Jewish home, he peeked under the cloth and saw the gesture.  He and Gene Roddenberry thought it would be a good physical accompaniment for the greeting, and it went on to great fame.

Vulcan Salute.

Pope John Paul II will be remembered for his apologies.  Beside his apologies to the Jews, he also made public apologies for: the legal procedure on Galileo; the Catholics' involvement with the African Slave Trade; the Church's roles in the burnings at the stake and religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation; and injustices committed against women, the violation of their rights, and their historical denigration.  (Although he upheld the traditional Catholic take on birth control and women in the priesthood.)

In a time when religious persecution is rearing its ugly head again, when people are dividing each other into biased groupings, we need to remember people like Pope John Paul II.  As an atheist even I can remember with gratitude his good works.  May the whole world live long and prosper...

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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