This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Is the Pope Catholic?*

Not that it takes much effort these days to become a target of Islamicist indignation and threats--but Pope Benedict XVI has succeeded in doing so with extraordinary swiftness. He incited the kind of intense fundamentalist rage that is normally reserved for Jews.

Come to think of it, the prospect of a Jewish Pope is not as absurd as it might sound at first. After all, the first Bishop of Rome, St. Peter, began his career as the Galilean fisherman Simeon. A Jewish work that circulated during the early Middle Ages even claimed that Rabbi Simeon remained a sincere Jew throughout, and that he only pretended to impersonate a Christian after being assured that he would thereby save his people from a threatened pogrom.

A more popular legend about the Popes came into wide circulation later in medieval times. This tale has survived in both Ashkenazic and Sepharadic versions, in Hebrew as well as in Yiddish. The broad outlines of the story are more or less identical in all of the traditions, though there are significant differences between the accounts in several matters of detail.

The heroes of the Ashkenazic versions are the liturgical poet Rabbi Simeon ben Isaac, who lived in Mayence during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, and his son Elhanan. Indeed, Rabbi Simeon's poem Melekh Amon, which is included in the morning service for Rosh Hashanah, contains an acrostic spelling out the message Elhanan my son, may he merit eternal life. Amen. The Sepharadic versions are about Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret of Barcelona (the Rashba, c. 1235-1310) and his son.

In all the accounts, the son was abducted by Christians and enrolled in theological seminaries, where he excelled as a student (of course!) and made his way through the ecclesiastical ranks, until he was elected Pope, under the name Andreas. Some of the authors invoke biblical precedents for this achievement, comparing him to Joseph, Daniel or Esther; who demonstrated how easy it can be for talented Jews, if they are so inclined, to find success in the highest echelons of gentile society. Eventually the son was reunited with his father and, once his identity was revealed, sought an appropriate manner to atone for his apostasy.

The differences that emerge within this general narrative pattern are fascinating. Some of the versions stress the Pope's excellent Jewish pedigree as a scion of the Davidic royal line.

The simplest version of the legend has the son, kidnapped as a young child, summoning his father as soon as he becomes aware of his true identity. In the Sepharadic accounts, it is providence that orchestrates matters so that the Rashba is chosen to travel to Rome in order to negotiate with the Pope regarding matters related to his community. According to the intricate tale preserved in the Yiddish Mayse Buch, it is the Pope himself who initiates his reunion with his father by issuing a decree of persecution against Mayence's Jews, knowing that his eminent father will be chosen as the community's delegate to plead his people's case in Rome. Before revealing his identity to his father, the two participate in a lively theological disputation that leaves Rabbi Simeon very impressed with his opponent's wisdom and erudition.

Most of the stories culminate with the Pope performing an act of martyrdom, as the only response capable of atoning for such a severe profanation of God's name. The sacrifice is carried out in the presence of a public assembly of church notables. The modes of execution range from a fatal leap from a high tower, or a dive into a bonfire, to a more elaborate procedure of tying a noose around his neck, then jumping from a high elevation onto a sharp sword that is positioned in a fire--thereby submitting himself to the full assortment of capital punishments recognized by Jewish law. Only in the Yiddish version does the father reassure the son that no extreme gesture of self-sacrifice is demanded, because the Lord lovingly accepts all sincere penitents.

All the versions culminate with the Pope proudly declaring the truth of Judaism and the spuriousness of Christianity, before a high-level gathering of church officials. The Yiddish tradition goes a step further, and has the Jewish Pope compose a written refutation of Christian doctrine, with instructions that it should be read carefully by all subsequent occupiers of the office.

Perhaps the most intriguing variations between the accounts relate to the clues that lead to the identification or verification of the hero's identity. In the Spanish story, the Rashba volunteers the sad tale of his lost son to the Pope, who quickly senses that this Jew is his father, and he asks the rabbi whether his lost son had any distinguishing physical marks. This prompts the Pope to disrobe in order to reveal that his body bears the correct birthmarks.

However, one version of the Yiddish legend introduces a uniquely novel vehicle for divulging the Pope's Jewish origins: a chess game. Recalling his father's enthusiasm and ability when it comes to the game, the Pope challenges the rabbi to a match, and then proceeds to trounce him soundly. The rabbi now recognizes that the pontiff's winning gambit was one that he taught his own son while still a young boy.

We may readily appreciate the attraction that such a fantasy would have held for Jews whose daily life was shadowed by ongoing oppression and Christian triumphalism. Though these stories are clearly legendary, they invite questions about whether there is any factual basis to the story. While the background details are generally consistent with the atmosphere of medieval Mayence or Barcelona, and Elhanan son of Rabbi Simeon was a real historical personality who might very well have been converted to Christianity, there is still a long way to go before turning him into a Pope.

The truth is, however, that there was at least one Pope who was Jewish; or, at least, was from a formerly Jewish family that had converted to Christianity. The individual in question was Pope Anacletus II, who assumed the papal throne in 1130. Previously he had been known as Pietro Leonis, and he was the grandson of the convert Benedictus (that is: Baruch) Christianus, who came from a distinguished Roman family of Jewish financiers. Notwithstanding Anacletus's sincere devotion to Catholicism, his reign was a controversial one, and some cardinals refused to recognize his title, electing in his place a rival Pope, Innocent II. Innocent circulated racial slurs against his opponent, along with false accusations of all sorts of corruption, from embezzlement and robbing churches, to incest. After three generations of faithful Christian observance, the prospect of a leader with Jewish genes could not yet be digested by the Catholic community. This ecclesiastical split persisted until his death in 1138 when Anacletus' successor chose to abdicate. The Pierleonis continued to be one of Rome's most influential families.

It is not hard to imagine how the popular Jewish imagination was led to dream whether maybe, just maybe, the head of the Christian church might eventually see the error of his ways and publicly vindicate his ancestral faith. As long as an authentically Jewish Pope did not exist, it was all but inevitable that we would invent one.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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