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There have been persistent legends circulated in the Jewish world over the centuries about the fact that certain Jews who either posed as Christian converts or were actually converted, rose to become pope. There was an excellent book written about the subject a number of decades ago entitled <i>Three Jewish Popes.</i> Alas, none of the legends have ever been authenticated. There is one favorite legend about the son of a tenth century rabbi and scholar, a member of the school that eventually gave rise to Rashi and to the Tosafists of France and Germany, who was kidnapped, baptized and eventually became pope. His father somehow managed to contact him and even visit him (in a version of the legend he played chess with him) and this pope escaped from his Christian world and returned to the bosom of Judaism. This legend has had remarkable staying power in the Jewish world and is recounted in many books. Yet, there never has been any evidence that would substantiate its veracity. It may be that these legends arose as a form of Jewish "revenge" against an institution that persecuted the Jewish people horribly for millennia. Whatever the reason, Jews seemed to find some perverse pleasure in believing that one of them had actually become a pope. It is the feeling of triumph that a weak and persecuted minority has when it feels that somehow it has outwitted its stronger and more powerful adversary. So the legends about Jewish popes live on until our day.

The origin of the legend about a Jewish pope seems to have arisen in the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Elchanan HaGadol (the Great) of tenth century Mainz, Germany. Rabbi Shimon's son, Elchanan was captured and kidnapped as a child by Christians and baptized and raised as a Christian. Rabbi Shimon, distraught and heartbroken, never gave up hope of finding his son and restoring him to Judaism. Rabbi Shimon is the author of a piyut (prayer poem) that has found a permanent place in the recitation of the Ashkenazic liturgy for the shacharit/morning prayer service of Rosh Hashana. In this prayer there is an acrostic that begs God, "my son, Elchanan, live into the eternal world." This is apparently a reference to the boy's kidnapping and forced conversion to Christianity. Legend has it that Rabbi Shimon somehow gained an audience with the pope to plead for the relaxation of Catholic decrees against the Jews and in that meeting both the pope and Rabbi Shimon realized that they were father and son. The chess game between the two was a later embellishment of the original legend. That Rabbi Shimon's son was kidnapped and baptized is a fact. What happened to him afterwards is open to legend and conjecture.

Of course, the original pope, Peter, was Jewish. Jewish legend here also plays a role. There arose legends in the Jewish world regarding Peter that he returned to Judaism and deserted the cause of Christianity before his death. There is even a legend that when he returned to Judaism he somehow authored the anonymous but exalted piyut prayer, <i>Nishmat Kol Chai</i>, which is recited in the shacharit services of Shabat and the holidays. Though many scholars have refuted this idea, it is still held to be true in some Jewish circles until today. Among the cardinals of the Church today there is a converted Jew, Cardinal Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris. He was converted to Christianity when he was barely a teenager, after his family was deported to Auschwitz and he was entrusted to Christians to be saved from a similar fate. He has risen in the hierarchy of the Church. He has visited Israel and, as could be foreseen, received a very mixed reception here. Jewish apostates obtain very short shrift in the Jewish world, even if they become cardinals. Nevertheless there have been numerous articles about him in the Jewish press over the years and all have somehow raised the possibility that he someday could be pope. The debate on the matter always ends with the classical Jewish question about all world events: "Is it good for the Jews or not?" I am hopeful that the more positive turn in relations with the Jews that the last pope inaugurated will continue and that the ancient hatreds and tensions will diminish and perhaps even eventually disappear. We do not need Jewish popes. We need popes who will treat Jews fairly and with compassion.

Berel Wein

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