A Rabbi’s Advice to Pope Benedict in Cuba
Religious leadership requires a great deal of courage.
Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Cuba. For most of us, Cuba is a charming tourist destination; but for Cubans, Cuba is a repressive Communist dictatorship, with a government that routinely jails its opponents and on occasion murders its critics.
It’s easy for a pundit like me to advise Pope Benedict to use his visit to oppose the Castro regime. But protest is a very difficult choice. Pope Benedict knows that the Castro regime will respond to his words and exact retribution from Cuban Catholics after he leaves. While the principles of human rights push him to defy the regime, on a practical level, he has to deal with the Communists. Pragmatically, he needs to make sure not to enrage the dictatorship of a country with millions of Catholics.
Pragmatism is a double edged sword; it can help you survive in turbulent times, but at the same time it can cut your principles into shreds. In the Talmud, a story is told about negotiations that took place before the destruction of the Temple. Jerusalem was besieged, but a leading Rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, defied the political leadership to left to meet with the Romans. He was taken to meet with the Roman general, where he negotiated a deal. But the deal was very modest; instead of asking for an end to the siege, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested that the main Rabbinic academy be saved. He felt he would not be able to get the Romans to end their siege, and it was best for him to take something smaller, but valuable, that he would be certain to get in the negotiations.
For years since, a debate has raged about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s actions; was his pragmatism a practical yet wise move, or was it a failure, an act of abandoning principle?
This question is not easily answered. But Communism is different. It is not just a government; it is an ideology, one that is hostile to both religion and freedom. With Communism, there can be no compromises. The Pope’s predecessor, John Paul II knew this, and he courageously fought Communism throughout his tenure.
Sadly, Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba has gotten off to a poor start. Human rights activists have been removed from a church by the Cuban Cardinal, Jaime Ortega. The Pope needs now to find the courage to stand up to Cuba, and to insist that it give freedom to all its citizens.
During the years of Communism in the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Jews defied the regime, and insisted on retaining their Jewish identity. One of the great inspirations for these freedom fighters was the Passover Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The remarkable thing about the Exodus is that Moses, even before he became the great lawgiver of the Bible, was a freedom fighter. To be a true religious authority like Moses, you need to first stand up for freedom.
Pope Benedict XVI is having his Moses moment today. I hope he remembers that the first task of a religious authority is to defy the Pharaohs of the world, and stand up for human rights.