October 22, 2013

Cornell Law Professor Receives Email From Pope Francis

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Amid the spam, meeting reminders and advertisements that can fill a professor’s email inbox, Prof. Menachem Rosensaft, law, recently received an email from an unlikely source: Pope Francis.

The pope wrote to Rosensaft after the Cornell Law School professor sent him a sermon about believing in God after the Holocaust. Rosensaft had delivered the sermon in early September at the Park Avenue Synagogue, reflecting on how his parents — both Holocaust survivors — were able to draw on strength from God to survive atrocities.

“Every year, I am forced to remember my parents in the context of a Torah reading that challenges my ability to relate to God,” he said. “How, we ask ourselves, can we believe in God in the aftermath of the [Holocaust]?”

After delivering the speech, Rosensaft said he sent the sermon out to those friends and colleagues he thought would be interested. On the encouragement of a friend, Rosensaft said, he also sent the sermon to the Pope.

“I sent it specifically to Pope Francis because I have been very impressed by his untraditionally open approach to others,” he said. “It just occurred to me that my own struggle with the attempt to reconcile God with the horrors of the Holocaust might appeal to the Pope if he ever got to read the sermon.”

In his response, the Pope lauded Rosensaft’s sermon.

“When you, with humility, are telling us where God was in that moment, I felt within me that you had transcended all possible explanations and that, after a long pilgrimage — sometimes sad, tedious or dull — you came to discover a certain logic and it is from there that you were speaking to us,” the pope wrote.

Rosensaft said he was “deeply gratified and deeply honored” by the response he received from Pope Francis. The pope exhibited “tremendous sensitivity in relating to concerns of a Jew,” Rosensaft said.

“I was struck by the Pope’s reference to a particular biblical text, which, as it happens, almost echoes what I was trying to say,” Rosensaft said.

The reference is from a biblical narrative, in which “the prophet Elijah … is trying to find God in a very complex context,” Rosensaft said.

“It is a truly poetic way of saying that God was not in the horrors that were perpetrated but rather was in the attempts of individuals in the Nazi death and concentration camps to save or help others, and to remain human under circumstances in which it would have been all too easy to just abandon all vestiges of humanity,” Rosensaft said.

Aside from the personal gratification Rosensaft felt upon receiving the Pope’s email, he said that, “on a broader level, it is reflective of Pope Francis’ outreach to the Jewish community.”