We Can Be Mother Teresa, Too — or Better
Mother Teresa has become Saint Teresa!
She was born in 1910, in what is now Macedonia. She joined a religious sisterhood in Ireland and then took vows as a nun in India. She taught at a girls’ school in Calcutta for many years; then, in 1946, she decided to devote herself to the poor and moved to the poorest part of the city, where she founded a religious order.
Over the years her devotion to the poor attracted worldwide attention. It became fashionable for the idle rich, aristocracy and movie stars to visit her for photo opportunities or to burnish their credentials. She became a celebrity, traveled the world, won the Nobel Prize. She expanded her order to become one of the most important in the Catholic Church. And she died in 1997. Not surprisingly, the Church fast tracked her “canonization,” as it is called.
It is a feature of saints in Catholicism that they must perform miracles to prove their supernatural power — something that went out of fashion in our tradition thousands of years ago. Our greatest Biblical and Talmudic figures were shown to be human and imperfect. We never had saints.
The Catholic Church is entitled to its own strange theologies, customs, and procedures. Unfortunately, we have borrowed the idea from them. Nowadays, any rabbi venerated by the Charedi world becomes the equivalent of a saint, in that the myths and stories of his absolute perfection in every possible area are enhanced and exaggerated. The appropriate term is hagiography (which originally meant writing the lives of Christian saints). It has now infected the nether reaches of our own tradition. Even the requirement of performing miracles to prove one’s supernatural powers has made a comeback in parts of our community. Going to a great one’s grave and pressing in a kvitel (a piece of paper with your Hebrew name and wish for the future) guarantees a miracle, apparently. And if not, no one ever mentions the failures.
Mother Teresa, of course, performed miracles. That’s what saints do! You have to if you want to get the title. Very often the evidence has been highly dubious. Several people have attested to the fact that she cured their cancers, while medical professionals on site claimed their treatment did it.
In the 1980s, when I indulged in a little interfaith activity, I heard her speak twice. Once in Oxford, together with the Dalai Lama (whom she considered a pagan), and another time with Chief Rabbi Jakobovits (whom she also thought would burn in hell because he had not seen the true light). Her theology was primitive, as was she.
She said that contraception was exactly the same as murder. She accepted money from some of the worst offenders against human rights (but so do some presidential candidates today). I have to say I was horrified by what she said about abortion and her opinions on poverty and how it was a godly state — to be borne with fortitude, based on the certainty that they would be rewarded in the World to Come. Although I must admit I have heard some rabbis say that, too.
There were voices that gave another perspective, from Christopher Hitchens to Yogi Adityanath. Many in India saw her as a figure of Western, white hypocrisy and a proselytizer for Christianity amongst the barbarians. There was criticism of her institutions for cruelty and inhumanity to children. Even her glorification of poverty was seen as inappropriate. She often said it was not her job to be a social worker. It is clear that there was another, harder, and crueler side to her.
As she grew older, her team began to address some of these issues and set about cleaning up her history and her persona. Yet she devoted her life to living simply and poorly herself, and continues to be an icon of dedication and commitment. I should say I was more impressed by Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated his life to the lepers of Lambarene in Gabon.
I have no patience for saints. All the more so since so many of them were rabid antisemites. Besides, I do not believe anyone is perfect. Even sinners can do good. I certainly do not believe in brushing dirt under the carpet. And I just laugh at hagiography. So many people are lauded nowadays, idolized, for selfish feats of sport, music and wealth-making. And yet the world, for all its selfishness, has gotten better. Global poverty has shrunk by half over the past 20 years. That’s an impressive figure. A new middle class is emerging, mainly in Asia, that is redressing the balance. Even so, one of the biggest challenges of our generation is the gap between rich and poor. Millions are without either drinkable water, shelter or sufficient food, and have nothing of the social welfare safety nets we have in the West.
In our own Jewish communities, there are many men and women who live lives devoted to good deeds and the welfare of others. We don’t call them saints. We don’t venerate them or expect miracles from them. But neither do we appreciate them sufficiently.
We, sadly, have sunk to the level where we venerate the people who make big bucks, flaunt their donations and lord it over their communities. I believe in the concept of the Tsaddik Nistar — the good person who is hidden from public view, who avoids the glare of publicity. Recognizing Mother Teresa as a person who did good deeds reminds us that we ordinary people, too, can do something for those less well off than we are. Such people are the real heroes and saints of all of our societies. There are not enough of them.