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Catholic-Jewish Relations: Post-Holocaust

Yom Kippur, 1999

by Harold M. Schulweis

We have lived with the generation of survivors during the Shoah, the unspeakable nightmare of the century we are leaving. We are now preparing to enter a new century with a new post-Holocaust generation. We are entering a different world that will require a renewed theology, a different spiritual statesmanship and in a globalized universe a new weltanschauung toward the non-Jewish world.

During the last half of this past century we were part of a traumatized people seeking to recover from the excremental assault on its psyche. Who could reasonably expect a relentlessly battered people to emerge unscathed from such terror? Who could expect normalcy after the unconditional extermination of one third of the world Jewish population, the devastation of ninety percent of east European Jewry, the slaughter of 1.5 million Jewish children? Eighty percent of our rabbis, Jewish scholars, teachers and students were murdered.

The Shoah remains the dominant psychic reality of our lives. It has shaken the foundation of faith in God and in man, in churches and in states. It has left us scarred with fear, shame, guilt, disillusionment, and anger. The Shoah is our dybbuk.

Are we then overly pre-occupied with the Shoah? This charge was answered by Elie Weisel with anguish "One Jew was put to death in Jerusalem two thousand years ago and the non-Jewish world has not ceased to speak of his death. Do we not have the right, the duty to keep alive the memory of six million dead?"

There is an anger in us however subdued. Max Scheler, the phenomonologist best characterized such resentment as "the secretion in a sealed vessel of prolonged impotence".

I remember as a child of five my Zayde, born in Poland, taking me firmly by the hand and quickly crossing the street to avoid passing the church. He averted his eyes from priests and nuns. His family's experience justified his suspicions.

Looking back two millennia we Jews were treated as objects of contempt. Our history is punctuated with marauding Christian Crusaders who in the first millennium started killing entire Jewish communities on the way to Jerusalem, inquisitions, passion plays, expulsions, blood libels against Jews for using the blood of Christian children to bake matzah.

Preparing for Passover, I still shudder when reading that a line in the Shulchan Aruch explained why white wine was preferred to red wine at the Seder. It was not a matter of aesthetics but a reaction of fear to the blood libel.


Hovering behind that ugly history was the church's theology of displacement. Displacement means that the Bible's old covenant between God and Israel is declared nullified, totally supplanted by the new covenant between God and Christians. The elected are rejected. Judaism is superseded by Christianity because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the son of God. The rejection was not only a Judaic theological rejection but one followed by the alleged murder of the son of God by the Jews. This sin of deicide was placed on the heads of our children and our children's children. Engraved forever on the foreheads of Jews was the mark of Cain, the curse of Ahasueras, the legendary wandering Jew who deservedly punished can find no peace, no place, no home on earth. "God says to you Jews, 'You are hated'," the church father John Chrysostom preached.

That poisonous theology carried political venom. At the turn of this century, in 1904, Theodore Herzl appeared before Pope Pius X to plead the cause of Zionism, the return to Zion. The Pope responded to Herzl "We are unfavorable to the movement. We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem but we can never sanction it...the Jews have not recognized our Lord. Therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people." That non-recognition took on sinister life and death judgment during the Holocaust. Borders was shut closed, the silence of the Church was deafening. The Shoah took place in Europe, in countries of long-standing Christianization. No Nazi was excommunicated. No sacrament was denied the S.S. Abandoned, betrayed, the seething anger of impotence roiled within us.

My rabbinic colleague, the late lamented Eleazar Berkovitz, expressed a mighty rage. Addressing the Christian world he wrote "We have nothing to learn from you and your ethos. Your interests are not ours. How dare you lecture us about morality, freedom of conscience, the treatment of minorities, the mandate of pluralism. After Dachau, Treblinka, after the White Paper, after the Bermuda Conference, after the Struma and the St. Louis, after Buchenwald, you and western civilization have forfeited all claims to moral credibility. We are exempt from your hypocritical double standards...all we ask of Christians is that they keep their hands off our children."

We understand that rage over the deadly silence of the church.


Then in 1965 some twenty years after the war something occurred for which we were not prepared nor was the world prepared. It started with a world shattering event that proved revolutionary. It began a radical process of self-understanding within the church that changed two thousand years of the teaching of contempt.

In 1965 Pope John XXIII reshaped the world of the church through his call for "aggiornamento", an internal reconstruction of Catholic doctrine, Catholic liturgy and Catholic policy. He convened Vatican II which gave birth to a declaration Nostra Aetate on the church and the Jews that ushered in a Copernican revolution. Fifteen Latin sentences in the church document Nostra Aetate ("In Our Days") turned the church around and opened up a new era.

The document condemned as wholly false the ancient pernicious charge of deicide, the vicious accusation that Jews were collectively to blame for the murder of their God.

With that repudiation of the two millennial charge of deicide, the church put an end to the arrogant conceit that Jews were doomed to eternal exile. The acid test of the significance of that theological change came on December 30, 1993 when against great internal opposition from right wing Catholics and from Arab states and over the objections of his secretariat of State, Pope John Paul II, and the Holy See established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel which included exchange of ambassadors. It put an end to the church's degradation of the Jewish people because of the Jewish perfidy in rejecting Jesus. It announced the return of a people onto the stage of world history. Here at VBS a special Sabbath service was convened in which Cardinal Mahoney and numbers of monsignori, priests, nuns and joined with rabbis, Jews and Catholics, at a service of celebration that marked a historic event.

Truth be told, when John Paul II was first elected, my heart sunk. A Polish Pope, was not a prospect looked forward to by Jewish families from Warsaw and Tchechonever and Nasheltz.

But in retrospect something uncanny occurred, something unanticipated. No Pope in history has ever spoken out more openly, more positively about new relations between Jews and Christians than this Polish Pope Karol Voteeyah from Vadoveeche.

This Polish Pope was the first Bishop of Rome since St. Peter, the first Pope in two thousand years to step into a synagogue. On April 13, 1986 crossing the Tiber, John Paul II, clad in white robe and wearing a white zucchetto (skullcap) embraced Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff and prayed in the synagogue. The Pope's predecessor John XXIII had once stopped his car so as to bless the crowd of Jews who were coming out of that very synagogue. John Paul II speaking to the Jewish congregation said, "I would like to find myself not just outside but thanks to your generous hospitality, I am inside the synagogue of Rome." More than symbolism was involved. The head of one billion Catholics spoke powerful words which were broadcast throughout the world.

No one expected the Pope would implement the Nostra Aetate document in person. It meant that the declaration would not be shelved in the libraries but would become the real task of the church. The Pope who had repeatedly deplored and condemned anti-semitism, prayed that the Shoah will never again be possible. In the synagogue, the Pope expressed the deep sorrow for the failure of the sons and daughters of the church in every age. He called for an act of "teshuvah" repentance, "since as members of the church, we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children." The Pope paused and then continued, "With Judaism we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brother, and in a certain way, you are our elder brother." He prayed for the rediscovered brotherhood, for the new understanding between the church and Judaism and concluded in Hebrew quoting the Psalms Hodu la Adonai ki tov, ki l'olam hasdo -yomar na Yisrael ki lolam hasdo. Yomar na. Yireh Adonai ki l'olam hasdo". Give thanks to the Lord for He is good...His steadfast love endures forever.

Following Nostra Aetate, Catholic Guidelines and Notes were published in which radical changes were systematically introduced including the purging of many anti-Judaic elements in the Catholic liturgy. The old Catholic text books were combed in order to purge the legacy of anti-Judaic stereotypes. A new Catholic catechism has emerged with an emphasis on the present tense in speaking of Israel.

We have seen in art books and in person the old statuaries of Judaism in the medieval cathedrals where the synagogue is portrayed in the form of a bent woman, her head bowed, holding a broken staff of the Law, the Ten Commandments slipping from her fingers next to a church resplendently erect and triumphant. The new Catholic cathedrals do not and will not have those features. Pope Paul has sensitized the church to the hostility of the church toward Jews and Judaism. With sensitivity John Paul II proposed the deletion of the term "Old Testament" as opposed to "New Testament" because old means obsolete, irrelevant and broken. Instead, he uses such terms as the "Hebrew Scriptures" and the "Christian Scriptures".

These changes did not come overnight. But they did come. It involved dialogue and outreach by great Jewish statesmanship, including the firm but patient efforts of Jules Isaac who visited with the Pope and presented him with his book The Contempt of the Jews that demonstrated the arrogance of the church toward Jews and Judaism in its implication in modern anti-semitism. It profoundly affected John XXIII.

But many Jewish scholars rejected any religious dialogue with the church. They were wounded, humiliated, offended, angry. I recall how Abraham Joshua Heschel was chastised and ridiculed by leading rabbinic scholars for flying to the Vatican and meeting with Cardinal Bea and Pope Pius XI, meetings at which Heschel sought to change the articles in Nostra Aetate that dealt with the Catholic mission to the Jews, the insistence the Catholic church exercises its powers to convert Jews. Many Jewish leaders scoffed, and opposed Heschel's involvement. They said: "We do not believe you will be able to influence the prelates and change their minds". Heschel's response was classic, "Because you do not believe, therefore we should not try?" When an early church draft came back with an endorsement for the conversion of Jews, Heschel responded forcefully to the Cardinals "I would rather go to Auschwitz than give up my religion". Let it be recorded to the credit of dialogue and reconciliation and the testimony of Heschel that Pope Paul VI personally crossed out the paragraph. The mission to the Jews does not appear in the final draft.

Why have I chosen to speak to you of this matter in the dawn of a new century? There is a revolution taking place. And we dare not sleep through that revolution. People change. Prelates change. Institutions change. Tshuvah is real. We must be prepared to change ourselves. That change will not be easy for us. We have deep wounds, deep angers and deep memories. Those angers must be respected but they must also be mastered. Our sages warned, "When the kettle boils over, the boiling waters spill over all its sides". (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:9)

As we leave the century of the Shoah, we need lucidity, wisdom and spiritual statesmanship to enter a new world and to take advantage of new opportunities. Our sages warned "Anger deprives a sage of wisdom and a prophet of vision." (Pesachim 66b)

I am concerned about the mastery of anger. What prompts this concern is the sad news of the recent deterioration of relationships in Jewish Catholic relations; and the de facto dissolution of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation which was created with such joy some thirty years ago. About the breakdown I have spoken and have corresponded with Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of Religious affairs at the ADL and Rabbi James Rudin, the director of Religious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University. Regretfully, they more than share my anxiety and apprehensiveness. The breakdown is whispered.

But you must know this because it affects you and our future. One of the major Catholic figures in Jewish Catholics Relationship is Cardinal Edward Cassidy, a known friend of Jews and of the dialogue. Cardinal Cassidy, is head of the Pontifical Commission For Religious Relations with the Jews. He amazed the Catholic delegates in Prague in 1990 with his forthright declaration: "That anti-semitism has found a place in Christian thought and practice calls for an act of tshuvah and of reconciliation on our part...a witness to our failure to be authentic witness to our faith at times in the past." The same Cardinal Cassidy has now publicly expressed his exasperation with some representatives of Jewish organizations. His complaint is that the Jewish response to the church's efforts toward reconciliation are being undermined by a negative and unappreciative criticism. The criticism is "often so negative that some now hesitate to do anything at all for fear of making the situation worse...."We expect and hope that the Jewish partners will at least show us respect. You can hardly claim to respect someone if at every possible opportunity you are ready to criticize the person, even without making a real effort to understand and appreciate the position of the other person."

It is only to be expected that there should be disagreements between both communities. I hold no brief for the church. I do not believe in the infallibility of any church or synagogue. But in my study on the grounds of the deterioration I believe that those who purportedly represent the fate of our people may have handled this process of reconciliation with less than sensitivity, wisdom and statesmanship. For example, they are upset with the beatification and canonization of Edith Stein, who converted to Catholicism, became a nun and went to her death at Auschwitz. I too am regretful about the loss of Edith Stein but I do not believe that it is wise or proper for us to interfere with the church in its canonization of its saints.

Many of the charges against the Pope and the church is that they seek to Christianize the Holocaust. The issue of the Carmelite nuns who set up a convent in Auschwitz set up the same charge of the Christianization of the Holocaust. But too few have read the statement of the Pope addressed to the Carmelite nuns, April 9, 1993, "Now, according to the will of the church, you should move to another place in Osweicim." The nuns were relocated.

The Pope is criticized for meeting with Arafat and with the president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim. I have read the Catholic explanation for that meeting and I seriously question whether Jewish leaders ought to have sought to interfere with the church's own political conduct. We are dealing with sensitive and unprecedented opportunities. The church in March 1998 put out a mea culpa document asking for forgiveness and confessing its sins for the passivity during the Holocaust. The response from many Jewish organizations was headlined "Disappointment". Some of the Jewish criticism dealt with some of the sins during the long history that were ignored. I know that the document did not condemn the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi era. But did anyone expect one infallible Pope to challenge another Catholic Pope? Moreover, instead of encouraging the process of church repentance, this unparalleled act was banned with faint praise. If you voluntarily apologize to me for the wrongs you have committed towards me, I don't respond by reminding you of the errors you left out. Encourage the process. It's not the end, it's the beginning.

We are entering a new era, new times and we are confronting different situations, different events and different persons. My fear is that in anger of the past we cast such a deep shadow over the future, so that we see only the tunnel beyond the light. George Santayana was half right. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But if we remember only and solely the dark past, we will doom ourselves with eternal repetition.

Do you remember when Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, a Polish Jew whose family felt the full fury of the Nazi predators, sent a revealing letter to the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. The occasion was the invasion into Lebanon and the bombing of Beirut. "Now may I tell you, dear Mr. President, how I feel these days when I turn to the Creator of my soul in deep gratitude. I feel as Prime Minister empowered to instruct a valiant army to facing Berlin where among many civilians, Hitler and his henchmen hid in bunkers beneath the surface. What happened to us from Berlin will never happen again." Who cannot appreciate Begin's dream to turn back history, to avenge the victims of the Shoah, to fight the Warsaw Ghetto battle over again and this time to win. But I fear the dangerous anachronism, the perilous misplacement of persons and events.

Arafat is not Hitler.
The PLO is not the S.S.
Oslo is not Munich.
Barak is not Chamberlain.
Pope John Paul II is not Pius XII.
The church of Vatican II is not the church of the Middle Ages.
The new catechism is not the old catechism.

There is something new under the sun. This is a time for a new politics in Israel and a new theology in the synagogue. A new universe is opening up, a new future. In the Middle East new negotiations are taking place. A new military and moral statesmanship is evolving as we speak. Yitzchak Rabin and in his footsteps Ehud Barak are determined to seize the day and to be wary of the understandable but dangerous anger of impotence.

There are important but delicate issues that confront us. Delicate because our emotions are raw enough, our wounds deep enough, our angers of impotence explosive enough that we would do nothing to rub against the barely formed scars of survivors and psychically we are all survivors. It is tempting to do nothing, to say nothing, to let the old habits of the mind continue undisturbed, to submit to the irrational but understandable mutterings of our aching heart "behind every Gentile, lurks an anti-semite". That pulls down the curtain on the future. That does not pay homage to our martyrs. What would they want of us? Not, I think, to be blinded by our anger. Not to eclipse today and tomorrow. Not to view the future only through the single lens of the Shoah. But to take advantage of unimagined changes, to revere the past by respecting the future, to honor the past by creating a better future for our children and children's children. To reject the belief that all roads lead to Ausch

It is to our interest and to the interest of our children's children that we educate, publicize and praise these heroic changes, the struggles to purge the church of its toxic past. The good news taking place on high levels must be filtered down to the masses, to the laity, both Jewish and Christian. We must help spread the word of the revolution of heart as exhibited in the astounding and unparalleled declarations of the Bishops of Germany, France and Hungary. We are on the brink of historic breakthroughs, one that may serve as the model for the 21st century, a healing of the long and bitter antagonism between the elder and younger brother.

Cardinal Mahoney and I, with the cooperation of the American Jewish Committee at Valley Beth Shalom, will convene a conference on the future of Catholic-Jewish relations on Wednesday, September 29, 1999 from 7:00 - 9:00 PM.

We may not have this historic moment of aggiornamento again. Let us set our spiritual and moral agenda toward this next century:

from darkness to light,
from anger to hope,
from Shoah to reconciliation.

As Franz Rosenzweig ended his Star of Redemption "How difficult is every beginning. Whither, then, do the wings of the gate open? Thou knowest it not? -- Into life."

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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