Two significant statements about the relations between Jews and Christians were published toward the end of 2015; both were widely reported by both religious and general media. On December 3, 2015, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding, an Orthodox institution located in Efrat, Israel, published a statement on the relation between the two faiths signed by a number of prominent Orthodox rabbis from Israel, America and Europe. On December 10, 2015, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews published a statement with a much sharper focus: It announced that the Roman Catholic Church would stop all missionary activities specifically targeting Jews for conversion. While these statements were motivated by contemporary developments (such as the turbulence in the Middle East and the related resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe), I think that one must see these recent events in the context of decades of Jewish and Christian efforts to understand the religious significance of the Holocaust, that monstrous crime that continues to throw its long shadow over any serious conversations between representatives of the two communities.In the immediate period after the Holocaust, with its horrors still close at hand, any religious reflection was overshadowed by the anguished question of theodicy: How could a God worshipped by both Jews and Christian as both perfectly just and also omnipotent allow these horrors to occur? The question is asked in an unbearable scene in Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical memoir Night (the English translation, from the original French and Yiddish versions, was published in 1966). Wiesel and his family were deported to the death camps from the part of Romania that had been annexed by Hungary; Wiesel spent two years in Auschwitz. The aforementioned scene was one in which a thirteen-year old boy was hanged for having stolen some food. The boy was too light for his neck to be broken in the fall from the gallows; he slowly and painfully died of strangulation; it took him half an hour to die. Other prisoners were forced to watch. A prisoner standing next to Wiesel asked “Where is God?” Then Wiesel thought that a voice within him replied, “He is hanging here from the gallows”. If one can even bear to reflect about this scene, one must realize that this reply is ambiguous. It can mean quite simply that after this scene one can no longer believe in God, one can only be an atheist. A more complicated meaning could be that, in some mysterious and somehow redemptive way, God participates in the extreme suffering of his creation. There are strands in Jewish mysticism that suggest the latter theodicy (most directly in the myth of the broken vessels taught by Isaac Luria (1534-1572)).As far as I know, Wiesel never clarified what he thought the meaning should be. It is possible that he wasn’t sure. He once avowed to be a sort of agnostic. Yet he was preoccupied with the Kabbalah in his later years. He also once remarked that if he ever ceased to be a Jew, he would cease to be. Ever after the liberation, Wiesel took on two personal vocations—to bear witness to the Holocaust (the duty to remember) and to help ensure that such a genocide could never happen again (the duty to intervene). For the latter vocation he involved himself in humanitarian actions in far-away places (such as Bosnia or Cambodia), for which he rightly received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Perhaps one may recall here that an important idea in the Lurianic mystical system is that of the “repair of the universe”, tikkun olam, in which human actions can assist God in gathering the broken vessels and restoring them to their God-given redemptive task.The most strident Jewish voice giving (at least initially) an atheist answer to the question of theodicy raised by the Holocaust was that of Richard Rubenstein, an American Reform rabbi. In his book After Auschwitz (1966) he forcefully stated that after the Holocaust it was no longer possible to believe in the Biblical God. He was close for a while to the Protestant academics who made a lot of noise at the time with the so-called “death of God theology” (a man-bites-dog story that landed them on the cover of Time magazine). Prominent among them was Thomas Altizer (who taught for many years at Emory University) used the Christian idea of kenosis, the self-inflicted humiliation of God reaching its climax in the crucifixion of Jesus. As to Rubenstein, at one point in his career he said what was needed was “some form of paganism”. His intellectual credibility was not enhanced when he drew close to the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Mying Moon.It is impossible to avoid thinking about the Holocaust in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Christians. But that dialogue has veered into other issues. A persistent issue has been the question of Christian guilt for the Nazi crimes, and going back in history for the roots of European anti-Semitism. The guns of World War II had been silenced only a few months when the EKID (the Protestant Church in Germany, which then as now contains both Lutheran and Reformed provincial churches) assembled in Stuttgart on October 19, 1945 and issued a solemn Declaration of Guilt for the Nazi atrocities. The moving force at that meeting were the leaders of the so-called Confessing Church, which was the movement within the EKID to resist, not the regime politically but the attempt to impose Nazi ideology onto church life. Best known among these leaders was Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984), who was imprisoned for years in a concentration camp. One might think that these individuals had no guilt to confess, unlike many other Protestants who actively supported the regime. (With this in mind, later statements substituted “responsibility” for “guilt”: Guilt is always individual, but a political community bears responsibility for crimes committed in its name.) Thus the Declaration simply said that “we” (Germans) had brought great suffering “over many peoples and countries” (the Holocaust was never explicitly mentioned, but everyone in that assembly knew which “people” was specially intended); “we” in the Confession Church did not speak out more loudly or act more resolutely.)Not much later Niemoeller came to America on a lecture tour and was much more explicit about the Holocaust. The Stuttgart Declaration was the opening salvo in the development of a penitential culture which has been established in the Federal Republic and is a potent reality even now. (The DDR, the Communist state in East Germany, disclaimed responsibility for the crimes of “the fascists”; the Holocaust was not part of the political narrative). Berlin, once again the capital of a re-unified Germany, is full of memorial signs commemorating Jewish victims of Nazi actions; the prime example is the huge (and, I think, deliberately repellent) Holocaust monument a few steps from the Reichstag dome, the symbol of the new German democracy. (It is no accident that Berlin has the largest colony in the EU of Israeli residents, that Germany has been Israel’s best friend in the EU, and that Chancellor Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in the DDR, risked her political career in ordering the opening of the border to admit over a million refugees in 2015.)Within Protestant theology in Germany a key figure has been Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquandt (1928-2002), who taught at the Free University in Berlin. He strongly emphasized, not only that Christianity has its roots in the Hebrew Bible, but that the Christian Church does not supersede God’s covenant with Israel, which remains in full force. Needless to say, this pervasive deference to Judaism has been welcomed in some Jewish circles, criticized by some conservative Lutherans (one of whom said that the role Marquandt envisaged for Christians in the Jewish community is that of dhimmis, tolerated “People of the Book”, in the community of Islam). The biographical background of Marquandt’s theology is full of pathos: His father was in the SS and was seen in Berlin in his uniform during Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish pogrom in November 1938, often interpreted as a prelude to the Holocaust. [I must confess that I haven’t read Marquandt’s writings nor ever met him. But I had some conversations with devoted students of his and was impressed by their seriousness. They participated in an annual ceremony, which ran over two days, in which every name of Berlin Jews deported to the death camps was read aloud in a public place. This ceremony was actually started by a group of Catholic nuns.]As with so many issues, the Second Vatican Council was a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. On October 19, 1965, the Council, under the authority of Pope Paul VI, issued a “Declaration of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. Several paragraphs dealt specifically with Jews, though the emphasis throughout the document on the rights of other religions, and on Catholic respect for them, applies to Judaism as well. However, as was correctly pointed out, the relation between Christianity and Judaism is a special one, different from that with any other religion (if only because the Hebrew Bible is an integral part of Christian Scripture). This difference was bureaucratically recognized when after the Council the Vatican organized a series of agencies to deal with interfaith dialogues; there were separate agencies set up for dialogue with Jews and with other religions.There was no specific mention of the Holocaust in the passage dealt with Jews, but a number of important statements were made: There must be a stop to the Catholic “tradition of contempt for Jews and Judaism”. Catholics must reject hatred, persecution, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone. The old charge of “deicide” against the Jews must be abandoned: “The crucifixion of Jesus cannot be charged against the Jews, without distinction, then alive nor against the Jews of today”. (This condemnation was particularly significant because the charge of “deicide” (murder of God) was repeatedly made in the history of Christian anti-Semitism, most recently by Catholic-oriented pro-Nazi movements in Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Ukraine.) These passages have become normative for any Catholic dealings with Jews or with Judaism. But in the decades since Vatican II the Catholic-Jewish dialogue has dealt with another set of issues: The relationship between God’s covenant with Israel and with the Christian Church, that is between the Old Testament and the New (“testament” being a synonym for “covenant”). The Christian roots of anti-Semitism. The relation between Christian and Nazi anti-Semitism. The role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. The status of the Holy Land in traditional Jewish and Christian understanding, and in Zionist ideology. All of these issues involve complicated historical questions that cannot possibly be dealt with here, though toward the end of this paper I will briefly return to the issue of the “two covenants”.There was a major predecessor of the statement about Christianity by a group of Orthodox rabbis in December 2015: The document Dabru Emet/”Speak the Truth”, published on September 10, 2000; this one, unlike the more recent one, was mainly signed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. These were the main points of this statement: Jews and Christians indeed worship the same God, and derive authority from the same book (though obviously, in the Jewish case, only from the first part, the Hebrew Bible). Christians have come to respect the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel (this more an expectation than a statement of fact). Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. Clearly this was a gesture of friendship from liberal Jews to liberal Christians.As was to be expected, the document was sharply criticized by Orthodox Jews: The first point, about worshiping the same God, was the main points of criticism. The bestowal of Messiah status on Jesus of Nazareth and, worse, his elevation to divine status in the Trinity, constitute idolatry from the viewpoint of Jewish Orthodoxy, and were so considered by rabbis for many centuries. Probably the sharpest rebuke came in an article by Jon Levenson, an Orthodox Biblical scholar teaching, of all places, at the Harvard Divinity School: “How not to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue”, in Commentary, December 2001. [It must have dawned on dialogue-minded Christians who were pleased with Dabru Emet, that maybe they should talk to more Orthodox Jews if the dialogue is to go much further—just as liberal Christians interested in dialogue with Islam should talk with, say, scholars from Al-Azhar rather than liberal Muslims with whom they already have large areas of agreement.]Thus the statement by the group of Orthodox rabbis mentioned at the beginning of this post must have been music to the ears of dialogue-minded Christians waiting for more Orthodox partners than the signatories of Dabru Emet. It seems to me that they got this—the signatories are without exception Orthodox rabbis. And there are no aggressive statements about Christianity, such as the changes of “idolatry” because of Christian doctrines about Jesus and the Trinity. The most positive pro-Christian statement opens paragraph 3 of the document: “We acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations”. But in giving credit to Christians the statement exaggerates: “The Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between God and Israel”—some Catholic theologians may have done this, not Nostra Aetate. Further on it says “Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty”—that sounds more like Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquandt than a general Christian consensus (and I note that “covenantal” is here put in lower case, unlike “Covenant” in paragraph 3—a lesser covenant?—for Gentile dhimmis?) Objectively speaking, does this document further the theological dialogue between Jews and Christians, going beyond common moral (condemnation of anti-Semitism) and political (seeking a just peace in the Middle East) collaboration? I think yes. It opens a door for some Orthodox participation in the sought-after interfaith dialogue; many Orthodox, even this side of Haredim, will not want to walk through this door. It will all depend on who on either side will make which interpretations; as always, non-theological interests will be involved (as happens, for sure, in the centuries-long Christian struggle about the nature of Jesus Christ).And now to the Vatican document published on December 10, 2015: The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews took another significant step in its area of concern. It said that “Catholics should always witness to their faith but not undertake organized efforts to convert Jews”. This step does not come easily. Evangelical Protestants continue to follow the so-called Great Commission very seriously—the statement of Jesus, reported in the Gospel of Matthew (28:19): “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. The Catholic Church, along with most mainline Protestantism, has been reluctant about intrusive “proselytism” (which has lately become a pejorative term). In Catholic circles the “witness” approved in the document has been described as “Christian presence”. As far as I know, the phrase was first used by Catholic missionaries in North Africa to refer to their dealings with Muslims—not standing on street-corners urging them to be baptized, but quietly saying Mass while doing good works of charity (hospitals, schools and the like), all in an attitude of respect for Islam. But, in explicitly applying this idea of witness to the Jews, the document comes closer to the idea of the continuing covenant with Israel as a rationale for a distinctive approach to Judaism: The key paragraph is titled “The Gifts and Calling of God are irrevocable” (my italics). (It is at least conceivable that the Orthodox drafters of their document, published only a few days before the Vatican’s, saw a preview of the latter.) In any case, the Orthodox rabbis should be pleased.The two documents just discussed clearly deal with the religious issues in the relations between Jews and Christian, bracketing the more immediate political issues (most of them concerned with the State of Israel and its turbulent neighborhood). It seems clear to me that at the center of these issues is the question of the “irrevocable” quality of God’s covenant with Israel, or alternatively its replacement by the new covenant between God and the Christian Church. The latter position, dominant in Christian theology until recently, has the ponderous name of “supercessionism”—the new covenant (aka the New Testament) supercedes and is seen as superior to the old covenant/Testament. The contrary position, increasingly favored by Catholic and mainline Protestant theologians, gets the even more ponderous name “anti-supercessionism”—that is, the old covenant is still in force.I would think that there is only a problem if one has a very literal understanding of the Bible—the canonical text as written, in either Old or New Testament, is taken as literally the revealed word of God. But if the relevant Biblical passages are looked at through the lens of modern historical scholarship, things get very complicated: Just when did Christianity and Judaism become two divergent religions? There were some pivotal moments; around 59 CE when the Apostles met in Jerusalem and decided, against strong opposition, that the Gentile converts brought in by Paul did not have to be circumcised (the mark of the covenant) or to follow most Torah commandments; after 70 CE when, after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, the highest rabbinical court, was allowed by the Romans to re-assemble in the little town of Yavneh south of Jaffa, where it finalized the canon of the Hebrew Bible and (according to some doubtful sources) decided that the nascent Jesus movement did not belong; the rebellion of Simon Bar Kochba, around 132 CE, which was brutally suppressed by the Romans and which was not supported by the Nazarenes/Christians. Certainly much after, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was very clear that Judaism did not belong to it.If one goes farther back, things became even murkier if one asks what we really know about what happened in the early history of the Semitic tribes that settled on the mountains of Judea sometime around 2000 BCE. Did Abraham, if he existed at all, pledge allegiance to a rather strange divinity and in exchange received the promise/covenant of a huge stretch of territory stretching from Egypt to Iraq(!)? And what, if anything, happened at Mount Sinai when the God of Abraham renewed the covenant with what, under the leadership of one Moses, was becoming the people of Israel? Orthodox Jews take these events not only as facts but as binding norms. Christians have the even more difficult task to conclude that these alleged facts are binding on them as well.In other worlds, Jews and Christians who cannot understand the Scriptures in such a literal way, don’t really have the problem of how the two covenants relate to each other—both are historically questionable. The question of whether they have a common faith must be addressed through a much more nuanced assessment of the core of each tradition, rather than through the quasi-juridical decision whether the same covenant covers both traditions. (A hint: It helps to grasp the commonality if, for a moment, one looks at west Asian monotheism through Hindu or Buddhist glasses.) I think that such an assessment will lead to the proposition that yes, Jews and Christians do have a shared faith in the same God. The other questions about common moral and political concerns will also have to be addressed beyond the contretemps of supercessionism or its rejection. These concerns have been strongly expressed in interfaith statements for many years since World War II—that anti-Semitism is a blasphemous offence against God and man; that any persecution of people because of their religion is morally unacceptable; that the State of Israel has a fundamental right to exist in safety (from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, but probably not from the Nile to the Euphrates.) And recalling the Holocaust is a useful help in formulating every one of these concerns.Jews of any denomination are obviously pleased with the Vatican statement of December 2015 discussed above. In addition to being troubled by the move toward sanctification of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of having been too silent in the face of the of the Holocaust, there have been some Jewish worries about Rome’s carefully calibrated stance on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Evangelicals have no central authority comparable to Rome, but there is a high degree of consensus on many issues. The Evangelical perspective is nicely caught by the American definition of ambivalence: when you see your mother-in-law go over the cliff in your new Cadillac. Evangelicals have been more pro-Israel than any other category of Christians. (A recent survey found that more American Evangelicals than American Jews believe that God has given the Holy Land to the Jews!) On the other hand, Evangelicals are sturdily on the side of “supersessionism” (pronounce it slowly with a Southern accent). At its meeting in New Orleans in 2009 the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming the intention of strengthening efforts to convert Jews, as mandated by Jesus’ alleged Great Commission to baptize all nations. [I remember a conversation I had at the time with a rabbi who was outraged and saw this as an expression of anti-Semitism. I told him that I had no sympathy whatever with the SBC resolution, but that I had learned as a sociologist that you cannot understand people’s actions without understanding their basic assumptions. These people assume that you cannot go to heaven unless you accept Jesus Christ as your savior. If you excluded Jews from the prospect of heaven, then you would really be anti-Semitic! He was not convinced.] To my knowledge, most Evangelicals (with varying degrees of fervor) are supercessionists. The Lausanne Movement, an influential international Evangelical organization, met in Jerusalem(!) in 2012, and explicitly endorsed 2009 resolution on Jewish evangelism of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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Published on: January 21, 2016
Interfaith RelationsUnder the Long Shadow of the Holocaust
Interfaith dialogue takes two important steps forward.