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SIDIC Periodical VII - 1974/2
The Holocaust (Pages 18 - 21)

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Holocaust Theology
Katharine T. Hargrove

 

The recent publication of Claire Huchet Bishop's study How Catholics Look at Jews proves once again that since the end of Vatican II there has been a verifiably existential change in the relationship between Jews and Christians. In the context of our evolving secular civilization, Mrs. Bishop indicates that all her inquiries into Italian, Spanish and French teaching contain no mention of the six million Jews murdered under Hitler. Hence, as a deeply concerned human being, she puts to her readers the question: Unless we face Auschwitz in Christian teaching, how dare we speak of dialogue, encounters, reconciliation with the Jews? 1

Facing Auschwitz some years ago, a good many Christians would have been content to discuss the facts of the Hitlerian outrage in the clinical atmosphere of the academicians. Not so today. The pressures of the current situation with its renewed threats of genocide preclude this kind of escapism. That is why we are listening so intently to the voices of The Holocaust Theologians , trying to find in them viable answers to what is happening on the contemporary scene.

Even though Jacob Neusner holds that Judaic theologians ill-serve the faithful when they claim Auschwitz marks a 'turning' as in Rubenstein's case, or a 'new beginning' as in Fackenheim's , 2 it is imperative for the goyim today to grasp their message. Key-word or not, Auschwitz does conjure up the lurid hatred that is anti-Semitism. For those of us who stand outside the Jewish tradition, the shock of even a vicarious insight into human decadence can be therapeutic. Whatever Neusner regards as harmful in the teaching of these men as they present the religious dimensions of the Final Solution, it is necessary to heed what they have to tell us. Otherwise, it will be impossible for us on our part to make the changes called for in our tradition which permitted the spawning of such evil.

From personal knowledge of Hitlerian depravity, Emil Fackenheim makes his response to the Auschwitz problematic. While he recoils from the memory of the horrors he witnessed, the tragedies through which he lived, he emphasizes the truth as he sees it now, that the survivor is gradually becoming the paradigm of the entire Jewish people .3 If we read him correctly, then we have to come to grips with the connection he makes between the destruction of European Jewry and the consequent collective, enduring witness of the State of Israel. Am Y srael Chai , he assures us; yes, the people of Israel live because the model of Israel's heroism was forged in the fires of the death camps.

As a survivor, Fackenheim pleads with every human being to confront the future with unswerving trust in the abiding faithfulness of God. Strong in his Jewish belief that God remains present in history, he exhorts his co-religionists to consider that:

Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel lest Judaism perish . . . 4

Given the religious posture of American Jewry before and after World War II, Neusner may unwittingly be agreeing with Fackenheim that one of the many outcomes of the massacre of Jewish innocents has been a new beginning.

One example among many of this newness can be found in a sermon by Eugene Borowitz entitled Auschwitz and the Death of God . Almost as if reacting to Fackenheim's Voice of Auschwitz , he asks:

The Jews have known God from their history but what shall we say of his presence in Jewish history in recent years? Where was he when Hitler did what no man should ever do? Why did he not reveal himself to a supplicating, forsaken people who might have died in triumph if only they could have been certain that they died in his name? 5

These are not the timeworn echoes of a disillusioned Elie Wiesel or the corroding bitterness of an afflicted Wdowinski. They are rather the pregnant beauty of faith that matures into hope because:

. . . the Jewish people knows that history is more than the house of bondage. We came into being as a people in Egypt and pledged ourselves to God at Sinai so that the message of redemption, dim and obscure as it may be in one era and another, will never be forgotten among men. As long as we are in history, faithful to him, men cannot ignore God. 6

Rubenstein sounds a totally different note from either Fackenheim or Borowitz. For him, there is no commanding voice issuing from the gas chambers. Neither apparently is there any upsurge of prayer like that with which Borowitz ends his exhortation: Forgive us, Lord, for having failed thee again and again, and grant us the courage to testify of thee in all our ways, Amen. Nevertheless, despite charges leveled against him as a negativist, a nihilist, be has his own prophetic thrust:

. . . Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God's punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God's will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, inhuman explosion in all history as a meaningful expression of God's purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept. 8

Whatever his critics have to say of him, they must admit that he has helped to translate the innocuous, play-it-safe theologizing about the problem of evil into the abrasive polemic it has become as radical evil . This insistence on the radical character of the Holocaust means for Rubenstein that Hitler's Final Solution created a type of malice unique in the annals of mankind. It also signifies for him that the events in the death camps, taken singly or taken in their totality, focalize his interest. He makes no attempt at happy projections for a happy future but amazingly he tells us:

No men have known as we have how truly God in His holiness slays those to whom He gives life. This has been a liberating knowledge, at least for the survivors, and all Jews everywhere regard themselves as having escaped by the skin of their teeth, whether they were born in Europe or elsewhere. We have lost all faith and hope. We have lost all possibility of disappointment. Expecting absolutely nothing from God or man, we rejoice in whatever we receive. We have learned the nakedness of every human pretense. No people has come to know as we have how deeply man is an insubstantial nothingness before the awesome and terrible majesty of God. We accept our nothingness nay, we even rejoice in it for finding our nothingness we have found both ourselves and the God who alone is true substance. 9

If Neusner construes Rubenstein's turning as being a marriage between the piety of a Francis of Assisi and the mysticism of a John of the Cross, let us have more of it.

Given a basic difference in theological rationale, Fackenheim takes Rubenstein to task on the grounds that the latter's rejection of Divine Providence is undermining Jewish unity at this critical juncture in its development. Rubenstein, for his part, contends that nowhere in Fackenheim's works can he discover any effectual attempt to cope with the implications in the truism that Six million dead cannot simply be shoved under a rug . " The sickening impact of this traumatic reality has never caused Fackenheim to proclaim as Rubenstein does:

The more one studies the classical utterances of Christianity on Jews and Judaism while at the same time reviewing the terrible history of the Nazi period, the more one is prompted to ask whether there is something in the Christian philosophy of history, when pushed to a metaphysical extreme, that ends in the justification of, if not the incitement to, the extermination of the Jews.11

We know from Rubenstein's perceptive foreword to Alan T. Davies' classic, Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind, 12 that he can easily document the reply to his question in terms of the teaching of contempt. What we do not know as yet is how he is affected by the demands of his Jewish peers for a differentiation vis-a-vis the Christian community between demonic and constructive guilt. As they interpret the data, demonic guilt can only feed the flames of anti-Semitism. Any exploitation of Christian demonic guilt is not only senseless but vile. Constructive guilt, on the contrary, can cleanse the Christian conscience if members of the Jewish covenant agree that the anti-Semitism of the years 19331945 is not endemic to the Christian faith. For Christians to assume that they alone bear the blame for the Nazi conflagration is to assume that their Church is omnipotent. Such obviously is not the case. For Christians to isolate the death of six million Jews from the death of seven million Christians is to negate the bonds of our shared humanity . 13

Michael Wyschgorod vigorously endorses this approach to the Judaeo-Christian dialogue today. Whatever the charges against the Church for her silence and her non-involvement, he makes it clear that he feels safer in a Christian than in a pagan world. Enduring like all of us the syndrome of secularization in our decade, he has no illusions about the possibility of nuclear warfare. But convinced that the voice of the prophet is stronger than the voice of the concentration camp , he wants us all, no matter what our tradition, to relearn the truth about Israel's suffering.

His argument is that throughout the millenia of her existence, although agony has often been the lot of his people, this has never touched the heart of Judaism. Sorrow, in the Siddur, is relegated to minor feast days . The core of Jewish belief has always been and must remain, despite the Holocaust, the gladsome proclamation of Passover, Hanukkah, Purim. Thus he writes:

The God of Israel is a redeeming God; this is the only message we are authorized to proclaim, however much it may not seem so to the eyes of unbelief. Should the Holocaust cease to be peripheral to the faith of Israel, should it enter the Holy of Holies and become the dominant voice that Israel hears, it could not but be a demonic voice that it would be hearing. There is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can be revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can be found in it. 14

The Holocaust is peripheral to Judaism? Accustomed as we have been to the enormity of Hitler's hatred, maybe this insistence of Wyschgorod's will recall two fundamental points of clarification. The first is that the Holocaust was A sacrifice which is burnt completely and therefore considered of particular holiness . " The second is that The burnt-offering was the only offering accepted from non-Jews . 16 Here indeed is strange consolation for us, an unequivocal confirmation that Wyschgorod is, in his own way, taking his place in the classical tradition of biblical Judaism.

On that tradition Neusner bases his critique of those theologians who from 1945 to about 1965 wrote not as if nothing had happened but as if nothing had happened to impose a new perspective on the whole past of Jewish experience . " In his volume on Understanding Jewish Theology , Claire Huchet Bishop will meet on almost every page the analogical replies to the problems she raises about How Catholics Look at Jews . It is illuminating just to read her energetic conclusion and then move slowly into the almost apocalyptic dimensions of Neusner's Weltanschauung. While her researchers at Louvain and Pro Deo have turned up only more evidence that Anti-Semitism is the most absolute and protean of prejudices , " Mrs. Bishop avers that We must press on, in the firm hope that reconciliation between Christians and Jews will lead us to the full acceptance of 'the other' whoever he be. 19

To the other Neusner reveals the all-embracing quality of that lovingkindness which resembles a seed of eternity in the human heart. While he envisages Christianity today as entering a time of exile, it need not fear greatly, if Christians are prepared to affirm their faith through faith . . . As Christianity enters the Jewish situation, it need not, therefore, worry for its future. Golah is not a situation to be chosen, but to be accepted at the hand of God as a test of faith and an opportunity for regeneration and purification. We did not choose to go into exile, any more than the Christian would choose to abandon the world. Having gone into exile, having lost the world, Jew and Christian alike may uncover new resources of conviction, new potentialities for sanctity, than they knew they had. 20

Is it not one of the greatest paradoxes of Holocaust theology that it thus recalls to God's people the words: I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness (Is. 42: 6-7)?



Sr. Katharine T. Hargrove R.S.C.J., formerly professor at Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y., is now working in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. She has edited a volume of essays entitled The Star and the Cross (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1966).

1. Claire Huchet Bishop, How Catholics Look at Jews, New York: Paulist Press, 1974, p. 98.
2. Jacob Neusner, Understanding Jewish Theology,
New York: Ktav, 1973, p. 193.
3. Ibid. quoting Emil Fackenheim, p. 172.
4. Emil Fackenheim, God's Presence in History, New York: New York University Press, 1970, p. 84.
5. Eugene B. Borowitz, How Can a Jew Speak of Faith Today? Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 33.
6. Ibid. p. 34.
7. Ibid. p. 35.
8. Neusner, op. cit. p. 185, quoting Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, pp. 153-4.
9. Ibid. p. 186.
10. Alan T. Davies, Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind, New York: Herder and Herder, p. 35, quoting Rubenstein, After Auschwitz.
11. Ibid. p. 125, quoting Richard L. Rubenstein, Jews, Christians and Magic , Christianity and Crisis, Vol. XXIII, No. 7, April 30, 1962, p. 62.
12. Ibid. pp. 7-14.
13. From unpublished notes at the 1974 NCCJ Conference on the Church struggle and the Holocaust.
14. Neusner, op. cit. p. 190.
15. The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, edited by Dr. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965,
p. 77.
16. Ibid.
17. Neusner, op. cit. p. 191.
18. Bishop, op. cit. p. 128.
19. Ibid.
20. Neusner, op. cit. p. 264.

 

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