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SIDIC Periodical XXII - 1989/1-2
Fiftieth Anniversary of Kristallnacht (Pages 10 - 15)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

"Mysterium Tremendum: Catholic Grapplings with the Holocaust and its Theological Implications"
Eugene J. Fisher


To speak of the Holocaust, its witnesses remind us, is an impossible task. How can one encapsulate in words the absolute horror of the deaths of millions? Is not the very attempt to find meaning, even religious meaning, in such an event somehow blasphemous?
Yes, but not to speak may be worse. It would be, in the words of Emil Fackenheim to commit the final blasphemy, to allow to Hitler the postumous victory of having silenced forever the voices of the prophets.

If there was a temptation to silence in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics in the face of the intractable realities of the Holocaust, that silence has been shattered by the increasingly vocal controversies between our two communities in recent months. Even as Pope John Paul II on April 13, 1986 became the first bishop of Rome since St. Peter to visit a synagogue, the seeds of those controversies were developing: the process of beatification of Edith Stein was moving toward its conclusion; a small group of six Polish nuns were working to turn into a modest convent the interior of an abandoned theater across the street from the infamous death campatAuschwitz-Birkenau; and Kurt Waldheim, former general secretary of the United Nations, was being proposed as president of Catholic Austria.

All three actions touched on the Holocaust and thus on a memory sacred to the Jewish people today. Jewish nerves, rubbed raw by centuries of persecution, and the Jewish soul, scarred by the agony of the loss of one third of its entire people just fifty years ago, cried out with sincere anguish.

1. Bitgurg, Waldheim and the theology of Forgiveness
The first issue, though not one primarily between Jews and Catholics revealed and ongoing misunderstanding by Catholics of Jewish teaching and Jewish spirituality. This is the issue of forgiveness, a variation of which was heard also during the Waldheim affair.

Reacting to Jewish outcries over Bitburg, many Christians (not just Catholics) were heard to ask: "What's the matter with Jews? Hasn't there been enough on the Holocaust? Why can't they forgive after all this time?" Underlying such plaints, at times quite explicitly, is one of the most ancient elements of the "teaching of contempt" against Jews and Judaism. That is the belief that Judaism (the "Old Law") preaches justice and vengeance, while Christianity, following the teaching of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount, proclaims mercy and forgiveness. The ironic fact that Christians over the centuries, because of our oppressive treatment of Jews, have needed far more forgiveness from Jews than they need from us, is seldom noted by Christian critics of "vindictive" Judaism.

But do Judaism and Christianity hold two entirely different, antithetical understandings of the theology of forgiveness as so many Christians presume? The 1974 Vatican Guidelines1 remind us that:
"The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor. "

As with the law of love (Mt. 22:34-40, which reiterates the commandments of Dt. 65 and Lv. 19:18), Jesus' saying on love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount2 draws on Jewish sources. In point of fact, there is no command in the Hebrew Scriptures or in rabbinic tradition to "hate your enemy". Instead we find:
"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls ,and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles!" (Proverbs 24:17) and "If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink." (Proverbs 25:20)

Rabbinic tradition in turn commented upon and reinforced these biblical sayings:
R. Hama b.Hanina said: "Even though your enemy has risen up early to kill you, and he comes hungry and thirsty to your house, give him food and drink. God will make him at peace with you. "

Jewish tradition here is not total pacifism, as the minority position within Christianity would interpret and apply Jesus' words. Rather its theme, as in the high Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is reconciliation, the great Jewish theme stressing the reconciling power of divine love over hatred:
"God will make him at peace with you. "3

If Judaism holds such a rich theology of forgiveness and reconciliation, the persistent Christian critic may still ask, why the outbursts over Bitburg and Waldheim? In the former case, Bitburg, the answer lies in the nature of the event itself: the Christian president of the United States and the Christian chancellor of Germany got together over the graves of Nazi SS troops to forgive each other for acts of war. Jews were neither consulted nor invited to partici- pate. The fact of the Shoah, therefore, was ignored. Trivialized. Not allowed to interfere with "more important matters of State" between the two countries. Jews were not to be present to forgive – or even to tell their story, which is one reason why the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference, along with so many other non-Jews, urged the President to cancel the event.

2. Waldheim and the Theology of Repentance
The Jewish perception of a trivialization of the Holocaust, of judging the sytematic murder of six million innocents to be of such little present moment that it should not give pause to current affairs of state, also played a significant part in Jewish reactions to the granting of a papal audience to the president of Austria. Again, numerous Catholic voices could be heard calling on Jews to forgive Waldheim, whose crimes on the scale of Nazi butchery, after all were not that great even if he had based his career on lies about his relatively minor role in the German anny.4
Again, let us look a little deeper into the rhetoric. What were Jews trying to tell us Catholics about the significance, to them and to us, of the audience? While I believe that the papal audience was justifiable for the reasons of state that were given by the Holy See and because Mr. Waldheim, who has not been convicted of any criminal charges is the duly elected head of a democratic state and should be considered legally innocent until proven guilty, I also believe that we Catholics need to listen very closely to what has been said to us in this affair.

The Jewish accusation against Mr. Waldheim, if I understand it correctly, was not so much that he was a major war criminal of the Holocaust, an Eichmann or a Klaus Barbie, but that he appears to remain entirely unrepentant about his arguably minor role in mass murder. This note of unrepentance was present in almost all of the Jewish statements of protest against the audience. It effectively challenges Catholics who would criticize Jews as "unforgiving" over the incident. Forgiveness, in Christian theology no les thanJewish theology, requires repentance. While no human being can fully plumb the depths of Mr. Waldheim's heart to sit in judgment on his soul–only God can do that – still, his public posture and his grudging admissions of the truth as each new piece of evidence against his original story came out, has left the impression that he has not yet fully, at least in public, come to grips within his own conscience with the enormity of the evil perpetrated against the Jewish people and against humanity by the Nazi death machine of which he was certainly a part.

What Jews are saying in essence, then, is no more and no less than what the prophets and Jesus said to the world in earlier generations: "Repent and sin no more!" It is a timeless and timely message. For Christians to speak of reconciliation with Jews in this, as the Pope has rightly called it, "the century of the Shoah,"5 we must take the first step, repentance, a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. I believe we have begun to do this, in the Catholic community most clearly through the declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, and in the remarkable progress (not well known enough in the Jewish community, I fear) in implementing the Council's mandate in Catholic teaching and preaching in all levels of the Church's life, especially, perhaps in this country.6

Still, the words that Bishop Elchinger of Strasbourg addressed to the Second Vatican Council retain their urgency for all Christians today:

We cannot deny that not only during this century but also during past centuries crimes have been committed against the Jews by the Sons and Daughters of the Church... We cannot ignore that during the course of history, there have been perspectives and outrages against the Jews; there have been violations of conscience as well as forced conversions. lastly, we cannot deny that up until recently, errors have insinuated themselves, too frequently, into preaching and into certain catechetical books in opposition to the spirit of the New Testament. In going back to the sources of the Gospels, why not draw sufficient greatness of sou/ to ask forgiveness in the name of numerous Christians for so many misdeeds and injustices? 7

3. Pope John Paul H in Warsaw: The Uniqueness of Jewish Witness to the Shoah
On June 14, 1987, the Pope met with the representatives of the tiny remnant of the Jewish community of Warsaw. This address, I believe, provides a spiritual and theological basis for a Christian reflection on the Shoah. Decrying the "terrible reality" of the attempted extermination of the Jewish people, "an extermination carried out with premeditation", the Pope noted that "the threat against you was also a threat against us (Polish) Catholics", though "this latter was not realized to the same extent'. The Pope clearly acknowledges here the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy even while affirming the enormity of Polish Catholic suffering at the hands of the Nazi death machine:
It was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination; one might say that you suffered it also on behalf of those who were likewise to have been exterminated.

The Pope also addressed the uniqueness of the Jewish witness to the Shoah, saying that "because of this terrible experience, you have become a loud warning voice for all humanity... Morethan anyone else, it is precisely you who have become a saving warning." Drawing out this point, which takes the Holocaust very seriously I believe as a mysterium tremendum, a "sign of the times" through which Christians may discern something of God's plan of salvation for all humanity, the Pope made a significant step in developing a Catholic theology of the Holocaust and of Judaism's continuing unique role as the Chosen People of God:
I think that in this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves to be still the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations. all of humanity, the Church, And in this Church, all peoples and nations feel united to you in this mission.

"Particular vocation" and "mission", of course, are part of the Catholic vocabulary of election and covenant, Here, very clearly, the Pope is framing an understanding of the continuing salvific validity of the Jewish people as God's people. It will be noted that the Pope reaches the universality of Jewish witness to the world (and to the Church itself!) only through full acknowledgment of Jewish particularity. The mission of the Church in the world, its proclamation to the world, does not absorb Judaism's mission and witness. Rather the Church unites itself to that ongoing Jewish vocation which it acknowledges as divinely willed and, indeed, an essential part of God's plan of salvation for all humanity.

It will also be noted that the Jewish witness to the Holocaust is entirely a post Christum vocation, not dependent on the teachings a the "Old Testament", but considered valid on its own, which is to say Jewish terms, even though coming to be considerably after the close of the New Testament period. So far as I know, this is the first time, the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, has pointed to a specific aspect ofJudaism's post-New Testament role in the history of salvation, giving concrete theological substance to the Second Vatican Council's general theme, as aritculated in the 1974 Guidelines, that "the history of Judaism did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem, but rather went on to develop a religious tradition rich in religious values". In the Pope's words in Warsaw, paying heed to the particular witness of the Jewish people today concerning the significance of the Shoat] ''helps me and all the Church become even more aware of what unites us in the disposition of the Divine Covenant". The story of the people Israel, today no less than in biblical times, remains a story, with al/ its tragedies and hopes, that is a "light to the nations". For Israel remains God's people. And Israel's story remains one that the Church, in developing its own theological vision, must attend to.

4. Cardinal John O'Connor and the Theology of Suffering
The Pope's Warsaw address raised also a theological issue given great prominence in the press during Cardinal John O'Connor's trip last January to Israel. That is the Christian theology of suffering. Coming out of the Yad va Shem memorial in Jerusalem to the victims of the Holocaust, Cardinal O'Connor gave an interview in which he mentioned that in a certain sense the Jewish suffering of the Shoah may be considered a "gift" to humanity.

Cardinal O'Connor's statement was jumped on and denounced by Jewish leaders, I think unfairly, even before he returned to New York. This, then, is a case where the Jewish community has the responsibility to listen closely to what Catholics are saying, and to come to understand the Christian theological categories involved before reacting to it with denunciations in the press.
No devout Christian, I believe, can go to yad va Shem, see there the moving evidence of the horrifying loss of innocent Jewish lives and the monstrous evil that Shoah represents, and not be challenged to the core of her or his spiritual life. Inevitably, this will take the form of reflection upon the suffering of another Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whose death and, we believe, resurrection is the bedrock for us of all our faith and hopes.

To us, the death of that Jew at the hands of Israel's Roman oppressors two millenia ago frames our very understanding of reality, all that we are and hope to be as Christians. To us it is our essential mysteriurntrernendum. Out of despair can come hope, out of death renewed life. That Jesus' death is a divine gift bringing all humanity closer to God's love is the central paradox, the central mystery of Christian faith.

If this sense of hope amidst despair is true because of the death of one Jew long ago, Christians will inevitably ask themselves, might it not be also true, and much more so, of the deaths of six million Jewish women, men and children consigned to dm most diabolical hell humanity has ever created for itself?

This is not to equate the sufferings and death of the one with the sufferings and deaths of the six million. Such an equation would be monstrous. Nor is it to seek to absorb the deaths of the six million into the theological categories developed by the Church to articulate its faith that the death of Jesus, and therefore death itself, has some purpose, that there is reason to hope even in the face of the most awesome evil, evil understood as a mysterium tremendum. It is more simply, and more profoundly, to struggle for the theological insights, the words, to help us to cope with the awesomeness of the Jewish tragedy in ways that can link its significance to our deepest spirituality as Christians.

Flawed as they are, and all attempts to derive significance from the Holocaust, meaning from such massive senseless tragedy, will be to some extent flawed by our incapacity as finite creatures to express in words what must be said, the attempts to use these words derived from the central mystery of the Church itself, must be seen as sincere and honest offerings of the Christian heart.

Some Jewish thinkers, such as Elie Wiesel and Emil Fackenheim, feel that no theological framework can be adequate to absolute horror. For Wiesel, Jews can still utter the AM Ma'Amin of traditional faith in the coming of the Messiah, but never in the same sense as before. Now, them is always tension. Nothing, not even Israel reborncan justify those deaths. And still one prays — for to be a Jew is to pray: "Ani Ma'Amin, Isaac. Because of Belsen. Ani Ma'Amin, Jacob. Because and in spite of Maidenek. Pray to God. Against God. For God."8
For Fackenheim, the Holocaust holds no salvific meaning. The deaths of so many must remain meaningless. There is only the commanding Voice, in one sense a new revelation, in another sense not, adding a 614th commandment to the Torah's 613: survive. But the Jew is commanded not just to survive, but to survive as a Jew, i.e. as a moral person in full historical consciousness and perpetual remembrance of the six million. Martyrdom, the traditional "sanctification of the Name" is overtaken, exhausted of meaning, fulfilled, ended in the deaths of the innocent multitudes.9 The Martyr has a choice: convert or die. The victims of the Holocaust only died.
Fackenheim follows Huber in stressing that Godcannot be replaced by theological "concepts of God", but must be encountered in the crucible of history. He accepts the reality of biblical revelation, and challenges us to grapple with it in the tragedies of contemporary events. Fackenheim rejects Buber's notion of a contemporary (and by implication temporary) "eclipse of God". "The God of Israel cannot be God of either past or future unless he is still God of the present."

The questions of theodicy and the meaning of suffering, of hope out of despair, life despite death are raised by the Shoah for Christians as well Jews. And for us Christians there is an additional challenge. Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, speaking to the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations, put the distinctive Christian problem this way:
"Acknowledgment is due that all too many Catholics were, in fact, among the executioners of death-camp inmates. But equally to be acknowledged are the millions of Catholics and thousands of their clergy who were themselves victims of death-camp executioners. Part of the Christian tragedy is that untold numbers of Christians lost their lives attempting to shelter Jews. Part of the Christian tragedy, too, is that Christians were numbered among the executioners and among the victims. At one and the same time, Christians were both oppressor and oppressed".10

Similarly, the Holy Father has stated that "reflection upon the Shoah... impels us to promote the necessary historical and religious studies on this event which concerns the whole of humanity today... There is no doubt that the sufferings endured by the Jews are also for the Catholic Church a motive of sincere sorrow, especially when one thinks of the indifference and sometimes resentment which, in particular historical circumstances have divided Jews and Christians" (John Paul II, August 8, 1987).

5. The State of Israel and the Theology of Hope
Running like a blue thread through the white heat of Jewish responses to Cardinal O'Connor's trip to Israel and to Waldheim audience, and indeed through all of the dialogues between our communities, is the Jewish insistence on full diplomatic recognition by the Holy See of the State of Israel. An exchange of ambassadors, the Jewish community is telling us, would be symbolic of the Church's acknowledgment of the Jewish people's right to self-identity. Without going into details on the reasons of the Holy See's posture on the diplomatic question, I would like to raise what for me is the deeper issue: what does the Church say of the rebirth of a Jewish state in 'Eretz Israel theologically?

Interestingly and not coincidentally, this issue is linked in Catholic reflection as in Jewish reflection with the theological questions raised by the Holocaust.

For many Jews, Fackenheim among them,' I the religious dilemma of the Holocaust has its sole, if only partial, resolution in the rebirth of the State of Israel. The survivors of the death camps chose life over death, hope over despair, and so founded a nation, tiny and insecure but their own, where Jews could be Jews, religiously and morally, and where the Jewish spirit could rediscover itself in the wake of the destruction of much of its traditional pattern of thought.

This is why for Jews, even those who live in other lands, the Land of Israel represents so crucial a part of religious survival. It is not solely a place of refuge, a place which, if it had existed in 1939 would have meant that much of European Jewry could have been saved. It is more deeply a sign (a sacrament if we were to apply Catholic terminology) that moral life, the life to which Jews are called in covenant, remains possible after the absolute evil that was Auschwitz.

Irving Greenberg, building on Fackenheim, puts it this way: 'To raise a Jewish child today is to bind the child and the child's child on the altar, even as father Abraham bound Isaac. Only, those who do so today know that there is no angel to stop the process and no ram to substitute for more than one million Jewish children in this lifetime. Such an act, then, can come only out of resources of faith, of ultimate meaningfulness — of Exodus trust... The reborn State of Israel is this fundamental act of life andmeaning of the Jewish people after Auschwitz. To fail to grasp that inextricable connection and response is to utterly fail to comprehend the theological significance of Israel...

The real point (of Israel) is that after Auschwitz, the existence of the Jew is a great affirmation and act of faith. The re-creation of the body of the people, Israel, is renewed testimony to Exodus as ultimate reality, to God's continuing presence in history proven by the fact that his people, despite the attempt to annihilate them, still exist''. 12

The Pope, speaking spontaneously to Jewish leaders in Castelgandolfo on September 1, 1987, himself used the paradigm of the Exodus in meditating upon the source for hope that through divine grace good can be discerned even after the awesome evil of the Shoah.13 In Miami, the Pope acknowledged officially for the Church not only the existence of the State of Israel but the biblical source for Jewish attachment to it and the "inextricable connection" between Israel and the Holocaust as well:
Catholics recognize among the elements of the Jewish experience that Jews have a religious attachment to the Land, which finds its roots in biblical tradition. After the tragic extermination of the Shook, the Jewish people began a new period in their history. They have a right to a homeland, as does any civil nation, according to international law. "For the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel... we must ask for the desired security and the due tranquility that is the right of every nation".14

The meaning of Israel is a message of hope, not only for Jews, but for all peoples of faith throughout the world. Tragedy, however seemingly implacable, need not lead us to abandon the struggle for survival in a post-modern world. Nor does the nature of our survival need to be merely petty or self-serving. One can survive and still strive for the betterment of others. The cycle of victim and oppressor can be broken.

The very existence of Israel can thus be a symbol of hope and faith. The Jewish people, descendants of those who lived through the first Exodus, have seen its meaning reaffirmed in our time. The Exodus serves as a powerful sign to all of the possibility of true liberation from oppression. This is a fact which calls for profound reflection. To every person of faith it is a fact which elicits a response of faith, a renewal of our commitment to the best in our own traditions, and a deep sense of confidence in the ultimate meaningfulness of God's creation. In this sense Jews and Catholics can share in the great Amen. Ani Ma'amin - I believe, we believe—in peace, in justice, in belief itself.15

Dr. Eugene J. Fisher is the Executive Secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S.A.
This paper was delivered at Siena College Albany on 26th October 1987. It has been shortened for publication here.

1. Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jewish People, "Guidelines for the Implementation of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, NP 4" (Rome, December 1, 1974)
2. cf Pinches E. Lapide, "The Sermon on the Mount: A Jewish Reading", Christianity and Crisis (May 24, 1982) 139-142.
3. Even the detail in Jesus' Sermon to "turn the other cheek" (Mt. 5:39) draws on the Hebrew Scriptures: "It is good for a person to bear the yoke... let him give his cheek to the smiler and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but... have compassion according to the abundance of steadfast love (Lamentations 3:27-31). The context of this saying in the Babylonian exile makes it all the more strong.
4.1t needs to be recalled, of course, that Lt. Waldheim's commanding officer was executed after the war for the massive atrocities his unit committed against Jews and Yugoslav partisans.
5.John Paul II 'To the Jewish Community of Australia", Sydney, November 26, 1986. Reprinted in E. Fisher and L. Klenicki, eds. Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism (Washington, D.C., USCC Publication n2 151-2) 96.
6. See, for example, the results of my 1976 analysis of Catholic teaching materials regarding Jews and Judaism, summarized in Faith Without Prejudice Rebuilding Christian Attitudes, 1977.
7.cf. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol, III, ed. H. Vorghmler, N.Y., London (1967) pp. 76, 77.
8. E. Wiesel, Ani M'amin: A Song Lost and Found Again (N.Y. Random House, 1973).
9.E. Fackenheim, God's Presence in History (NN.: Harper, 1970) 87.
10. Bishop James Malone, "The State of Christian-Jewish Aerations", Origins (December 6, 1984).
11. E.g. Gods Presence..., 96. Fackenheim's notion of the Holocaust as a revelatory moment has been sharply criticized by some Jewish thinkers. Michael Wyschogrod, for example maintains: "There is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust... If there is hope after the Holocaust, it is because to those who believe... the divine promise sweeps over the crematoria and silences the voice of Auschwitz." ("Faith and the Holocaust" Judaism 20, Summer 1971, 294). Jacob Neusner declares flatly: "Jews find in the Holocaust no new definition of Jewish identity because we need none. Nothing has changed. The tradition endures." ("The Implications of the Holocaust'', The Journal of Religion 553, July 1973, 308).
12.Greenberg, "Could of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity After the Holocaust", in E. FLeischner, Ed., Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (N.Y.: KTAV, ADL, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 1973) 43, 48, 49.
13. Press communique on the meeting with Jewish leaders, Rome, Sept. 1, 1987, p.3.
14 Pope John Paul Address to Jewish Leaders, Miami, Sept. 11, 1987.
15. One will note, in the above, that I did not deal with the theology of the emergence of a Jewish State in the Holy Land as a "fulfilment" of biblical prophecies, but, rather as a "sign of the times", a statement of the Jewish people's faith in God which should evoke in Christians a similar spiritual affirmation of hope out of despair of our age. While I acknowledge that there are those in both the Christian and Jewish communities who would see in the modern state of Israel such a fulfillment, my own approach to Israel as historical event ("sign of the times") does not require that view. Neither does such a fundamental approach to the biblical text appeal to Catholic biblical scholarship.


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