Category Archives: holocaust

Does the Church ‘Get’ the Holocaust? A Response to Kevin Madigan

I agreed to give a Jewish response to the following paper by the Harvard historian Professor Kevin Madigan at a recent conference. The papers have just been published. Madigan spoke as a historian and I spoke about memory. For those interested in the topic, the papers provide a full bibliography in the footnotes.
Kevin Madigan, Has the Papacy ‘Owned’ Vatican Guilt for the Church’s Role in the Holocaust?
Alan Brill, Does the Church ‘Get’ the Holocaust? A Response to Kevin Madigan

Here are my conclusions. If you want more information then see the original papers or if you want to enter the discussion, then please read the original papers first.

A few concluding observations
(1) There is a sincere attempt by the Vatican for reconciliation, and reconciliation is indeed the goal.

(2) There is also a sincere attempt by the Vatican for moral reckoning of antisemitism; however, they also have other forefront concerns, including the pastoral, liturgical, and doctrinal life of the Church.

(3) I completely agree with Professor Madigan’s conclusions to the question about historic reckoning. Nevertheless, issues should not be conceptualized only in the present.

(4) However, the understanding of Jewish Holocaust memory is intermittent. Most of the time the Holocaust is understood as a Jewish tragedy, though Vatican speeches may not reveal this understanding. When going to a Holocaust memorial to show respect to the Jewish people while
accompanied by a group of Jews, Church representatives need to understand that the Holocaust is not the “30 million people killed by the fascists” nor is it a “universal problem of inhumanity and evil in the world.” For Jews, it is a war against six million Jews as Jews, with the Jews singled out for extermination. At a minimum this is demanded by diplomacy and propriety; at best it requires empathy for Jewish memory. There is a noticeable lack of a personal empathy and empathetic regret.

(5) Is there an understanding by the Church of the Jewish sense of the Tremendum? Do they “get” the Jewish silence, bereft of theological answers? Do they “get” the rupturing of Jewish faith, leaving a sense of Jewish brokenness? The answer is no. Few Jews evoke the eternal
covenants as a comfort
.
(6) Finally, current Church statements made in light of the Holocaust, are not addressing the past 2000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. Fr. Edward Flannery’s observation in the Introduction to his book The Anguish of the Jews” still holds true: Christians have torn from their history
books the pages that Jews have memorized.

From one of the sections that I was particularly interested in:
Pope Benedict conceptualizes the Holocaust using the critical theory of the Frankfort School, especially that of Theodore Adorno and Jürgen Habermas… He speaks to the Historikerstreit, occuring in the 1980s which debated the role of the Holocaust in history. He sides with Adorno and Habermas against Nolte and Fest. But this discussion does not in any way respond to Jewish memory.
Neither does his discussion of the Holocaust in Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved) which asserts that the horrible injustices of history should not have the final word. There must finally be true justice. But that, in the words the Pope quotes from Adorno, would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This would mean the resurrection of the dead (no. 42). God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man’s God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. (42-43)

In Benedict’s theological works on the Christian meaning of modernity, especially as typified by the Holocaust, his goal is to provide salvific hope before a rampant loss of values. Jewish memory of the Holocaust is not addressed. When Pope Benedict considers the theological
issues of the Holocaust he thinks of Adorno’s question and the pastoral answer of crucifixion and resurrection. He does not think of recent Jewish Holocaust theologians. In this, Pope Benedict is similar to many Orthodox Jewish theologians, who are not interested in historicity or Holocaust theology, and are more concerned with either the eternal values of the halakhah or the pastoral need to spread Judaism. They hear a commanding voice from Sinai and Zion and not from Auschwitz. Thus, it would be unfair to ask Benedict to adopt specific positions in Holocaust theology or to place the Jewish-Christian relationship at the center of his theology. He is a pastoral leader for Catholics, and he has a vision for their doctrinal, liturgical, and institutional needs. It is fair, however, to expect him to address the specific Jewish memory of the Holocaust when he is speaking to a Jewish audience at a Jewish sponsored event, such as at Yad Vashem.

If you have never read the Studies in Jewish Christian relations before, especially since it does not show up in google search, here is the first issue from 4 years ago, which is a good place to start.

Review of Zolli’s Il Nazareno

A review just appeared in Italian, and is online in translation, by the Jewish Historian Anna Foa of “Il Nazareno” by Rabbi Zolli.  Jews do not usually want to discuss the case of the Chief Rabbi of Rome who converted to Catholicism after the war and became Eugenio Zolli. The review attempts to situate his views within trends in Jewish scholarship and what was being taught at the various seminaries and Jewish academies. Unlike the German Jewish authors (geiger, Buber) and later Israeli authors (Klausner) who painted Jesus as a liberal Jew, Zolli stresses the discontinuity of the two faiths. Christianity as forgiveness and love.

“All by myself, I read the Gospel, and experienced measureless delight. What a surprise I received in the middle of the green lawn: ‘But I say to you: Love your enemies.’ And from the height of the cross: ‘Father, forgive them.’ The New Testament really is a covenant… brand new! Everything in it seemed to me to have an extraordinary importance. Teachings like: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart’ and the prayer from the cross draw a line of demarcation between the world of ancient ideas and a new moral cosmos. Yes! Here there arises a new world. Here are delineated the sublime forms of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the persecuted who have not persecuted in return, but have loved.”

On the other hand, he warned the Jewish community of Rome of the true treat of the Nazis and wanted to declare a total state of emergency and the Jewish community leaders did not see the need. “One cannot deny that the measures he suggested — such as the closing of the temple and of the oratories, the general alarm, and many other things — would have saved the lives, if not of all, of very many Jews.”

Full version of book review

Interview with the editor

The rabbi who studied Jesus by Anna Foa

The book “Il Nazareno” by Eugenio Zolli appeared in 1938, published by the Istituto delle Edizioni Accademiche in Udine. Israel Zolli, who would later become Eugenio, was at the time chief rabbi in Trieste, and had not yet become – as he would a year later – chief rabbi of Rome in the place of Rabbi David Prato,

Seven years later, in February 1945, causing great scandal in the Italian Jewish world and a great stir in the non-Jewish community as well, Israel Zolli converted to Catholicism, taking Pope Pacelli’s name with baptism, and thus becoming Eugenio Zoll.

A volume about Jesus Christ written by a prominent rabbi, then, destined a short time later, in spite of this book and the vague whiff of heresy that surrounded him for many years, to become the leading rabbi of the Roman Jewish community.

Is the book a prefiguring of the author’s later journey, an anticipation of his subsequent baptism? Or does it reflect a journey of exegetical studies, with attention to the figure of Jesus Christ, undertaken by much European Jewish exegetical thought beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century?

The rabbi from Trieste writes about Jesus and about relations between early Christianity and the rabbinical culture of the time with accents and ideas not dissimilar from those of his teachers at the rabbinical college of Florence, Chayes and Margulies, and raising far less serious controversies than Joseph Klausner’s book on “Jesus the Nazarene,” which at its publication in Hebrew in Jerusalem in 1921 was attacked by both Orthodox Jews and Christians…

This area of study was very popular with Jewish scholars all over Europe, and in particular with those from Germany, heirs of the Science of Judaism and linked with the reformed currents, which strongly emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and highlighted the correspondences between rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity. But it was also a favorite of Christian scholars, especially Protestant ones, in nineteenth-century Germany, in the setting of the school of Tubingen and of the later schools of liberal theology, and was assimilated, at the beginning of the new century, by modernist Catholic scholars.

Italian Jewish culture did not share this attention to the historical figure of Christianity, to the Jewish categories of its preaching, and to its Jewish roots in general.

History – the Orthodox Way: Without Causality and with Presentism

Here is a good article that I missed when it came out and it does not seem to have gained notice of the Jewish education circles.  The article is about a Lubavitch girls school, but most of the observations that I excerpted apply equally well to Modern Orthodox students on both college and graduate level.  In addition, the article is on the Holocaust but can apply equally well to most other issues in Jewish history.  I have found students unable to apply any causality to the Middle East, to modern religious movements, or anti-Semitism.  I have also found students who treat theological statement of Rabbis or Rabbis working out theology as if it was real history. Theological statements about halakhah are used as causality for events. The lack of social science thinking about Judaism is wide spread despite the required Jewish history in high school. Absurd forms of presentism are acceptable for debate. This article harshly calls this accepted orthodox approach narcissistic, social isolationism, moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Any thoughts?

Simone Schweber, “Here there is no why”: Holocaust education at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah. Jewish Social Studies Volume 14, Number 2, (Winter 2008) 156-185

Numerous authors have elaborated the discourse of the Holocaust’s unintelligibility, expounding on the Shoah’s unspeakability, unimaginability, and fundamental unknowability… Few, however, have considered the disciplinary limitations of such a theoretical position. The stance of unintelligibility may work for literary theorists and cultural critics, but it hardly aids educators. What might it mean, for example, to teach toward unintelligibility? Can one teach despite, through, or with a Warumverbot? [Asking why is forbidden]

When I set out to study the teaching of the Holocaust at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah in the Midwestern United States, I was not aware, naïvely perhaps, that a Warumverbot could serve as a pedagogical platform. How might students who believed in divinely driven history, for example, understand human perpetrators? When would contingency trump eschatology and vice versa?

First, as a result of the culture of argumentation, the students’ presentist orientations toward history surfaced. Because they thought of their religious dictates as being ahistorical or transhistorical, they could argue over whether it was “okay” for Jews in hiding to recite Catholic prayers; their investment in prayer and religious obligations trumped historical circumstances in their understandings of the Holocaust. Second, because some of the girls thought of Jewish teenagers as being basically the same across time and space, they could argue over why European Jewish teens would return to their homes. The girls’ assumptions about Jews, in other words, were personally based (and similarly presentist). In most public or Christian school contexts where the Holocaust is taught, Jews are easily exoticized, but for these Hasidic girls, Jews were noticeably normalized.

Rather than blaming assimilation, secular Jews, the advent of Reform Judaism, Zionism, Zionists, or the lack of or dedication to a Jewish homeland—all of which are common refrains in Israeli haredi materials—these girls located the root of persecution in envy. In response to the interview question “Why were Jews persecuted?,” each of the other four focus students supplied an answer that involved jealousy or difference… Because chosenness bounded the girls’ historical meaning-making, other victim groups fell out of their Holocaust narratives…. Hashem used the Holocaust as testament to both the endurance and enduring nature of the Jewish people…. By contrast, later in the unit, when they read about Japanese-Americans being interned in camps, a student asked, “What did they do to deserve that?”

Although Mrs. Glickman taught about the Holocaust during her secular studies block, she taught about it as a religious event. She did not include miraculous stories that so frequently populate Hasidic sources, but her course relied on the miraculous as explanation; for much of her Holocaust curriculum, rational explanations for events were not proffered.

The special status of the Holocaust in their classroom deprived them of basic historical understandings. None of the girls at the end of their unit knew about the history of antisemitism, the reasons Germans voted for Hitler, or the ways perpetrators were socialized. None could answer even basic historical questions like why the Holocaust occurred without resorting to all-encompassing theological rationales.

As I see it, Mrs. Glickman taught toward fundamentally narcissistic ends: she did not expand the girls’ notions of others, of otherness, or even of Jewishness itself

Moreover, in considering Nazi behavior to be abnormal, unknowable, and unable to be investigated, Mrs. Glickman fed the girls’ moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Not only did the girls believe themselves to be incapable of compromising behavior, but they could not deign to discuss it even in others. The starkness of the moral divide… reified the girls’ righteousness and supported their narrow-mindedness. In the process, the contingencies, complexities, and even overly simplistic explanations that sometimes masquerade as history were occluded, rendered invisible to these girls.

Mrs. Glickman’s Holocaust education thus did not serve to complicate the girls’ worldviews but rather to narrow their world’s vistas and support its moral simplicity, religious clarity, and, ultimately, social insularity. Rather than opening up moral questions, Mrs. Glickman’s pedagogy closed them down.

Simone Schweber is the Goodman Associate Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice (2004) and, with Debbie Findling, Teaching the Holocaust (2007).

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved