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Taking “Yes” For An Answer
Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield

Although he is not well known here in the Mid-West, no rabbi in America has had greater influence in recent years than Harold Schulweis, a Conservative rabbi in Encino, California. It was Rabbi Schulweis who brought about a transformation in Jewish attitudes about Christians and the Holocaust by calling attention to the stories of the Righteous non-Jews who rescued thousands of Jews from certain death.

Rabbi Schulweis has done more than almost any other Jewish leader to foster healing and reconciliation, but not at the cost of minimizing the immensity of that great tragedy.

Now Rabbi Schulweis has turned his attention to another aspect of the healing process between Jews and Christians and this is what I will speak about today. It concerns the Jewish responses to the Catholic Church’s greatly changed attitudes towards the Jews and Judaism.

In the most recent issue of Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Schulweis castigates the Jewish community at large for clinging to its negative opinions about the Church, in spite of many significant positive developments. The title of the article is “Jews can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

He is referring to the under-whelming reaction of far too many Jewish leaders and organizations to the truly great steps forward by Christianity, especially by the Catholic Church. For two and a half decades already, particularly under the rule of Pope John Paul II, the Church’s perception of Judaism and the Jewish people has been completely transformed.

The traditional teaching that Christianity supersedes Judaism has been replaced with an appreciation of the continuing vitality of Judaism. Unfortunately, the Church’s sincere effort to correct past errors so as to “help heal the wounds of past injustice” have not been responded to in kind . This is a charge more serious than not being able to take “yes” for an answer. We may well be harming the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, and we had best consider the probable consequences of our continuing reticence.

No one, of course, should expect an easy reconciliation between the two faith communities. Wounds and memories run deep. Crusades, Inquisitions, accusations of blood libel, and the grotesque charge of being Christ-killers are not easily forgotten or forgiven. No one should expect our long battered people just to brush off the centuries of insult, threat, and persecution., and let by-gones be by-gones

The list of Jewish complaints is familiar. First and foremost, there is the matter of the alleged silence of Church itself and especially of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, an issue which never will be resolved to our satisfaction.

This past year, the Church was criticized for the beatification and canonizations of Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who had converted to Catholicism, who became a nun, and went to her death at Auschwitz; It was also taken to task for the beatification of Pope Pius X, who had essentially kidnaped a young Italian Jewish child, raised him as his own, and converted him to Catholicism, a serious charge to be sure.

In earlier years, there was the controversy surrounding Pope John Paul II’s meeting with Yasser Arafat, now a non-issue, and with the former Nazi president of Austria Kurt Waldheim. There was also the furor over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, which eventually was resolved to our satisfaction, but of which few took note.

None of these are insignificant. We, as Jews, do have a right to challenge the Church when we are offended. But the far greater truth about the Catholic Church is that there has been a dramatic and unprecedented change in their attitude toward the Jews, which is deserving of our recognition and gratitude. As Rabbi Schulweis points out:

“Things change. People change... Institutions change. Doctrines change.”

Consider the relationship of the Church toward the State of Israel. At the turn of the twentieth century, Theodor Herzl called on Pope Pius X to support the cause of Zionism, the return of a homeless people to Zion. Pius X responded to Herzl’s pleas with the classic dictum of Church theology:

“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....”

Contrast this reaction to that of Pope John Paul II, who, despite opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states and the objections of the Church’s Secretariat of State, established full diplomatic relations with Israel, exchanged ambassadors, and in the Millennium Year 2000 made a historic first Papal visit to the Jewish state. How could we possibly fail to be persuaded by both the symbolism and the importance the Pope’s visit to Israel?

In addressing the Pope in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke these words:

“You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the church towards the Jewish people...and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.”

On Sunday, March 19, 2000, the Pope placed in the Western Wall a letter containing an expression of profound sorrow over the Jews’ suffering at Christian hands, which is now in Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Yad VaShem on permanent display, for all to see. The note carries the signature of the Pope as well as the Vatican emblem. It

“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your Name to the Nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and, asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

What more could we possibly desire than this?

Leading figures in the Church are beginning to express their deep concern about the future. They are finding that the Jewish reactions are “often so negative that some in the Church now hesitate to do anything at all for fear of making the situation worse.” In exasperation, the head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, declared:

“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.”

We must realize that continuing Jewish negativity concerning the Church is both unproductive and insensitive. Perhaps we should be paying closer attention to the teachings of our own faith.. A core belief of the Jewish religion is the transformative power of teshuvah, prayer and acts of goodness, and this conviction is at the heart of our High Holy Days.

Based on belief in the possibilities of change within ourselves and between God’s children, the practice of teshuvah is essential to the Jewish religion. It behooves us to recognize their teshuvah and respond in kind. So why are we seemingly incapable of recognizing it in others? No good possibly can be
accomplished by criticizing the Church at every turn.

Change is not only possible, it is real and the evidence is overwhelming! Right here in Chicago, our Jewish community enjoyed the most remarkable, moving, and authentic relationship with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, of blessed memory. When he said, on more than one occasion, “I am Joseph, your brother,” we know he meant it with all his heart. Everything the late Cardinal did in the realm of Catholic-Jewish relationships was a reflection of his hope for reconciliation and harmony.

The religious environment of Chicago was completely transformed by the guiding spirit of Cardinal Bernadin, and I should add, he was acting both out of conscience and out of official Church policy. He was not a lone voice calling in the wilderness. And Cardinal Bernadin’s spirit remains alive.

I have had dozens of interactions with members of the Catholic clergy since coming to Chicago, including with Cardinal Francis George. Without exception, every occasion has been positive, compassionate and has taken place in the spirit of harmony and respect. I am certain that the Church is dedicated to reconciliation and turning to a new page on our relationship. We would be so wrong and to doubt their motives, or to allow lesser matters to overshadow all the good.

The Church’s sincere resolve to create a sustained, positive relationship between our two faith communities, and to engage in honest and candid dialogue concerning our long and complex history must be welcomed---not dismissed because of one or another declaration or Church decision we do not like.

As Rabbi Shulweis calls to our collective attention:

“It is nothing less than heroic for any faith group to examine its darker side. How often in history, if ever, have the leaders of any faith publicly confessed its believers’ transgressions and urged them to engage in an agonizing reappraisal of its words and deeds toward the
people of another faith?”

I am happy to say that there is at least some growing awareness of the need for a much more positive attitude. Just one month ago, there appeared a full page statement in the New York Times, signed by many leading rabbis and scholars from across the country concerning Judaism’s relationship to all of Christianity. I was both surprised and delighted when I came across it. I was only disappointed that I had not been given an opportunity to affix my signature and that of Chicago Sinai Congregation, because I most certainly would have done so. It begins:

“In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations.

Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity.

In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official Church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism....

We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish

As a first step, thee authors offer several brief statements about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another, and I want to read to you excerpts of this remarkable document.

First, Jews and Christians worship the same God....Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Creator of heaven and earth. While Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews,... we rejoice that through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.

Second, Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book- The Bible - what Jews call ”Tanach” and Christians call “the Old Testament.” Turning to it for religious orientation, spiritual enrichment, and communal education, we each take away similar lessons: ... Yet, Jews and Christians interpret the Bible differently on many points. Such differences must always be respected.

Third, [Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People upon the Land of Israel.] The most important event for Jews since the Holocaust has been the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land...Many Christians support the State of Israel for reasons far more profound than mere politics. As Jews, we applaud this support. We also recognize that Jewish tradition mandates justice for all non-Jews who reside in a Jewish state.....

Fourth, Nazism was not a Christian Phenomenon. [We acknowledge that] Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews....But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity... We recognize with gratitude those Christians who risked or sacrificed their lives to save Jews during the Nazi regime....

Next, A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice. [Nor will it]...accelerate the cultural and religious assimilation that Jews rightly fear. It will not change traditional Jewish forms of worship, nor increase intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, nor persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity...

Finally, Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace....Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace to our world.

This excellent document represents the direction in which we should be heading. It emphasizes the common values and ideals of our two religions, branches of the same spiritual tree, whose roots are planted in our shared

Biblical heritage. Without at all denying the pain of past experiences, this statement looks forward to a positive future. This is the vision and this is the spirit which all Jews should all embrace. We share our world with many peoples and many faith communities.

The isolation and ostracism that the Jewish people has experienced in ages past at last has given way to much more positive spirit, embraced by Catholics and virtually all of the mainstream Christian denominations.

We still have major problems with the fundamentalists, of course. But year by year, most Christians are learning to appreciate more fully the Jewish roots of their faith.

That which unifies us is much, much greater than the relatively small issues which divide us. In so many areas, we are working together to further our vision of a better world. Not that we will agree on every detail. Also, we must not ignore the reality that more and more Jewish and Christian families are interwoven through the marriages of our children, and through the grandchildren which we share. The many projects and interests that we share with Fourth Presbyterian Church, including their gracious hosting of our High Holy Days, attest to the strength and importance of our spiritual partnership. And the same spirit is in evidence just a few blocks away at Holy Name Cathedral.

We must reside together in the present and in the future, not in the past. From this generation forward, may it ever be proclaimed and practiced in both church and synagogue: “Hinay mah tov u-mah naeem shevet achim gam yachad, How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace!”

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