Commentary Magazine

Christianity and the Holocaust Cont.

To the Editor:

In Hyam Maccoby’s response to my offering in the spirited exchange [Letters from Readers, March] precipitated by his December 1982 article, “Theologian of the Holocaust,” he accuses me of giving an “idealized account” of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Nostra Aetate. For the record, I believe it should be made clear that Nostra Aetate neither offered “forgiveness of the Jews” nor, as Mr. Maccoby states, “required” them “to dissociate themselves” from any generation of Jews, much less that of Jesus.

The Conciliar declaration stated that “what happened in his [Jesus’] Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.” This is a deceptively simple statement, almost naively obvious from one point of view. What it accomplished, however, was the logical destruction of the entire edifice of the ancient “teaching of contempt” (to use Jules Isaac’s apt terminology), by pulling out its foundation stone—the canard of collective t. If “the Jews” cannot be blamed, then there can be no question of “decide,” or of divine wrath, or of “wandering Jews,” etc.

As the 1975 statement of the American bishops precisely noted: “The Council’s rejection of the collective-guilt charge against Jews has been interpreted by some commentators as an ‘exoneration’ of the Jewish people. Such a view of the matter still persists. The truth is that the Council acknowledged that the Jewish people never were, nor are they now, guilty of the death of Christ” (NCCB, November 20, 1975).

Lost in the wrangling over what the Council did not say, I fear, has been an appreciation of what it said regarding a positive Christian understanding of the religious relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. Briefly, this amounted to an acknowledgment of the permanent validity (pace Mordecai Kaplan) of God’s covenant With the Jewish people. It is in this development, increasingly specified by official Church teaching since the Council, that I would find the deepest resources for the renewal of Jewish-Christian dialogue today.

The evils of the past must, as Mr. Maccoby rightly insists, be honestly faced, for they define the present. But a 1982 survey of some 400 leading Catholic educators commissioned by the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers hints at future possibilities. The educators were asked to respond to two statements: (1) “Judaism still plays a unique role of its own in God’s plan of salvation” and (2) “The Jewish covenant with God has never been revoked by God; the Jews remain ‘people of God.’”

Before the Council, the responses would most likely have been largely negative. The 1982 survey reported, however, an overwhelming 92 percent agreement on the first question (7 percent uncertain, 1 percent disagreement), and 85 percent agreement on the second (9 percent uncertain, 6 percent disagreement). This is not sufficient reason to become sanguine, but it does offer hope.

Eugene J. Fisher
Executive Secretary
Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Hyam Maccoby is clearly right to distinguish between what the Church or churches say officially or dogmatically and what is generally felt among uninstructed Christians. But on the most popular and unthinking level, the sense that the Jews were not like us, not our people, and hence at best not our business to protect was probably, in Germany, more “racial” and cultural than religious. There was even a good deal of class feeling. . . . Christian anti-Semitism was probably much stronger in Poland—a more religious country, where the Church had fostered a rural cooperative movement designed to drive Jewish shopkeepers out of business—than it was in Germany. One can also find Christian anti-Semitism in high intellectual circles in the 20’s and 30’s—T. S. Eliot is a salient example. Of course, the Holocaust stopped that in the West, but it is unreasonable to think that things like Eliot’s “Bleistein” had nothing to do with the Western failure to save more Jews.

I assume that Mr. Maccoby has read Guenter Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, an absolutely fair book written by a man with no personal stake in exculpating the Church. Lewy demonstrates in careful detail that the German hierarchy spoke out very strongly against the Nazis before they came to power. When they did come to power, the Church attempted to accommodate them, and did not label Hitler’s war unjust, but it also furnished a respectable number of martyrs to the camps. The failure of the Church seems to have been not in making intellectual concessions to the Nazis or in sympathizing with them in their attack on the Jews, but in mere fear and political calculation—fear of another Kulturkampf, calculation that nothing the Church could do would deter Hitler where the Jews were concerned. The Church was also worried about what would happen when Stalin took over Central Europe; its leaders knew what Western intellectuals sometimes still avoid recognizing—that when Hitler attacked Stalin the Soviet government had already murdered hundreds of times as many innocent people as the Nazis had. . . . The Church does not, on the whole, have a bad record, in human terms, where the Holocaust is concerned, but neither does it have a particularly good one. . . .

Now that most people with a Christian heritage are not really Christian and a great number of Jews do not practice Judaism, the Jewish people are still susceptible to hatred and massacre. This is because of the totalitarian potential in modern civilization. It is not necessary, after Hannah Arendt, to explain the relationship between totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. Nobody who witnessed the mindless uniformity of (formally irreligious) groups of American students in the 60’s and 70’s can believe that an American totalitarianism is impossible. If we have such a thing, it will not go after Jews as Jews, at least not for a while, but it will have to destroy Jewish life in one way or another. And it will be anti-Christian as well.

Ross Dabney
Sweet Briar College
Sweet Briar, Virginia



To the Editor:

. . . Hyam Maccoby . . . must be highly commended for hitting so many nails squarely on the head, particularly those that clearly and unsparingly expose the guilt of Christianity in the development of anti-Semitism and its culmination in the Holocaust. But there are some things he . . . fails either to perceive or to come to grips with. . . . These are: that the Christian drama is not a myth (see Michael Fixler on Northrop Frye in the August 1982 COMMENTARY), nor is it ever devoid of or entirely separable from theology; that Pauline doctrine is not a mis-but a re-interpretation of the Fall, which is neither as dualistic nor as pessimistic as Mr. Maccoby claims (from Ecclesiastes and Job to Dante and CS. Lewis, radical evil can be seen to exist without resorting to dualism or succumbing to a world-denying pessimism); that the crucifixion is not “an urgent technique of redemption,” though there have been and continue to be many so-called Christians who prove this claim of Mr. Maccoby’s.

Obviously Mr. Maccoby believes, with George Steiner, that “we sense today to what subterranean but cumulative extent the Christian teaching and vision of everlasting, sterile incarceration and punishment in Hell prefigured, perhaps made potentially real, the method of the concentration camps.” Not only does this thinking exhibit a sudden ignorance of history (whether of human torture as it existed under the Inquisition or under Roman emperors like Nero and Caligula, of human sacrifice in Gehenna, or of human slavery in Egypt under the Pharaohs), but an almost blissful ignorance as well of the theology of free will and the God, rather than a human poet or philosopher, Who “creates” Hell, Sheol, Hades.

Finally, the whole problem of the Holocaust cannot be solved—“analyzed and corrected”—on the merely historical level, for, as Emil Fackenheim seems to understand better than Hyam Maccoby, history without metaphysics or revelation isn’t even history. The inner reality of the Holocaust for both Jews and Christians is diminished by relativizing it as the product of “a cultural pattern.” Historical complexity itself is dismissed—and a cultural pattern perpetuated—by attributing the Holocaust, as Mr. Maccoby does, to “a false turn taken by one sector of humanity.”

Otherwise, Mr. Maccoby’s is the kind of generally hard thinking and tough speaking I have come to expect and appreciate in COMMENTARY.

Paul Edward Guay
Allston, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

Although I was pleased to find my response to Hyam Maccoby’s essay printed in COMMENTARY, I think my concluding remarks on his interpretation of the Talmud were unclear. What I meant to suggest, although perhaps I did so too elliptically, was that Mr. Maccoby incorrectly interpreted the Talmud as a body of humanistically based precepts intended for entirely rational beings. The Talmud addresses itself to what the rabbis believed was a radically flawed humanity subject to the entrenched powers of the yetzer hara [evil urge]. Halakhah and midrash both attempt to guard men from their sensual appetites, which are repeatedly identified with sin.

As William Davies has shown (in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism), the view of human nature as sinful and fallen which pervades Pauline theology can find demonstrable support in rabbinic opinion and midrashim. Davies’s contention seems defensible even if we accept Samuel Sandmel’s qualified distinction between a Hellenistic Judaism that anticipates aspects of Pauline Christianity and a rabbinic Judaism more remote, but not entirely removed, from a Christian theological framework. Despite differences . . . Hellenistic (Platonized) Judaism, the Talmud, and Pauline Christianity overlap in their understanding of man’s sinful appetitive nature. One would have to cite the Talmud very selectively to reconcile it with rationalism, humanism, or any other modernist dogma.

Paul Gottfried
Rockford College
Rockford, Illinois



Hyam Maccoby writes:

Eugene J. Fisher rightly points out that Nostra Aetate stimulated new thinking on the part of Christians, and thus led to further advances which are still continuing. In itself, however, Nostra Aetate was only a small step forward. As Father Edward Flannery has said, the declaration’s “main defect was a failure to refer contritely to the role the Church played in the development of anti-Semitism throughout Christian history.” The whole tone of the declaration was one of gracious condescension, hardly the right tone for people with a long history of persecuting to adopt toward their victims. The declaration was a reassertion of the standpoint that despite everything, and in view of all the excuses that can be offered for the Jews by forgiving natures, and in view of the debt owed to the Judaism of the pre-Christian era, Christians should refrain from persecutory behavior toward Jews and put up patiently with the Jews’ rejection of Jesus’ divinity. Tribute was paid to Old Testament Judaism, but not to talmudic Judaism. On the contrary, the Tannaim, the founders of talmudic Judaism, were once more stigmatized as those who “pressed for the death of Christ” and as a “wicked generation” (this latter phrase occurs in the “Explanations” accompanying the final draft). To call a generation of leaders “wicked” is to call upon all moral beings to dissociate themselves from it; but we Jews cannot dissociate ourselves from the Jewish religious authorities of the time of Jesus, who included such revered figures as Gamaliel and Johanan ben Zakkai. I do not believe that these religious leaders had anything to do with the death of Jesus, though the High Priest, who had no religious authority (being a mere ceremonial official and a Roman appointee and Quisling) may well have handed Jesus over to Pilate on political, not religious, grounds. But here we touch on criticism of the Gospels, which the Vatican Council did not even consider; this shows how remote it was from the honesty of a Catholic theologian like Rosemary Ruether. The omission of the word “deicide” from the final draft was a great disappointment. This deletion was largely the result of protests by the Arab bishops, who argued that if the Jews were cleared of deicide, the punishment of exile would be lifted and the Jews would be justified in claiming a state in Palestine. The “Explanations,” moreover, reasserted the traditional idea that the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem was a punishment for the death of Jesus.

Ross Dabney argues that factors other than religion—class, culture, etc.—also played a part in the indifference to the sufferings of the Jews. The German Jews, however, were most thoroughly assimilated. If they were still felt to be “different,” this was not for objective reasons. Church opposition to Hitler (e.g., by Pastor Niemoeller) was not on the grounds of opposition to the persecution of the Jews. The chief superiority of the Catholics over the Protestants was that the Catholics did something to protect Christians of Jewish origin, while the Protestants did not even do this. This is not to ignore the heroism of a few Christian individuals who tried to support the Jews.

I am grateful to Paul Edward Guay for his praise for my “hard thinking and tough speaking” and for “hitting so many nails squarely on the head,” but am somewhat bemused by his reservations, which are so numerous that I wonder which nails I am supposed to have hit. If I may pluck out two points from his rapid fire: (1) the picture of Hell differs fundamentally from routine tyrannical torture, from “human sacrifice in Gehenna,” “human slavery in Egypt,” and also from Hades and Sheol. Hell is a vividly imagined topography of organized mass torture of eternal duration; none of the others comes remotely near this; (2) the “merely historical level” is not so “mere” when it takes into account the influence for evil of a profoundly moving myth. Mr. Guay’s objection to “relativizing” the Holocaust seems to me a plea to regard the Holocaust as an ineffable mystery instead of as a loathsome and bloody fact.

Paul Gottfried explains that when he referred to my “strange view of the insignificance of humanism in talmudic Judaism,” he meant my strange view of the significance of humanism in talmudic Judaism. I am grateful for the explanation, but think that my misunderstanding was forgivable. I certainly do think that “humanism” is an accurate description of the temper of the Talmud. This does not mean that the Talmud thinks that human nature is wholly rational and sinless, but that it is possible to attain rationality and responsibility with much effort (and with the aid of divine teaching), since evil is a psychological, not a cosmic, force. Here talmudic Judaism differs from Pauline Christianity, which regards such effort as a waste of time, since humanity is hopelessly in the grip of unreason and sin, so that its only hope is through a human-divine savior. (The Torah was given, says Paul, just to demonstrate the impossibility of moral effort.) This difference between talmudic Judaism and Pauline Christianity is fundamental.

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