Two Popes on Shoah and Jewish-Christian Godwrestling: A View from Scriptures

By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus and Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
September 2011

In a post-Auschwitz age, the Roman Catholic Church confronted and fully rejected Christian imperialism, which validated and intensified Christian antisemitism, through the advocacy of reconciliation and fraternity with the Jewish People. The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration, “Nostra Aetate,” was the first document in this Church’s history that takes seriously the Jews as God’s ongoing covenantal people, and whom the Holy See, in its understanding of God’s Word in Scripture and tradition, is morally bound to defend and support. Indeed, ever since 1965, Catholic efforts to combat worldwide antisemitism, teach the Shoah and its lessons, and reconcile the Vatican and the State of Israel are impressive.1

Many apologetica and polemica found in centuries of Vatican supersessionist teaching are now corrected. Jews are not seen as “ancient” Israel; the Hebrew Bible is not referred to as the “Old” Covenant; and antisemitism is soundly condemned. Still, not all facets of the replacement theology are properly focused upon nor criticized in a scholarly fashion. For example, at the beatification ceremony of Edith Stein (Carmelite nun, Sister Teresa), on May 1, 1987, Pope John Paul II invoked, “Salvation is from the Jews,” but in the Johanine context this is limited by salvation in the spirit and in truth, that is to say, in Christ.2 Or his comments following a Jewish incident at the Carmelite convent built in the vicinity of Auschwitz suggest that Jews have failed in their divinely charged mission.3 Also, why the heavens did not darken over the heart of Christendom during the Shoah is explained in Christ-like image; that is to say, God’s presence in suffering. Alas, from my Jewish perspective, this proclamation is understandable but not accepted.

Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II was a confessing Christian, committed to and engaged in teshuvah (repentance, return). Most memorably, in his powerful talk at Yad Vashem, he said that “we wish to remember (the Shoah) to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for millions of innocent victims of Nazism.” His profound identification with Jewish suffering at Christian hands was also in the note he left at the Western Wall (March 26, 2000): “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendents 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.”

Confronting the legacy of religious anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism is a requisite for Church’s reconciliation with the Jewish People. In this context, when Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pope in 500 years, was in Germany for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day (August 18-21, 2005), he visited the synagogue in Cologne, Germany that was destroyed by Nazis. On this occasion, he joined the congregation in Hebrew prayer. In his address, he recalled the words of his predecessor for the liberation of Auschwitz (15 January 2005); remembered the crime committed against seven thousand named Cologne individuals (Jewish) during the Nazi era; and in the words of Nostra Aetate, deplored “feelings of hatred, persecutions and demonstrations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at whatever time and by whomsoever” (No.4). He also affirmed that the Nazi racist ideology derived from neo-paganism, which did not recognize the holiness of God, and “consequently contempt was shown for the sacredness of human life,” created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).

Arguably, deep-rooted antisemitism is the matrix around which the crooked cross of the Kingdom of the Night is spun. But deep-seeded Christian “teaching of contempt” contributed immeasurably to the Endlösung. Disturbingly, in his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau (May 28, 2006), Pope Benedict XVI failed to condemn the participatory role of Catholic and Protestant leadership (religious and secular), including, German and Polish bishops, in carrying forth des Führers Wunsch. In his public meditation at Jewry’s greatest death field, he said that “the rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people,” but failed to see this in racist terms. Instead, he Christianized the Shoah. He began with a Jewish thought (“Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How can you tolerate all this?”), and proceeded to condemn a ruthless state policy, guided by “spurious and godless reason,” which “used and abused” the German nation, which ultimately was an attack of the Christian faith. Not a proclamation of conscious malice, but a misguided spiritual soliloquy slightly tinged with historical revisionism. In remembering the Event, the German Pope made an errant mistake. Still we ought not to condemn but teach and correct.

Godwrestling in the Night

Theology. Theodicy. Jew and Christian together confront the ashes of the night. Scriptural din torah infuses their dialogical Godwrestling on sacred texts, which embraces doctrinal, ethical, religious, and social concerns. I submit that the message of Auschwitz for the Jew and Christian is not survival alone. There is something more important than physical survival, and that is preventing moral bankruptcy. When Auschwitz (survival at any price) contends with Sinai and Calvary (moral standards), Sinai and Calvary must prevail. Nazi Germany is an example of what can happen when Auschwitz prevails. On European anti-Semitism, Sigmund Freud argued that the practitioners were “badly christened,” and were forced into Christianity by bloody compulsion. Their true essence, barbaric polytheists, subliminally rejected the triumphant Church militant. So “ (T)he hatred for Judaism is at bottom hatred for Christianity, and it is not surprising that in the German National Socialist revolution this close connection of the two monotheistic religions finds clear expression in the hostile treatment of both.”4

Holy Scriptures teaches that God’s proclivity is with the destiny of Israel. Moses professes that the Children of Israel are eternal and Paul confesses that the foundation of Heilsgeschichte is founded in their being5 and both acknowledge that their fate testifies to the transcending power of God in history. In Exodus 32, Moses defends Israel who is referenced as a stiffnecked people but in whom God’s moral self in history is rooted. Moses argues that however just God’s position is (e.g., the Golden Calf apostasy), His decision to destroy them would be the sine qua non factor for the Egyptians (that is to say, the nations of the world) not to expect any notion of heavenly justice. The Torah declares, tsedek, tsedek tirdof (“justice, justice shall you pursue”)6 and Moses requests that God must be perceived as doing no less. Also at stake is God’s covenantal promise to the Patriarchs that He will enable their “offspring (to be) as numerous as the stars of heaven” (verse 13). And the Lord relented and “renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people” (verse 14).

So what to make of Auschwitz? In the fire of the crematoria, God’s Child (Exodus 4:23) was cremated. Was this ultimate crime for the sake of the covenant and for the glory of His Name? In Egyptian bondage of yore, God heard the cry of the people, and God remembered His covenant with the Patriarchs, and He redeemed. The thousands and thousands of Jews from the shtetlakh (Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe refused to abandon the yoke of the covenant. Their oath of survival, mixed with dirges of pain, hoped that God would stop the indescribable churban. But Heaven shed no tears. The position that the Shoah twins Jewish history and the Jewish conception of God is decisive and stark. Are we to conclude that in the “Flicker of the Jews’ last hour, Soon Jewish God, Your eclipse?”7

The question underscores the perpetual dilemma in covenant theology. Were the Endlösung be fully enacted there would be no covenant, since on the altar of Auschwitz, the commitment to the Torah directive, “Choose life”8 would go up in flames. Were the Jews treated as ordinary victims of Nazi incarceration, this would forsake the ultimate concern of covenantal belief. In Auschwitz, God is challenging Israel’s commitment to the covenant. In actuality, the Jew is also challenging God’s commitment to the covenant. In the context of covenant theology as played out in the death camps, mutual challenges are expected. Indeed, these challenges do not diminish the paradox of Auschwitz but serve to make the issue more significant and more troubling, and therefore also more of hope. In the heat of the Nazi inferno, the unconditional commitment of both partners is tested and endures.

And what to say to the post-Shoah Jew and Christian? To honor the memory of the brutally murdered, we must never forget nor forgive. True, “in (y)our mouth” we cannot still the anguish cry of bodiless millions, but we can restore flesh to bones, personality to numbers, and novelty to novum – a doable memorial to those who suffered in the consuming fire and we believe were sustained by the supernal light which does not consume nor diminish.


1 Relevant documents include We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998); The Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on the Jewish People and its Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002); and the Reflections on Covenant and Mission issued by the Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (August 12, 2002). See Zev Garber, “Religious Intolerence and Prejudice: What’s Love Got To Do With It?” in James Moore, ed., Post-Shoah Dialogues: Re-thinking Our Texts Together (Lanham, MD: 2004) 181-19.

2 See Chapter 5 in Zev Garber, Shoah: The Paradigmatic Genocide (Lanham, MD: UPA 1994), and discussed in William Cardinal Keeler’s “Advisory on the Implications for Catholic-Jewish relations of the Canonization of St. Edith Stein” (September, 1998).

3 See “The Furor Over the Auschwitx Convent: The Inside and Outside of the Language of Bias,” in Z. Garber and B. Zuckerman, Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts (Lanham, MD: 2004) 57-78.

4 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York: Vintage Books, 1939), p. 117.

5 Romans 9:1-6 and Romans 11.

6 Deuteronomy 16:20.

7 Jacob Glatstein. On Jacob Glatstein, the man and his poetry (Yiddish), see my entries in the Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature (Detroit: Gale Group, St. James Press, 2002), pages 110-111, and 466-467.

8 Deuteronomy 30:19.

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