Catholic-Jewish Relations - Toward a Tangible and Meaningful Step Forward

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

There has been much discussion regarding the recent statement of the Vatican ntitled "We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah." In many quarters, surely this is the case within the Jewish community, this statement was greeted with disappointment. Years in the making, it seems to have fallen short of its intended goal - to serve as a vehicle by which the Church accepts its past and in turn continues to cultivate a new relationship with Judaism and the Jewish People.

Frankly, I was not terribly surprised by the final form of this document. In attempting to place into writing its intentions, especially with regard to such a sensitive issue, considerations beyond the Church's well meaning goal necessarily came into play beclouding the result. The significant effort made in drawing a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism is self-serving. "Thus we cannot ignore the difference which exists between anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the church on the unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and peoples, and the long standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility that we call anti-Judaism, of which, unfortunately, Christians also have been guilty." To many this distinction seems to have been crafted to absolve the Church of its responsibility in laying the foundation for Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jewish People.

The Jews for centuries in a Catholic dominated Europe were marginalised, cast as the perpetrators of the crucifixion, largely through the teachings of the Catholic church. Anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jews, was rife in Christian Europe. While it may be true that Hitler's antipathy toward the Jews was rooted in racism, the Jews to him representing a diseased race of People, defined as anti-Semitism in this statement, and the Church's antipathy to the Jews was. rooted in the refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and the spurious charge of culpability for the crucifixion, defined as anti-Judaism in this statement, the net result was the same. Jews were hated and spurned, persecuted and massacred throughout the centuries leading up to the rise of Nazi Germany.

Anti-Semitism in Germany was part and parcel of society much as it was throughout Europe. All Hitler had to do was harness this wide spread anti-Semitism, this almost universal hatred of the Jews, to achieve his own aim. Why the Jews were hated, does not change the obvious fact that hatred of the Jews has been cultivated by the church and its hierarchy into the present century. Exercising significant influence on the affairs of State in many countries, the Church contributed toward establishing European Jewry as a People apart. From the pulpit, in education, by means of Passion plays etc., the Church actively endorsed and cultivated anti-Semitism. To claim that this was an unfortunate misinterpretation by some of the New Testament narrative stating that mobs which attacked Synagogues were "...influenced by certain interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish People as a whole..." is contrary to the experience of Jews.

As a child raised in New York City, a community known for its acceptance of peoples of all backgrounds, it was not an uncommon experience for me to hear my Catholic friends tell us that Father (the parish Priest) had told us or Sister had told us that the Jews crucified Christ. This was accepted by them and their parents as absolute truth. This was not the result of "certain interpretations." This was official church teaching or as close to official church teaching as one could get. The claim that the Jews were cast out of their Holy land and their Temple in Jerusalem destroyed because of their rejection of Jesus constitutes one of the most common teachings of Christendom. So inbred is the teaching that the Jews were and are responsible for the crucifixion that even today, after statements of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations to the contrary, there are many who still believe that the Jewish People, all Jews in every generation, are responsible for the crucifixion and therefore have bought upon themselves all the pain and misery we have suffered since that supposed act almost 2,000 years ago.

Having said all of the above I nevertheless believe that the Catholic Church wishes to clearly redefine its relationship with Judaism, The Jewish People and the State of Israel. I believe that many Catholics and Protestants alike, both clergy and laity, realize that, for lack of a better word, the "traditional" view of the Jews and Judaism as sinners following a rejectionist doctrine, is incompatible with modern society. All the more is this the case in light of the importance given to the multi-cultural approach in today's world. The slogan of the day "Unity in Diversity" begs the question of whether any group's culture or Faith can be negated let alone characterized as bordering on evil.. The definition of "primitive" or "advanced " society, for centuries understood by Christendom as non-Christian or Christian, is hopefully a concept of the past.

It surely is not for a Rabbi to tell the Church fathers how to respond. Again I do appreciate the effort being made. Yet, for me and for many others, the result, "We Remember, A Reflection on the Shoah," simply misses the mark.