Judaism and Christianity: After the Holocaust

In the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish theologians have challenged Christian thinkers to rework Christianity's traditional pictures of the Jews.

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This article suggests that Christians must confront their complicity in the Holocaust before Jewish-Christian relations can be normalized. Such reflection has taken place in the work of many Christian, especially Catholic, theologians. The declaration Nostra Aetate, often referred to as Vatican II, called for "fraternal dialogue" between Jews and Christians. The Church explained that this document, "finds its historical setting in circumstances deeply affected by the memory of the persecution and massacre of Jews which took place in Europe just before and during the Second World War." Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The events of the twentieth century dramatically changed the relationship between Jews and Christians.

Christian Sins

The Holocaust forever altered the way in which Jews of the second half of this century would view non-Jews. While Christianity did not cause the Holocaust, many of its myths and images supported European anti‑Judaism and justified the Nazis' murder of Europe's Jews. There were many Christians and Church leaders who endangered themselves in order to protect Jews. But many more supported and executed the Nazis' plans, and many did so in the name of Jesus and Christianity.

While the Nazis also killed many Christians, many, even most, of the murderers of the Jews were baptized followers of Christ. Contemporary Christians struggle with this truth, as do current Jewish thinkers.

Two other events have proven important for Jews attempting to comprehend the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 challenged medieval and modern Christian doctrine concerning the superiority of Christianity and the divine rejection of Jews and Judaism. From the Jewish point of view, the failure of the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and other international Christian organizations to support Israel in the Six Day War was also significant.

This disproved the previous Jewish assumption that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Christians would feel compelled to assist Jews who were again threatened with extinction.

Jewish Theologians Respond

The complexity of the post‑Holocaust Jewish view of Christianity can be seen through a brief review of the ideas expressed by Eliezer Berkovits, an Orthodox rabbi, Richard L. Rubenstein, a Conservative rabbi who is a university professor and theologian, and Emil L. Fackenheim, a professor of philosophy and survivor of Sachsenhausen. As we shall see, while all three see a connection between Christianity and the Nazi ideology that created the Holocaust, they differ regarding the implications of that connection.

These thinkers' understanding of the relationship between the historical attitude of Christians towards Jews and the Holocaust is as follows.

Berkovits focuses on the previous centuries of Christian anti‑Jewish teachings: "Without the contempt and hatred for the Jews planted by Christianity in the hearts of the multitude of its followers, Nazism's crime against the Jewish people could never have been conceived, much less executed."

Rubenstein holds that a Christian invention, the "mythological Jew," provided the images and the models for the Nazis. This was the Jew viewed not like other humans, but as either Jesus or Judas, as the divine or the paradigmatic betrayers. In this regard, medieval descriptions of the Jews as the devil's surrogates, God‑killers, provided a fertile ground for Nazi propaganda. Fackenheim, finally, sees a close connection between Nazi anti‑Semitism and the religious and social doctrines of Christianity.

Christian Anti-Semitism and Nazism

Christianity's ancient and medieval images of the Jews thus are understood to have provided the Nazis with the raw material upon which to ground their war against the Jews. Further, the failure of the largely Christian West, let alone the Vatican, to respond to the Nazi onslaught becomes significant for the Jewish view of modern Christianity. Focusing upon Christianity's failure to act, Berkovits argues that that religion has entirely lost its moral underpinning, that the Vatican and the other churches have "lost all claim to moral and spiritual leadership in the world."

Fackenheim holds a similar view, noting in particular that the same anti‑Semitism that permitted many Christians to accept the Nazi slaughter of the Jews still finds expression today in Christians' reading of the Holocaust as a universal evil not particular to the Jews at all. Fackenheim goes so far as to deem to be an aspect of anti‑Semitism what he views as Christians' failure to be even‑handed in judging the competing claims of Israelis and Arabs:

"Why did the Christian press remain undisturbed by nineteen years of Jordanian control of the Christian holy places (and desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues), but become greatly agitated by Israeli control? Why does it fill its pages with accounts of the plight of Arab refugees but rarely even mention the nearly as numerous Jewish refugees from Arab countries? Why are there moral equations between Israel's claim to the right to exist and Arab claims to the right to destroy her?"

In the end, all three see little chance of a real Jewish‑Christian dialogue unless Christianity rethinks its traditional images of the Jews. Berkovits maintains that the only reason Christianity is willing even to think about engaging in ecumenical discussions is its loss of worldly power. Rubenstein has written that "unless Israel is the vessel of God's revelation to humanity, it is difficult to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment and climax of that revelation…I see no way believing Christians can demythologize Israel's special relation to God without radically altering the meaning of Christian faith." This means that Christianity cannot imagine the Jew as a normal human being.

In the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish theologians have challenged Christian thinkers to rework Christianity's traditional pictures of the Jews, which played a role in the Nazi onslaught and which prevented and still prevent many Christians from responding positively to Jews in dire straits. Until this occurs, many contemporary Jewish thinkers believe it will be impossible for contemporary Jews and Christians to view one another as caring human beings and to respond to one another in appropriate ways.

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Gary G. Porton

Dr. Gary G. Porton is professor of religious studies, history, and comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.