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.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Gary G. Porton

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