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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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.

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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.