2009 Colleagues in Dialogue Program Explores 'Forgiveness in the Post-Holocaust World'

Scholars Rabbi Joseph Telvshkin and Susannah Heschel, Ph.D., spoke at the CCJU Colleagues in Dialogue Program, May 2-4, 2009. The Center

Rabbi Joseph Telvshkin

Susannah Heschel, Ph.D.

for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University held its annual Col­leagues in Dialogue Program on May 2-4, 2009, at Union Theo­logical Seminary, NY. Now in its 5th year, Colleagues in Dialogue is a continuing education program that invites former participants of the Center’s Institute for Semi­narians and Rabbinical Students to build on their understanding and camaraderie with the other in their role as newly-ordained and lay religious leaders and educators. The program responds to the need to assist emerging Christian and Jewish leaders by bridging ongoing scholarly study with the practical pastoral con­cerns of fostering interreligious understanding at the congrega­tional level or in other ministerial settings.

In the 50th anniversary year of the calling of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent declaration that rejected all forms of Anti-Semitism (Nostra Aetate, 1965), the 2009 program explored the theme of “Forgive­ness in a Post-Holocaust World.” The three-day program examined the historical, theological and practical challenges to forgive­ness between Christians and Jews with presentations from leading scholars in the field, including Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Susan­nah Heschel, Ph.D., Victoria Barnett, James Bernauer, S.J., Ph.D., Rabbi Alan Brill, Ph.D., Mary Boys, Ph.D., and Lucinda Mosher, Th.D.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a scholar of Jewish history and ethics, opened the program with the presentation, “Forgiveness in the Jewish Tradition.” Drawing on sources from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Mishnah, Rabbi Telushkin’s systematic overview of Jewish teachings on forgive­ness examined three ethical categories – when forgiveness is obligatory, when it is optional and when forbidden. He specified that in the Jewish tradition forgive­ness cannot be separated from repentance. “Maimonides gave us the first code of Jewish law that defined the terms of forgiveness on the basis of repentance, which is understood to be a sincere request for forgiveness by the offender to the victim, coupled with a demonstrable change in behavior,” he said.

Rabbi Telushkin used the bibli­cal story of Jonah to illustrate a Jewish understanding of God’s insistence on repentance as a pre­requisite to forgiveness. “Jonah struggled with God over the idea that the people of Nineveh, who were not followers of the One God and long-term enemies of the Israelites, could find God’s mercy in their willingness to repent. “The holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, is modeled on Nineveh and teaches that forgive­ness is always linked to teshuvaor “the turning back” from evil ways,” he said. In his ethical ma­trix for forgiveness as obligatory, optional and forbidden, the rabbi said all three categories share in common the Jewish understand­ing that offenses against God must be settled between the penitent and God, while offenses against other human beings must be reconciled person to person.

“In the large majority of circum­stances, forgiveness is considered obligatory because the injury is not irrevocable and the of­fender has asked for forgiveness on three separate and sincere occasions,” he said. The more ambiguous category, optional forgiveness, describes a situation where someone has not asked for forgiveness but the victim may make the choice to forgive. “If the damage done to me in holding a grudge or carrying anger causes me more harm because I am allowing the perpetrator to live “rent-free” in my life, then it may be in my best interest to forgive,” he explained. The third category of forbidden forgiveness is based on the Jewish understanding that only the victim of the crime can grant forgiveness. Rabbi Telush­kin explained, “In the context of the Holocaust, this means that forgiveness of the perpetrators can never be granted because the victims are no longer alive and because no one can forgive a crime against somebody else.” Rabbi Telushkin offered the example of what he termed “extended forgive­ness” as an ethical way forward for Christians and Jews following the Holocaust. “Extended forgiveness contends that we cannot make all Christians or all Germans responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews either then or now, and holds that in the passage of time and with sincere and tangible signs of repentance that reconciliation among future generations of Jews and Christians is possible.”

The first day of the conference concluded with a conversation on contemporary issues in Christian-Jewish dialogue led by Mary Boys, Ph.D., the Skinner & McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Semi­nary, NY, and Rabbi Alan Brill, Ph.D., the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall Univer­sity, NJ. Professors Boys and Brill exchanged reflections on how they became involved in interreligious dialogue, key experiences, ten­sions in their communities, and the effects of dialogue. Dr. Boys described the altering effect of serious and sustained dialogue in the transformation of dialogue from the “ex­change of formalities” to the “empathy for the other.” “Authentic dialogue requires that we put a face on the religious other and that they become not an abstraction but a living tradi­tion that is expressed through a tapestry of scripture, text, customs and ritual,” she said. Professors Boys and Brill also dialogued on their respective involvements to include Islam in their dialogues, how they are dealing with the effect of the Gaza incursion on the storm of criticism about Israel, and the misguided faction that is calling for conversion of Jews—largely among Jewish converts using blogs and websites.

The keynote address for the program, “A Theology of Forgiveness in a Post-Holocaust World,” was delivered by Victoria Barnett, staff director of Church Relations at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, and Dr. Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, NH. Ms. Barnett is a scholar of the Protestant churches during the Holocaust and one of the general editors of the Dietrich Bonheoffer Works (Fortress Press, 2000). Dr. Heschel’s scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during 19th and 20th centuries. Her most recent publi­cation, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2009) studies the Protestant Christian churches during the Third Reich. The shared presentation focused on the “ethical grey zones” of a post-Holocaust theol­ogy of forgiveness. “The rush to forgiveness and reconciliation risks memory and moral responsibility going underground,” said Ms. Barnett. “We create the danger of substitut­ing genuine reconciliation for “cheap grace” (Dietrich Bonheoffer’s term for unmerited forgiveness) when the rush for closure on Christian complicity in the Holocaust shuts down the necessary historical conversation,” she added. She cited Germany’s emergence as an “ahistorical republic” in the immediate aftermath of World War II as an example of “closing the books” on history before the dif­ficult questions can be addressed. In contrast, Ms. Barnett pointed to the Jewish-Christian conversation begun after the Holocaust which over the past 40 years has sought a new under­standing of Christianity’s relation to Judaism. “The difficult questions of why the church was lacking in greater sensitivity to Jews and how the lack of a hermeneutic of suspicion in read­ing and preaching Christian texts facilitated the ‘bystander effect’ are ones that keep us seeking a more nuanced understanding of Christian culpability and moral self-examina­tion,” she said.

Dr. Heschel argued that the term “forgive­ness” in the context of the victims of the Holocaust is misplaced in Jewish tradition and called such inclinations “a Christianiza­tion of our culture.” She explained, “Jewish focus is on repentance and a consequence of Jews being pressured to forgive could lead to resentment.” Describing her research for the 2007 publication, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, Prof Heschel discovered volumes in church archives in Germany produced in the mid-1930s by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewishness. The pro-Nazi Christian academic group advanced the “Aryanism of Jesus” through a program to eliminate the Old Testament from the Christian Bible, purge the New Testament of its “Jewishness,” and to remake the Jewish Jesus into the figure of “Jesus the Galilean.” Dr. Heschel said her findings place into relief the importance of the struggle with Christian sacred texts and the potential for demonizing the other when read uncritically or when deliberately misappropri­ated (as evidenced in The Aryan Jesus) as a tool for propaganda against Jews.

James Bernauer, S.J., Ph.D., pro­fessor of philosophy and director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, MA, addressed the conference theme in a talk entitled, “The Holocaust and the Catholic Church’s Search for Forgiveness.” Prof Bernauer said that we must not be afraid of the truth of history and must submit to the idea that “the good” is “something under construc­tion and full of promise.” He said if forgiveness is a need for a new beginning, then the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was about a new relationship with Judaism and also a new begin­ning of the Church with itself. Dr. Bernauer suggested that the Church’s rejection of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the declara­tion, Nostra Aetate (1965) should be understood as part of an over­all reassessment of the Church’s relationship to the modern world. He described the catalyst for a new self-understanding with Judaism as a constellation of developments beginning in 1959, including the death of Pope Pius II, the undertaking of the Nuremberg Trials and an emerging conciliar support for new relations with the Jewish People led by Cardinal Augustine Bea, who would later become the principle drafter of the declara­tion, Nostra Aetate. “The post-war discussion up until then centered on the Church viewing herself as a victim of Nazi persecution; it was the ‘joy of the Church trium­phant’ and not Jewish suffering that prevailed at the time,” he stated. He pointed out that there were dissenter voices within the Church. In the immediate after­math of the horrors of the Shoah, Catholics were among a group of Christians and Jews who drew up the 1947 “Ten Points of Seelis­berg” that signaled a new era in cooperation and dialogue among Jews and Christians. Father Ber­nauer said that historical analysis of the Holocaust must continue and the difficult questions for the Church probed. However, he added, “the search for forgiveness provides a guide for how we move forward on these issues since the Shoah can never be measured by historical data alone but requires a moral memory.”

The participants also examined the practices of forgiveness in the Christian and Jewish traditions in a following session led by Lucinda Mosher, Th.D., entitled “For the Sake of Peace and Gladness.” Dr. Mosher said that ritualizing forgiveness is normative to both traditions. “By examining the practices of forgiveness we get closer to understanding how doc­trine or teaching on forgiveness and behavior intersect.”

Continuing on the theme of the practical dimensions of forgive­ness, a Colleagues-led session, “How it Looks from Here,” fea­tured presentations from Rabbi Susan Cowchock, M.D., Cantor Dorothy Goldberg, Rev. Melissa Lemons and Father Robert Newbury. Panel members reported on interfaith projects in their local communi­ties that illustrated the intersec­tion of forgiveness and healing in various ministry settings includ­ing pastoral counseling, hospital chaplaincy, music, and social justice projects.

2009 Colleagues in Dialogue Participants
Rev Patrick Besel, Archdiocese of Baltimore, MD
Rabbi Brian Bramly, Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, AZ
Rev Martin Burnham, St. Andrew by the Bay Church, MD
Rabbi Susan Cowchock, NC
Rev Tim Ekaitis, St. Peter Cathedral, MI
Eliana Falk, CT
Cantor Dorothy Goldberg, Temp Beth Tikvah, CT
Cantor Sharon Grainer, PA
Rabbi Terry Greenstein, Congregation Klal Yisrael, MA
Rev Jennifer Hanus Guelmami, NY
Rev Ty Hullinger, St. Patricks Church, MD
Rev Tomi Jacobs, Syracuse University, NY
Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, NY
Rev Robert Kersten, NY
Mark Leach, NY
Melissa Lemons, PA
Rev Robert Marino, St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, NY
Kymberly McNair, NY
Rabbi Larry Moldo, CA
Rev Robert Newbury, Ave Maria Catholic Church, CO
Rev Lyle Synder, First Lutheran Church, MN
Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, Congregation Adas Emuno, NJ
Rev Walter Stumpf, St. Philip the Apostle Church, WI
Rev Stoney Weiszmann, IL
Rabbi Yvonne Strassman, Temple Beth Sholom, CT
Rabbi Yvonne Youngberg, Temple Beth Sholom, CT
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman, Synagogue 3000, NY