The Fear of Good News

You what a Jewish telegram is? It reads, “Start worrying. Details to follow.” We are a nervous, anxious people. Anyone who has even a casual knowledge of Jewish history knows why we are a worried people, yet we have to be careful that in our albeit justifiable wariness that we don’t overlook the good and miss a revolution before our eyes. Every blessing, every mitzvah, every ritual we practice has but one purpose: to awaken us to the moment, to be experience every sunset as if it were the first we’ve ever seen. The one who sleeps unaware, like Rip Van Winkle, not only loses the joy of participation in the revolutionary change, but misses the opportunity to seize hold of the promising partnership that offers possibilities for repairing the world.

We are living in an extraordinary, unprecedented time, where history is being made by a major branch of Christianity, Catholicism, is attempting to write new midrash, a new interpretation of their religion, in its vision of the Jews and Judaism. Do you know this? Probably not, because the Jewish community, save but a very few, including Harold Schulweis, are ignoring the revolution within the church.

The slow sea change began twenty years after the Holocaust, when Pope John 23rd convened Vatican II to internally reconstruct the church’s doctrine and liturgy. You know what a big deal that is when we encounter resistance to something like changing the melody of Adon Olam. Vatican II launched a process to overcome 2000 years of the church’s contempt of the Jews. Canonized text was rewritten and added to, and thus began a reversal of condescencion and hostility to repentance and reconciliation that the present pope, John Paul II, has carried forth with vigor and courage.

This pope crossed the Tiber, dressed in a white robe and white skullcap, and entered the synagogue of Rome to pray. His predecessor once stopped his car in front of the synagogue to bless the crowd coming out, but he came to pray within the sanctuary. With the Torah and Roman Jews as witness, he expressed deep sorrow for the failure of his people in every age. He called for members of the church to do teshuvah and insisted that Catholics “have a relationship with Judaism that they share with no other religion.” John Paul II also has been a powerful force leading to the issuance of new guidelines that purge various anti-Jewish elements in the church’s liturgy. Furthermore, he part of a new spirit within the church that repudiates the catastrophic accusation that charged Jews with the murder of the son of God and has removed the missionizing of Jews from its agenda. In 1993, against strong opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states, the pope established full diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, including an exchange of ambassadors.

When was the last time in the history of religon that any church urged teshuvah upon its clergy and laity, offered the open admisison of guilt and responsibility for its oppression towards another faith ? Can any of this be ignored? On the other hand, some of us may know about other recent events in the church, such as the recent beatification and canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism before the Holocaust, became a nun and went to her death at Auschwitz. I too am regretful about the loss of this woman, but I don’t believe that it is our business to interfere with the church and who they choose to canonize. Others may be upset about the Carmelite nuns who wanted to establish a convent at Auschwitz, but we all must know that the pope told them to pick another location for the convent.

In 1998 the church put out a mea culpa document asking for forgiveness and confessing its sins for the passivity during the Holocaust. Yet instead of encouraging the church in its process of self-examination and apology, many Jewish organizations expressed disappointment that it didn’t go far enough, but what did they expect the pope to do? Challenge Pope Pius 12″s complicity? Instead of praising the document of repentence, we damned it with faint praise. The post-Vatican church and this pope are our allies, not enemies. We cannot reverse history but we can build a new future.

Our wounds are still raw, yes, but not to see the good is dangerous. Old habits of mind die hard, but every non-Jew is not an anti-semite. That is false bigotry. Not every road leads to Auschwitz. Pope John Paul II is not Pope Pius 12. What is keeping us standing there with our arms crossed and our eyes closed?

At the same time we have all grown up feeling morally advantaged, as Leonard Fein calls it. We we taught that we are rachamim b’nai rachamim, and we take pride in our passion for justice and capacity for compassion. Yet have we been reading the paper lately? The scandals in Israel are too numerous to count. A publisher of a a major paper accused of having a contract for murdering an opponent in a lawsuit accusing the publisher of wiretapping. Graft and corruption in government and fictitious yeshivas where millions of dollars were diverted to them instead of the schoolls for which they were intended. A building in New York collapses at a construction site because the owner, Chaim Ostreicher, allowed shoddy construction, and a worker is killed.

Perhaps we overlook the good of the church and the evils within our own community because we fear we will lose our identity of righteous victims. We are the oppressed and morally superior. What we do to non-Jews gets forgiven because of what they have done to us. We point the finger, remember past iniquities, and live in what Max Weber calls the “theodicy of disprivilege.” We seek to explain our suffering by insisting on our moral high ground.

What was no longer is. Our status as victim has come to an end yet we will not or cannot let go of it. We still see the world as divided between us and them, between the good and the evil. Hanukkah is not only about wicked Assyrians but about civil war between pietists and assimilationists. To sleep through a revolution and to define ourselves by historical trauma is not useful. Maybe our moral conceit in hard times was consoling, but the time has come for us to look hard with open eyes at ourselves and others, and see. God’s name is truth and the truth is not myth and only history. We have great opportunity at this moment to be a light unto the nations by listening, forgiving, and carrying hope for our children that the world we were born into is not the only world we can imagine.

Franz Rosensweig ended his Star of Redemption with words we can take to our hearts: “How difficult is every beginning. Where, then, to the wings of the opening gate. Thou knowest it not–into life.”