Jewish Journal

The Pope and Repentance

By Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Posted on Sep. 10, 1998 at 8:00 pm

I begin by expressing my admiration and respect for Monsignor Vadakin whom I have known for close to three decades. I have reason to know of his integrity and moral courage, his deep respect for Judaism and his love for the Jewish people.

It is not with anyone that I would broach the sensitive topic of the Holocaust and the call to repentance.

To deal with the Holocaust is to touch a raw nerve in world history.

Pope John Paul II himself referred to the Shoah as "the nightmare of our century." It is worse than a nightmare.

When Victor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy was himself in the death camp, he heard one night the cries and sobbings of his inmate on the next bed. His inmate was having a horrible nightmare. Frankl did not know whether to rouse him from the nightmare or let him continue sleeping. Frankl finally decided to leave the inmate with his nightmare because waking him would be far more terrifying. Reality exceeded the horror of the nightmare.

The reality stares us in the face. The bare statistics cry out to heaven:

* one out of three Jews in the world decimated;

* two of every three Jews in Europe;

* 90 percent of East European Jewry;

* nine of every 10 rabbis in Europe;

* 1.5 million Jewish children and millions more of non-Jews, Gentiles and Christians.

The conscience of civilization is traumatized. Who can bear the memory?

It required moral courage for John Paul II to call upon the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to prepare a reflection on the Shoah that will encourage the sons and daughters of the church "to purify their hearts in repentance of past errors and infidelities so as to help heal the wounds of past injustice."

It took 11 years for the commission to prepare the statement. The Pope, in that statement, calls upon memory and teshuvah, the Hebrew name for repentance he used to help heal the wounds of past injustice.

According to the media, the reaction of some Jewish leaders was decidedly reserved. They found the document disappointing and inadequate, especially the omission of the lethal silence of Pope Pius XII who, during the Holocaust years, never condemned anti-Semitism by name and never declared it sinful for Catholics to take part in the slaughter.

It remains a tragic fact that 22 percent of the SS remained loyal to the church even while murdering Jewish men, women and children. Hitler was never excommunicated by the church. No Nazi was refused communion by the church.

There have been many attempts to defend the muteness of Pope Pius XII. Indeed, there are many Catholics who thought that Pope John Paul II had gone too far, that raising the entire history of the sad relationship between Catholics and Jews was not prudent. There were those who counseled drawing a curtain over the unspeakable past. Why rake up the muck and mud of memory? Why even touch the festering wounds? Better to bury the past.

Amnesia is safer than resurrecting the ghosts of the past. Indeed, history can be depressing and we Jews know how depressing it can be. In unearthing the past, do we not place a heavy stone on the hearts of our children? We have read the fear of history in the poetry of Jewish children written before they went to flames. A little girl wrote, "I'd like to go away alone where there are other, nicer people. Somewhere into the far unknown there, where no one kills another."

And Muttel, a young boy who died shortly after writing this said, "From tomorrow on, I shall be sad. From tomorrow on. Today I will be happy. What is the use of sadness? Tell me that. Because these evil winds begin to blow why should I grieve for tomorrow, today?"

The child wants to forget, and there are moments when I do too.

I recall the remarkable short story by Hayim Haziz, the Israeli writer who tells the story of Yudka, a shy inarticulate member of a kibbutz who one night rose to speak at a kibbutz meeting. "I want to state that I am opposed to Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about our ancestors' shame? I would say to them: 'Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we have been a people without history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football'."

Amnesia is seductive. It promises a blissful sleep, the slumber of not knowing. But there is a terrible price to pay for forgetfulness.

To his credit, Pope John Paul II dared the church to remember. In the words of the Pontifical Commission, "The common future of Jews and Christians demands that we remember, for there is no future without memory. History itself is memoria futuri." In this the pope draws his wisdom from our common biblical legacy.

One hundred sixty-nine times in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word zachar, remember, is found. The reiterated imperative to remember may very well indicate how tempting it is to forget. But the pope shared the wisdom of Judaism that understands that there cannot be genuine return without going through the anguish of the past. The cumulative toxins of our troubled history, the festering pus of anti-Semitism must be drained.

Pope John XXIII initiated the Vatican II that revolutionized the church and the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities. The present pope continues in his blessed footsteps.

We Jews will not forget John Paul II. This is the first pope in all of Catholic history to visit a synagogue -- the great synagogue of Rome.

This pope who saw to it that a Holocaust memorial concert was held in the Vatican in 1994.

This pope who presided over the Vatican's full diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel in 1997 and which this synagogue eminence celebrated with his Cardinal Mahoney.

This pope participated in the lighting of a menorah at the Vatican to mark Israel's 50th anniversary as a state in 1998.

I do not agree with those leaders who accentuated the negative in the Commission Statement. I do not think they appreciated the courage of the pope, nor the intent of the Vatican's first document concerning the Holocaust.

In my judgment, this statement from the Vatican is to be regarded as the beginning of a process for teshuvah, return for Jews and Christians and the future Christian and Jewish relations. Repentance in our personal and collective lives is not one event or one declaration or one commission.

As Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Commission put it, this document is "only a step in an ongoing process." Judaism understands this.

In Jewish tradition, the act of teshuvah is to be greeted with warmth. In Judaism, teshuvah, the moral courage to repent, is to be encouraged.

The pope is to be honored for having begun a process of the "examination of conscience." As the pope indicated, he has to cross the threshold on his knees if his church is to walk upright in the third millennium.

The ailing pope turns 78 on May 18. We pray for his health. He calls on all Catholics to undertake an examination of conscience by pondering the ways their ancestors have betrayed the ideal of Christ, during the Inquisition, and the Crusades that were the pilgrimages of their day. John Paul II, we are told, has in mind a different pilgrimage in the year 2000, which will lead him to Israel, specifically to Mt. Sinai, where he hopes to convene leaders of all religions of the world.

Teshuvah repentance requires honesty and courage to enter into the dark side of the past. But it also requires great vision, hope and compassion. Let us string pearls together. History is not heaven. History is not God. We will not allow the history of the past to have the last word. This is not the last time we will meet.

This is not the end. It is the beginning. Bereshit and with a beginning the world was created. Let us begin the dialogue between us with love and hope for the future and God's blessing.

Harold M. Schulweis is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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