Dr. Eugene J. Fisher our first moderator

Dr. Fisher is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He holds a doctorate in Hebrew Studies from New York University and has authored or edited over a dozen books in the field of Jewish-Christian studies, including Spiritual Pilgrimage: Pope John Paul II on the Jews and Judaism, coedited with Leon Klenicki, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 1995.

Introducing myself (Eugene Fisher)

I was honored to be invited to contribute to The Sunflower discussion, and am now doubly honored to be asked to "moderate" the discussion. A personal note might be in order. I have been involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue actively since I first went to NYU in 1968 to begin my doctoral studies, and have held my present position since 1977. The issues raised by The Sunflower, I believe, go to the heart of the dialogue. They are, from the perspective of relations between Jews and Christians, very complex and fraught with ambiguity, since they involve not just the generation that underwent them but the generations that went before and our hopes for reconciliation not just between two individuals (as the rabbinic dicta cited by Aron Trauring appear to presume) but between two whole peoples.

So my first question is, does the collective nature of the larger issue of forgiveness and reconciliation after the Holocaust change the way one relates to or understands the question? In my own case, I think it does. In my contribution to the book, I argued that the dying officer had no right, indeed only compounded his sin, by asking a surviving victim to forgive him in the name of the deceased victims who were no longer there to be asked.

Rabbinic tradition as outlined by Aron seems to presume that the victim of the offense is still alive to be asked to forgive. While a survivor might be asked to forgive a Nazi for what that Nazi had personally done to him or her, it places the survivor in an untenable position to be asked to forgive beyond those narrow bounds, and is therefore a moral offense in its own right. What is Jewish tradition on forgiveness in case of murder? Who could be asked to forgive? The surviving family? God alone? In the book, it is interesting to note that in the initial publication of the American edition in 1976, most of the Jewish contributors argued against forgiveness and most of the Christian contributors argued that Simon should have forgiven Karl (not for Karl's sake, but for Simon's, lest he be trapped in life-long bitterness). In the 1998 edition, while the new Jewish contributors remain pretty consistent with their predecessors, the new Christian contributors are not so easy to predict.

A number join me in saying that IN THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE as the situation is drawn and defined by Wiesenthal, Simon was right to withhold the word of consoling forgiveness from the dying Nazi. One Catholic contributor, Fr. Edward Flannery, revised his essay on the basis of what he had learned from Jews in the dialogue in the intervening decades, though he still leans toward forgiveness (individual, not collective).

My theory is that we Christians (many, not most), over the years, have learned from the dialogue and from the public educational efforts ranging from Schindler's List to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at least something not just of the facts of the Shoah, but how Jews feel about them. Hence we are a little less sure of ourselves in offering advice to Jews. And that is to the good. I am fascinated with the ethically lesser but no less complex question raised by Nancy Walker of what Simon should or should not have told Karl's mother. In my initial reading, the mother seemed to me to have no idea of what her soldier-son had done during the war. In this reading, Simon simply leaves her in her innocence with her memories of her son before he became a moral monster. This was an act, then, of compassionate restraint since Simon in this reading does not blame the mother for the son's sins and so does not wish to torture her by destroying her comforting, albeit false image of her dead son. On the other hand, one might argue that the mother needed to be confronted with what was done by the child she raised. If the mother is seen collectively as "Germany," I would opt for the tell-all path. If individually, I'm not so sure that Simon's second silence was the wrong choice. In Ms. Walker's view, the mother does know of the crimes committed by her son and would have been consoled to know at least that he repented of them at the end. I would be interested in more discussion of this issue as well.

Questions for Dr. Fisher (David Loren)

Since I am not Catholic it is difficult for me to understand the thinking behind confession. It seems to me that Simon didn't understand it either. He has some residual guilt that Karl did not get what he was after. But doesn't the fact that he bequeathed him his clothing show that he felt his confession was complete? Please explaint to us some of the theological ideas behind the Catholic ritual of confession, and what it means for forgiveness. Also how your ideas have been influenced, changed or modified by your encounter with Jews in the context of discussing Sunflower.

Reply to David Loren (Dr. Fisher)

Thank you for this question, which opens up a number of areas worthy of serious dialogue between Jews and Catholics. Indeed, in the wake of the issuance by the Holy See of its teaching document, WE REMEMBER: A REFLECTION ON THE SHOAH (which mandates just such exchanges on the theological, historical, ethical and educational implications of the Shoah) and which expressed the universal Church's repentance for the crimes of omission and commission against Jews not only during but over the centuries before the Holocaust, there have been a number of dialogues between Catholic and Jewish representatives striving to understand each other's views of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. On October 28 of this year, for example, representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues met at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to dialogue over these three interrelated issues which lie at the very heart of our respective religious traditions. Follow this link to my summary of the notes I took during the afternoon session.

Now, back to Karl. As I read the book, it is unlikely that Karl was a Catholic, even though he used the Catholic-sounding phrase, "the commandments of the Church," which is not one a good Lutheran is most likely to come up with, so far as I know. For Catholics, as Bishop Nienstedt explained, confession is a sacrament ("the Sacrament of Reconciliation"). It requires a priest (ordained by a bishop, i.e. a successor of the apostles) who has the authority that Jesus has to offer God's forgiveness. While as in Judaism, an essential element of true repentance for a crime against another human being requires restitution to the extent humanly possible), one confesses one's guilt to God in the sacrament before a priest, who has the authority to speak in Christ's name the words of divine forgiveness. The phrase, "ego te absalvo," (I absolve you) are really understood to be the words of Christ. So a dying Catholic will think first of finding a priest, not a representative of his or her victims as Karl does, though anything, of course, is possible.

Collective Guilt (Eva Shwartz)

Dr Fisher, you seem to make a distinction between individual guilt and Germany as a collective. For many Jews this is very difficult distinction to make. When we look at a German, we see Germany even stronger, Nazi Germany. Many fear that if we forgive, we will forget. Can we distinguish the forgiving and forgetting, the individual and the collective?

Responses to Eva Shwartz (Dr. Fisher)

It is possible, I believe, to forgive, without forgetting. But it is certainly not my place as a Christian to counsel the Jewish people, 1/3 of whom were brutally murdered by the Nazis and their minions throughout Europe to forgive. It is my sole role to help, publicly, the world to remember and as the Pope has said, to join the voice of the Church to that of the Jewish People in the "saving warning" the Jews give to all humanity in refusing to let anyone, ever, forget. With regard to collective guilt, I'm leary for numerous reasons of ascribing guilt beyond the bounds of the guilty. There were Germans who resisted (not many, but a few). some died for their efforts. Surely these were not guilty as were the perpetrators. Likewise, it was not just Germans. Austrians, for example, were overrepresented among those who actually ran the death camps. So distinctions must be made. On the other hand, I would say that Germany as a nation is as a nation responsible for what it did to conceive and perpetrate the Holocaust (even if the Nazi party never actually did win a national vote). So as a nation it must assume responsibility (so, too, its chief collaborator, Austria, as well). The guilt of an actual perpetrator, however, is different from that of a bystander who could have done something but didn't. And as a father of a little girl, I think of parents throughout Europe who were faced with an impossible situation: should they risk the lives of their children (in Poland the Nazis murdered entire families if one member even gave a piece of bread to a Jewish refugee)? The rescuers are all the more heroic in the face of such situations. But many people acted less heroically. It is one thing to be heroic with one's own life. It is a different thing to risk the lives of other people in order to be heroic. Again, moral distinctions are necessary if one is to confront the issue of guilt honestly in all its complex and anguishing ambiguity. The question of responsibility is different. Christians today, all Christians, including the Catholic Church as a human institution, must acknowledge that the Shoah represents a failure, a sin, of massive proportions for Christianity. Six million of God's People were murdered by people who were baptized in countries that had been "Christian" for centuries. We Christians, we Catholics, must take responsibility for that sin, that evil, repent before God, and do what is necessary to ensure that it will not happen again. For all its flaws, that is what the Holy See's document, WE REMEMBER, is calling the Church to do: acknowledge a sin that is corporate in nature, repent, and resolve to sin no more. So, I guess that while I resist "collective guilt" with regard to people of German ancestry (like my own mother whose family emigrated from Germany in the last century in order to avoid fighing in the Kaiser's wars), I believe that Germany as a nation and the Church as a human institution must hold itself to a moral standard of responsibility for what happened that is commensurate with the crime of genocide itself. An implicit question in your question is that of succeeding generations. "Collective guilt" implies a passing on of the guilt from generation to generation (which is against Jewish teaching, of course). I would argue that national responsibility can be passed to succeeding generations, but not collective guilt. I hope this is at least in some sense responsive to the very real pain that I felt underlies your question.

Eva Shwartz Responds

Thanks for your thoughtful response. You raise many interesting points. Can you perhaps address the other part of my question...the tension between forgiving and forgetting? Thanks.

A Further Response to Eva Shwartz (Dr. Fisher)

Yes, the worry that forgiveness might leat to forgetting is understandabley grounded in human nature. But, I think from the perspective of both of our traditions, that is what we are called to do, since that is a very basic form of imitatio Dei (which is our vocation as People of God, who constantly forgives us but who never forgets). One might take the case of Jacob and Esau, which like all history is written from the winner's side (Jacob's the one on whom the mantel of inheritance of the covenant descends, thanks to his quit-witted, if ethically flexible mother). In the end, Jacob, who is clearly the transgressor against his older brother, does reach out, and Esau forgives, and there ensues one of the most touching scenes of human reconciliation ever recorded. But neither forgets, the proof of which is the write-up of the altercation and its resolution in the Bible itself. But I would turn the question around to you and to other participants in this discussion. Might it not be that the greater risk, right now, is not that of forgetting the Shoah, but of allowing the need to remember to overshadow the need for reconciliation, for remembering for the future rather than simply remember the past? I acknowledge that this question might better be asked a generation or two from now but I won't be around then to hear the answer.

Difference between Catholic and Jewish (sdavis)

If I understand Eugene Fisher's post correctly there are two main differences between Judaism and Catholicism approach to forgiveness: 1. The idea that even those who don't ask can be forgiven 2. The idea of an intermediary (the priest) who dispenses the forgiveness in God's name.

As for one, we know the famous Mishna which states: All Israel has a place in the world to come. Of course the Rabbis mitigate this with various exceptions. But even so, there seems to be some implicit idea of forgiveness without asking. I'm also not sure how grounded this is in tradition or whether it's a "folk belief" but I've heard the idea that in saying Kaddish we are asking forgiveness on behalf of the dead, hoping to save them from gehennom (hell) That is why we only say it for 11 months, because supposedly those who are forgiven only spend 12 months in gehinnom to atone for their sins. If we said it the full 12 months it would be as if we feel they are such horrible sinners that tnhye may not be forgiven. So this folk belief also has a concept of asking atonement on behalf of others.

As for intemediaries, while mainstream Judaism doesn't have this idea, the Hasidic rebbe certainly plays this role.

In short, I don't think the different monothesistic religions, or indeed all religions are so far apart on their beliefs regarding forgiveness.

I think the issue here is specific to the Holocaust. The crime is so heinous, and was specifically targeted at the Jews qua Jew. The enormmity of the sin is so great, and its personal nature (i.e. each of us knows that we could have been there too) makes forgiveness seem an impossibility to us.

Was Karl a Catholic (Aron Trauring)

I find it very interesting that Dr. Fisher wonders if Karl is indeed a Catholic. In the book he introduces himself as having been brought up as one (p. 31). Of course he left the church when he was relatively young, so he probably had only very vague recollections of Catholic theology and rituals. There is always a gap between the "official doctrine" and the individual's perception of them. Given the extraordianry circumstances of the war, as well as his sin, I would imagine Karl looked for a framework that fit the cricumstances more than adhered to strict Catholic practice. It seems that his heart felt that he needed forgiveness from his victims more than he needed it from God.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome Dr. Fisher and all the readers participating in this dialogue.

Response to Aron Trauring (Dr. Fisher)

Aron is quite correct about p. 31. It does indeed call Karl a Catholic. But this might be a detail added to reality by the author to flesh out the story. It remains odd to me that a Catholic of Karl's generation would not call for a priest.

Question for Eugene Fisher (Steve Weiss)

Do you feel that the Germans specifically, but Christians in general, are doing enough to address the sins of the Holocaust?

Response to Steve Weiss (Dr. Fisher)

These are two large and quite distinct questions, I believe. Germany today is more pluralistic in nature than it was in the 1930's, for example, with not only a tiny Jewish minority but a rather large Muslim one. So one canot really view the German people as a subcategory of "Christians in general" (a categorization that Hitler and his minions most decidely rejected in their own time, bent as they were on replacing Christianity with the hybrid ideology of Nazism).

Likewise, the new Germany has two quite distinct parts. In the old East Germany, one has a generation raised under Communist, anti-religious ideology, with the result that the percentage of active and even baptized Christians there is relatively small, certainly as compared with the U.S., which is by percentage actually more "Christian" than Germany, if I recall the figures at all well. So I would rephrase the first question more into whether Germany as a political entity, a nation, is "doing enough" to address the sins of Nazi Germany. One measure of that would be whether or not antisemitism in Germany can be, today, a viable political tool as it was in the 1930's for the Nazis (and as it has never been in the U.S., our racial problem being the descendants of the slaves we brought over). As of now, I do not believe so.

Clearly, there are nationalists in Russia, for example, who believe that antisemitism can be a winning tool for them politically. But while there have been instances in Germany, the nation and culture seem to have firmly rooted the notion that it is just not publicly acceptable speech or behaviour. I would say, however, that from what I have read the process of acknowledgement of the sins of the Shoah is far more advanced in West than in the old East Germany, the Soviets having sold a lot of East Germans on the proposition that Nazism was somehow imposed on the people of the time. West Germany early offered reparations and has over the years said many of the right things. It began to take a serious look at its textbook treatment of Jews, Judaism and the Shoah in the late 1970's (a process that began in the East only after the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989).

The integration of the two Germanies is moving along, albeit with more difficulty than either expected, I think, in 1989. But it will be some time, in my judgement, before one can say with any surety that "enough" has been done. Right now, many of the things that have to be done (e.g. in education) have only been begun relatively recently. So in my view it is simply too soon to tell. The crime was of such magnitude that it may take the efforts of a few more generations of Germans of good will before on can say, "enough."

The second question is with regard to "Christians in general." If I may, I will restrict myself to the Catholic Church. I will be happy to supply Steve Weiss with the email address of Lutheran and other Protestant scholars working in the field of Jewish-Christian relations who would be more qualified than I to make such an assessment. So, with regard to the Catholic Church, "enough"? Not by a long way. But I would argue that a solid beginning has been made since the Second Vatican Council on October 28, 1965, issued what was the first doctrinal statement of a Council on Jews and Judaism in the history of Christianity (the Orthodox have yet to take up the subject systematically on the level of a Synod).

Three decades after that statement, a recent textbook analysis written as a dissertation for Boston College by Dr. Philip Cunningham was able to conclude that the ancient "teaching of contempt" has been virtually expunged from Catholic religion materials written in English and replaced with a more positive and accurate portrait of Jews and Judaism. If Catholic students today are to pick up antisemitic ideas in America, it will be from the general culture (over which the Church obviously has little control)and not from Catholic textbooks. This addresses the requirement of repentance that demands a change of heart (teshuvah) such that if presented with the same or similar situation the sinner will not sin again.

Has the Church's sense of repentance been articulated clearly enough for Catholics to know what we must repent from and why we must repent? Not yet. But, again, a beginning has been made. Starting in 1995, in response I believe to calls from Pope John Paul II for a critical self-examination by Church leaders of the role of the Church in the Holocaust, a truly remarkable series of statements of repentance acknowledgements of guilt and responsibility have been made by bishops' conferences in many of the countries most involved in the Shoah (France, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Poland, the U.S.). These, together with the more recent statement of the Holy See on the subject, have been published by the U.S. Catholic Conference (www.nccbuscc.org). Taken as a whole, they are very powerful, indeed, more painfully honest than many would have thought possible 10 or 20 years ago. Enough? No. But much, much more than a little. Again, the test will be history itself.

Lead by the current Pope, Church leaders have been extremely supportive of all of the efforts of those involved in the dialogue with the Jewish people. The test is, will it last? That support, originally given by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (all of the world's bishops acting in concert), has now been reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI and by Popes John Paul I and II. It is, albeit slowly, being institutionalized throughout the Church. But one still reads of individual priests (even priests in Rome!) issuing antisemitic statements. Most often this causes harm to their clerical careers, and not a benefit. But still, "enough" would be a complete end to such deviations from official Church teaching (which is that antisemitism is sinful). So to paraphrase the master, it may not be given to us to finish the task, but we are impelled in our generation to move forward on it. In my view that building is already sufficiently strong so that whoever is Pope in the future will not be able to undo what has been done and go back to the bad old days of theological anti-Judaism, much less antisemitism.

Final Words as Moderator (Dr. Fisher)

This will be my last message as moderator, though I will continue to check in now ant then because I have found the discussions and the questions challenging morally as well as intellectually. So if others have questionsfor me, I will try to reply. I will be leaving you, by the way, in the hands of one of the best scholars in the field. I know the (Common Era) new year will be off to a very good start with your new moderator. Shalom and l'hitraot.

Wrapping up Dr. Fisher's moderation and thank you (Aron Trauring)

Eugene Fisher is wrapping up his moderation stint, so I want to thank him again for his stimulating and thoughtful posts. The "next moderator" Dr. Fisher is referring to in his farewell post above, is Dr. Alan Berger, a Jewish... [Read More]

A Jewish response to actions of Catholic Church re: Holocaust

Dr. Eugene Fisher sent along this article, which we reprint with the kind permission of the Tablet, a UK Catholic magazine (http://www.thetablet.co.uk). We thought some of the issues Rabbi Friedlander raises are quite relevent to the discussions we've been having in this forum. Here are Dr. Fisher's comments: "The Tablet is the leading Catholic journal in Great Britain. This is a serious and useful reflection by Albert Friedlander [a reform Rabbi in the UK]. The book to which he refers was published in the U.S. by Paulist Press under the title, The Six Days of Destruction with an introduction by Cardinal Bernardin. It includes an interreligious service on the Shoah by Rabbi Leon Klenicki and myself."

The Tragedy of Pius XII by Albert Friedlander

Jewish sources have expressed deep disquiet over the recent canonisation of Edith Stein and the beatification process for Pope Pius XII. The Jesuit promoter of that cause has called such reproaches outrageous. But the Reform rabbi of Westminster synagogue in London believes that Jews can and must make their voices heard.

INTERFAITH dialogue today no longer means merely pointing out what we have in common with our neighbour's religion. We can also enunciate our differences. [More]

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