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The Jewish Reaction to the Pope's Welcoming Back Holocaust Denying Bishop: Disproportionate!

Posted: 02/02/09 11:13 AM ET

The official Jewish response to Pope Benedict XVI recent decision to reach out to the St. Pious X Society and to revoke the excommunication (though not yet determining the status) of four bishops says a great deal about the psycho-social state of American Jewish leadership -- or at least the leadership that claims to speak for American Jews. The admittedly unnerving if not hurtful Holocaust denying views of one of those bishops, British born Richard Williamson -- an obscure, irrelevant, cranky old man, offered on Swedish television -- evoked the wrath of no less than the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the B'nai B'rith International, the International Jewish Commission on Interreligious Consultations and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"The decision undermines the strong relationship between Catholics and Jews", they protested. "We are stunned that the Vatican has ignored our concerns", they proclaimed. This will have "serious implications for Catholic-Jewish relations" and there will be a "political cost for the Vatican" they threatened. And the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, one of the most corrupt religious establishments in Western democracies, entered the fray calling into doubt the Pope's impending visit to Israel. All this hubbub and anxious lashing out about an internal Church matter regarding the sort of crabby, crotchety, trivial, unknown sort of jerk -- the ratty uncle who embarrasses you every time he is in public -- who we all recognize exists in our communities.

As an eighth generation rabbi and someone who lost much family in the Holocaust, it could just be me, but this official Jewish response seems outrageously over the top. Do millions of American Jews sufficiently care that the Pope revoked the excommunication of this unheard of bishop such that major Jewish organizations should devote so much energy and attention to this and turn it into a cause célèbre worthy of front page attention? And is this the way we speak to each other after decades of successful inter-faith work on improving our relationship?

How is it that the view of some cranky bishop -- one who has no power -- evokes calls of a crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations, despite the revolutionary changes in Church teachings regarding Jews since Vatican II? Where is the "proportionality", where is the giving the benefit of the doubt -- a central religious and spiritual imperative -- in response to something that is admittedly upsetting but in the scheme of things is less than trivial especially given this Pope's historic visit to Auschwitz in which he unambiguously recognized the evil perpetrated upon Jews in the Holocaust and in his way "repented" for any contribution distorted Church teachings made to create the ground for such evil to erupt.

Something is off kilter here. Is it possible that the leadership of Jewish defense agencies, people with the best of motivation who have historically done critical work in fighting anti-Semitism, have become so possessed by their roles as monitors of anti-Semitism, so haunted by unresolved fears, guilt, and even shame regarding the Holocaust, and perhaps so unconsciously driven by how these issues literally keep their institutions afloat, that they have become incapable of distinguishing between a bishop's ridiculous, loopy, discredited views about the Holocaust and a Church from the Pope down which has clearly and repeatedly recognized the evil done to Jews in the Holocaust and called for that evil to never be forgotten.

Perhaps, this called for a little understanding of what it must be like to actually run a 1.2 billion person spiritual community (one with which I disagree on many issues) and to be trying to create some sense of unity from right to left, from extreme liberalism to extreme traditionalism -- sort of like the liberal Barack Obama inviting Rick Warren, despite his hurtful views on homosexuality, to give the invocation at the inauguration.

How about cutting a Pope -- who we know along with the previous Pope is probably amongst the most historically sensitive Popes to the issues of anti-Semitism, Holocaust, and the relationship to Judaism and Jews -- a little slack given how he is trying to heal his own community. And is it possible that the Pope's desire/hope/need to reintegrate the Church -- (he has also reached out to Liberal theologian Hans Kung) -- may be of more importance both to the Church and actually to religion on this planet than whether we Jews are upset about the lifting of excommunication of one irrelevant bishop.

Would we Jews like to be judged by the crankiest, most outlandish, hurtful, and stupid thing any rabbi in the world said about Catholics or Christians? We Jews are no longer organized to excommunicate and a rabbi can't be defrocked the way the Church does with its clergy but surely there are individual rabbi's who say things so abhorrent about the "other" that though we still call the person rabbi we would not want to be taken to task for doing so. And isn't it possible that bringing Richard Williamson back inside the Church may actually influence him to see how wrong he is on this issue given how clear the Church is regarding the Holocaust and its commitment to Catholic -Jewish relations?

After all the Pope himself said, "I hope my gesture is followed by the hoped-for commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to realize full communion with the Church, thus witnessing true fidelity, and true recognition of the magisterium and the authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council." There is no way to read this other than to conclude that to be fully reinstated in the Catholic Church, all those who have passed the first test must now clear the big hurdle: either accept what the Catholic Church teaches or remain on the sidelines. And what the Church teaches, among other things, is the necessity of respecting Jews.

Moreover, shouldn't the Jewish defense agency leadership, which to its credit is probably the most effective at its work of any ethnic and religious group in this country, try to understand the inner categories of the other, especially after decades of inter-faith and inter-group work? In this case, that there is a difference between heresy -- an accusation from which the Pope is trying to heal part of his community- and stupidity. And what is the cost of not seeing the difference between heresy and stupidity?

Finally, when the Pope as well as key Vatican officials said within a day that Williamson's views are "absolutely indefensible" and that in the Pope's own words, the Church feels "full and indispensable solidarity with Jews against any Holocaust denial" where was a little humility in response? Wouldn't it have been interesting, yet alone ethically compelling, for those who initially lashed out to have acknowledged that perhaps they did overreact and that they do know that the Church and specifically this Pope are very sensitive to these issues.

But that we ask the Pope and church hierarchy to please understand that, whether fully justified or not, we are still very very raw and very vulnerable regarding the Holocaust and so we are sorry if we did over react and we are deeply grateful for the Pope's unambiguous reiteration of that which we do know is his view and is contemporary Catholic teachings.

 

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