Your Holiness

Permit me to begin with a few words about my background that informs the content of this letter.

I am a graduate of Jewish parochial schools and was raised in the Orthodox tradition and ordained a rabbi by the time I was 23. My world was infused with Judaism without much exposure to other religious traditions. Then I went to graduate school where my closest friend and deepest intellectual colleague was a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy.

Lawrence Cunningham, currently a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (USA), was my teacher. He sat on my doctoral committee and his work shaped my own. I began my academic career at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (USA) teaching in the Religion Department and serving as University Jewish Chaplain along with my Roman Catholic colleague Father Charles Gonzalez, S.J., who later became the Rector of the Georgetown University Jesuit community in Washington, DC. He was -- and remains -- a revered colleague and cherished friend. We have spoken deeply about matters of faith, friend to friend, believer to believer. I later had the privilege to teaching in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University for fifteen years, where I taught Modern Jewish Thought, the Holocaust and an occasional course in Rabbinic Judaism. My colleagues were often Jesuits and my students were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, proud and successful graduates of its parochial schools -- as I had been of Jewish parochial schools – who understood religious faith and often explored their own in dialogue with the Jewish texts they were studying and the Jewish historical experience they were encountering, many for the very first time. I also served as Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, overseeing the creation of its permanent exhibition and working closely with Roman Catholic leaders both within the  National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and from the academic community as well as with Roman Catholic educators who were teaching about the Holocaust. Professionally, I have presented papers and responded to papers at the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) and attended their annual conferences. These are all experiences I prize.

I mention all of this because I want you to grasp the point that I am a friend and an admirer of the Roman Catholic Church and an even better friend and admirer of the men and women it has produced to serve the Church and God. Many of the men and women with whom I have worked and interacted over the years were shaped by the religious atmosphere and the interreligious respect and cooperation ushered in by Nostra Aetate, that seminal document of Vatican II on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965.

As you undoubtedly know, but will learn again from the contents of this book, many of my colleagues and friends, and I myself, belong to a generation that has been formed by that Vatican II proclamation and by the many contacts and documents, dialogues and discussions, articles and books that have ensued ever since.

For Jews of my post World War II generation, the most important interreligious story of the past half century has been the dramatic improvement in Jewish-Catholic relations and the mutual respect and cooperation between and among Roman Catholic and Jewish clerics, Roman Catholic and Jewish scholars as well as between and among Roman Catholic and Jewish laypeople. The progress has been so enormous that we fear that the younger generation has taken it for granted and that other priorities will so move the Church that it will not see the need to foster those relations.

We also fear that a new generation is arising that has not be shaped by the events of the Shoah and precisely because of the distance that we have travelled, will not appreciate the journey we have taken under the papacy of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II.

Fear often leads to suspicion, and it does not take much to arouse Jewish suspicions, especially among colleagues who have not had the sustained and intense contact with Roman Catholic leadership – both scholarly and diocesan – as I and many of my colleagues have had.

As a Jew who prays daily in Hebrew and who attends religious services in synagogues throughout the world, I well understand the importance of the Latin Mass and the desire of a new generation to return to this authentic liturgy. Even the most liberal and least Orthodox of Jewish denominations have returned to the Hebrew, the Holy Tongue for prayer, understanding full well that while prayer in one’s native language provides accessibility, it is often at the loss of mystery. In addition, the debasement of language in our day makes it ever more difficult to pray in them. Furthermore, a universal Church must provide prayers accessible to parishioners wherever they travel in our global universe. Thus, I have admired the return to tradition and the attempt to reach out to your more devout, more traditional believers, but I believe that you can understand our historic sensitivity to the prayer for the conversion of Jews.

Conversion today is the option of free men and women seeking to understand God and tradition and to find an institution that makes God’s presence manifest in a tradition that is meaningful and accessible. Historically, this was not the case for millennia. For believing Jews, our faith and our deeds sustain us; our lives reflect our all too human attempt to fulfill God’s will as best we understand it and we chose to remain faithful to the teachings of our tradition. Even for non-believers the request for conversion is perceived as an insult, a sense that one is inadequate as a person before God and before our fellows. Furthermore, when Christians – both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians – try to convert us, we Jews feel our faith and our tradition are disrespected by those seeking to convert us.

With regard to the Shoah, the primary focus of my own academic research, your statements against Holocaust denial and for remembrance have been admirable and unequivocal. I suspect that we both regret the recent circumstances that made it imperative for you to speak so forcefully. I know that we would have celebrated such statements if they had seemed more like noble leadership and less like damage control. Surely, your staff should have been more sensitive to the full record of these Lefevbrist Bishops whom you seek to reconcile with the Church. Your statement condemning antisemitism is also most respected especially at a time when we have seen its increase on the European continent and within the Islamic world.

In my work I have written that the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the most important example of what Emil Fackenheim described as Tikkun repair of the rupture rent by the Holocaust. The religious imperative to mend the world is clear not just to the past – perhaps not even primarily to the past – but to the future. We live in a world where when brokenness is recognized, mending, tikkun, is possible, but where the recognition is absent, there can be no healing.

We share a love for tradition and a veneration of religious intensity, piety and intellectual rigor. What I have so admired in the Church under the leadership of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II was the way it used the tools of tradition to emphasize, transmit and reinforce religious teachings that did not allow the intensity and piety of religious traditionalism to degenerate into the kind of fanaticism that did not respect other religious traditions. Out of the depths of our own faith and because of the depth of our own faith, we must emphasize the religious heritage common to all humanity: all are God’s creation; all are entitled to fundamental human dignity and respect. I am certain that you share my alarm at the climate of contemporary religious life in which people are killing each other because of religious difference, where religious faith is not tempered by the acknowledgement of the other – even the one with whom we vehemently disagree – as created in the image of God and therefore entitled to respect and veneration.

The Church is at a crossroads. A new generation is arising that takes the contemporary climate of Jewish-Catholic relations as a given, that reads it back into history as if it were always so. That new generation was born long after the Holocaust and has not learned its implication for interreligious tolerance and for the potential of intolerance to lead men and women of religious faith to act out of a misperception of that faith to destroy the other.

You are perhaps the last to hold your exalted office who has been shaped by the events of the Shoah and, therefore, it is important for you to ensure that its legacy endures in the Church long after your leadership.

Roman Catholicism is more noble, more Godly because of how it has responded to the Shoah, I urge you to deepen its response to this formative event. Roman Catholicism is more admirable because it has accepted the religious pluralism of the modern world and because it has engaged with the modern world as both critic and conscience while not rejecting that which can be Godly in our world. I urge you to continue that as well.

I join with my fellow Jews in welcoming you to Israel. Now that the issue of Vatican recognition of Israel is out of the way, the Church is able to come to grips with the two major forms that Jewish life has taken since the time of Jesus of Nazareth: Rabbinic Judaism and the State of Israel. I am certain that you will understand from your brief visit that Israel is diverse and democratic, still struggling for acceptance among its neighbors and for a sense of how to understand its role as a Jewish state and a state for all its citizens. You will meet Jews of diverse opinion and of different relationships to their tradition and their past. You will meet those who are suspicious and fearful of the Church and those who are open to its message and to your presence. All of us hope that the direction charted in the past few decades will chart the future direction of Jewish-Catholic relations.

Baruch Haba, Blessed be the one who comes. Shalom – hello, welcome, peace.

Respectfully yours,

Michael Berenbaum
Professor of Jewish Studies
Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute:
Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust
American Jewish University
Los Angeles, California

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