Christian Conversion of Jews?
- Created: November 6, 2002
- Written by Walter Kasper
It is a great honour for me to have the opportunity to speak this evening to this distinguished assembly and to speak on an issue of great actuality. I would like firstly to express my sincere and deep gratitude for your kind invitation. I was and I am very honoured, although I admit that I accepted your invitation not without a great deal of hesitation. In German we have the saying: "Wurde ist Burde", "Honour is burden". In this case I would like to go even further and say: to accept this honour is less a burden than a risk and an adventure.
For after all the heated public debate in this country on the last Declaration of the "National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishop's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs" the issue you proposed to speak on puts me in a - I can only say - challenging and complex situation. I can only hope to get out on the other end with unbroken skin. For it is quite unusual and, indeed, until our present era unknown for Catholics to stand together with Jews, and conversely for Catholics to speak against Catholics, and Baptists against Catholics and Jews as well. In my attempt to reflect upon the issues involved, I run the risk of getting caught between fire from all sides, and it is to be seen where I will be found in the end.
It should be borne in mind from the outset that I do not speak on behalf of the Vatican; I am used to thinking with my own head, and so I risk my own head and speak only on behalf of myself. The role of our dicastery is to promote dialogue, and not to officially guide its development or to decide on its outcome. But promoting a serious dialogue is quite different from small talk. Indeed, its very seriousness has ensured that in the meantime I have become somewhat accustomed to delicate and uncomfortable situations. Since taking over the presidency of this Commission last March I have become aware, and every day I become increasingly more aware, that this duty is anything other than boring and anything other than easy. Once on the phone with an high ranking prelate of an other important Vatican dicastery I was told: "You don't have easy customers." Definitely not!
Therefore I take the liberty of casting another light on the theme of this evening, expanding it from "The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: A Crucial Endeavour of the Catholic Church" to: "A Crucial Challenge of the Catholic Church".
The challenge is even greater in these months marked by the tragic bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, a conflict which leaves nobody cold because of so many innocent victims on both sides. While in this context we are not called to deal with the political aspects of this conflict, they cannot totally be put aside because they evoke fundamental ethical problems and are intimately linked with the religious dimension which is the only mandate of our "Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews". Some people are of the opinion that this conflict forebodes the end of the dialogue or at the least brings it almost to an impasse. I do not share this pessimistic vision. On the contrary, the tragic conflict highlights the very urgency of the dialogue between the three Abrahamitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Middle East conflict serves to demonstrate what is already often said: there cannot be peace in the world without peace between the world religions.
This insight clarifies the challenge and the urgency of the work of our Pontifical Commission on which I am invited to speak to you this evening. I hope it is not arrogant to say that even in this conflict our Pontifical Commission is and wants to be a small and modest sign of hope, a small light shining in the darkness.
I. The beginning of a new beginning
But before I come to our present endeavours, allow me to relate a little of the past challenges of our Commission It is a truism worth recalling that only those who know history can understand the present and master the future. And it is also worth recalling that the Commission was a challenge from the very beginning. It was created by a Pope who was elected to be a Pope of transition, an interim Pope so to say, but who was himself to be the architect of transition for the Church and indirectly in the world, for since his pontificate it is the very Church which lives in an interim situation and in a situation of transition. Pope John XXIII left in many ways a Church still under construction. One of the most fundamental shifts he made was the beginning of a new era in relations between Christians and Jews. "I am Joseph your brother," he told Jews he met soon after his election. On Good Friday 1959 he abolished from the liturgy the formulation speaking of the "perfidious Jews", This was a new and unaccustomed tone after so many centuries where the relations between Jews and Christians were anything but brotherly and friendly.
The first approaches after the long period countersigned by a "language of contempt" (Jules Isaac) were made - paradoxically- in the Nazi concentration camps, where often Jews and Christians together were confronted with a barbaric neo-pagan totalitarian system and together discovered their common heritage and common values. Then there were courageous forerunners who prepared and paved the way. Jews such as Leo Baeck, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Jules Isaac, Schalom Ben-Chorim, Joseph Klausner, David Flussner and many others, and Catholics like Jacques Maritain in France and Gertrud Luckner in Germany. Pope John XXIII himself as Nuncio in Istanbul during the Second World War personally intervened to save Jewish lives. His own background therefore lent solid credibility on which to usher in a new age of relations.
But to implement such a new start can be a challenge for a Pope too. Popes have according to Catholic doctrine the fullness of jurisdiction within the Catholic Church; but it would be more than naive to think that a Pope himself is not conditioned by many others around him who fearfully watch that his infallibility does not go astray. Pope John XXIII was fortunate to find an able operator in a fine, highly regarded German Old Testament scholar and at the same time a man who knew the Curia and who knew [how] to deal with it, a man gifted with wisdom, prudence and courage, human sensitivity and a wakeful spiritual mind, Cardinal Augustin Bea. The Pope appointed him the first President of the then Pontifical Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1960). But it was only in 1974 that the "Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews" was established within the now "Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity".
The work of the then Secretariat and later of the Commission was challenging from the outset. The challenges grew when Pope John XXIII after a memorable visit of Jules Isaac in June 1960 decided that the Second Vatican Council, which he had convoked to the great surprise of the Curia and the whole Church, should publish a Declaration about the Jews and charged Cardinal Bea to prepare it.
The way ahead was to become a thorny one. After the document had made its passage through the Council, Cardinal Bea told a friend: "If I had known all the difficulties before, I do not know whether I would have had the courage to take this way." There was vehement opposition both from outside and from within. From inside the old well-known patterns of traditional anti-Judaism emerged, from outside there was a storm of protest especially from Muslim countries with serious threats against the Christians living there as small minors. In order to save the furniture from the burning house it was decided to integrate the envisaged Declaration as one chapter in the "Declaration about the Non-Christian Religions", to be known later as "Nostra aetate".
Yet this was a compromise, for Judaism is not one religion among the non-Christian religions, but as the Chapter 4 of the Declaration made very clear, Christianity has a particular and a unique relation with Judaism. We cannot define Christianity and its identity without making reference to Judaism, which is not the case with Islam, Buddhism or any other religion. Judaism belongs to the very roots of Christianity. But to share this conviction, to formulate it and to find a majority within the Council was not an easy accomplishment. It was not only the well-known French Archbishop Lefebvre who raised opposition, but many others, especially from countries with Muslim majorities. I would like to mention here one prominent American theologian who struggled steadfastly against this current and whose great merits deserve our gratitude: Monsignor John M. Oesterreicher, the founder and director of the "Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies" at Seton-Hall University (NJ). We all stand on the shoulders of people like him.
There are two well-known major decisions of the Council. On the one hand, the rejection of all kinds of anti-Semitism and, on the other, the remembrance of the Jewish roots of Christianity, our common heritage as sons of Abraham in faith. Both positions have in the meantime been incorporated in the binding teaching of the Catholic Church. The present Pope, John Paul II, has pursued these insights energetically and has deepened both aspects. Anti-Semitism is for him a fierce violation of human rights, it is against the dignity of every human person, which is not contingent on descent, culture, religion or sex, and it is in strict contradiction of what is expounded on the very first page of the Bible, that God created the human person, and this means: created every single human person, in his own image and likeness, so that therefore every human person possesses an infinite dignity which deserves absolute respect from his/her neighbour. Anti-Semitism is sin.
John Paul II has repeated, again and again in many circumstances throughout his long pontificate that the Jewish people are the chosen and beloved people of God, the people of God's covenant which for God's faithfulness is never broken and is still alive. When he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome he called the Jews "our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham". On the first Sunday of Lent 2000 and in the moving scene at the Western Wall in Jerusalem he prayed for forgiveness for all the sins Christians had committed against Jews, he called the Shoah the Calvary of the 20th century.
Pope John Paul II has supported, promoted and accompanied with his personal interest the dialogue and co-operation that the Commission willed by John XXIII continues to undertake to this day. Thus both these pontificates have initiated - it is our hope - a new historical period of partnership between Jews and Christians in the new century and in the new millennium. Both John XXIII and John Paul II have strived to prove that conversion, a new beginning and reconciliation are possible.
II. What happened in the meantime
To make reference to some of the important statements of the present Pope is to make clear that the challenge did not come to an end at the closure of the Council in 1965. The obstacles, opposition, conflicts and problems, and consequently the challenges continued. But also enormous progress was made. To have a fine Conciliar statement is one thing, to make it known and have it received in the body of a world-wide Church, and even more so to implement it at the grassroots level, is another thing.
One knows from all Councils in Church history that after the definition comes the interpretation. In this, there is no difference between the post-conciliar period of the first ecumenical councils in Nicaea and Chalcedon and the post-conciliar period after the Second Vatican Council. The decades after any Council are shaped by lively debate and sometimes an obstinate conflict regarding the right interpretation and the appropriate realisation of the Council, and this was not different in terms of the 4th chapter of the Declaration "Nostra aetate".
The "Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews" - after Cardinal Bea guided by Cardinal Willebrands and Cardinal Cassidy - committed itself unreservedly. A series of helpful documents was published: "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate No. 4" (1974), "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church" (1985), "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" (1998), a document to which I will come back later.
Documents are important, but they are not all. Documents can become dead letters; in contrast, dialogue thrives on personal face to face encounter, as well as many individual encounters we initiated regular and positive, although sometimes - and how could it be otherwise? - also conflictual contacts with Jewish institutions. I make mention of the ongoing and fruitful relations with, for example, the "Catholic Jewish Liaison Committee" and therein the "International Jewish Commission for Interreligious Consultation" (IJCIC), and the "International Council of Christians and Jews" (ICCJ). Both will be important partners in the future too.
But it would be an illusion and in any case absolutely impossible that everything could or even should be done at the highest universal level. The Catholic Church is not as centralized as many from outside would think; the Catholic Church exists - as the Council affirmed - "in and out of local Churches", which have their own responsibility. So in the aftermath of the Council many individual Bishops' Conferences established commissions for dialogue with Judaism and in turn issued important declarations. The collection of all these texts takes up two substantial volumes.
Prominent among these initiatives was the American Bishops' Conference, under the courageous leadership of outstanding individuals such as Cardinals Bernardin and O'Connor, and today Cardinal Keeler. Such leadership was needed, for the Council's Declaration was only the beginning of a new beginning and it was necessary to build on the ground which the Council had laid and to translate the Conciliar message not only into the language, but also into the very different individual situations and contexts. The present young generation was not yet born when the Council ended 37 years ago; it represents for them quite remote history, almost a prediluvial period. So we must transmit the Council's message again and again to the new young generation. Overcoming anti-Semitism, fostering positive and friendly relations between our faith communities cannot be done once for all, for it is a permanent educational task. Here I have to acknowledge with great respect the many academic institutes in Catholic universities in this country dedicated to the Judeo-Christian dialogue.
The Pontifical Commission follows, inspires, motivates and sometimes initiates such activities on the national and local level. Whilst dialogue has been pursued over the last decades especially in the context of North American Judaism, we now try to promote such dialogue in Europe too. In Great Britain, France and Germany important and fruitful dialogues have been undertaken for quite a while. Alarming signs over the last few months of a new rising anti-Semitism have tragically shown that much has still to be done and new efforts have to be undertaken in order to introduce the new Conciliar vision at the grassroots level. Much has still to be done to overcome prejudice, particularly in Eastern Europe, home to a longstanding and important Jewish tradition, yet also the place of the tragic and atrocious events of the Holocaust. The Jewish-Christian dialogue in Latin America is also being followed with interest. The newly initiated official dialogue in Israel itself will be mentioned later.
In all these dialogues the challenges to overcome in the post-conciliar period and the new endeavours to be undertaken were and continue to be manifold. I would like to mention only two of them.
I will begin firstly by mentioning the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993) prepared and made possible by a preceding "Fundamental Agreement". Relations in the years since then have been strong enough to withstand difficult pressures and even tensions in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which touches, as the hostility around the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem highlighted, also the Christians in the Holy Land. This remains an abiding challenge, and we can only hope for an imminent just and peaceful solution which would be in the interest of all sides.
Despite the context of this dramatic situation, it is a source of happiness that we have been able to initiate an official Jewish-Christian dialogue in Israel itself including members from Israel appointed by the Great Rabbinate, as well as representatives from the Vatican. It is our conviction that weapons cannot solve the conflict, that they only feed the hatred on both sides and instigate a vicious circle of violence. There is no alternative to dialogue, a process that respects the legitimate interests of both sides and aims at reconciliation and sustainable peace.
But dialogue when it is serious and honest does not involve merely an exchange of cheap kindness. Rather, we take each other seriously only when we maintain our different positions, when we sometimes and - in particular cases - speak in conscience; Jews practise this towards Christians often, and this must be permitted for Christians too. When such dialogue takes into account the rights and the sufferings of the innocent victims on both sides, when it is fair and balanced it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism; on the contrary, it is an expression that we take ourselves seriously and regard ourselves as equal partners, recognizing each other as individuals engaged in peace, a peace which can be stable and sustainable only when it is founded in justice.
It has been even more difficult to confront the second task and challenge we have encountered over that time: the dialogue and reflection on the Shoah. This was a tragedy and atrocity of unprecedented proportions, a genocide in the midst of Europe which raises many questions and leaves us ultimately speechless. For Jews the memory of the Shoah and its millions of victims became a common point of reference and a constitutive element of their identity. For Christians it became the object of shameful repentance and historical and thorough theological reflection, the starting point for conversion and new relations with the Jewish people. There have been and there remain painful questions: How could such barbarism be possible in a continent shaped by a long Christian tradition? How could such incredible atrocities be committed in a continent with both a longstanding yet modern humanistic culture? A whole post-Auschwitz theology battled with profound questions on theodicy: How God could admit such injustice on so many innocent victims?
Our Commission took up these challenges, and after the publication of insightful statements of some Bishops' Conferences and after long discussions and controversies issued its perhaps most important document, "We Remember" (1998). This text found respect, but it also encountered harsh criticism from the Jewish world. Ours is not the context to repeat all the arguments pro and contra. I only repeat what my predecessor, Cardinal Cassidy said: "This is the first word, it's not the last word". But who will dare to pronounce the last word? In the end we must all remain silent out of respect for the victims and for the unfathomable mystery of the hidden God. It is He only who can and will say the last word at the end of all time.
This does not exonerate us from doing what we can in effect do. We are indeed obliged to do whatever is possible to prevent such an atrocity in the future, and therefore to clarify the historical circumstances as much as it is possible for us as human beings to do so, not in order to accuse and to blame or to defend and to apologise, but - I think - in order to learn and to apply that learning to the future. In this perspective, it was a good idea to set up a mixed team of historians; a good idea but probably not a sufficiently well-implemented idea. The historians undeniably did some useful work. But it was personally a very sad and frustrating experience that at the beginning of my mandate - due to many factors - this initiative ultimately failed, with all the ensuing public controversies and polemics.
It would be too easy to attribute shortcomings in a unilateral sense, or to identify only one reason, as always things are complex. The question of the opening or not-opening of the archives of the Holy See is surely one point, but as I see it, it is not the only one. From my viewpoint, unsolved objective structural problems rather than personal differences were also decisive, different readings of the very aim of the team and so on. But whatever one perceives the underlying motive to be, this failure and the ensuing public controversy did damage to our relations; our difficulties filled and pleased the mass media, but ultimately we both lost. Perhaps we can learn the lesson, that in our dangerous world situation people of goodwill can only win together or lose together. My initial frustration did not however turn into resignation; I am determined to take up the challenge. In the last section of my paper I will come back to this still uncompleted task of historical research and memory.
III. Fundamental present challenge
With my preceding remarks I have switched emphasis from the past to the present challenges or, better, to the most fundamental present challenge. Here I want to take the bull by the horns and make some remarks not so much on the above already mentioned strongly contested document of the "National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs" but on the issue of mission it deals with. This issue is not a new one, and has been debated for a long time in our dialogues. But it does touch on the fundamental question which stands between us, and in that perspective new reflections and fresh ideas are welcome, although clearly easy answers are not possible. As I see things, a convincing solution is not yet in sight and the discussion must continue. Thus, I take this document for what it sets itself out to be, and that is, an invitation and a challenge for further discussion. What I have to say is certainly not definitive, and represents no more than a modest personal contribution to a still unresolved problem.
I know very well that the question of Christian missionary activity evokes among Jews bitter and painful historical memories of forced conversions. We sincerely reject and regret this today. The Second Vatican Council in its "Declaration on Religious Liberty" "Dignitatis humanae" was very clear regarding the rejection of all means of coercion in matters of faith and regarding the recognition of religious freedom. Nevertheless, I know that given the historical background even the word 'mission' raises for Jews still today often insurmountable misunderstandings, suspicion and resistance. The wounds of the past are far from being healed. The question must therefore be dealt with great sensitivity.
On the other hand, there are also Christian sensitivities and there is a Christian identity also at stake. The word 'mission' is central in the New Testament. We cannot cancel it, and if we should try to do so, it would not help the Jewish-Christian dialogue at all. Rather, it would make the dialogue dishonest, and ultimately distort it. If Jews want to speak with Christians they cannot demand that Christians no longer be Christians. This is the very essence of dialogue - neither confusion or absorption, nor relativism or syncretism, but encounter of different perspectives and horizons, and - as I have learned from Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas - recognition of the other in his/her otherness.
What we can do, and what the US Bishops' Committee rightly did in order to avoid misunderstanding, is to substitute a term which had due to many reasons become misleading, with other terms such as evangelisation or witness. But even when we avoid an historically incriminated terminology and seek a less misleading wording and even when we reject former attitudes, when we recognise and actively promote religious freedom, the thorny problem will not be resolved. For it is not simply a question of wrong attitudes in the past coupled with a misleading terminology. The problem goes much deeper and is much more fundamental: it leads us to the very core of our respective religious convictions and to the very heart of our religious identities.
Indeed, the problem of mission touches the substance of what we have in common and of what divides us as well, and both our rich common heritage and our incontestable differences are constitutive for our respective identities. Thus we speak on a question which touches the heart of both of us. We deal with a question which cannot be approached without emotion and one which must be dealt with mutual respect for our most profound convictions as believers.
What we have in common is above all what Jews call the Hebrew Bible and we the Old Testament. We have in common our common father in faith Abraham, and Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Patriarchs and Prophets, the covenant and the promises of the one and unique God, and the messianic hope. Because we have all this in common and because as Christians we know that God's covenant with Israel by God's faithfulness is not broken (Rom 11,29; cf. 3,4), mission understood as call to conversion from idolatry to the living and true God (1 Thess 1,9) does not apply and cannot be applied to Jews. They confess the living true God, who gave and gives them support, hope, confidence and strength in many difficult situations of their history. There cannot be the same kind of behaviour towards Jews as there exists towards Gentiles. This is not a merely abstract theological affirmation, but an affirmation that has concrete and tangible consequences such as the fact that there is no organised Catholic missionary activity towards Jews as is for all other non-Christian religions.
But having said and confirmed all this we cannot stop, because we have considered only one half of the problem. And on this point the issues raised in the above mentioned document - as I see it - should be developed and amplified. The approach to be taken to this becomes clear when we reflect on our differences, immediately evident from the different names we give to our common heritage - Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This difference in terminology denotes that we have a different reading of what we have in common. Paradoxically we could say: we differ on what we have in common. The recent document of the Biblical Pontifical Commission entitled "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" (2001), signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, shows for me very convincingly that in a mere historical perspective and interpreted with mere historical methods both readings and both interpretations, the Jewish rabbinical and the Christian one, are possible and legitimate. What reading we choose depends on what faith we have chosen.
For both of us this sacred text is an open text pointing out to a future which will be determined by God alone at the end of time. Both our faiths are open towards this future. So together we can give witness to the incompleteness of the world and to its non-completability by human efforts, and together against the pessimism, skepticism and nihilism in our midst we can witness to the openness of history towards the future and to the unwavering hope of completion which God alone can and will fulfill at the end of time. But in their differences Jews and Christians are - to put it in a paradoxical way - hopeless witnesses of hope. To give witness to this common and yet distinctly perceived hope is a compelling urgency in our world today, so in need of hope and so devoid of its consolation.
But whilst Jews expect the coming of the Messiah, who is still unknown, Christians believe that he has already shown his face in Jesus of Nazareth whom we as Christians therefore confess as the Christ, he who at the end of time will be revealed as the Messiah for Jews and for all nations. The universality of Christ's redemption for Jews and for Gentiles is so fundamental throughout the entire New Testament (Eph 2,14-18; Col 1,15-18; 1 Tim 2,5 and many others) and even in the same Letter to the Romans (Rom 3,24; 8,32) that it cannot be ignored or passed over in silence. So from the Christian perspective the covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken (Rom 11,29), for we as Christians believe that these promises find in Jesus their definitive and irrevocable Amen (2 Cor 1,20) and at the same time that in him, who is the end of the law (Rom 10,4), the law is not nullified but upheld (Rom 3,31).
This does not mean that Jews in order to be saved have to become Christians; if they follow their own conscience and believe in God's promises as they understand them in their religious tradition they are in line with God's plan, which for us comes to its historical completion in Jesus Christ.
I well appreciate, despite the distress it causes me, that it must be painful for Jews to listen to such words, in the same way as it is painful for Christians too to listen to some words of rabbinical tradition and experience that Jews use to express that by their very conscience they cannot accept our faith in Jesus the Christ, who for us is the path, the truth and the life (John 14,6). Our Jewish friends may say, as they do: you look on us with your Christian eyes. Yes, we do and how could we do otherwise? Jews, too, look on us with their eyes and out of the perspective of their faith, and they too cannot do otherwise. We must endure and withstand this difference because it constitutes our respective identities. We must respect each other in our respective otherness.
The question of mission belongs in this larger context and cannot be dealt with in isolation from it. Because for Christians mission in its full sense is nothing less than a consequence of our belief in Jesus as the Christ. For missionary activity is much more than targeting Jews or others for conversion and seeking new candidates for baptism. "Missionary activity"-- as the Second Vatican Council taught - "is nothing else, and nothing less, than the manifestation of God's plan, its epiphany and realisation in the world and in history" (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity "Ad gentes", 9).
For Christians this includes giving testimony of Jesus the Christ to all and in all places; for Christians this is the mandate of Jesus Christ himself (Matt 28,19). They cannot renounce doing so without renouncing to be Christians. Yet giving this testimony is undertaken differently in relation to Jews with respect to Gentiles. Our mission (in the wider sense of the word) towards Jews is different from that towards Gentiles. But just as Jews cannot remain silent on their hope in the Messiah to come, we Christians cannot remain silent on our hope in Jesus whom we call the Christ (Acts 4,20), He is for us the foundation, the fulfilment, the joy and happiness of our life. We are called to give account of this hope which is in us (1 Peter 3,14).
Thus, in any discussion on mission the well-known text in the Pauline Letter to the Romans chapters 9-11 and the affirmation of the unbroken covenant (Rom 11,29) cannot be the only and isolated points of reference. We must interpret these passages as we must interpret all biblical passages, in the context of the whole New Testament. In a similar way we must interpret the fourth chapter of "Nostra aetate" in the context of the other Conciliar documents and the use Pope John Paul II makes of it in the context of his many other affirmations on mission, especially in his encyclical "Redemptoris missio" (1990).
Still much is yet to be undertaken. For the question of mission can only be solved in the wider context of the overall Christian theology of Judaism. Here we are only at the beginning and still far from a definitive understanding. The long period of anti-Judaic theology cannot be overcome in only forty years. "Nostra aetate" was only the beginning of a new beginning.
IV. Future tasks and challenges
In this last section I would like to discuss three concrete suggestions for future Jewish-Christian dialogue. These come under three basic Biblical categories.
1. I will begin with the "Remembrance" category. Remembrance (secher, anamnesls, memoria) is a fundamental category of both the Old and the New Testament, and therefore a fundamental concept of our two traditions. Judaism and Christianity live from a narrative tradition, in which the narrating past is at all times actual, effective and powerful. Could anything be more central for Judaism than the memory of the liberation from Egypt on Pesach-Feast? What is Christianity if not the memoria passionis et resurrectionis?
For modern Judaism, the memory of the Shoah has become a new identity-making point of reference. It is not a question of mythologizing Auschwitz, as is the danger in many post-Auschwitz theologies. But Jews and Christians alike, as well as all people of good will, should keep Auschwitz in their memory. "We remember" (1998) is the title of the Vatican document on this subject. "We remember" means: "We cannot and we must not forget". Today and in the future, since the number of direct witnesses of that period is diminishing, it is an essential educational task to pass on the knowledge of historical events to the new generation.
Memoria is also "Remembering for the Future", as Yehuda Bauer termed it in his opus magnum on the Shoah; as "memoria fututri" it involves clarifying the past, cleansing memory (purification memoriae) as a warning for the future and an opening for a new common future.
Remembrance contradicts a widespread superficial conception of' happiness. Friedrich Nietzsche held that fortunately we are able also to forget, and that only by forgetting does happiness become happiness. In contrast, Johannes Baptist Metz has rightly spoken of the need of a new culture of remembrance in opposition to the modern culture devoid of memory and history.
The Church should not fear confronting the historical truth; at any rate, she should not be afraid of the historical truth, but rather pay respect to it. To this end, the archives of the Holy See are being made available for historical research; beginning from next year (2003), the entire correspondence between the Holy See and the then government of the German Reich up until 1939 should be accessible.
Yet, remembrance is more than history. Memorial events and holocaust commemoration sites, which attract foremost prominence in the present public debate, are unquestionably significant; but they can also acquire the function of storing the past, laying it aside and packaging it in order to take it out again on solemn occasions as some sort of valuable family keepsake. In our information society pretty much everything can be stored. But storing information is not remembering. Remembrance takes place there where our soul is branded; only when it aches can a process of healing start. Remembrance must therefore bring about a turning back and thus - God willing - a bestowal of reconciliation.
2. The second category pertains to Messianic awareness. Judaism and Christianity are religions in which there is not only the backward glance, but also a promise for the future arising from the past. In both religions the world is open ahead to the kingdom of life, of freedom and of peace.
No unrealistic worldly utopia of the future can originate from such hope. Indeed, we both know from bitter experience that those who want to attain heaven on earth will turn earth into hell. The rediscovery of the messianic means something else; it is not a matter of some vague plans to improve the world. The rabbinical tradition has expressed what is meant here in the sentence. "He who has saved one human being has saved the world."
The rediscovery of the messianic means becoming aware of our historical world responsibility from the perspective of hope. It is a matter of doing the truth. In this, Jews and Christians - for so long adversaries when not merely indifferent to each other- should strive to become allies. They have a great common heritage to oversee: the common image of mankind, the unique human dignity and responsibility before God, the understanding of the world as creation, the concept of justice and peace, the worth of the family, the hope of definitive salvation and fulfillment.
These understandings are among the very foundations of our western culture; today they run the risk of falling into oblivion and being disregarded. Cultural and moral depravation seem imminent. After the tragedy of the Shoah, Jews and Christians alike are challenged to intervene and are responsible for preventing that decline, in which the West and the whole world risks losing its soul. If that happened, the Shoah and the destruction of all religious and cultural values would have taken place a second and final time.
In this perspective, in the future our dialogue should not only deal with religious questions of principle; nor should it be dedicated only to clarifying the past. Our common heritage should be profitably made available in response to contemporary challenges: to issues involving the sanctity of life, the protection of the family, justice and peace in the world, the hostages of terrorism, and the integrity of creation, among others.
"It is our task to pass on to the new generations the treasures and values we have in common, so that never again will man despise his own brother in humanity and never again will conflicts or wars be unleashed in the name of an ideology that despises a culture or religion. On the contrary, the different religious traditions are called together to put their patrimony at the service of all, in the hope of building the common European home together, united in justice, peace, equality and solidarity" (John Paul II to the European Jewish-Christian Congress in Paris on January 28-29, 2002).
3. Finally, the third category pertaining to "dialogue". The Bible considers humans dialogical beings in relation with God, and in relation with one another. Not without good reason has it been that Jewish thinkers - Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas - have ardently proposed the paradigm of dialogical thought to a one-sided civilization marked by individualism, and have inspired us to discern that it is in the countenance of the other, in confronting the otherness of that other, that we discover ourselves. Not only do we undertake dialogue, we are dialogue.
Meanwhile "dialogue" has become a fashionable byword grown shabby by overuse, a worn out coin. In our own particular context, the word refers to ecumenical, interreligious, social, inner-church, and also to Jewish-Christian dialogue. Often such dialogue does not go beyond polite expressions of friendliness. That is still better than violent dispute. But is there not also the danger of minimization, of just tolerating each other, the risk of relativization, indifferentism, patchwork identity? In this sense one does not or cannot authentically bear and respect the otherness of the other.
The Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be of that kind. Jews and Christians, with all they have in common in their fundamental understandings, in the fundamental conceptions which are constitutive for their respective identities, are and remain different. These differences concern their religious convictions on the question of God and Christ, their notions of world redemption or otherwise, their different practises in the order of Sabbath and meals, as well as their attitude to what the Jews call "ha-arez", "the land", and what - after 1945 and after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 - is determined now more than ever by their political views. Therefore we should not approach the Jewish-Christian dialogue with naive expectations of a harmonious understanding. It will remain a difficult dialogue.
Yet, precisely when we do not simplemindedly ignore our otherness, but rather bear with it, can we learn from each other. Still much is to be done. There is considerable ignorance on both sides, and ignorance is one of the roots of reciprocal prejudice. For that reason we are at present considering how to include some basic knowledge of Judaism in the training of future priests; conversely, the training of future rabbis should include some basic knowledge of Christianity.
Ultimately, relations between Jews and Christians cannot be reduced to a simple formula and even less so can it be raised to a higher synthesis. Franz Rosenzweig and others have spoken of a mutual completion. Yet, Rabbi Professor Michael Signer (Chicago) is certainly right when he states that their highly tense relation can only be expressed through images and symbols.
One such image is found in the interpretation of the prophet Zechariah by rabbinical theology. The prophet looks into the messianic future where the peoples are taken into the alliance with Israel. "On that day the Lord will be one and his name one" (14,9). According to rabbinical interpretation all of us, Jews and all peoples, will stand shoulder to shoulder.
Only at the end of time shall the historically indissoluble relation between Israel and the church find a solution. Until then though they may not be united in one another's arms, neither should they turn their backs to each other. They should stand shoulder to shoulder as partners, and - in a world where the glimmer of hope has grown faint - together they must strive to radiate the light of hope without which no human being and no people can live. Young people especially need this common witness to the hope of peace in justice and solidarity, never again contempt, hatred, oppression and persecution between races, between cultures and between religions!
Jews and Christians together maintain this hope. For they can testify from the bitter and painful lessons of history that - despite otherness and foreignness and despite historical guilt - conversion, reconciliation, peace and friendship are possible. May thus the new century become a century of brotherhood - shoulder to shoulder. Shalom!