How big a deal is the Holocaust? A test of both Jewish and Christian faith; perhaps the most poignant illustration of the problem of evil; arguably the cement of modern Jewish identity and the cause for Israel’s founding; and much more. The Holocaust is a question that is still to some degree open: a question to humanity, whether it can control its own murderous evil; to Jewry, about the extent of its love of life; and to God, whether – and when – He will conquer all evil.
But there is something else to it. Writes Fr. Elias Friedman, Carmelite friar living in Israel:
Mystically speaking, Jewry as a whole was nailed to the Cross and dies under Hitler… On the third day, three years after the conclusion of hostilities in 1945, Jewry rose from the dead; the State of Israel was proclaimed.
For him (and for others), the Holocaust was the crucifixion of the Jewish people, the moment in which its uncanny resemblance to the Christ it rejected was most manifest. Death is to be followed by resurrection – a rebirth of the Jewish people in the land of Israel to a new way of living their faith.
In other words, the Holocaust for Friedman is the end of a spiritual status quo for the Jewish people. It is not simply a horrible tragedy that must be interpreted in accordance with Jewish principles of faith. No such interpretation is possible: Friedman makes much of the admitted inability of Jewish leaders – religious, political, or literary; in Israel or in the Diaspora – to provide a response to the Holocaust. It signals the beginning of a new era.
This seemed to me a largely Christian outlook. Thus I was shocked to discover a very similar statement made by Leon Klenicki, a Reformed rabbi. His conversation with Richard John Neuhaus (while the latter was still a Lutheran) on Jewish-Christian dialogue is published in Believing Today: Jew and Christian in Conversation in 1989, within only two years of Fr. Friedman’s book.
In this conversation, Rabbi Klenicki complains that Christianity has co-opted a number of Jewish theological concepts that, as a result, Jews no longer feel comfortable using. He says:
We can apply this noun [‘fulfillmen’t] to the rabbinic expounding of the biblical text in the first century, the fulfillment in history of the Sinai God/Israel relationship. That was done through the Mishnah… We feel that we have been fulfilled through these interpretations. But that fulfillment – as I said earlier – breaks down in our time. Now we have to search for a new fulfillment of our relationship with God after the exile of the Holocaust.
The point cannot be too firmly established without an Orthodox Jewish opinion (if any of you know of a relevant one, please write me!) – after all, Klenicki headed the World Union for Progressive Judaism, so it is not altogether surprising that he should see “progress” in the covenantal relationship. And yet it is striking that Catholic Jew and Reformed Jew alike see the Holocaust as the beginning of a new era in the relationship between God and the Jewish people.