The celebration of Jubilee 2000 reached beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community, leading to dramatic steps toward reconciliation with other religious communities. In particular, Pope John Paul II focused his efforts on putting an end to the enmity that has existed between Jews and Christians over much of the past two thousand years. In his reflections on the jubilee, he often referred to the penitential actions of Christians toward Judaism by the Hebrew word Teshuvah, a term rooted in the idea of "return"-a return to God and God’s way. For Jews it is at the very center of our religious lives. It is a path that leads from acknowledgment of sin to the resolution not to commit the sin again. Therefore, when the pope asks Catholics to engage in the process of Teshuvah toward Jews, it engenders some questions: How shall the Jewish community respond to the papal call to Teshuvah? How can Jews know that Christian Teshuvah is genuine?

The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides provides some guidance. In "Laws of Repentance" he writes, "It is prohibited for a person to be cruel (akhzari) and not to be reconciled. Rather, let a person be inclined to be forgiving and hard to anger. When the sinner asks him for forgiveness let him be forgiving with a whole heart and a generous soul....This is the way of the seed of Israel for their heart is predisposed in this fashion." Maimonides then notes a remarkable contrast between the predisposition of the heart of the Jew and the idolater-those of uncircumcised heart-explaining that the latter "keep their anger forever." The Jewish community might be guided by Maimonides’s statement when they read the recent call by the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews for Christians to make Teshuvah for two millennia of sins against the Jewish people. They need to think about how they want to respond to that call. Will they answer from the standpoint of what Maimonides calls the "Jewish heart" (lev nachon)-a heart predisposed to generosity and forgiveness-or will they respond as idolaters?

The call for Christian, and specifically Catholic, Teshuvah is a measure of the success of the Jewish-Christian conversations on the international, national, and local levels. Since the end of World War II, and with the growing consciousness of the enormity of the crimes of the Shoah, Jews and Christians have met face to face and have truly heard each other. From the meeting between Jules Isaac, author of the groundbreaking Jesus and Israel, and John XXIII to the countless gatherings with John Paul II, a new Christian theological attitude toward Judaism has been forged. This dialogue has even taken on the character of a choreography: first comes dialogue, then a statement from the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, and then the cacophony of voices from the Jewish community, with some responding "Not enough!" and others responding "We have gone further on the journey. We shall continue." Both responses have contributed to furthering the dialogue for more than forty years. Since 1994, however, the Catholic side, under the pope’s leadership, has moved the consequences of the dialogue deeply inside the church.

In 1994, John Paul II issued Tertio millennio adveniente, in which he set an agenda for the entire church to greet the year 2000. Part of this pastoral plan was a series of dialogues with non-Christian communities that had been the objects of harsh treatment by the church. This call was reflective of the inner thinking of the church. The fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz came in 1995, and every council of bishops in Europe, including those in Poland and Hungary, issued a statement that focused specifically on the crimes that the church and its members had perpetrated against the Jewish people during the Shoah. To read these statements, which can be found in Catholics Remember the Holocaust (United States Catholic Conference, 1998), edited by Eugene Fisher, is to experience in these various statements from the national bishops’ conferences a sense of profound regret and loss-the loss of an opportunity during the Shoah to act in response to the highest ideals of Christianity. In these statements Jews can discern the language of "co-responsibility" or "sin" that so many Jews found lacking in the Vatican statement "We Remember" that emerged in 1998 from the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. No matter what the initial reaction to the statement, however, members of the Jewish community note the significant linguistic phenomenon of having two Hebrew words appear: "Shoah" in place of "Holocaust" and-more important for our purposes-"Teshuvah" instead of "repentance."

Some members of the Jewish community have condemned the Catholic church for not issuing an "apology" to the Jewish people. Rabbi David Novak has responded by saying that an apology would only cheapen the action required. An apology would be a once-and-done-with moment. By shifting the term to the Hebrew term Teshuvah, rather than simply using "penitence," the Catholic church is calling for a process of healing. It will be long and it will require many years. Regret and confession of the sins of mistreating the Jewish people are found in the articulation of misdeeds that require reflection and resolution so that the actions will not be repeated. Regret and confession of sins for Catholics means that they will pray to discover ways to end the hatred and the stereotypes that produce hatred. Regret and confession of sins may lead Catholics to be more sensitive to the Jewish people and to stand in solidarity with them.

We are entering an era in which the main outlines of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation have been set by the present papacy. Beyond the pope’s confession, many local bishops have spoken directly to the Jewish people and to their own dioceses about the need for Teshuvah. The late Cardinal John O’Connor was among the first to proclaim this message. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee issued a magnificent litany of regret. Many of my Jewish colleagues have experienced the fruits of their long-standing relationships with their local bishops or senior pastors in the local parishes. These statements and liturgical occasions signal what is to come.

What are the signs or actions of Teshuvah demonstrated by this papacy? The pope visited the synagogue in Rome, indicating that it is a place where God dwells with the people of Israel. He has knelt in prayer at Auschwitz, and made that prayer a leitmotif of preaching throughout his papacy. He was particularly sensitive to Jewish outcry during the controversy over the Auschwitz Carmelite convent in 1988, and encountered considerable opposition from local Catholic communities there. He established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. He initiated a theology of Teshuvah with respect to the Jewish communities that climaxed in a liturgical ceremony in Rome in April 2000. He made a pilgrimage to Israel-not just the Holy Land, but Israel-where his actions demonstrated respect for and deference to both civil and religious authorities. He prayed at Yad VaShem and put a petition into the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, expressing deep sorrow over the behavior of sons and daughters of the church. The pope sets this example. Will others follow?

What will be the consequences of Teshuvah for Christians with respect to the Jewish people? They have rejected and will continue to reject targeted proselytism of the Jewish people. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has told my classes at the University of Notre Dame that the new attitude toward the Jewish people does not mean that the church has lost its evangelical message to the nations. But the relationship with the Jewish people is a relationship with the roots of the church. He asked them, "If the roots are false, then what are we?" Clearly, Teshuvah toward the Jewish people will call for continuing reformulation of Christian self-understanding. The Christian story will need rethinking. As professor Mary Boys writes in her new book, Has God Only One Blessing? (Paulist Press, 2000), perhaps the greatest consequence of Christian Teshuvah will be the resolution to work in collaboration with the Jewish community "to be a blessing to one another and to the world."

This lengthy litany of the consequences of Christian Teshuvah is unprecedented and unnerving for us as Jews. We know how to defend ourselves against proselytizing. We have the stories of our martyrs, both in the medieval world and during the Shoah. But we have not yet faced a Christian world that turns toward us with respect for our integrity as a people whose covenant has never been revoked. Teshuvah requires the baal teshuvah, the penitent, to be vulnerable. It also makes a claim upon the one who has been wronged. Can we, at a moment of our own sense of weakness against the forces of assimilation and secularism, afford to let down our guard? If Jews receive Christian Teshuvah with an open heart, do they betray their ancestors who died as martyrs rather than submit to forced conversions?

The Jewish community might consider some rather basic steps that would be very much in continuity with what it has done in the past. It can work in collaboration with Christians on local projects that promote mutual understanding. In these projects there is no need to worry about homogenizing Judaism. The Jewish tradition can be presented with integrity-emphasizing elements of difference and similarity. Both communities can continue to forge alliances for social justice between synagogues and local parishes. We will not agree on every social and economic issue, but the work for social justice can be more explicitly grounded in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible-a sacred text our traditions share.

It may also be the time to step forward more boldly and adopt a less defensive attitude toward those Christian groups, especially the Catholic church. Members of the Jewish community can learn about what has happened among Christians so they do not continue to recite the same litany of negativity. More than two hundred rabbis and Jewish scholars signed Dabru Emet, a Jewish theological statement about Christians and Christianity that appeared on September 10, 2000 in the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun. This assurance of our support for the process of Teshuvah may encourage further steps toward reconciliation.

We surely can have empathy for many Catholics who feel beleaguered about the continuity of their communities. So much has changed for them since Vatican II. Many of their children do not know the church of the 1950s, and those children have a sense of rootlessness that resonates with what our own children have experienced. We know this pain. Many young Catholics want more ritual and search for a deeper spiritual foundation for their faith. Their parents are concerned about intermarriage and what that will mean for the shape of their families and faith. We know this worry.

If we Jews respond to Christian Teshuvah with acknowledgment and encouragement, we need not think that we have betrayed our sacred martyrs, our history. We are in no position to forgive for specific acts. But those who are making Teshuvah did not commit those acts, and many of them are dedicated to ensuring that that history does not repeat itself. We will not preserve the Jewish people by preserving our anger about the sins of the past. 

Rabbi Michael A. Signer is Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and co-chair of the Joint Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2001-01-12 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.