21 Oct 2013
The following article was published by the online edition of the ‘Washington Post’.
By Elizabeth Tenety
Pope Francis reached out to an American Jewish leader, the son of two Holocaust survivors, in a recent e-mail exchange. The pope contacted Menachem Rosensaft, an American professor specializing in the law of genocide and war crimes trials at Columbia and Cornell, after Rosensaft sent a sermon he delivered in September on believing in God after the Holocaust, along with a personal note, to the Vatican. Vatican officials confirmed the e-mail.
In the short note, Francis alluded to Rosensaft’s reflection on the possibility of God’s presence during the Holocaust, which the professor believes gave his father strength to pray even during his imprisonment and torture, and his mother the courage to rescue and tend to 149 children, largely orphans, inside a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Francis wrote to Rosensaft, translated by the ‘Post’ from Spanish:
“When you, with humility, are telling us where God was in that moment, I felt within me that you had transcended all possible explanations and that, after a long pilgrimage — sometimes sad, tedious or dull – you came to discover a certain logic and it is from there that you were speaking to us; the logic of First Kings 19:12, the logic of that “gentle breeze” (I know that it is a very poor translation of the rich Hebrew expression) that constitutes the only possible hermeneutic interpretation.
“Thank you from my heart. And, please, do not forget to pray for me. May the Lord bless you.”
In Jewish circles, the response to the theological questions raised by the Holocaust has ranged from a rejection of God’s existence to a teaching in some ultra-Orthodox circles that sees the Holocaust as divine punishment. But for others, like Rosensaft, the Holocaust gave rise to a new way of thinking about God’s faithfulness amidst profound suffering. Rosensaft said that the pope’s acknowledgement that God was present even during the time of genocide through acts of courage and kindness “is a tremendous spiritual gift” that gives meaning to survivors of any act of violence.
“What I have tried to say in my sermon, which is why it is so gratifying to have Pope Francis validate this, was that God was not the perpetrator of the horrors but God’s divine presence is in the continued humanity of the victims, that the divine presence was within those who rescued, who saved, who helped,” Rosensaft said.
The outreach of the leader of the Catholic Church to the Jewish community in the context of the Holocaust and its fallout is also historically consequential.
The legacy of the Catholic Church’s actions and inactions during the genocide that led to the death of 6 million Jews, and 5 million others targeted by Nazis, continues to shadow Catholic-Jewish relations.
The church council known as Vatican II, which took place in the early 1960s, is often pointed to as a turning point in relations between the two groups, in particular the generation of Nostra Aetate, a Catholic document which formally denounced anti-Semitism and acknowledged the common spiritual heritage between the faiths.
Since assuming the papacy, Francis, who as Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina was known to be close with Jewish leaders, has continued to cultivate relationships with Jewish groups.
In early September, Francis welcomed Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, to the Vatican (see picture) and, according to AP reports of their meeting, spoke of a need for the church to look into the controversial Polish ban on the kosher practice of slaughtering animals. After their meeting, Lauder said in a statement that “in the past 2,000 years, ties between the Catholic Church and Jews had never been this good.”
In the last week, the Vatican denied the request by the family of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke for a funeral Mass. The Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a breakaway Catholic sect still in dialogue with Rome, apparently offered to host the funeral, but then delayed the event due to outside pressure.
On Friday, the Vatican announced plans for Francis to visit Israel, perhaps as early as 2014, according to the ‘Wall Street Journal’.
Rosensaft sees Francis’s outreach to him as part of an ongoing evolution of understanding between the two religious traditions. “I think having the pope raise the issue to this level means that we are going to hopefully have an integration of Holocaust memory not just into the Jewish theological framework but also into the Catholic teachings. Perhaps then we can move forward together.”
- Pope Francis sends e-mail on Holocaust to American Jewish leader (washingtonpost.com)
- Pope reaches out to Jews in personal e-mail to Jewish leader (jta.org)
- Pope Emails Jewish Leader About Holocaust (world.time.com)
- Pope personally e-mails Jewish leader on Holocaust (timesofisrael.com)
- Embarrassment as Netanyahu misses out on Pope meeting (thejc.com)
- Pope Emails Response To Man’s Quest For God Despite Tragedy (npr.org)
- Pope Emails Jewish Leader About Holocaust (pressall.wordpress.com)
- Pope Francis e-mails Jewish American professor about presence of God during Holocaust – Jewish World News Israel News | Haaretz (haaretz.com)
- Pope warns of anti-Semitism as Rome commemorates Holocaust victims (jta.org)
- Pope warns of anti-Semitism as Rome commemorates Holocaust (timesofisrael.com)