Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Master of the Jews

So the Jews who attended Pope Benedict XVI's Holocaust memorial speech were not too pleased, hoping that the Pope would take the opportunity to express regret on behalf of the Church for its role in the Shoah. The Pope refrained to do so, and Israelis are disappointed. For his part, Alberto Hurtado is, shall we say, "outraged by the outrage", in a spectacularly arrogant post entitled "The Catholic Church has to Apologize???" (yes, with the three question marks).

Hurtado claims that "the Church SAVE[D] more Jews than any other organization (possibly outside the Allied Forces)". Let's ignore the absurd parenthetical (the Allies and Russians together are responsible for saving every Jew who survived). I'm pretty well versed in Holocaust history and literature. In the class I took several years ago, "Moral and Theological Implications of the Holocaust", we had a substantial unit on the role of the Catholic Church in the atrocities. The interpretation of the historical events are disputed, but all told the story is hardly one of absolution.

It is not true to say that the Church ignored or endorsed the genocide occurring around it -- it did provide some safe havens, and did at times speak out against the atrocities. But by and large its diplomatic position was of studious neutrality, and would refuse to pass judgment on many discriminatory policies passed against Jews by German occupiers or even specifically endorsed them as not in conflict with Catholic teachings. We also can't ignore the fact that the Catholic Church was a primary historical source for the deep, vicious European anti-Semitism that was the only reason the Holocaust was possible in the first place. Even if the current Papal leadership was more enlightened by 1940, "on the ground" there was still plenty of Catholic anti-Semitism that was decidedly lethal to Jews (something which Pope Benedict, who attempted to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust denier, should be more attuned to than most). Some Jews were saved by the shield of the Catholic Church in Rome, many more were skewered by the sword of the Catholic polity in Poland. Just as it has been for most of its existence, the Catholic Church as a totality was an institution that held much peril for Jews during WWII.

Ultimately, even as an institution the Catholic Church was quite cautious in how it opposed the Holocaust, rarely taking particularly bold moral or political stands and doing little that might threaten its own power or influence. We might say the Church exhibited an enlightened neutrality, and we might also say that this was a great cry better than many of its neighbors. But it still carries its own share of culpability, historically and contemporaneously, and that deserves apology.

But amazingly, this wasn't the most offensive part of Hurtado's post. While I find the Catholic (really, Gentile) defensiveness over their complicity in past and present anti-Semitic practices unbelievably annoying, it is alas hardly anything new or notable. Where Hurtado crosses from "masseuse of history" into "unbelievable asshole" is when he starts lecturing Jews about how they don't understand their own theology. He actually writes the following passage, which made me honestly wonder if I was reading a parody: "[A]s a master Theologian I can tell Benedict's speech is incredibly sensitive to Jewish theology." He then talks for awhile about how important "names" and "memory" are in "Old Testament" models, and concludes:
So if the Pope invokes the perpetual reality of remembering and “knowing” the victims “names” he is in fact paying the victims of the Holocaust the highest theological complement he can give.

I’m really sick of this drummed up pettiness.

I am just baffled by the lack of awareness here. I really am. If we didn't take Pope Benedict's statement well, it isn't because we're misinterpreting our own traditions. Jews get to decide what we find theologically complimentary.

We're looking at a major dose of Christian conceit which aggregates to itself the right to tell Jews what their own religion is. One might think, for example, that post-Holocaust Jewish theology might be relevant to this discussion, but it doesn't show up anywhere (indeed, I'm curious if Hurtado has any familiarity with it) -- I suspect because Christians are heavily invested in a model of Judaism that says the tree bears no more fruit: Everything there is to know about Judaism can be deduced from Biblical texts written prior to the coming of Jesus. After Jesus, Judaism ceased to be a "live" religion, and became a relic or fossil. Does Hurtado understand just how flagrantly anti-Semitic this all is? Probably not -- if his views on the Holocaust are any indication, everything the Catholic Church does short of active participation in killings is a-okay.

If one wants to understand why Jewish/Catholic relations are at a nadir right now, this post is Exhibit A. The current incarnation of the Vatican has continually dealt with legitimate Jewish concerns with an attitude of airy dismissal. Of all the institutions that has zero right to take such a position towards the Jewish community, the Catholic Church ranks quite high. Their position seems to be because they aren't actively encouraging mass killings of Jews (anymore), they've satisfied all their obligations. I'm sorry, but I don't grade anti-Semitism on a curve.


PG said...

I look upon Hurtado's presence at Southern Appeal kind of like David Bernstein's at the Volokh Conspiracy -- I'm sure there's some use for this guy's thinking, but there's not a good chaff-to-wheat ratio here.

David Schraub said...

That is a surprisingly apt comparison: Both of them tend to pop up by making a fundamentally stupid point in an obnoxiously pugnacious manner.

Rebecca said...

It's the same conceit that declares Christianity the "new Judaism" (or rather the "new Israel" and appropriates "Judeo" into "Judeo-Christian" to get Jesus in public buildings. There's only just been an editorial in the LA Times - oddly enough, praising Ratzinger for being better than all those other popes who said that the persecution was because they didn't accept Jesus.

Bill Abendroth said...
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