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Time to reexamine Jewish-Christian relationship

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 21, 2006

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” The opening lines of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” surely describe the intense discussions in The Observer and on our campus about its Catholic character. During this week, our campus community will have the opportunity to see a performance of “The Merchant of Venice,” as well as a personal meditation on its principal character, Shylock, and a series of films that focus on the problem of Anti-Semitism.

University President Father John Jenkins assured us that Notre Dame would never have a publicly sponsored showing of the “Oberammagau Passion Play” or anything that promoted Anti-Semitism because it would not comport with the Catholic character. His words are reassuring to me and to other Jewish members of the faculty. Notre Dame is committed to the message of Nostra Aetate, the document on non-Christian religions that appeared in the final session of the Vatican II Council.

Yet, the problem is more complex, isn’t it? Put in historic perspective, the 19th-century idea of racial anti-Semitism had a long pre-history in the art and literature of Christian Europe. “The Merchant of Venice” participates in many of those negative images. Scholars may claim that the play is not “anti-Semitic,” but it surely utilizes caricatures of Judaism that were part and parcel of Christian judgments about Judaism. Why would Shylock demand a pound of flesh? Jews were reputed to consume the blood of Christian children – an accusation against Jews since the mid-12th century. Why were Jews separated from Christians into the Venetian ghetto? Because Christians perceived that they were “dangerous” and could corrupt Christian religion. The idea of the merciful God of Christianity is set in stark contrast to the vengeful God of the Israelites worshiped by Shylock and his kin. This theological dichotomy has still not disappeared from many Christian theological circles.

Contemporary American Christians associate anti-Semitism with Nazi ideology and its racist doctrines which declared Jews to be non-citizens of the Reich. The Nazis were racist in their approach to Jews and Judaism. This may permit the audience at Notre Dame to declare that the Nazis were not Christians and distance themselves from the play.

Jews have a very different perspective. They see a more direct link between how Christian thinking about Jews prior to the Vatican II Council and anti-Semitism. Jews were the target of an economic boycott during the first months after Hitler came to power. When the head of the Jewish community, accompanied by Father Bernard Lichtenberg of the Berlin Cathedral, approached Bishop Betram of the German Bishops Conference, the reply was, “This is a matter of economics, of measures directed against an interest group which has no very close bond with the Church.” Jews were just another economic interest group that had no kinship to Christianity. The link between Jews as an economic menace in the Nazi boycott found no resistance in the Bishop’s letter. During the past 40 years, there has been a lively and constructive conversation between our two religious communities about how closely Christian anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism are conjoined.

I hope that these issues will be part of our campus culture this week. Jews and Judaism are rarely part of the public discourse on this campus. During the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in Oct. 2005, there was no public discussion of that document. When the first academic symposium for first-year students took place on the topic of peace in the Middle East, there were no Jewish speakers and no readings assigned by Israeli authors. When the Passion of St. John is read during Holy Week, will the students and faculty think about how these readings have been understood by past generations of Christians – and how those sentiments have led them into very un-Christian attitudes? At the very least, maybe our community will ask itself, “What does it feel like to be Jewish at the University of Notre Dame?”

The answer to that question may lead us to the deeper inquiry: How shall Christians understand the statement by Pope John Paul II that God’s covenant with the Jewish People has “never been revoked?” Is it possible that at this Catholic University some of our theologians and scholars will find a response to the call of Pope Benedict XVI when he declared at the synagogue in Cologne during World Youth Day that, “Jews and Christians should come to respect one another and love one another?” The answer will come about through a dialogue between human beings who live in different faith communities and have very different vocabularies.

I surely hope that a play that has become synonymous with the worst stereotype of the Jew may lead us deeper into a discussion of Catholic character. The basic decency and fairness of our faculty and student body are capable of hearing a variety of voices which have been, and continue to be, excluded. By listening to the voices of those who cause us inner pain and challenge, can this community move beyond the comfortable walls that provide false protection by making the Other into an object?

Rabbi Michael A. SignerAbrams Professor of Jewish Thought and CultureFeb. 20