Post-Holocaust theology

The relevance of Western post-Holocaust theology to the thought and practice of the Russian Orthodox Church

a paper given at the second conference on ‘Theology after Auschwitz and the Gulag’ (St Petersburg 1998)

by Sergei Hackel

published in Sobornost 20:1 (1998); Sobornost is the journal of the Fellowship of Saints Alban and Sergius (1 Canterbury Rd., Oxford OX2 6LU, England UK; fax +44-1865: 316700; +44-1865: tel 552991; e-mail: gensec@sobornost.org)

It was more than thirty years ago, but I remember her well, or at least I remember her feelings well. She had come to her hotel administrator’s desk in the centre of Moscow, and she had passed the Moscow synagogue en route. She had noticed a goodly gathering of people at the entrance. She had not found this disturbing. If you have a synagogue, then people must pass in and out. No, what she found offensive was their good cheer and their laughter. How can they dare to laugh on our streets, she asked me fiercely, when it was they who caused the Germans to invade?

At least she knew that Jews were special victims. This was not officially admitted even during wartime. On the contrary, the facts were craftily disguised or denied. No one will forget the official reluctance to commemorate Babii Iar. Even when a memorial was finally erected it avoided mention of up to 70,000 Jewish victims by reference to ‘Soviet citizens’ who had perished there. Earlier, a unique monument to Jewish victims of the Nazis which the Jews of Ponary (Lithuania) had dared to erect at the end of the war was simply destroyed (1952).

Nor were the Soviet authorities any less restrictive when the war was still in progress. In vain did Solomon Mikhoels try to arrange for mention of specifically Jewish casualties by the Soviet media as the holocaust proceeded.(1)

There was a rare gathering in Moscow of 3000 people in March 1944 when Mikhoels, Feffer and Ehrenburg were able to speak openly about Jewish sufferings. Ilia Ehrenburg and Vasilii Grossman nearly broke the official silence by the preparation of a comprehensive book on these sufferings, which was even set in type. But in 1948 the book was suppressed and all the printing plates destroyed.(2)

A symposium on the subject of this silence (which curiously did not extend to every novel in the period) was published by the Z. Gitelman last year (1997).(3)

Gitelman’s work demonstrates how thoroughly the programme was conducted. In effect it was a silent counterpart to the Nazi massacres. For both sides sought to display a world which was Judenrein, ‘free of Jews’.

It was never easy to find words for the sufferings of the Shoah, that Tremendum, to borrow Arthur Cohen’s term. But here were not only survivors who found difficulty in expressing their experience. Here was a whole social system which dismissed or distorted it.

In due course there was an additional reason for suppressing memories of Jewish massacres. A proportion of the local Slavic population (and not only Slavic) participated in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours. The Nazis themselves liked to emphasise such things in their reports. One of these, referring to the killing of 229 Jews in Khmel’nik, speaks of an event which alone might explain Jewish distrust in such post-Shoah dialogues and reconciliations as I shall be discussing later. Einsatzkommando 5 reported in 1941 that ‘the reaction of the population here in Khmel’nik to the delivery from the Jews was so strong that it resulted in a thanksgiving service’ (presumably, a moleben).(4)

The role of experience

In our discussions last year there was a natural division of our inquiries. When we spoke of theology ‘after Auschwitz’ our concerns were largely based on western and central Europe. The peoples of the former ussr had their own experience over a much longer period, which we designated ‘gulag’. In the process, we largely ignored the vast numbers of people in the Soviet Union who also experienced Nazi rule. So we ignored the Shoah as something which was experienced by our immediate forebears, whether Jews or Gentiles. It is only by redressing that balance that we might face problems of the post-Auschwitz period as our own in the simplest most ‘domestic’ sense. If the preceding centuries could have allowed any one of us Orthodox to sing in that Khmel’nik moleben we have to ask with particular urgency how that could ever come to be, and –even more important — how recurrence must for ever be prevented. Not that absence from the moleben would have been much better. Passivity provides no answers to urgent moral problems. At Khmel’nik and countless other such places the only Christian response to the anguish of the Jews should have been to risk one’s own well-being, even one’s life, in support or defense of the victim.

Could righteous gentiles point the way?

The Israeli authorities have taken the lead in perpetuating the memory of those non-Jews who risked and often lost their lives in the defence of Jewish victims of the Shoah. They are known as righteous gentiles. Each righteous gentile is commemorated with a tree on the outskirts of Jerusalem at Yad Vashem.

Where are the equivalent trees in Russia? Or at least the lists of righteous gentiles? The thoughtful but ill-fated speech which Patriarch Aleksii ii delivered to a largely Jewish audience in New York (it was in 1991) at least touched on the subject. He was able to mention just one Kievan priest, Aleksii Glagolev, as an example of self-sacrificing work in this sphere. He might also have mentioned Fr Aleksii’s wife, Tatiana, since they worked together. In any event, both husband and wife survived. The patriarch also mentioned two persons who were martyred, a priest and a nun. But both of these had to be borrowed from the martyrologies of the Russian emigration: Fr Dimitrii Klepinin (1900-44) and Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). It cannot be and should not be the case that no further names of Russians, Belorussians or Ukrainians are waiting to be added to this so far humble list.(5)

Rather should we endeavour to enrich it, and so enrich ourselves. Oral historians should hasten with this task to amplify the archives. And these themselves may well have failed to yield their treasures since the appropriate questions were not being asked.

Many opportunities were missed, and deliberately missed, in earlier times. Thus on 2 November 1941 a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nikolai Iarushevich, was invited by its atheist (albeit formally Orthodox) persecutor Stalin to take part in the Soviet state commission charged with the investigation of Nazi war crimes in the occupied territories of the ussr. He was also required to express his outrage at the invaders’ bestial acts. In the process he was to dwell almost exclusively on anti-Orthodox outrages, in line with Soviet propaganda needs. But the mass-extermination of the Jews was not to be discussed by him. So neither could he draw attention to any of the righteous gentiles.

He stands in stark contrast to Metropolitan Andrei Szeptycki. of the Greek Catholic Church in Nazi-occupied L’vov. In 1942, ignoring all risks to his position and his life, he did not hesitate to confront the Nazi leadership with an unprecedented and utterly unvarnished protest against the treatment accorded to the Jews. For he addressed himself to Hitler and also, separately, to Himmler. Among other things he issued a heartfelt pastoral letter to his flock, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.(6)

Here was a righteous gentile of the first order, who also risked his life in sheltering potential victims of the Shoah under his own roof. Likewise he encouraged his Greek Catholic monastic communities to offer their support. All this needs to be acclaimed and pondered.

Difference in apprehension

As we learn more about the Shoah east of Poland, the image of the Shoah as something rooted and developed in the west will be dispersed. In the process we could give room for a creative reassessment of the past, and allow the Shoah, even now, to act as catalyst. This could redefine our potential and transform our expectations. Jew and Gentile might be enabled and encouraged to relate to one another with new openness and commitment, not least the Jew and the Orthodox Christian of the former ussr.

Decades of censorship and news-management in the former ussr have not only prevented Jews and Christians from taking this plunge. They have also prevented citizens of the ussr (as they then were) from gaining a proper under-standing, even any understanding, of western developments in this sphere.

Yet it is these very developments which demonstrate the potential for post-Shoah reassessment of inherited and age-old attitudes to Jewish-Christian relations. It is gratifying to report that such reassessment has involved many different Churches in the west in recent decades, many. But I need to be selective. So I shall limit my remarks to the Roman Catholic Church.

These remarks in turn will prompt me to turn to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, seeking to establish what comparable developments might be encouraged there.

‘Might be encouraged’, I say, as if we were free to accept or deny other proposals which sound equally valid. In fact we may find that our choices emerge as moral imperatives. And we would ignore them at our peril.

The making of Nostra aetate

Similar imperatives were faced by the Roman Catholic Church in modern times, and even in advance of the Shoah. But it was the Shoah which contributed the most powerful motivation. For it is after the Shoah that ‘we have to make every effort of cleansing Catholic thought of any residue of religious anti-Judaism or anti-semitism’, as Cardinal Willebrands has recently noted. And this is ‘because we have seen the abyss of horror into which hatred for the Jewish people exploded in our midst in Europe’.(7)

But it was not only because this abyss of horror had been seen: it was also because the Catholic world was accepting responsibility for teachings and attitudes which helped to provide the context, even the ‘justification’ (in inverted commas) for the horror. Had not a Catholic bishop in Slovakia responded to the personal appeals of a rabbi and his people in 1942 as they faced the threat of ‘deportation to the east’ with words about the justice of their plight?

It is not just a matter of deportation. You will not die there of hunger and disease. They will slaughter all of you, old and young alike, women and children at once. It is the punishment you deserve for the death of our Lord and Redeemer.(8)

The Second Vatican Council of the years 1962-5 sought to eradicate the words and concepts which could lead to this kind of un-christian, indeed anti-christian, withdrawal of love from people. And any suggestion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus — the Jews collectively at the time and, even more outrageously, the Jews collectively for ever — was soon to be dismissed. Likewise withdrawn was the all-too-familiar accusation of deicide.

For so many centuries, and even in our own [insisted the bishop of Texas at the council], Christians have hurled this word against the Jews, and because of it they have justified every kind of horrid excess, [...] even their slaughter and destruction. It is not up to us to make a declaration about something philosophical but to [...] damn a word which has furnished so many occasions of persecution through the centuries. We must tear this word out of the Christian vocabulary so that it can never again be used against the Jews.(9)

In any case the term is inappropriate, argued Cardinal Bea in an anonymous article which he wrote on the eve of the council, when it seemed no longer certain that the question of the Jews would find its due place on the agenda. Not least is it inappropriate since ‘the circle of true actors in the drama [of Christ's crucifixion] is restricted [and] the Jews who then lived dispersed throughout the world cannot be accused of the grave crime of deicide, still less their descendents through history’. But it is inappropriate most of all since the alleged perpetrators must have ‘acted in ignorance’ (and these words are attributed to St Peter [Acts3:17]): according to St Paul these same perpetrators ‘did not recognise Jesus, or understand the words of the prophets [...]‘ (Acts 13:27).

In any case, as Bea hastens to point out, ‘deicide can only be imputed to those who committed it [while] knowing clearly the divine-human nature of Christ.(10) Whereas the apostles themselves lacked clear knowledge of his nature even at a later stage.

In the event, the council’s impressively compact decree on the subject, Nostra aetate, was less concerned with problems of the past than with prospects for the future. These prospects were enhanced by the overwhelming support which it gained at Vatican ii — no less than 1763 voters were in favour, 250 against.

Thus the decree became part of that wide-ranging aggiornamento which the future Pope John xxiii had already anticipated in 1957. ‘You have probably heard the word aggiornamento repeated many times’, he had written to his then diocese of Venice. ‘Well, Holy Church, who is ever youthful, wants to be in a position to understand the diverse circumstances of life so that she can adapt, correct, improve and be filled with fervour’.(11)

By way of a corollary it could be said that without the necessary adaptation, correction and improvement, fervour could be lacking and faith itself distorted or depleted. As to the diverse circumstances of life which demand the understanding of the Church, these could not but include the Shoah, the anguish and the decimation of the Jews.

Dialogue

The Nostra aetate deliberations and decisions had their own internal logic and justification. But it is important to note that they are also the fruit of dialogue with at least one representative of the Jewish people. Indeed, had not a Jewish scholar suggested that such a project was desirable it might not have proceeded at the time or pace that it did. It is particularly gratifying to us at this conference that the Jewish scholar in question, Professor Jules Isaac (1877-1964), was acting on behalf of the International Council of Christians and Jews (iccj), one of the major sponsors of our present meeting. Moreover, it was an agreed statement from the first iccj conference of 1947 which he put before Pope John xxiii at their fateful meeting of 13 June 1960: this was itself the fruit of inter-religious dialogue.

No sooner had Pope John received the document than he passed it into the hands of his trusted friend Cardinal Augustin Bea, the first president of his new secretariat for promoting Christian unity. The dialogue was to continue. By October that year, Cardinal Bea had arranged a meeting with the president of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann. And Bea was to be the principal promoter of Nostra aetate and all that followed from it (1965).

I stress the idea of dialogue since it is an important element in the preliminary procedures. But it is an equally important element in the proposals and the promise of the council’s text itself. Having established (in the council’s words) that ‘the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is [...] so great, this sacred synod wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies, and of brotherly dialogues’.(12)

The dialogue and its effect

The Christian-Jewish dialogue proceeds until this moment, and we ourselves take part in it. In the Catholic world it was realised early in the day that it must be wide-ranging, if not all-embracing, that its success must depend on the careful definition of concerns and targets. Cardinal Willebrands was soon to issue Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate [...].(13) That was in 1974.

It was only the first of such documents to guide practitioners into the disparate but equally important areas of discourse, among them (i) dialogue itself, (ii) liturgy, (iii) teaching and education, (iv) joint social action.

The task of all practitioners was made the more difficult and the more necessary by the need to wean each other and oneself from centuries of prejudice and misrepresentation — ‘the past spirit of suspicion, resentment and distrust’ as it was described in a joint Catholic/Jewish statement of 1992.(14)

But every schoolroom through its teacher, just as every parish though its preacher, could benefit from this gigantic undertaking and, moreover, take it one stage further. The remark of Robert Daly to the effect that ‘”Removing anti-Judaism from the pulpit” is, in this post-Holocaust era, one of the most profoundly urgent of Christian tasks’ could be extended to every corner of public life.(15)

All the more impressive is the operation (some of it, in the words of John Pawlikowsky , requires ‘major surgery’)(16) since Roman Catholics, no less than Orthodox, are the heirs and guardians of an immutable deposit of faith. However, in no way should this deposit of faith be treated like the gospel talent which is fearfully buried in the ground. As Pope John xxiii put it in his own words at the inauguration of Vatican ii, ‘Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure, as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that the present age demands of us — and in so doing we will be faithful to what the Church has done in the last twenty centuries’.(17)

It was in this spirit that the Catholic Church was enabled to reestablish its profound, indeed genetic links with the Jewish world of its Saviour, to bypass the polemics of the first centuries, even though these found their reflection in scripture, and, perhaps most important of all, to reconsider — even to reject — supersessionism. Formerly, it would have been accepted that the Christian Church is the New Israel, which overshadows or displaces the Israel of old. More and more is it realised now that this theory was long ago rejected by its supposed originator, St Paul. ‘Has God cast away his people?’ asked the apostle rhetorically in Romans 11:1, and straightaway dismissed the thought, ‘Of course not!’. For ultimately, as Paul argued, ‘the gracious gifts of God and his call are irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29). Judaism thus has its own integrity, holiness and promise.

The Orthodox perspective

How is any of this heard or heeded in the Russian Orthodox Church? The Church begins with a disadvantage, which I have already described — ignorance of the Shoah. The Shoah as such has therefore not prompted any reassessment of the situation. But there is a second disadvantage. In marked contrast to the positive attitude of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad and Novgorod (1929-79), the Moscow patriarchate has little enthusiasm for its sister-Church in the West. Neither the latter’s alleged missionary outreach into Russia, nor its support of Greek/Ukrainian Catholics in the Ukraine have endeared it to the Russian Church. Apart from anything else, the gradual withdrawal of the Moscow patriarchate from ecumenism provides yet another reason for the weakening of links with Rome. So the Catholic developments of which I have spoken remain distant and indistinct for many of its members.

There is another disadvantage, which should also be a challenged: endemic anti-semitism, of which there were powerful reminders at last year’s conference in this city, and not only in the unofficial interventions.

All the more need, therefore, with all these disadvantages, to consider what the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church as a whole, might one day reform.

But as I write that word I realise that there is yet one more disadvantage. In contemporary Russian church circles the very word ‘reform’ is itself used with extreme reluctance, not least because the disreputable reformers and renovators (obnovlentsy) of the 1920s and 1930s are then remembered: their reforms were secretly supported by the communist party in order to polarise and diminish the appeal of the patriarchal Church. This is enough to provoke cries of neo-renovationism (neo-obnovlenchestvo) the moment any scrutiny of received tradition is proposed. But this is hardly an argument in itself. Nor is it to the point, since the original obnovlentsy did not concern themselves with Jewish/Christian relations.

Tradition reconsidered

No reform in Orthodox church life would be conceivable without scrupulous consideration of scripture and tradition. But such consideration should not be hampered by unscholarly fears and inhibitions. There is a simplistic tendency to believe that scripture and tradition are both equally immutable, that hardly an iota can be changed or added for fear of heresy and/or damnation. Yet if truth is to be highlighted, safeguarded or restored, no amount of iotas should be allowed to stand in the way. And that regardless of their apparently venerable age.

The iotas are indeed many, and collectively they are therefore important. Some of them must be seen as impediments to a meaningful dialogue between our faiths. Nevertheless it is important not only to identify the negative factors in the situation but to place them in perspective. Certainly, doctors learn from symptoms. But mere suppression of the symptoms will not lead to health.

Exegesis

Even so, certain symptoms need to be discussed. Several of them are to do with limitations in our understanding of the gospel texts. These limitations are of two kinds.

The first involves a superficial or selective reading of the text itself. This allows the reader to conclude that the Jews crucified Christ. In order to do so he needs to ignore vital parts of the narrative concerning Pilate and the Roman administration, whose responsibility it was to sentence and to crucify this special prisoner – like any another, if it comes to that.

But the reader may be helped in this selective reading by the phraseology of books like Acts. Thus, according to Acts 2:36, St Peter speaks on the first Pentecost to a Jewish audience about ‘this same Jesus, whom you crucified’. This ‘you’ is emphatic. Elsewhere in Acts (3:13-15; 4:10; 10:39) its author makes similar assertions. And this despite the fact that he allows the occasional reference to ‘lawless men’, by whose hand the actual deed was done (2:23).(18)

And this brings one to the second type of limitation. Russian Orthodox New Testament scholarship has hardly begun on the task of determining the impact which contemporary disputes made on the writing and editing of sacred texts. Yet here is an example of that impact. The early Christians determined their separateness from Judaism ever more firmly as the first century drew to its close. This may have been a defensive reaction against increasing pressure and persecution of Christians by their former brethren in the Jewish faith.

Hence the repeated (usually negative ) use of the term ‘the Jews’ in the latest of the gospels, that of St John. There are no less than seventy mentions of ‘the Jews’ by him, and nearly half of these are derogatory. Under their influence ill-oriented readers could easily overlook the fact that Jesus himself is a Jew, that his mother is Jewish, that all his apostles (not only Judas) are Jews, that his teaching is deeply rooted in Judaism. As Russian scholarship begins to convey the authentic image of Jesus the Jew to preachers and teachers of this land, the Christian basis for dialogue with Judaism could be rediscovered.

Homilies against the Jews

For the present the teachers and preachers are deflected from taking even the preliminary steps towards such dialogue by those who developed the early, first-century, anti-Judaic polemic into something even more overt and strident.

By the fourth century, Christian rhetoric depended as much on stereotypes as reason. There were many who used this rhetoric to disparage all residual links or sympathy with Judaism or with Jews. A Gregory of Nyssa will not hesitate to speak of the Jews as ‘murderers of the Lord, murderers of prophets, rebels and full of hatred against God [ ]‘. Indeed, ‘they resist God’s grace, they repudiate the faith of their fathers’. Thus, they are nothing but ‘confederates of the devil, offspring of vipers [...], Sanhedrin of demons, accursed, utterly vile [...]‘.(19)

But best remembered since most strident is St John Chrysostom in his ‘Homilies against the Jews’ of 386 and 387. In Chrysostom’s submission, it is God himself who has abandoned the Jews, not least because they have crucified his Son. Therefore they were justly punished. ‘You Jews did crucify him,’ he insists. ‘But after he died on the cross, he then destroyed your city [...], [and] scattered your nation over the face of the earth’. Let no one harbour delusions about the sacredness of synagogues: ‘God is not worshipped there’. Do Christians not realise, asks Chrysostom, that the synagogue is now nothing other than ‘a brothel, a strong-hold of sin, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil, the destruction of the soul, the precipice and pit of all perdition [...]‘? For ‘here the slayers of God gather together [...], here God is blasphemed, here is the Father ignored, here the Son is outraged, here the grace of the Spirit is rejected’.(20)

It could be said that Chrysostom’s arguments are slight and that his rhetoric is dated. Furthermore the inter-religious problems of fourth-century Antioch, where he preached, can hardly concern us now. But there is a popular misconception which allows such fathers of the Church to be heeded still, regardless of the obvious limitations of a given set of texts. It is not for simple members of the Church to question the wisdom or sanctity of the fathers, they argue. After all, it is they who determine tradition. Therefore their utterances have a peculiar weight. To all intents and purposes, they are not far short of infallible. So we should not question, let alone dismiss them.

There are two other impediments to dialogue, two different expressions of the anti-Judaic mode of thought. One of these is latent in church life. The other is possibly most prominent of all. Both concern the Orthodox Church as a whole.

Canon law

Orthodox canon is too often taken to have permanent implications and effect. Too little is it realised (notes Archbishop Peter L’Huillier) that it is ‘sometimes only a knowledge of the historical context [which] permits us to affirm that, despite its formulation, a canon law has an application strictly limited to a moment in church history’. Or to a period in church history, one could add.(21)

Hence no one has questioned the retention of the ruling made by the council in Trullo (692) which required the segregation of the Jews and Christians: ‘Let no one [...] have any familiar discourse with them [the Jews], nor summon them in illness, nor receive medicine from them, nor bathe with them’.(22)

In no way should Christians recognise their sacred meals, least of all partake of them. According to the mid-fourth-century council of Laodicea, ‘It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews or to be partakers in their impiety’.(23)

Liturgical concerns

More serious, since potentially more influential, are the Orthodox services for Holy Week. These provide a poetic gloss to such laws, a liturgical conspect of anti-Judaic thinking in the early Church. The texts date back to the early middle ages and they could be Palestinian in origin. They may be used uncensored to this day.

The matins service for Good Friday gives a particularly convincing picture of Jesus as victim of the Jews, who accordingly deserve the designation ‘deicides’ given to them by the authors of these texts (‘deicidal assembly’ [bogoubiits sobor] or ‘company of deicides’ [bogoubiits sonmishche]).

‘Here is what the Lord says to the Jews’, reads this shameless invention.

My people, what have I done to you? By what means have I dismayed you ? I have given sight to your blind, cleansed your lepers, raised the cripple from his bed. My people, what have I done to you? And by what means have you repaid me? For manna you have given me gall, vinegar in return for water. In return for love you have nailed me to the cross. [you have nailed me to the cross]. I can bear no more. I shall call my nations [=gentiles] and they shall glorify me together with the Father and the Spirit. And to them I shall grant eternal life.(24)

Here is the displacement theory in its fulness. The Jews are the crucifiers and the deicides. And it is the Gentiles who receive eternal life. Meanwhile, as the preceding readings have already urged, the Jews should expect their deserts: ‘recompense them according to their deeds [dazhd' im Gospodi po delom ikh], for they have vainly arraigned thee’.(25)

All the more regrettable is this petition since it might well have been understood by many of the worshippers: the Slavonic is not so far removed from Russian as it is elsewhere in this linguistically demanding service. It could therefore have been misinterpreted as a simple call for revenge. Although Thursday and Friday of Holy Week were not so often days of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, there is no doubt that ‘traditionally the worst time for pogroms was Easter’.(26)

This was demonstrated to the full at Kishinev in 1903. But such seasonal pogroms have not ended yet, as was seen last Easter night at the Jewish cemetery of Smolensk. Thus can ill-motivated piety result in evil deeds.

An Orthodox Good Friday service has only the authority which accrues to it through centuries of use. It required no major council of the Church to bring it into play, and it requires no major council to prune it or displace it once for all. Such reforms have sometimes been proposed, not least by the Greek theologian Hamilcar Alivizatos (1960). But the service is with us to this day.

Myths of ritual murder

Finally, who would ever have expected that medieval fears of ritual murder should have survived in our midst? Yet such is the society in which we live and such our Church.

Let me mention two examples of such survivals. It is not easy for the most authentic of the Soviet period’s new martyrs to be canonised. Even so dedicated a man as Metropolitan Petr Polianskii was canonised only last year, sixty years after his execution. As for the canonisation of Mother Maria Skobtsova, it is not even on the agenda. Yet it is many a year since a little-known child, Gavriil, has occupied a place in the Russian Church calendar without any formal canonisation, simply because a plain secular court in the Belostok area decided in 1690 that he had been killed and therefore martyred by the Jews (ot zhidov ubiennyi is the usual phrase for such things). His day is commemorated with enthusiasm year by year in the place where he met his death. The service of the day repeatedly makes mention of the Jews who, so it is alleged, did away with him for ritual reasons of their own.

This is a regrettable survival. But even more regrettable is the indication given by the present chairman of the Holy Synod’s commission on canonisations of the Moscow patriarchate that Jewish ritual murders need not be discounted. For when the question arose in connection with the death of Nicholas ii and his family, the chairman felt bound to consult experts at the Moscow Theological Academy on the subject. He was to receive an ambiguous reply, which went as follows. The trial of Beilis (1913) had ‘failed to prove’ that ritual murders could exist among the Jews. In any case, this particular murder had ‘few of the characteristics’ associated with such killings by those people who [none the less] accept that they take place. Furthermore, ‘nothing is known about the religious affiliations of those participants in the murder whose origins were Jewish’.(27)

In no way can this be treated as a declaration that no such thing exists. And so we have to treat the myth of Jewish ritual murders as yet one more impediment to dialogue between the faiths. The more so since these conclusions were accepted without demur at the Moscow bishops’ council of 1997.

How far to go

We have a long way to go. As yet the Orthodox of Russia have been able to learn little from the Shoah. It has certainly moved them no nearer to the Jewish people. It has given them no insight to the meaning or the beauty of their faith. In the process they have failed to understand the fullness of their own.

We should not say that we lack the prospect of a council open to the Holy Spirit. At any rate, a Great and Holy (=Ecumenical) Council has been promised for some years. Yet we lack the scholarship, humility and persistence to reach beyond familiar norms even in the preparation of the council. Still less are we prepared to consider, let alone to take, hard conciliar decisions in this sphere. For each stage of this process we shall need much daring.

Against the day when we dare to take decisions we should also be prepared to implement them, however arduous that task will be. The Catholic experience is there to guide us in this field. But first we need to dare.

Only if we proceed beyond the various symptoms I have mentioned will we generate this daring. Thirst for recognition of and by the other must play a leading part in this. If only we could take seriously the words of the Greek metropolitan Damaskinos at the conclusion of the third international conference of Jews and Orthodox Christians (1993), would we be moving in the right direction. For [Orthodox] Christianity recognises in ‘the theology, anthropology and cosmology of Judaism basic elements of its own corresponding teaching’, said Damaskinos. And this is confirmed ‘by a sincere respect not only for the Old Testament, but also for the spiritual experience of the chosen people in the divine plan of man’s salvation’.(28) The spiritual experience of the chosen people (as he might have added) which includes the Shoah.

Such beliefs would allow him to appreciate and emulate the gesture of the future pope John xxiii in the days when Nostra aetate could hardly be envisaged. It was 1960, and he was still patriarch of Venice. A delegation of Jews had come to see him. He approached them with poignant words of welcome: ‘I am [Joseph] your brother’.(29) For here were long-lost kinsmen. Here were tears at the prospect of their reconciliation.

endnotes:

1. L. Rapoport, Stalins War against the Jews (New York and Toronto 1990), p.250, n.3 (but Rapoport casts doubts on the story).

2. L. Rapoport, Stalin ‘s War against the Jews (New York and Toronto 1990), p.78. The Ehrenburg/Grossman book, entitled Chernaia kniga, was only to appear in Israel several decades later (Jerusalem 1980). Ukrainian edition (in two volumes), Zaporozhe 1991. ET The Black Book (New York 1981).

3. Z. Gitelman, ed., Bitter Legacy (Indianapolis 1997). Among the novelists who dealt honestly with the plight of the Jews were V. Grossman (1943) and I. Ehrenburg (1948). T. Valednitskaia managed to publish her work on the Lvov ghetto, Solntse s vostoka, in 1946, but its sequel was never to appear.

4. Quoted in R. Headtand, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 194 1–1943 (London and Toronto 1992), p.114.

5. On Glagolev see Chernaia kniga (1991), ii 67–71. On Maria Skobtsova and Dimitrii Klepinin see Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price (London 1981), pp.98–149.

6. Pis’ma-Poslannia Mitropolita Andreia Sheptyts ‘kogo [..]chasiv nimets ‘koi okupatsii (Saskatchewan 1969), pp.222–31.

7. Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, Church and Jewish People (New York and Mahwah, NJ), p.169.

8. Quoted by I. Greenberg, ‘Judaism and Christianity after the Holocaust, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1975), p.525. The response could perhaps be related to the passage INTERNET: Thessalonians 2:14–16, the authenticity of which is widely doubted.

9. Quoted in J.H. Miller, ed., Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal (Notre Dame and London 1966), p.358.

10. Quoted in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.58. 11. Quoted in P. Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London 1984), p.264.

12. Text of Nostra aetate in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.205.

13. Text in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, pp.211-19.

14. ‘Joint Statement on the Shoah and Antisemitism (Prague 1992) in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.250.

15. H.C. Kee and I.J. Borowsky, ed., Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (Philadelphia and New York 1996), p.50.

16. Ibid., p.35.

17. Translated (from the original [uncensored] Italian) in Hebblethwaite, John XXIII, p.431.

18. As John Pawlikowsky has noted, ‘Jesus was killed by some Jews and some Romans, but Christians have played up Jewish involvement [..]. Historically, Romans probably had more to do with the death of Jesus than the Christian scriptures lead one to think (quoted in Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit, p.98).

19. PG 46:685.

20. John Chrysostom, Logoi kata Ioudaion v.1, i.3, vi.7 and i.6 (ET P.W. Harkins [1977]).

21. P. LHuillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood NY 1996), p.8.

22. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol.14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils (RP Grand Rapids 1979), p.370.

23. Ibid., p.151.

24. Triodpostnaia (Moscow 1992), matins for Great Friday, antiphon 12 after the fourth gospel reading. Translation into English mine. For ‘deicides see ibid., third sticheron for the beatitudes and ninth canticle of canon, verse 1.

25. Triodpostnaia, antiphon 11 after the fourth gospel reading.

26. P. Kenez, ‘Pogroms and White ideology of the Russian Civil War in J.D. Kiler and S. Lambroza, ed., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge 1992), p.306.

27. Doklad o rabote Komissii Sviashchennogo sinoda (MI) po kanonizatstii sviatykh nad voprosom o muchenicheskoi konchine Tsarskoi Sem ‘i: predstavlen Mitropolitom Juvenaliem na zasedanii sinoda 10 oktiabria 1996.

28. Sobornost/ECR 15:2 (1993), p.63.

29. The actual words may not have included the name Joseph (hence the square brackets), but the greeting was preceded by some words about Josephs tearful encounter with his brothers (Genesis 45:4). Hebblethwaite, John XXIII, p.193.

posted August 26, 1998