The People and The Book: Of power and pain

The Church, which used to be one of the main sources of the problem, is now part of the solution.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
MANY MEDIEVAL churches included among their decorative art the images of Ecclesia (the Church), symbolizing Christendom and Synagoga (the Synagogue), representing the Jewish people.
These iconic figures were in opposition to each other, Ecclesia erect, triumphant, regal; Synagoga bowed, drooping, her eyes blindfolded to the truth of the Gospel.
The pair of statues became symbolic of Christian supersessionism and anti- Judaism.
This coming September, Pope Francis, on a visit to Philadelphia, will dedicate a new piece of sculpture on the campus of St. Joseph’s University. The new work is called “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time.” It portrays two friends sitting together and learning their sacred texts in a kind of interreligious havruta, both equal with open eyes, recognizing the deep historical connections between the two.
“In Our Time” is English for “Nostra Aetate,” the groundbreaking document issued by the Second Vatican Council exactly 50 years ago.
This document revolutionized the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding Jews and Judaism and impacted on other denominations, as well. How should Jews respond to this bold initiative? Twice in each year, Jews read the last paragraph of Ki Tetze, once as the conclusion of the weekly portion and once on the Shabbat before Purim. Then, it is read as the fulfillment of the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek.
The verses are Deuteronomy 25:17-19. “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land He is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” In the Torah Amalek is identified as a grandson of Esau. Esau becomes Edom, who becomes Rome, who becomes the archetype for Christianity. There are differences between Edom and Amalek, but what is myth if not a conflation of categories? The obvious connection with Purim is that Haman was a descendant of Amalek. Within these verses themselves seems to lie a paradox – of remembering, blotting out the memory and not forgetting. Upon closer look, however, the blotting out is of Amalek’s name. This may indicate that we must wipe out the phenomenon but not forget the story.
For the present, let’s look at the verb “met you,” which appears in Hebrew as korkha. It is an unusual verb form. The great medieval commentator Rashi cites as a first meaning the connection with mikre, happenstance, as in Amalek “happened upon you.” But there is more significance to this somewhat strange word.
Midrash Tanchuma, cited as a second possibility by Rashi, plays on the word kor, meaning “cold,” saying that Amalek cooled us down, so to speak, and robbed us of our deterrent value vis-à-vis other ancient nations. The Midrash uses the vivid image of a boiling tub that no one can enter. Along comes a scoundrel, who jumps into the tub. Although he is severely scalded, he has now made the water a bit cooler, allowing others to jump in, too.
In other words, Amalek was the primal anti-Semite who paved the way for others.
“Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary” published by the Conservative movement in the US suggests: “The Israelites, leaving Egypt on the way to Sinai, had been confident and enthusiastic. The real sin of Amalek was that he robbed them of their idealism, teaching them that the world is an unreliable and dangerous place.”
For hundreds of years, Christianity played that role toward the Jewish people. The Church was the major source of religious anti- Semitism and served as the background for other forms of anti- Semitism – economic, social, racial. Jews became understandably mistrustful and wary of the wider world.
The world can be dangerous for Jews in the Diaspora, as we saw this past year in Paris and Copenhagen. But it would serve our own self-interest as a people to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, as well as many other Christian groups and individuals, are now our partners in the struggle against anti-Semitism.
The Church, which used to be one of the main sources of the problem, is now part of the solution. In a recent audience with members of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Pope Francis expressed “a definitive ‘yes’ to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable ‘no’ to anti-Semitism.” A Jewish response must begin with recognition of the changes and engagement in constructive dialogue, joint study and social action.
The late American Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a pioneer in interreligious dialogue, said, “Through dialogue, Christianity must overcome the triumphalism of power, Judaism the triumphalism of pain.”
Dr. Debbie Weissman lives in Jerusalem, and is the past president of the International Council of Christians and Jews