Author: Knight, Henry F
Date published: April 1, 2010
Know before whom you are standing when you pray.
And the Sovereign will answer them: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40)
But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the rule and realm of heaven belongs. (Mt. 19: 14)
"You're wrong," Pedro said.'The way is no less important than the goal. He who thinks about God, forgetting man, runs the risk of mistaking his goal: God may be your next door neighbor."
(Elie Wiesel, Town Beyond the Wall, p. 115)
Before whom do we stand? After the Holocaust that question, echoing the of Rabbi Eliezer to his disciples, that they know the One before they stand when they pray, calls Jews and Christians to re-examine understandings of each othet and of their own grounding traditions. In reflections that follow, I will explore this question, particularly as it is refracted through artist Samuel Bak's iconic image of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy1 and Elie Wiesels character, Michael, from Town Beyond the Wall.2 Bak has captured with his brush the image of a murdered friend's face and, in multiple renderings, portrayed it in the iconic form of the Warsaw ghetto boy. His paintings of Samek as a crucified child puts a face on Rabbi Eliezer's text that challenges both his tradition and mine. In similar fashion, Elie Wiesels story of Michael in Town Beyond the Wall, approaches other implications of Rabbi Eliezer's admonition.
As I wrestle with Bak's image and Wiesels stylized story, I am also cognizant of two other texts that represent the confessional ground on which I stand as I undertake this task. Those texts, both from the Gospel of Matthew, are familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike. One articulates how Jesus identifies with the other in his life and expresses the significance of his relationship even with the least of others in his and his followers' lives. The second text represents how Jesus perceives the significance of children in God's and our ways with the world.
I invite my readers to join me in my wrestling as I seek to make sense of these various texts, my place before them, and my place before the Jewish figure who stands at the center of my wounded world.
A Wounded Ark and A Defaced Summons
One of the artifacts on display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, is a disfigured lintel that once framed the ark of a synagogue in Nenterhausen, Germany. Carved across the top in Hebrew text are the words, Da lifnei mi attah omeyd: Know before whom you stand. The lintel and these words overlook a glass display case that houses Torah scrolls that were defiled during the November pogrom of Kristallnacht. The words are Rabbi Eliezer's instructions to his students recorded in the Talmud (Berachoth 28b), linking study with prayer and guiding the lives of Jews of every nationality.
Rabbi Eliezer's admonition is often carved or painted above the arks in synagogues and temples, marking the space set aside to house the sacred words of Torah. His words continue to reach out across the generations to teach new congregations. Jews face them each time they stand before or approach the ark. They greet whoever may be ascending the bima making his or her way to read or to take their place in the community. These words hold, like a Kiddush cup, the responsibilities human beings have to God and one another, the ties that bind us to each other and to all that we honor as sacred in our lives.
And those ties, like these words, were betrayed on Kristallnacht. They were desecrated, along with the trampled Torah scrolls in the facing case. Physically, the words were cut and gouged, most likely by a bayonet. Close inspection reveals that the word lifnei, constructed from the Hebrew word for face, was literally defaced. Its message, especially now when we look back using this wounded ark as our lens, is profound and tragic. Since every human being, every child of Adam, bears God's image, God and God's children have been tragically, catastrophically assaulted.
Manifestly Jewish, this text signals a broader invitation to any person of faith, or otherwise secular soul. The exhibit reframes Rabbi Eliezer's admonition to his followers and later generations of Jews into a question for those who make their way to this symbolic crossroads in the museum: Before whom do we stand? The reframing is rooted in the defaced expression of Jewish identity. To borrow terms from midrashic hermeneutics, the Jewish character of this wounded text is an essential feature of the peshat of the exhibit, its plain meaning, calling out to be faced responsibly and explored respectfully by others. The wounded words of Rabbi Eliezer invite visitors to the museum to identify with those whose story it tells and to ask with them, "Before whom do you stand?"
This wounded frame - a mantel in more ways than one - is an apt metaphor for my entrance into and engagement with life lived in the shadows of the longer night of the Shoah. As the Museum's Permanent Exhibit suggests, Eliezer's desecrated words speak to more than just its Jewish victims, however powerfully they speak for and to them. In that added regard, they speak to and for me as a Christian who stands before a Jewish child of the covenant who is, for me and Christians like me, not just a figure of history but our burning bush. Like the burning bush of Moses, Jesus of Nazareth is not consumed by the revelatory power that he embodied and still does for his followers. Among other things, that means he remains a bar mitzvah who would have been murdered with the others who were betrayed by their fellow human beings during this twelve-year time of terror. That human being, his 6 million brothers and sisters from that time, as well as myriad other siblings past and present, stand before me as I stand before them - not unlike how all Israel stands before Sinai. I stand before this central figure in my life fully aware that he remains a bar mitzvah while I am not, or at least not in the way that he is. I am a Gentile follower of his ways, and we Gentile believers have adopted and adapted what Jesus brought and still brings in ways that distinguish us from our Jewish siblings. Tragically, some (many?) of those adoptions and adaptations have contributed to the wounding reflected in Eliezer's defaced admonition.
The Crisis in Covenantal Theism
The difficult history and the contending relations between Jews and Christians, Judaism and Christianity, are familiar. They provide the context in which I offer these reflections. As I view it, we can identify several interrelated crises present in this complex trajectory: a crisis of credibility regarding covenantal theism, a crisis of credibility regarding Christianity's espoused values, and a crisis of integrity regarding essential features of Christianity's historic identity. In the latter case, whether or not Christianity will face a full-blown identity crisis similar to the one it experienced in the Reformation may depend on how the Church and its representatives see and respond to this difficult history and the place of Judaism and other traditions in it.
The crisis in covenantal theism is a matter that confronts Christians as well as Jews, albeit the crisis for Jews is existentially more acute, since that crisis unfolds at their expense. Two names stand out among the Jewish teachers and scholars who have given articulate expression to this matter for me: Elie Wiesel and Richard Rubenstein. While Wiesel and Rubenstein find very different ways of responding to this crisis, they each provide memorable articulations of it. Wiesel, in Night, re-enters, in midrashic fashion, the historic question of the Passover Seder, by turning it on its head. Why is this night different than any other night? The story he recounts is both his personal narrative and that of myriad others who share his identity as a Jew. It is a recounting that in stylized ways layers his personal account with that of all those who entered that night with him, forming what Lawrence Cunningham has called a negative haggadah. Where, after all, is the God who acts in history to sustain creation and deliver Israel? What has happened to the covenant? Where is the God of life who creates life in the divine image?
Rubenstein, in After Auschwitz, provides a less stylized account, as he explores the theological significance of Auschwitz for a people entrusted and burdened with representing God's covenanted ways with creation. In a 1961 conversation with Pastor Heinrich Gruber, Rubenstein captures what is acutely problematic with the logic of covenantal theism as he relates Gruber's confident belief in the providence of God as the sovereign of history active in the affairs of the world. Even though Gruber was an active resister of the Nazis and rescuer of Jews, he could not avoid concluding that the destruction of the Jews during the horror of Nazi persecution was God's will, and, therefore, that what happened to them was an expression of divine judgment. Rubenstein recognized the empathy Gruber had for the Jewish people at the same time he could not escape the consistent logic that Gruber had espoused. The crisis was clearly framed, and Rubenstein in an act of theological and personal integrity3 rejected the logic of covenantal theism that Gruber embraced. Wiesel, on the other hand, followed a logic of resistance rooted in the hasidic traditions of his world, as well as in his mystical appropriation of midtash offering a way of expressing the theological contradictions he faced without having to give in to them. Though with great respect, Rubenstein saw Wiesels path as problematic and chatted a more radical course, known now to many of us. Regatdless of their very different strategies, their questions continue to haunt any person of faith who allows the beliefs and assumptions of covenantal theism to engage the realities of the Shoah, especially what happened to the 1.5 million children who were executed for the singulat crime of being born a Jew.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent Holocaust scholar and theologian, has captured the implications of this post-Shoah knowing with his now familiar criterion for post-Holocaust faithfulness: "No statement, theological ot otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning childten."4 Gteenbetg's words have been insttuctive fot me. As a post-Holocaust Christian, I have learned to pray with the psalmist: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer (Ps. 19: 14). And, then, to add, May they be credible in the presence of the burning children. To say Amen to that amended and compounded prayer is one way I attempt to know before whom I stand.
Artist Samuel Bak has given this summons visual exptession using the figure of the iconic Watsaw ghetto boy as a base text. The image ofthat child is familiar.
A young boy, pethaps 8 ot 9, is standing in a crowd as a nearby soldier holds the child at gunpoint. The little boy, wearing shorts, knee-high socks, a hat, and a fine, buttoned coat has both his hands raised in surrender, as if he were a criminal under arrest. Bak renders a version of this child in numerous paintings, often depicting his uptaised hands with nails piercing his palms. The symbolism is inescapable. A Jewish child is being crucified.
To stand before Bak's little boy is another version of Rabbi Eliezer's summons: Know before whom we stand. Indeed!
But we have to be cateful in this regard. It would be easy for Christians like me to project the image of Christ onto crucified Jewish children. However, that would be another violation of those children and an inversion of Greenberg's searing hermeneutical principle. Instead, the power of these juxtaposed images works in the other direction. Over a million children under twelve were murdered by the Nazis or by their collaborators. Thousands were tortured. None were given a choice about how they might live their lives. Their suffering challenges any assertion Christians might make about the scope of what Jesus experienced. He chose his cross, or at least he chose to risk it. He offered up his life. The children did not. Emil Fackenheim's thoughtful commentary underscores the importance of this distinction:
Christians have always known how to acknowledge sin, including the sin of crucifying Christ all over again. However, the crucifixion of Christ-in-general is one thing; quite another is the crucifixion-in-parficular of six million human beings, among them the helpless children, their weeping mothers, and the silent Muselmäner?
When we Christians free ourselves from imposing messianic meaning on Bak's iconic child, we are able to grasp that crucifixion is a form of state-sanctioned cruelty. Bak's crucified child, like myriad others, was an instrument in state policy. His execution was a horrifying message to communicate terror to other potential victims. To be sure, this image and what it represents places us before another covenantal crisis- this one with our assumptions about civilization and our obligations to those for whom Jesus said the rule and realm of heaven were given. We who lift high the cross stand in the presence of a heinous act that we cannot diminish by forcing the suffering of others into our interpretive needs.
How we treat every human being takes on added significance in this light. In one sense, nothing has changed. We have, as Rabbi Eliezer's words challenge us to understand, always stood in God's presence when we face another human being. Jewish teachers - and my Christian teachers - have taught us all this truth. Each human being is a reflection of the One who gives us life. That truth has not changed. On the other hand, everything has changed: how we understand God, our bonds to each other, the urgency of what lies at stake in every relationship - in our politics, in every dimension of our lives, in Christianity's relationship to the people Israel; how we understand suffering; how we understand choice. All of it has changed. We live after. Charlotte Delbo, a French, gentile survivor of the camps put it profoundly:" I know the difference between before and after'.6 We live after. Life, the world in which we live, the face of the other before us - they can never be the same.
Faces Beyond the Wall
I first came to confront this truth reading Town Beyond the Wall, by Elie Wiesel. Its story begins in the confines of an interrogation room in which a Holocaust survivor by the name of Michael is being tortured and questioned. Michael has returned, some twenty years after the end of World War II, to his hometown of Szerencseváros, which now lies behind the Iron Curtain. His goal: to confront a bystander whose impassive face has haunted Michael ever since a so-called neighbor who lived across the street from the synagogue failed to register any response to the removal of Michael and his family along with the entire Jewish community of the town from their homes.
A number of themes interact in this richly constructed story as the reader enters the chaos of Michael's confinement and pain. The tale unfolds in the midst of Michael's ordeal and shifts through various flashbacks to assorted times before his capture, recalling encounters between Michael and important people in his life, including Pedro, a gentile smuggler who helped Michael return illegally to his home town before being caught. To the authorities, Michael is an intruder and is being interrogated to find out why he had sneaked into their city. Even though the authorities claim otherwise, Michael is clearly undergoing torture. His captors have devised a means of questioning that forces a prisoner to stana facing a wall without moving for hours and days without end, except for those occasions when they take the prisoner to a place to relieve himself.
In a cruel act of irony his captors have named each segment of this activity a prayer. The physical pain is caused by the accumulated effect of continuous standing. Blood gathers and pools in Michael's legs. Slowly Michael is being reduced to the pain in his legs. To endure, he commits himself to standing firm just long enough for his friend Pedro, a non-religious Communist and criminal, to have time to escape. That act, a commitment to friendship with a person whom all his social conventions would identify as an outsider to be shunned, enables Michael to hold out, to stand the pain, long enough to save his friend's life. What could be a traditional stumbling block for Michael has become his cornerstone - but not in the Christological form familiar to Christians, or in any other conventional sense.
Eventually, Michael passes out and is subsequently placed in a cell with three other prisoners. Like him, his cellmates are each wounded persons. One, a pious, young Jew named Menahem, engages Michael in probing dialogue about himself and the meaning of his commitment to Pedro. Another, a disturbed and frantic individual is constantly searching for a missing letter that exists only in the man's imagination. And the other, a silent, unresponsive young man, is nearly beyond reach. Each one inhabits a corner of the circumscribed world of their cell, dwelling as far from the others as he can manage. Though no longer physically undergoing torture, Michael faces another ordeal and yet another wall - this one less visible, separating him from the others in the cell. Knowing that his sanity, indeed his soul, may be at stake, Michael turns his attention to those with whom he shares this situation. He makes connection with Menahem, but eventually Menachem is removed from the cell. So Michael turns to the Impatient One, as he calls him. Before he can establish meaningful contact, he too is taken away leaving only the silent one, indifferent to life and any self-initiated presence whatsoever. To retain his sense of relational wholeness, Michael must find a way to reach out and make contact with the unresponsive other in his cell.
As Michael struggles to penetrate the wall of silence his cellmate has erected, he reflects on what is at stake: When we reach out and pass on our stories to another, we establish a chain of testimony. We enlarge memory and our worlds; we extend life and pass on our names. Pedro had passed his name and story on to Michael. Michael passed his on to Menahem, and tried to do so with his other cellmate. And now Michael hopes to reach the silent one with whom he shares his cell. The story draws to an end as Michael and the reader discover the name of the silent one who shares the cell with him: Eliezer, which the narrator explains, means God has granted my prayer; and which we know is the given name of the author.
Before whom do we stand? It is not only Michael who must discover how to respond to that question. In retelling this tale in this brief recounting, I give voice to Michael's story and bear witness to it, giving the silent presence of Eliezer (and myself, as the reader) a voice and role in that story as well. The richly, stylized narrative of Town Beyond the Wall places me before Wiesel, before other survivors for whom prayer may very well be like torture. Such testimony helps me take my place before any who struggle to survive overwhelming trauma by reaching out to others to break through the solitariness - their walls - and to tell their story to someone who will listen. In this case, Wiesels story invites me to take my place before others who dare to listen as I share this tale and challenge the indifference of those who, for whatever reason, avoid caring.
When I first read Town, I was profoundly moved and wanted to know the one before whom I sat when I tead Wiesels words. So I turned, as one would expect, to his memoir, Night. I've read and reread those words many times. With each reading Wiesel helps me see more about myself, more about the world in which we live, more about what happened during that night that was different than any other night, and more about the people before whom I stand when I stand as a Christian before a Jew named Jesus.
Clearly, sitting with a text can be a way of standing respectfully before the othet. It need not be the dedicated study of set iptute, though most assuredly, it can be that. For me it has often happened with the stylized text of parable and fiction - as in Town Beyond the Wall. Standing before the other is a worldmaking matter, even in the solitude of study and prayer - but equally so in any setting, especially those in which we face our adversaries. Standing before the other is world-bearing and reveals rather poignantly whatever holiness we may honor in the world we face. As Wiesels Michael reports, accotding to Pedro, "God may be your next door neighbor."7
The Promise and Danger of Midrashic Dialogue
Rightly, it is my pet sonai responsibility to initiate this kind of exploration. But it is an exploration I cannot do alone. Nor is it enough to have one or two mentors I know and read. Equally so, it is not enough just to rebuild a positive image of Jews and Judaism from selected sources, no matter how authentic they might be. J. B, Metz is right. For Christians, seeking to do theology with post-Shoah integrity tequires doing it with Jewish others.8 And if that work is going to repair the damage done by stereotype and caricature, is must be done with numerous others, individuals and communities, and in situations that are truly dialogical.
In this regard, I have been helped by good and generous friends who have made similar commitments to the tepair of our worlds. The Jesus Symposium ar Case brings several of us together and links us with other communities of dialogue in which I have learned about myself and our often contending traditions. Several of us have found friendship and respect across confessional boundaries and deepened our understandings of our own traditions in the process. For the last 18 years, Zev Garber, Steve Jacobs, Jim Moore, and I have shared a midrashic dialogue in which we have taken Emil Fackenheim's observation that the way forward through the theological crisis of post-Shoah faith must be midrashic, holding our root experiences in creative tension with the unassimilated anguish of the Shoah. Indeed, as Fackenheim observes, the midrashic framework insists on a fully dialectical, yet creative tension between our grounding traditions and forms of human suffering that cannot be assimilated into them. That dialectic could just as easily be reversed to read that we interpret our worlds holding our interpretations of them, even midrashic ones, accountable to our root experiences of human anguish.
Our midrashic partnership has added the dimension of dialogue to that interpretive activity, and our tents of occasional meetings have added an additional other before whom I stand in their presence - the text or texts we face together. In our wrestling with them, the words of Scripture have become orchards of life entrusted to our care for the sake of others. I have learned to read on behalf of not only my own community of faith but also another that is more often taken for granted or buried in hidden assumptions that need to be unearthed and resisted, if not discarded, when I face these texts. Reading midrashically, we have learned to enter the textual domains before us alert to ways they might speak to us as we wrestle with them while guarding against foreclosure and domestication of their otherness. Engaging in dialogue across confessional boundaries deepens our understandings of ourselves and of the ones with whom we engage in that searching exploration. Each holding the other responsible in the light of their sacred texts illumines both the human other and the other's sacred texts we face together. Likewise, the Holy Other whom each tradition knows in and through the texts being discussed is disclosed in ways appropriate to those traditions. Not surprisingly, Eliezer's words reach into such richly textured settings as ours with life-shaping power.
But the midrashic imagination is not restricted to facing and interpreting scripture nor limited to extraordinary painters, biblical scholars or professors of religious studies. For Church and Synagogue alike, the primary texts of ministry are often the situations of human anguish and trauma that call us out of ourselves into presence for and with the other before us. The midrashic imagination offers a way of holding fast to the very grounding traditions that are often shattered in these kinds of circumstances when we give ourselves wholly to the other before us who has dared to trust us with the loss of his or her world. The midrashic way can distinguish ministry with families traumatized with the death of young children when their suffering simply does not fit into any framework of meaning. It can guide pastors and rabbis sitting with victims of violent crime or caring for families who have had a loved one murdered. The human anguish and the trust of those who fear being alone become the peshat of that ministry. Just as a midrashic framework is not limited to reading written texts, neither is it restricted to reading only experience laden with Shoah-determined issues. Midrash's logic of plenitude along with its dialectical commitments to root experiences and the full anguish of our wounding world can be utilized in ministry, teaching, and many forms of public dialogue. Paul Ricoeur explored the matter of interpreting significant social actions as texts in his reflections on practical hermeneutics several decades ago in his essay "The Model of the Text."9 Applying his insights to the hermeneutics of midrash and using them to engage the challenges of responding to meaningless suffering provides a way of doing ministry that takes human anguish with great seriousness. Both Church and Synagogue can benefit from an interpretive model that sacrifices neither the root experiences of one's tradition nor honest encounter with the kind of trauma that resists domestication of any kind.
To be sure, the associative logic of the midrashic imagination can also be misused. Its power to utilize figurative ways of seeing and thinking the other can draw on the mythic power of stereotypes and prejudice as well. A great deal of Nazi propaganda tapped this potential in the public media of the time. Here, the stories of historic Midrash reveal Judaisms wisdom in reserving communal judgment regarding the legitimacy of any particular interpretation, even those with apparent power to evoke a sense of the holy. The story of the bas kol (heavenly echo) makes just this point and records the community's role in hearing and judging the credibility of any interpretation - even in the face of others that are ordained by Heaven itself.10
There is another, seductive danger in my turn to the midrashic imagination. As with Bak's use of crucifixion to frame the tragedy of his friend Samek, and all other Sameks with him, there is the risk of theological theft when Christians like me embrace the hermeneutics of our Jewish siblings. Granted, I argue that the dynamics of midrash are present in my own sacred texts. More significantly, many key passages in my own scriptures could and should be understood as midrashic constructions. Still, the danger, to put it midrashically, is that of the younger brother once again usurping the birthright and blessing of the older sibling.
Any talk of adopting - and adapting - the terms of study and prayer of others to speak of one's own vocation is bound to evoke the deep memories of prior acts of theological theft that punctuates the historic relationships of Jews and Christians. Much too often Christians have co-opted the heritage of their covenantal siblings with little or no tegatd for how it is understood nor lived by the other members of their Abrahamic family. When Christians seek to come to terms with these matters, they inevitably evoke a dark and difficult history that from its earliest days has treated Jews and Judaism with disdain and contempt. Even when the intent is otherwise, that troubling legacy will be ptesent. Facing that history and its tender dynamics will be a necessary part of the dialogue. If I am going to be faithful to the midrashic way, I must acknowledge this danger and guard against the misappropriation of it.
The Displaced Other
The way forward brings Christians like me face-to-face with a history that from its earliest days has treated Jews and Judaism with disdain. The beginnings ofthat contention are rooted in the intense competition between two rival Jewish sects seeking to gain leverage and influence among competing forms of Judaism, and later to assure survival and fidelity in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple and its sacred city. With the influx of Gentile believers the conflict between the sects became acute. Polemics grew stronger and worsened. On the Christian side the disdain was often vitriolic. Eventually even theological positions were adopted to justify, on the Christian side, Jews' negative role in the overall make up of Christian identity and putpose. Christian preaching and teaching promulgated disdain in mythic propottions, and anti-Jewish sentiment grew deeper and stronger. The story continues, of course, in ways most of us know well. Christians who face this history confront issues much like those who have grown up in the southern United States with its history of racism and segregation. The reality of antisemitism, like the teality of racism, is bigger and deeper than individual prejudice. The violence is also structural and often covert, hidden in plain sight. Of course, like racism, antisemitism can be expressed behaviorally in very dramatic and dangerous ways. Yet, its attitudes are more than behavioral and have to do with how non-Jews, especially Christians, relate to others who challenge, for whatever reasons, their place in the world. For Christians like me, facing up to this thread in our identities is a matter of coming to terms with ourselves, and how we structure our worlds of meaning and value. We who claim to love our neighbors as we love ourselves must ask if that really means we can only love our neighbors if and when they are like us. That is a question of integrity and the doorway through is more often shame than guilt.11
I have learned through dialogue with Jewish colleagues to recognize an underlying question that I am confident I would have overlooked without their help: whether or not Christianity requires a Jewish other over against whom Christian truth is triumphant or deemed more adequate. This question came to vivid clarity at a previous dialogical gathering a few years ago. Then, as now, my colleague, Peter Haas, was hosting a discussion of Jewish and Christian scholars who were exploring these very issues. Peter had drafted an essay in which he reviewed three Protestant theologians and their attempts to construct a positive Christian theology of Judaism. I was a respondent.12 Peters analysis probed how even the most irenic attempts to portray Jews and Judaism in a reconstructed Christian theology faced two major tasks: how to portray Jews in positive regard without turning them into monolithic or unrealistic constructs and how to develop a form of Christianity that provided a legitimate place for Jews and Judaism in its world without losing what is distinctive about Christian identity. In the process of offering his critique, Haas made the observation that he did not think that Christianity could be nonsupersessionary without giving up what is distinctive about being Christian. Later, in a different context altogether, I encountered David Novak making a similar case in one of his essays - that Christianity was inherently supersessionary and that the real issue was to distinguish between what he called "hard" and"soft" forms of supersessionism.13 The core question they each raise is whether or not Christian identity is essentially supersessionary.
Among other things, supersessionism żs a belief or attitude that one's relationship or identity as the people of God builds on and surpasses the claims and foundations shared with others in this regard. According to Regina Schwartz, the problem underlying supersessionism is a fundamental mindset that Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, shares with Judaism and Islam. In her book, The Curse of Cain, Schwartz identifies two primary ways of construing the world, what she calls "logics" of interpretation. Each of the three monotheistic traditions of Abraham, she observes, tends toward the excluding logic of scarcity in contrast to a present, but often obscured, logic of plenitude.14 Schwartz posits that a hermeneutic of scarcity is employed by each of the monotheistic traditions to protect fundamental truth claims. If God is one and Truth is one with God, then the revelation of that Truth should be one. The alternative lens, what she calls a logic of plenitude, is rooted in a sense of the richness of creation and its abundant gift of life. Accessible through such practices as midrash for Judaism, parables for Christianity, and Sufism for Islam,15 the logic of plenitude provides an alternative mindset that may also be encountered in each of the traditions. To complicate the matter, Schwartz describes the resultant identity produced by scarcity thinking as being agonistic. That is, such an identity is constructed over against a competing other who contends for the identity or truth that cannot be shared. If Schwartz is right, and I think she makes a strong case, then underlying attitudes of Christian contempt are rooted in using a construct of Jewish identity as a negative significant other against whom one interprets his or her mission, purpose, truths, or identity. Supersessionist thinking, therefore, depends on an other whom it displaces and discounts for its sense of self.
As Regina Schwartz makes clear, facing the displaced other with postShoah responsibility calls for coming to terms with the agonistic history in which one's own identity is constructed. Until we learn to face the signifying others in our lives in their otherness, they will remain less than who they are. They will be projections of our own interpretive needs even if or when we convert disdain to honor.16 That is, the matter is thoroughly hermeneutical at the same time it is deeply personal and thoroughly relational. Of course, the power dynamics among the three and between Judaism and Christianity have made a frightening difference in how these choices have been made and embodied over the centuries. And in the secularized eyes of the Third Reich, supersessionism reappears in the guise of Social Darwinism. That simple observation should give pause to any who would leave the matter with either Haas's or Novak's observations about the inevitability of supersessionism.
When we face the displaced other with renewed respect, we confront our own agonistic history of displacement and supersessionism, coming to terms with how we have used this other as a negative signifier in our lives. In other settings17 1 have focused on the chastening character of this extended encounter, likening it to Jacob's encounter with the ish at the River Jabbok - the other before whom he stood, with whom he wrestled, as he returned from his twenty-year exile. He faced himself, his history with an estranged brother and his deceptive relationships with his parents. And in all that he also faced the God of his forebears. We know the outcome of that struggle - a new name and a limp thereafter. That deep confrontation was a wounding affair that marked his walk in the aftermath with humility. To move forward with positive regard we pass through a similar struggle and, certainly in my case, are wounded by what we learn about ourselves and the identity we have constructed with our Jewish siblings, not to mention myriad others. Reconfiguring that identity in a non-agonistic way means making room for this essential other in our lives that allows for and embraces the other's full difference. That is, we must learn to incorporate a fundamental sense of hospitality to and for the other at the heart of who we are.
Sacrament of the Other
In the aftermath of the Shoah, Irving Greenberg reminds us that the dignity of every human being is rooted in God's regard for the other.18 Therefore, each act whereby we stand respectfully before another person is a sacred act. When we face the other, who reflects in his or her image the loving presence of God, we stand before the One who gives us life. In the aftermath of the Shoah, Rabbi Eliezer's words are therefore limned, charged with meaning. Know before whom you stand. Indeed.
According to Emmanuel Levinas, the human face is the fundamental datum of our embodied existence. Levinas, a survivor and witness to the atrocity that befell his people, tells us that the human face speaks to each of us through its presence calling us to be present in response. Its appearance can be a theophanic moment, a burning bush, as it were, declaring, "Here I am," and asking at the same time, "Where are you?" But we have to have the eyes to see and the heart to comprehend such a moment - a moment that is as true in the beginning as it is in extremis, In other words, the human other is a sacramental presence, to use a more Christian metaphor, if we dare to pay attention.
To represent this turn and responsibility in our lives I propose that postHolocaust Christian communities consider adopting a new, Levinasian sacrament, the Sacrament of the Other. However, unlike Baptism or the Eucharist, this sacrament cannot be administered by the Church, as Church. Indeed, such a sacrament can only be administered to it, received in and through the recognition of its otherness. While most often offered outside its boundaries, this gift can, nevertheless, be received inside its own house of faith and at its doors, if the hosts in such houses embrace the other's presence with hospitality and respect for his or her otherness - even when that other is the figure who stands at the center of our worship. In other words, whenever such a sacrament is converted into a veiled understanding of Christ in our midst, it ceases to represent the otherness of the other. Still, it can be an expression of the otherness of Jesus that remains undomesticated by the Church. That otherness is surely embodied in his Jewishness as Christians recognize that his place in the Shoah would have been with other Jewish victims. The distinctiveness of his identity would have been subsumed in the Nazi need to eradicate the challenging otherness of this child of the covenant. Indeed, Christianity has known this kind of logic before and glimpsed it in Kierkegaard's meticulous unpacking of the command to love the stranger in Works of Love,19 In that extended meditation, Kierkegaard explained that when Christians love the stranger as a stranger they do so because they were commanded to, and in doing what is commanded, they honor Christ. But if they do so because they wish to love Christ in disguise, they do not love the stranger ar all. They reach out to one they think they know, loving the one they know, not the one who is unknown and other. Consequently, they fall short of the command to love. After the Shoah, this careful and differentiating logic becomes radically significant.20
So, here we stand before the othet represented by the pluriform presence of Samuel Bak's crucified child, Wiesel's narrative of a Holocaust survivor's attempt to return home to a town that remains beyond reach on the other side of an historically constructed wall, and Jesus' admonitions about the significance of children and others who stand before him and his followers. Their distinctive features pose for us a deepened understanding of Rabbi Eliezer's admonition, Know before whom you stand. Their individuated presence turns Eliezer's words into an embodied question before which we stand whethet as Christians before a Jewish figure at the heart of our confessional lives, or as Jews before the Holy One of Israel, or as confused souls confined to a world of strangers. To explore that question is the urgent task we face together. Before whom do we stand?
These reflections develop and expand an earlier exploration of these issues published in Carol Rittnet and Stephen D. Smith, eds" No Going Back: Letters to Pope Benedict XVI on the Holocaust, Jewish-Christian Relations 6r Israel (London: Quill Press, 2009), pp. 28-31. The expanded reflections were first offered in a lecture given at Elms College in Chicopee, MA during the fall of 2008, prepared in honor of Elie Wiesels 80th birthday. They were later re-worked and expanded further into the present form for the conference at Case Western Reserve University.
1 Samuel Bak has rendered a number of works utilizing the iconic image of a Nazi soldier holding a young child from the Warsaw ghetto at gunpoint while invoking the face of Bak's 8 year old friend, Samek Epstein, who was murdered by the Nazis. Bak's paintings were exhibited by the Pucker Art Gallery under the rubric, Icon of Loss, and a catalog for that show can by obtained by contacting the gallery in Boston. The painting referenced in this essay, Study 1, 1995, is reproduced with commentary in Danna Nolan Fcwell and Gary A. Phillips, "Bak's Impossible Memorials: Giving Face to the Children," in Danna Nolan Fewell, Gary A. Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood, eds" Representing the Irreparable: 77;e Shoch, the Bible, and the Art oj Samuel Bak (Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2008), pp. 95ff.
2 Elie Wiesel, Town Beyond the Wall, trans. Stephen Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1964).
3 See Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, Second Edition, 1992), pp. 3-13, 157-209.
4 Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust," in Eva Fleischner, ed., Auschwitz? Beginning of a New Era (New York: KTAV, 1977), p. 23.
5 Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 281.
6 Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, trans. Rosette C. Lamont (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 258.
7 Wiesel, Town Beyond the Wall, p. 115.
8 Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World, trans. Peter Mann (New York: Crossroad, 1981), pp. 17-33, esp. 18, 30.
9 Paul Ricoeur,"The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered As Text," trans. John B. Thompson, in Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, trans. Kathleen Blarney and John B. Thomspson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1986, 1991), pp. 144-167.
10 See Talmud, Bava Metzia, 59b.
11 See my essay,"From Shame to Responsibility and Christian Identity: The Dynamics of Shame and Confession Regarding the Shoah" Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter 1998): 41-62.
12 See Peter Haas, "Judaism in Protestant Encounters with the Shoah," in David Patterson and John K. Roth, eds., Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil and the Holocaust (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), pp. 59-70.
13 See David Novak,"The Covenant in Rabbinic Thought," in Eugene B. Korn & John T. Pawlikowski, eds., Two Faiths, One Covenant? (Lanham, MD; Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 66 ff.
14 Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: TIk Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 1-13.
15 The interpretive role of these distinctive hermeneutical practices reflects my own reading of these rhetorical strategies. In various ways they express a logic of plenitude ot abundance,
16 I am profoundly indebted to Peter Haas for helping me see the significance of this matter. I am convinced that Schwartz's distinction between the logics of scarcity and plenitude provide helpful guidance in moving forward in this regard.
17 See Knight, "From Shame to Responsibility," among others.
18 Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire," pp. 42ff.
19 Sřren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 34-57, 153-196.
20 We could add a final link to Jesus by recalling his interaction with the Canaanite woman whom he saw as other until she challenged his perception of her dignity and worth. (Mt. 15: 22-28) He responded with renewed and positive regard for her and her faith.
Henry F. Knight
Keene State College, Keene, NH
Henry Knight is the Director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. He also teaches in the College's academic program, which offers the first undergraduate major in the country in Holocaust and genocide studies. Dr. Knight is an ordained United Methodist minister who specializes in post-Holocaust Christian theology. His publications include Celebrating Holy Week in a Post Holocaust World, Confessing Christ in a Post-Holocaust World, and The Abuses and Uses of Knowledge (edited with Marcia Sachs Littell) as well as numerous chapters in books prepared by members of the Stephen S. Weinstein Holocaust Symposium (formerly the Pastora Goldner Holocaust Symposium) which he cofounded with Prof. Leonard Grob of Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1996. Knight also serves the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as a member of their Committee on Church Relations.