Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on corrupt history and the misinterpretation of the history of Israel on Sunday. Today is Friday and I return to my practice of commenting on the weekly portion of the Torah. My commentary on a wayward way of reading Israeli history was instigated by my reading of Gregory Baum’s memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. So is today’s commentary on the Torah. In reading Gregory’s account of his religious journey, I learned he was gay.

I was surprised. I did not know this, even though others evidently did. Further, when Gregory was forced to leave the priesthood because of his theological position, he eventually married an ex-nun whom I knew reasonably well since she was a member of the so-called Catholic group made up of priests and nuns (soon enough, ex-priests and ex-nuns), and I was the only Jew in the group. I had believed that he had left the priesthood, or was forced out, because he could no longer find an archbishop to be his “sponsor”. The last one in Mexico had been contacted by the Vatican, he told me, and had been ordered to end his formal life in the Church. (I capitalize the word “Church” only when referring to the Catholic Church.) I thought the reason arose because of his theological political writings on liberation theology. In reading the memoir, I learned that the reason was his writing on sexual ethics, a reason which he had offered in a Globe and Mail newspaper piece at the time which I had not read.

In chapter 13 of his theological memoir, Gregory wrote about sexual ethics in general. He had always agreed with the Church’s denunciation of sex separated from love, especially the transformation of sexual relations into a commodity. In 1976, he wrote and published a critique of the Catholic position on human sexuality. As a result, Archbishop Philip Peacock felt obliged to withdraw his permission to preach in churches, the beginning of the cascade of withdrawals of support that would lead to his leaving his role as a priest in the Church and a member of a religious order.

Gregory had disagreed with the Church because he did not accept the rigidity of the Church’s position which applied rules universally without taking into account either cultural attitudes or individual circumstances. (See his volume, Religion and Alienation.) He had been influential at the Second Vatican in changing the attitude of the Church towards Jews, but not its objections to birth control and its insistence that sexual intercourse must always be open to conception since that was its purpose. Sexual satisfaction was simply a means to that end, though Pius XII in 1951 had come to accept the “rhythm method” of birth control, married couples having sex only when the female was infertile in her monthly cycle, thereby introducing a fundamental contradiction into Catholic teaching.

Gregory’s contrarian view was based on his conviction that the essence of the Gospel was the teaching that spousal love had to be love between equals based on mutual respect and tenderness, and a rejection of one individual controlling the other versus the traditional teaching that marriage was based on the husband’s right to his wife’s “body” (jus in corpus). Eventually, he added two other criteria – concern for the good of the partner (did the relationship foster self-realization?)  and critical attention to the impact on the soul. In the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of mutual love was raised to an aspiration on the same level as procreation. However, as long as procreation remained the prime goal of both sex and marriage, then homosexual love could receive no endorsement. But neither did the Church accept the majority recommendation of its own broadly-based commission that couples should be free to determine the number of children they wanted and the means to control that goal.

Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI, had accepted that a position based on a conception of “natural law” had to be abandoned because human nature could not be defined metaphysically as a basis for deriving ethical norms. Instead, Gregory had adopted the proposition pioneered by another dissident Catholic that the Church had historically defined sex in negative terms and that the premise had to be acceptance of sexuality as a means of striving for human happiness.

In his 1974 article, in addition to arguing that sexual norms are rooted in culture rather than in any universal understanding of human nature in which homosexual love is branded as “unnatural,” he also argued that the Church treated homosexuals the same way it treated Jews, despising and persecuting them based on a culture of contempt. Instead, homosexuality was no more sinister than being left-handed. Homosexual love is simply a different gift from God. Pope Francis in 2013 embraced that view: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and his good will, who am I to judge that person.”

In this week’s portion in chapter 18 and 20, we read:

ויקרא יח:כב וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא. Lev 18:22 Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
ויקרא כ:יג  וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם. Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.

Note, there is no prohibition of lesbian love, only male homosexuality. Only male homosexuality is a toevah, an abhorrence. The passages are not excised. We read them with reverence. Yet the vast majority of Jews, including many ultraorthodox Jews, no longer regard homosexuality as an abhorrence and certainly do not punish gays by killing them. How is the shift justified?

It is not largely done by developing a more comprehensive philosophical ethical framework whereby homosexuality can be embraced and even accepted. The shift is accomplished through hermeneutics, through learning to read the text in a different way. (For two scholarly accounts that undertake this effort, see Rabbi David Frankel, “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah,” and Dr. Shawna Dolansky, “Regarding Azazel and Homosexuals in the same Parasha.”) The principle that Gregory put forth, of cultural relativity, has been an integral part of hermeneutics in the tradition of interpreting Torah. Thus, one method is to read the text as one rooted in a society that had to protect the priority of reproduction, not because of a statement about sexual purposes, but in terms of the survival of the nation in its demographic battles with its enemies.

A second qualification is geographic – the prohibition only applied to those living in the Holy Land lest it be corrupted. This turns out to be a very unsatisfactory reading given that one of the most thriving homosexual communities in the world can be found in Tel Aviv.

A third does so by reading the text in context, in the wider concern still accepted of prohibiting incestual sexual relations. Since lying with a woman who is your sister or your mother is forbidden, so lying with a man who is your brother or your father is forbidden. That is, only those homosexual relations that imitate heterosexual relations that are forbidden are prohibited. It is merely an application of the prohibition against incest. This reading is certainly a stretch, but its importance is that these different methods of reading texts are ways of preserving Torah as a reference point without either surrendering to literalness or, on the other hand, abandoning Torah as a teaching tool.

For example, another way of reading the text in context is not to read it in terms of the circumstances that gave rise to the prohibitions against incest, but in the context of prohibitions against using sex as a vehicle for asserting a power relation, equivalent to Gregory’s insistence on the mutuality that must be inherent in sexual relations. Thus, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg has written, the phrase of a man “lying with a woman” is metaphorical. It means that sexual relations in which one partner is viewed as more powerful than the other and the sex is being used to demonstrate that power, that type of sexual behaviour is prohibited. Thus, homosexual love is only an abomination when it is used to demonstrate the power of one individual over another.

A third variation of reading the text in context that is even a greater stretch is to suggest that the text refers to sex with multiple partners whereby two men are lying with same woman. That is, do not lie with a man when lying with a woman. That is the abomination.

Since the nineteenth century, with the application of the critical reading of the whole Torah in a cultural context that recognized that the text is a compilation of readings developed at different times in the history of the Jewish people, a more critical reading insists that some of the above methods of textual interpretations are abominations in hermeneutics and simply exercises in sophistry. Instead, when it is recognized that biblical text is itself culturally rooted, when it is recognized that different parts of the Torah contradict other parts because they were developed in different historical periods and different contexts, then a search in the rest of the biblical narrative reveals a shocking absence of any other repetitions of this prohibition. Further, if it is accepted that one book, such as Deuteronomy, is more definitive than another, then the Deuteronomic code can be read as setting aside some prohibitions in Leviticus. Unfortunately, within Leviticus there is a similar claim to superiority. (26:46 and 27:34) So how do we adjudicate among competing texts?

One way is to accept what is common to them all – such as prohibitions on sexual congress with animals. Further, when there seems to be an implicit endorsement of homosexual love between, say David and Jonathan (Samuel 1:26), this would seem to acknowledge Gregory’s stress on the positive nature of a homosexual relationship when and only if it is based on mutual love and respect and a striving for self-realization. Any attempt to reconcile such irreconcilable positions, as when the Catholic Church tried to insist that “natural law” was the universal basis for determination, any effort to force the Torah text into a single coherent teaching in conduct, ends up in self-contradiction and stains textual reading rather than enhances it.

If we return to Gregory’s position that such prohibitions must be read as an expression of a culture at a specific time, why would this not lead to relativism and selective reading of Torah text in terms of our dominant culture in the present? On the other hand, why don’t we just say that the teaching in Leviticus is stupid? Both responses demonstrate a disrespect for the past. Instead, the contradictions must be read respectfully and with empathy without avoiding our responsibility to adjudicate among differences and make responsible choices. This is not “anything goes.” Further, text is elevated when it must be studied to ascertain its meaning and relevance and without producing a totally novel framework equivalent to the magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

An Ottawa scholar, Shawna Dolansky, makes that effort by using two texts on different but related matters rather than on the same issue. She reads the texts on scapegoating and prohibitions of homosexuality side-by-side to adjudicate between change and continuity and the conviction that any text is rooted in a specific culture. Thus, the ritual of scapegoating, referred to also in this week’s portion, was used by the Catholic Church for nefarious purposes to degrade Jews. The irony was the very text which used displacement as a healthy method of dealing with problems was used inversely to portray Jews in the imagery of a goat sucking the life out of Christianity.  It is one thing for a community to voluntarily and ritually assume responsibility for the transgressions of an individual. It is a very different matter for one community to transfer responsibility and blame to degrade another group.

The most famous example of this is the antisemitic pig (much more lowly than a goat in biblical terms) on the wall of the very same church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door, an action widely accepted as instigating the Protestant Reformation. The reproduction can be seen on: https://stevehickey.wordpress.com/2009/07/24/the-anti-semitic-pig-in-wittenberg/) The relief shows a rabbi looking into the ass of a pig and Jewish children sucking on the pig’s teats. Antisemitism, especially as expressed by Martin Luther, depicted Jews as engaged in an abomination with a pig.

If one reads the prohibitions against bestiality or the positive ritual using two goats as a purification offering alongside those against homosexuality, both negative and positive portrayals presume that sin is like the spot in Act 5, Scene I of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth hysterically tries to wash her hands and insist, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Sins either adhere to the sinner mercilessly or are only displaced by being shifted to a scapegoat; sins can never be exorcised. This was and, in part remains, a very deep-seated cultural belief.

This form of purgation (kippur) was excised from Jewish ritual, not the need to engage in purgation and the transfer of impurities, but the specific method. In the new theology, the issue became not simply the removal of contamination from the sanctuary, but the demonstration of remorse through contrition and self-denial, confession and abstinence from food.

If the prohibition of sexual congress between males is both understood in context, then one reading as described above is the injunction against a male treating another male as a female. The injunction opposed treating a superior or an equal as inferior, to “feminizing” another male. Therefore, as Gregory read the commandment, the problem was not sex but power, not mutual respect between two males engaged in sex, but the use of sex by one man to degrade another. In that sense, sexual congress with an inferior male was permitted in that culture, but no homosexual act should be prohibited in our egalitarian culture except when such acts entail exploiting another. Leviticus made the prohibition universal because there was no conception of equality of status between males. All male relationships were then hierarchical.

When relationships change, when, more importantly, the conception of relationship changes, so must the practices, both those encouraged and those that abhorred. The importance is not the discarding of prohibitions against sexual homosexual intercourse – an action I consider obvious – but the differences between the methods used to discard such prohibitions. Gregory proposed doing so by developing a “higher” moral code and conception of human relations rooted in the Gospel of love and revising prohibitions in terms of that, while Jewish commentators do it through hermeneutics, through different methods of reading text out of which new moral codes and practices are developed and reified.

Thus, Christians and Jews can reach the same place, but by following very different paths.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum began chapter 20 of his memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, with the following: “After the Holocaust, Christian churches were prompted by their historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism to support the State of Israel and to refrain from criticizing its treatment of Palestinians. After the Second World War, yet a second historical guilt, their approval of the colonial conquests of the European empires, moved the churches to offer moral support to the anti-colonial struggles of peoples in Asia and Africa, eventually including the Palestinian people. The churches then affirmed their twofold solidarity, with the Jewish State and with the Palestinian people.” (149)

Ignoring the historical conflation of decades of history, immediately after WWII, did the churches express guilt over the Holocaust? Did that lead those churches to support the creation of the State of Israel? Did they refrain from criticizing the treatment of Palestinians then because of this guilt? I can only refer to this last question very tangentially. I will have to ignore the question of whether the churches felt guilty about colonialism at that time.

The theology in the declaration could not have bothered them because the declaration is notably devoid of any theological references. The Torah is significantly not cited to support the declaration of independence. Rather, the following foundational elements are cited:

  • The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people
  • That land shaped their spiritual, religious and political identity
  • On that land, Jews first enjoyed statehood
  • On that land, Jews developed their national cultural values
  • From that land, Jews contributed to world civilization both universal values and, more specifically, the Bible
  • When dispersed, Jews never lost faith in the quest for return over two millennia
  • Further, over those years, Jews not only prayed for return but strove in every generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland
  • More recently, tens of, hundreds of thousands did return and the population of Jews had reached 600,000
  • In that return, they made deserts bloom and created a vibrant community
  • In that return, they revived the Hebrew language

The declaration then went on to detail both its practical and ethical aspirations: financial independence, cultural enrichment, peace, justice, self-defence, progress. Did the churches in general, whether driven by guilt over the Holocaust or not, celebrate the revival of statehood for Jews or even one or more of the accomplishments of the revived Yishuv? Did they express their strong opposition to the plans and moves of the Arab armies to invade the nascent state the very next day? Did they acknowledge the legal right to establish a Jewish state by the United Nations that had taken back Mandatory Palestine from the British, who had served as a trustee? Did they support partition and the creation of an independent Jewish state? More specifically, ignoring some of the hyperbole and exaggerations in the Declaration, was there any reference to guilt over the Holocaust, the European catastrophe in which six million Jews were massacred, as motivating any possible support? In the light of this unprecedented event, did the churches by and large support the natural right of the Jewish people “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state” even if many nations did not then enjoy such a right?

It took the Catholic Church twenty years afterwards to even repudiate antisemitism in Nostra Aetate. But even then, the official Churches and even the major dissidents remained silent concerning the right of Jews to have their own state – a silence that was only confronted just before the Cold War ended. In its 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations distinguished between theological and political considerations. Christians, they advised, should understand the deep religious significance of the land of Israel to Jews and Judaism. Though international law was increasingly used to challenge Israel’s occupation of majoritarian Arab areas after 1967, the principles of international law (later cited as the basis for dealing with the occupation) as distinct from religious attachments, were not used to acknowledge the right of creation of a Jewish state. Certainly, the birth of Judaism in Israel many centuries ago conferred no right. Neither did the development of their ancient nation-state, the continuing attachment of Jews to the land when they were dispersed, or the miracles of their return, revival of the Hebrew language and initial economic development suggested as justifications.

The church had its own political interests and it objected to either a Jewish or a Palestinian monopoly over Jerusalem. Winning this point was a trade off by some Catholic countries that was used to push UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, to recommend that Jerusalem remain an international city independent of both an Arab and a Jewish state with rights established for all three religions. Rather than guilt propelling the Catholic Church to support the nascent Jewish state, the Church was intimately involved in the messy business of politics in a flawed and failed effort to retain a strong political foothold in Jerusalem, a political foothold lost many centuries earlier when the Crusaders were defeated after an occupancy of two centuries.

It also took the Protestant churches decades after the state was declared to recognize both the importance of the land of Israel for Jews as well as the principle that Jews were entitled to self-determination. For the first time in 1980, the Rhineland-Synod stated that, “the continuing existence of the Jewish people, its return to the promised land, and the establishment of the state of Israel are a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people.” Theology, not guilt, seemed to provide both the rationale and the motive.

Did those Zionists who issued that Declaration of Independence even appeal to guilt over the Holocaust as a reason to support Israel? Not at all. The Shoah is mentioned to show why it was urgent to take action concerning the 250,000 refugees left as a residue of that catastrophe and the plan to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates of Israel wide to Jews needing as well as wanting to immigrate. The problem of the homeless refugees that no country then wanted motivated some Churches to support the State of Israel.

By the end of the century, the Evangelical Church in Germany conceded supporting the State of Israel with “just borders,” but the context suggests that even this belated statement was not heart-felt, but was offered to balance the Church’s concern with Palestinian refugees. However, we are here concerned with the late forties and not the post-1967 period so it might be helpful to look, not at official church doctrine and proclamations, but at Protestant dissident theologians who led the movement of reconciliation between Christianity and the Jewish community. To that end, to end this blog, I will summarily examine the views of Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth.

Whatever the many versions, Martin Niemöller became most famous for the following famous poem that he wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In some versions, incurables and Jehovah Witnesses were included alongside Jews. The general interpretation is that it is incumbent upon us all to defend those whose rights are initially attacked because, eventually, I too will find myself a victim of an oppressive regime. Unwillingness to take risks was not an excuse.

However, there is a more cynical interpretation, not based on Niemöller’s intent but on his behaviour, namely always ensure that the minority group next to you (Jews) is protected because otherwise you will be next. This black humour was suggested by Niemöller’s own history as a dissident in Nazi Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp under a protective detention order which permitted his access to books and writing material, a period in which he requested release to serve in the German navy.

Niemöller was sent there, not because he defended socialism – he was a supporter of national socialism, voted for Hitler in 1933 and initially enthusiastically supported the Nazis coming to power,– not because he defended trade unionism, because he initially supported the Nazi coup and the destruction of the trade unions for he had always criticized Weimar Germany for its softness on communism, and not even because he opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews, for he only opposed that persecution when it came to Jews baptised by the Lutheran Church. As he himself wrote in 1933 when he organized the pastors’ emergency federation (Pfarrernotbund), which became the foundation of the Confessional Church that stood in opposition to the official church when in 1934 it endorsed Nazi racist persecution of Jews, the fourth point in the founding charter objected to the Nazi ousting of ministers as ministers when they weere of Jewish lineage (Judenstämmlinge). Antisemitism became objectionable only when it was racial and affected the principle of baptism and conversion. Throughout the thirties, Niemöller continued to insist that Jews were guilty of killing Jesus and, without subjecting themselves to baptism, were deservedly being punished.

When he was released from prison after the war to eventually become president of the Hessen-Nasau Lutheran Church in 1947 and an extremely popular preacher in America, his revised theology was then stated most clearly in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis) published months after his release. Did he express any guilt about the Shoah? Did he express any support for Zionism as an expression of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination? No. The collective guilt for which he insisted Germans accept collective responsibility was for the destruction in Europe generally and Germany more specifically. His criticisms of Nazi Germany remained restricted to the objections to interference in Church affairs. He insisted that he, and most Germans, were NOT guilty about the Shoah since he along with most Germans were ignorant of the scale of the atrocities and shocked by the event. Because of that ignorance, Germans had no cause to feel guilty about the Shoah.

Niemöller in his speeches around the United States made no reference to the Shoah, made no reference to any support for the creation of the State of Israel that I could find, but rather highlighted the resistance by the Confessing Church, a minority of Lutherans, to the Nazis. That resistance was based on his insistence on the absolute sovereignty of Christ as the backbone of the Confessing Church to which he had given witness. Non-converted Jews could be murdered, but “the Word of God can’t be bound and can’t be murdered.” His emphasis was on Christian brotherhood and not reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism.

These observations are not new. Eleanor Roosevelt made them at the time. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio did so as well. Silver criticized Niemöller because he had not opposed Nazi racism, only Nazi persecution of the church. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress at the time, noted that Niemöller never once objected to the Shoah let alone felt any remorse or guilt for what had taken place. And Niemöller was a dissident.

Karl Barth, another founder of the Confessing Church, and acknowledged as one of the most significant pioneers in attempting to reconcile Christian theology with Jewish beliefs, is another matter. In Stephen Hayes book, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology (1991) he claimed that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that Barth’s understanding of Israel had had the kind of influence on Protestant theology that Nostra Aetate has had on Catholic thinking about Israel.”

Unlike Niemöller, Barth had always opposed the general antisemitism of the Nazi regime and not only its effects on the autonomy of the church. “He who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.” Barth went further. He saw in Israel [note, not the state but the people, Am Israel rather than Eretz Israel] “a new sign of God’s presence in Jewish history.” However, his support for Israel as a people was, for him, a sign of God’s revelation, not out of any guilt for the Shoah. His support for Israel fitted within his pioneering work in reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in terms of a “double covenant” and celebration of the Jewishness of Jesus, but this should not detract from the fact that he still believed that Jews had been divinely punished for their rejection of Jesus and he remained critical of rabbinic Judaism.

I need not go into any detail into the theological presumptions behind his views. For Barth, man and God were not involved in a dialectical relationship whereby God as well as humans changed because of the encounter for the preservation of the covenant, Christianity depended on God alone and his embodiment in the person of Jesus as his “eternal mode of being” whereby Jesus takes on the burden of human sinfulness. “It is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made his own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own.”

This acceptance of Jews as having an independent covenantal relationship with God was extremely enlightened thinking at the time, but in his conception even that relationship remained a matter of grace rather than a legal and ethical contract between two parties. Further, God’s relationship to the Jews was but a precursor and precondition for the realization of God’s historic promise to all humanity. This proposition became a foundation for the subsequent Christian strong support for the State of Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming. But not for Karl Barth himself. In Karl Barth, a respect for differences emerges, but no real understanding of or sympathy for either Torah Judaism or political Judaism in the form of Zionism. This will, in turn, subsequently lead to the position of the World Council of Churches which finds in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but one more case of Jewish obduracy and its continuing rejection of Jesus as divine. Israel remains the disobedient servant of God responsible not only for the oppression of the Palestinians, but for the continuing schism among humans preventing the Second Coming.

The end of WWII and the revelations of the Shoah did not in general produce in Christian churches guilt for its occurrence or a commandment to support the nascent state of Israel, but rather the recognition of the profundity of radical evil which struck Jews more extensively than any other group, but for which Jews were ultimately responsible because, as elected witnesses to God’s revelation, they still rejected the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus, champions of Christian-Jewish dialogue, of Christian acceptance of Jews having an independent relationship with God, such as Rosemary and Herman Reuther, could, in 1989, publish The Wrath of Jonah which sympathized and supported the State of Israel, but detailed the oppression of Palestinians.

In sum, in the aftermath of WWII there was no demonstrable guilt for the Shoah even among the minority of Christians in continental Europe who opposed Hitler, and no support for Israel based on that guilt. Christian Zionists were the exception; they dated back to a period before the emergence of Jewish political Zionism in the late nineteenth century and continued to support Israel as a state up to, during and after the creation of Israel. But both the mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, and even the reforming dissidents, including some within that group who recognized the Shoah as an expression of radical evil (das Nichtige) in our time, did not express any guilt for the Shoah or any support for Israel based on that guilt or even mention the Shoah, though the Shoah would subsequently have an enormous impact on Christian theology, especially in post-Holocaust theology.

But not when the State of Israel was declared.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

History Matters

History Matters

by

Howard Adelman

There is an irony that I find, one which Friedrich Nietzsche failed to address when he wrote his short book, The Use and Abuse of History. History is subject to severe abuse when agents wish to rewrite history. It does not matter whether one is writing heroic history and acclaiming that the glorious record of the past has produced the wonders of the present that will guarantee a magnificent future (progressive/heroic history) or whether one has a dystopic view of the immediate past and puts forth an argument that the past betrayed an idyllic beginning so that the course of history needs to be radically altered otherwise the current trajectory will carry a nation into the dustbin of history (dystopic history).

There are two other possible pure patterns, only one of which can be found in frequent practice. Unlike the two models of history above running from an idyllic past either to a heroic or dystopic future, one possible model traces history directly from a heroic past without blemish to a heroic future. I can think of no concrete practice that follows this pattern. However, I do find histories written in terms of an immoral past which continues to corrupt events leading to the horrors of the present and to future shock – unless, of course, we lift up our moral game. This is not simply an historical account to which values are applied, but a historical record molded and cast in terms of the ethical format applied to the case. In this case, ‘corrupt” has a double irony, both applied to the record offered and to the moral mold applied to interpreting history.

The four patterns of history, which are not patterns of actual history, can be represented as follows, the first having no cases so it is listed first and separately:

Nil Examples of Heroic History: Heroic Past to Heroic Present

Actual Examples

  1. Heroic History: from Idyllic Past to Heroic Present
  2. Dystopic History: from Idyllic Past to Dystopic Present
  3. Corrupt History: from Horrific Past to Dystopic Present

Yesterday, Donald Trump once again gave witness that he was a member of the dystopic school of abusers of history. He ran on a slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which carried the message that America was once a great nation, that it had seriously declined, but could be saved and restored to greatness once again. To make that case, he has repeatedly deformed the immediate past, whether he was making claims about individuals – Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. – or whether he was making a general statement about a collectivity – Blacks live in decrepit crime-ridden neighbourhoods. He did not say that rundown and crime ridden neighbourhoods were often populated by Blacks and Hispanics – itself somewhat of a distortion since the opioid epidemic is currently flourishing in small town white America.

However, yesterday he made a counterfactual claim about the past when America was not so great, when America had deteriorated into civil war.  In an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, when referring to the portrait of Andrew Jackson that hangs on the wall of his office, he posited the thesis that the Civil War would not have happened if Andrew Jackson had been president in the 1850s rather than two decades earlier. This was a Republican president denouncing the founding president of his party (Abraham Lincoln) for being an inadequate leader and one who helped bring about the civil war that ravaged America just over a century and a half ago. The edited transcript reads as follows:

[Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee…had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

Even though this is a counterfactual hypothesis about an alternative path that history could have followed, the speculation entailed several historical falsehoods – about Frederick Douglass and about a non-existent Civil War battle. In the above quote, there are the claims about Jackson’s character: he was a swashbuckler, very tough but with a big heart. This is a matter of interpretation, and certainly apparently outlandish with respect to Jackson having a “big heart” considering his initiative at ethnic cleaning of the Cherokee and other tribes in the incident known as the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern U.S. to the western plains. However, to assert, in absolute certainty, that, had Jackson been in the presidency, there would have been no Civil War is an exercise in dogmatic retrospective futurology when the one lesson history teaches is that, if the path of history is notoriously difficult to predict, retrospectively rewriting the past in terms of a specific alternative is a virtual impossibility.

The statement that Jackson “saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War” and said, “There’s no reason for this (my italics)” is also preposterously and demonstrably false. Jackson died in 1845, sixteen years before the war started. Further, if anything, Jackson helped set the groundwork for the Civil War when South Carolina threatened to secede – the first state to make such a threat – not over slavery, but over the new tariffs Jackson had imposed as a mercantilist opposed to free trade. The export of the products of South Carolina were very adversely affected. But when has Donald Trump ever been stymied by the realities of history?

Last week, in an interview he opined that, “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever. So we’re looking at that, and we’re also looking at the potential of going to Saudi Arabia.” Other than the difficulty of trying to decipher precisely what this statement means – is he suggesting that he is looking towards the Saudi plan to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? – the claim that “there is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and Palestinians” goes even further than utopian progressivists in Scandinavia and elsewhere who argue that the explanation for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Europe decided to resolve its “Jewish problem” by exporting that so-called problem to the Middle East.

The latter is known as the “Dumping Thesis.” The problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back to European antisemitism. The later version of the dumping thesis was that Europe, because of guilt over the Shoah, supported the creation of Israel. Europe displaced its Jewish problem by supporting Zionism and the movement of Jews from Europe to the Middle East.

I was reminded of this thesis when Gregory Baum very recently sent me his memoir called, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. (I will review the book, specifically its marriage of Augustinian and liberation theology, in a future blog.) I first met Gregory in 1955. I was hitching a ride at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst to the University of Toronto where I was enrolled in the premedical program. Gregory was driving his beaten-up old Volkswagen from the Augustinian monastery in Marylake in King City north of Toronto off Keele Street. The thousand acres once belonged to the estate of Sir Henry Pellatt who built Casa Loma, a current popular tourist attraction two blocks from my home for the past fifty years. Gregory was a priest. He lived in the monastery at Marylake. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends.

Gregory is a beautiful man truly with a great heart. His broad smile lights up a room and he credits his “inner smile” to the warmth and love of his mother, on the one hand, and his “blindness” to the horrors of the world on the other hand. He was born in Berlin fifteen years before my mother gave birth to me in Toronto. His family had been prosperous industrialists in Germany and his father, a nominal Protestant, died when he was a year old because of the aftereffects of wounds he suffered as a German army officer in WWI. Gregory’s father had in part been responsible for the gas attacks on the allied forces and had received the Iron Cross. He had also been an assistant to Dr. Fritz Haber, also a nominal Protestant, but of Jewish origin. Haber received a Nobel Prize in 1919, awarded in 1918, for his innovations in chemistry, in particular, “the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” He was also the inventor of the cyanide-based gas, Zyklon B, used in the extermination camps in the Shoah.

Though Gregory’s grandparents on both sides had been Jewish, he had been raised celebrating Christmas and Easter in an avowedly secular home. German culture had been the religion of his family. However, when Hitler came to power, he was designated as a Jew because his mother and grandparents were Jewish, but he escaped Germany with his step-father who had international business connections, first to Britain, where he was part of the children’s transport. Subsequently, he was interned with many other German Jews in Canada during the early years of the war where he became a close friend of Emil Fackenheim who supervised my MA thesis on Hegel and Nietzsche.

As students, we shared the anecdote that Rabbi Fackenheim had been responsible for converting Gregory Baum to Catholicism because Emil had introduced Gregory to the Mediaeval Institute at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Gregory’s memoir destroyed that ironic anecdote for me, but it was true that his education in the Canadian internment camp for “German citizens”, from which he was released in 1942, woke up his intellectual probing.

Gregory Baum was baptized in 1946 and would go on to become a leading figure in the Catholic Church in liberation theology. He was a seminal figure in Vatican II initiated by Pope John XXIII that convened between 1962 and 1965 when it was closed by Pope Paul VI, who was a participant, but subsequently systematically set out to subvert many of its reformist measures, though not its call for holy renewal or the introduction of vernacular languages in the church services. Gregory was a peritus, a mavin serving as theological adviser at the Ecumenical Secretariat.

In 1976, Gregory was forced to resign from the priesthood and the Augustinian Order, but for awhile remained a professor of sociology at St. Michael’s College before he moved to Montreal and McGill University. It was during that period that we had a long argument in my home study near Casa Loma. He and Cranford Pratt, who passed away last year, along with John Burbidge (a fellow Hegelian and member of the Toronto Hegelian group with myself) and William Dunphy, had authored a pamphlet entitled, “Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Christian Perspective.” None of them were either historians or philosophers of history. Cran and Gregory had come over to my study to discuss a draft they had written and had forwarded to me and to get my reaction. The argument we had did not change their minds. They did not change mine.

The central debate concerned their contention that Europe had a prime responsibility for the Israeli-Arab conflict and had dumped its problem with the Jews on the Palestinians in the Middle East. When I read his memoir, I was sorry to learn that in all these years he had never corrected what I considered to be major historical and factual errors in the Pamphlet that he and Cran Pratt had come to discuss back in the seventies.

Tomorrow, I will analyze Gregory Baum’s version of Israeli history. While Trump offered us a dystopic view of the American past, Gregory offered the world a horrific account of Israeli history. He wrote corrupt history. Both Trump and Baum interpreted history with a cavalier approach to historical facts.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman