The Art of Dialogue: Jewish-Christian Relations in a Post-Shoah World (the Jerome Cardin Memorial Lecture)

Article excerpt

We wish, perhaps, that some events of the past would quietly fall into oblivion, be erased from collective memory for a fresh start. Surely, the Holocaust, or Shoah, would be such an event: The systematic attempt of Nazi Germany and its European collaborators to annihilate all European Jews and Jewish culture revealed modernity's darkest side, and it sobered the Enlightenment's belief in the steady progress of humanity toward moral improvement. The unleashing of unprecedented genocidal violence was made possible by putting modern technology and a bureaucratic apparatus into the service of a nation state ruled by a racial ideology. What started in the early years of Hitler's dictatorship as domestic terror evolved into a systematic genocidal campaign after the beginning of World War II in 1939. In hundreds of camps dotting the European map, the so-called inferior and undesirable people labored, starved, suffered, and died. The abyss of this system of terror was reached when the six extermination camps started their operations in December of 1941. The name Auschwitz is seared into our collective conscience and consciousness.

When we think about Auschwitz, the term dialogue does not readily come to mind. Auschwitz, it seems, is the antithesis to dialogue, to understanding, to reconciliation, and to life. Philosopher Theodor Adorno once wondered whether poetry can be written again after Auschwitz, and we may similarly ask whether dialogue can happen again in the face of such calamity. Auschwitz, one might say, is a negative space, a cemetery without graves, a house of death without traces--and this negative vortex cannot be mended or undone by dialogue. But Auschwitz today is no longer a death camp: It has become a memorial site, a tourist site, and a site of modern pilgrimage of millions of visitors each year. And if Ausch-witz the death camp dampens any optimism about the prospect of dialogue, Auschwitz the contemporary memorial site demands us to engage a dialogical ethics.

The importance of dialogue is the topic I want to address at this occasion. I want to show that there is an art to dialoguing, and this art calls us into an ethical commitment of relationality. I also want to show that the art to dialoguing involves, literally, the arts. In my life, I have experienced and practiced dialogue through the performance arts as well as the visual arts. The body of work that my artist friend Karen Baldner and I created over the years is one example of how the visual arts can facilitate dialogue and serve as a catalyst for restoration and transformation. Our collaborative effort (previously covered in CrossCurrents (2)) has resulted in multiple objects of installations, prints, and book art that serve as witnesses to our ongoing dialogue between a Jewish German woman and a non-Jewish German man, both of whom were raised in Germany but are now residing in the United States.

The Cardin Memorial Lecture has, over many years now, offered ample occasions to publicly reflect on aspects of Jewish--Christian relations, and so I start there as well. As much as I have emphasized in my opening words that the annihilation of European Jews must be understood as a genocidal effort of a modern secular dictatorship, it is also true that the silence and complicity of the Christian churches contributed to the utter abandonment of the Jewish communities during the Holocaust. Soon after 1945, however, this fatal neglect triggered a process of soul-searching among Christian communities and led to a thorough overhaul of Christian thinking about Judaism. Christians began to repudiate their anti-Judaic, anti-Jewish, and antisemitic traditions that have blinded and distorted their century-old views of Jews and the Jewish religion (Fig. 1).

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In his 2011 volume on church documents of post-1945 Christian-Jewish dialogue, Lutheran theologian Franklin Sherman summarizes those changes succinctly. …