by Brother Gilbert Bloomer
This reflection is my response to my reading in Pastoral theology. I have chosen three readings that seem to be connected for me. I read them in the light of the teachings of Emmanuel Levinas, St Edith Stein and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. These are like three Jewish prisms that I evaluate all that I read. One is a Jewish philosopher who is modern –orthodox (mitnagdim/ Litvak), the second is a Jewish philosopher turned Catholic Jew and the third a Hasidic Jew that links me to my own personal immemorial past. My Russian step-grandmother’s personal motto that she took from her History of Dance teacher Khudekov of the Russian Imperial Ballet is always before my inner eyes: "We have forgotten to pray to God with our feet. We have forgotten that once in the great past a divine being touched us and we were nearer to God. ". Levinas, St Edith Stein and Rebbe Nachman are three who seek to awaken me to that forgotten but often terrifying primordial past.
The first reading I have chosen is Chapter 3 “The Shoah and the Unforgivable” in Michael de Saint Cheron book “Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas 1983-1994”. This chapter discusses the true story told by Simon Wiesenthal called “The Sunflower” about his encounter with a young dying Nazi who wishes to confess his great crimes against Jewish victims to a Jew. Wiesenthal listens but does not respond except by silence and then leaving the room. The chapter then discusses the different reactions to this story in the context of forgiveness by Jews and Christians.
This story is emotionally very powerful and the silence of Wiesenthal impacted me in a deep way almost beyond my surface reaction or understanding or knowledge. Was this an encounter or reaction that is not an encounter or reaction but what Levinas calls the immemorial past. Before the horrors of the Shoah, does something transport some unknown part of me into this immemorial past and I stand before the void and chaos that is ‘tohu v’bohu’ in Genesis 1. Is this silence the silence of the void? How can or can one make sense of this chaos of the void? Do I identify with the Nazi who has done great evil but seeks forgiveness, the Jew who stands in silence or the Jews who are the victims of Nazi genocide? Am I all three? Do I have a void within at which I stand in silence and horror before the memories of those I have harmed? Why does something within me beyond the rational ‘know’ without ‘knowing’ that this is the true response - silence.
Before the ‘face’ of such an experience or encounter words are inadequate and even possibly inappropriate. What words could console or help the Nazi anyway. The telling of his crimes and the Jew who listens and remains in silence is all that is needed. Wiesenthal may not have spoken but he did react with compassion and mercy. His answer was the visit to the Nazi’s mother who he did not tell of the crimes of her son. For me this was the perfect response of mercifulness, to have done otherwise would have been an act of great cruelty and revenge that would have inflicted horror and pain on another (or “other”). This is ethical transcendence in action. This is a modern manifestation of the compassion the Jewish people felt towards the mother of Sisera whom their own heroine Jael killed as an enemy of the Jews. The 101 blasts of the shofar are linked by the Rabbinic tradition with the 101 tears shed by Sarah as well as the 101 tears shed by the mother of the General Sisera.
I however find some of the comments in the rest of the chapter irritating. I also disagree with the repeated claim that Judaism does not allow the forgiving or suffering for the sins of others only the forgiveness of those who have sinned against the individual themselves. It smacked more of a neo-Orthodox Jewish apologetic style understanding which endeavours to create an ideological distance from the concept of a righteous One (Tzadik/ Rebbe) or Messiah who takes on the sins and sufferings of others as taught by Christians and by Hasidic Judaism. If we ignore many Jewish writings and texts and that whole half (and more spiritual and mystical half) of Judaism we may be able to argue that way.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov himself took on great sufferings as tikkun (reparation) for the massacres of Chmielnicki in 1648 that occurred before his birth and for the sexual perversion of Kabbalah by the followers of Shabtai Zvi (the wolf of Saturn). This doesn’t even ring true about Judaism for those (both Jews and Gentiles) that studied Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” in High School, where the son of a Hasidic Rebbe (Tzadik) has to train his son in suffering in order for him to be the future Rebbe who suffers and repairs for his Hasidim. Was St Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) one such Catholic Jewish Tzadikess who with her words to her sister Rosa said “Come. Let us go for our people” that reparative oblation (tikkun and korban) offered in union with the crucified Messiah and his crucified Jewish people?
The second reading I have chosen is by one of my favourite theologians Father Aidan Nichols from his book “A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century”. The reading is from chapter 5 of this book and titled “Martyr of Israel: Edith Stein and the Love of Wisdom”. I have chosen this reading as it continues the thoughts of my first selection. Pope John Paul II said that Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe will lead us into the third millennium. Both died at Auschwitz as martyrs - one a Jew and woman the other a man and Gentile. “Maximilian Kolbe . . . was the ‘saint of the abyss’ – the man who looked into the modern heart of darkness and remained faithful to Christ by sacrificing his life for another in the Auschwitz starvation bunker while helping his cellmates die with dignity and hope.” (George Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 447). Once again we see these two righteous ones standing before the void.
Aidan Nichols tells us in this chapter of the story that Stein wrote of a fictional encounter of Husserl (her teacher in phenomenology) with St.Thomas Aquinas. Edith herself is caught between the ‘truths’ of both traditions in a way that reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas. The concept and understanding of Levinas about the immemorial past is reflected in Edith’s concept of the Primordial. She writes; ‘Not everything that is inaccessible to [natural understanding] is in every sense inaccessible to our mind in its foundational structure...Full truth is. There is a knowing that wholly encompasses it, a knowing that is not infinite process but infinite, peaceable fullness- the divine knowing...” (p.87).
Husserl’s approach to the concept of ‘knowing’, according to Stein, was a limitless ascent toward the future that could be fully comprehended and experienced by the human intellect. Edith Stein and Aidan Nichols focus us on the primordial as “something behind us, and so perhaps a font on which we draw”. This primordial is accessed through what the Catholic Church calls ‘supernatural faith’. The Breslov Hasidic Rabbis in the tradition of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov call this supernatural faith “emuna” (faith / truth). They explain that this means that even in the darkness of a Nazi concentration camp one must have emuna. This is the faith to say “this too is all for the best’ “or “all is to the greater good”. This is true emuna or supernatural faith beyond the human intellect and wisdom. This wisdom speaks the language of divine love and madness.
This is the love experienced by Edith Stein- a love that is willing to even give their lives in sacrifice for the ‘other’, even the undeserving ‘other’. This love and faith unites her with all the sorrowing mothers of Israel - Esther before the king, Rachel weeping for her children, Sarah weeping 101 tears when she beholds the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) in mystic vision, Miriam watching her baby brother float down the river and Our Lady in the darkness at the foot of the Cross and on the via dolorosa. As one stands before the void of chaos the darkness of the womb and faith of the Mother envelops us in the protecting dark waters of silence that is supernatural faith (emuna). In our immemorial subconscious we ‘hear’ the words from the deep saying “and it was Good’ on the third day, after the darkness and evil of the second day in which goodness seems missing. This unites with the “it was Good” of the first day which leads us to form a new creation, a new Eden.
This then leads to the third reading I have chosen by Terry A. Veiling in his book “Practical Theology: On Earth as It is in Heaven”. The chapter is titled “Can the Wisdom of Heaven Return to Earth” in which Veiling discusses Levinas and his understanding of suffering and the ‘other’. Levinas as a survivor of the Shoah wrestles with the guilt of those that survive. Levinas sees that the only way to live is to transform one’s own suffering and fear of death into a focus or encounter with the face of the other by being concerned more for his suffering and fear of death than for one’s own. He perceives the ‘word of God’ in the face of the ‘other’. There is something beautiful in this practical concern for the ‘other’. This philosophical insight of Levinas allows a return of Jewish and Christian thought to its Biblical roots.
His emphasis on the transcendent nature of the encounter with God in the face of the ‘other’ returns the concept of “mystery” or “secret” to our encounter with the Divine. This is a truly post-modernist approach that draws on the best of the past for a beginning to a new understanding, taking into account the reality of the horrors of the Shoah and the 20th century. It is this concern for the ‘other’ that gives us ‘vigilant insomnia’, that keeps our souls awake to the voice from outside ourselves - the voice of Divine Revelation. Rebbe Nachman’s stories and melodies are his attempt to awaken the souls of his Hasidim and all people. It is through the face of the ‘other’ (another human being especially the marginalised) that we receive the face of the “Other” (God Most High) according to Levinas.
This face of the ‘other’ could be linked to the face of the Mother weeping as the primordial created ‘face over the waters (mayim)’ in which we ‘intuit’ the uncreated transcendent ‘face over the deep (tahom)’ veiled in the [first] darkness of the transcendent mystery that we call God (Elohim). Does this “face of the mother” (‘other’) already in the immemorial past of primordial time behold the horrors of the void (tohu v’bohu), which her children will make for one another (the Shoah etc), under the influence of he who created this void on the second day (fall of Satan and the breaking of the vessels)? Is the [second] darkness the dark waters of her womb as they cover us as we stand on the precipice of the void? Can we understand that the light (Living in Divine Will) of the first day that is hidden away at twilight in Miriam’s well is also the joy and dance of Miriam that is reflected partly in the story of the song and dance of Miriam at the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 15). This joy (simchah) of the mother is manifested in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman and Breslov Hasidism, so that after the Shoah, they are the Jews that are most known for their joyful devotional dancing and joyful positive teaching on faith. Is this concept of radical joy and its power to heal and repair something that is missing in the writings of Levinas?
Primordial chaos by Judy Racz