Rabbi Leon Klenicki

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Rabbi Leon Klenicki died this past January 25th, and may he rest in peace. By all accounts he was a giant for the last several decades in the field of Jewish/Christian dialogue.

In 1989, a book was published called “Believing Today: Jew & Christian in Conversation.” It was in effect a conversation between Rabbi Klenicki and Richard John Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor). I’ve found this little book to be endlessly fascinating, and I get some fresh illumination every time I pick it up again. Neither Klenicki nor Neuhaus are pretending to represent every practitioner of their respective faiths; it is just what it is: a conversation between two intelligent and knowledgeable believers who value being faithful to their respective traditions. There is no subject from which the two men shy away, be it the history of Christian anti-Semitism, the holocaust, the Messiah, the secularizing impulses of American Jewry, etc, etc. The book is not about holding hands and pretending that everyone believes the same things, but rather about understanding differences, and probing for genuine and firmly-based common ground. Which seem like good goals for Jewish/Christian relations in general.

Here is one extract, in which their conversation touches on the concept of an afterlife, the purposes of Jewish/Christian dialogue itself, and the particularity and God-given importance for Jewish/Christian relations of this moment in history, i.e. this American moment:

Neuhaus: Do you as a Jew today, Leon, think about your eternal destiny as a member of the covenant community? Is the idea of an eternal destiny — heaven, hell, judgment, perfect communion with the absolute, with God — is that a key part of your own piety, your own spirituality?

Klenicki: Yes, it is, but in the sense of my personal obligation of making this world a better world, of bringing the kingdom of God, which is the prelude to the coming of the Messiah. I think of death without any fear. I think of death as a sort of eternal rest, a time of peace before the coming of the Messiah. I cannot imagine a hell and a paradise. For me, hell and paradise are here on earth. Auschwitz was a good representation of hell. The indifference of humanity to human suffering — that’s another form of hell. But after death, I know God will ask me a question in the best tradition of Hasidic theological understanding. God will ask me if I, Leon Klenicki, a person created by the Eternal to fulfill the covenant of relationship with God, have done enough to improve the human situation.

Neuhaus: And will it, in your understanding, make a difference whether the answer to that question is “yes” or “no”?

Klenicki: Yes, it will make a great difference.

Neuhaus: For Leon Klenicki? Eternally?

Klenicki: Yes, eternally. And I think that also relates to the rest of my community, though my community might not think in those terms because, once again, they fear it sounds too Christian. They fear that these are Christian questions and not Jewish questions, though they are essentially part of our tradition from biblical times to our own days, through centuries of interpretation.

Neuhaus: A good point, but even if we were to stipulate that they are distinctively Christian questions, isn’t it, as we suggested earlier, essential to the integrity of the dialogue that Jews be asking Christians Jewish questions, and Christians be asking Jews Christian questions?

Klenicki: That’s very, very important. I would point out that such a dialogue should consider the integrity of the other in faith. It should respect differences in trying to comprehend the spiritual depth projected in their responses. This is an obligation for both Jews and Christians. Otherwise we are open to ambiguity — that is, questions and responses of double meaning, obscure and doubtful. The danger in asking Jewish questions of Christians and the reverse is that feelings or passions may be projected rather than thoughtful and reflective considerations. I realized this in my readings of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I belong to a group of Christians and Jews who have been meeting regularly to study chapters nine through eleven of that letter. It’s difficult both in text and in spirit. I ask him — or rather, his text — questions coming out of first- and second-century Judaism, and I project, at times, my yearning and ambiguity toward Paul and his use and abuse of biblical sources. My ambiguity parallels Paul’s ambiguity toward Israel and its place in God’s design. Paul conveys a sense of ambiguity that is reflected in later Christianity. That is, Paul expresses the difficulty Christians have in accepting Judaism as a meaningful voice of God, despite the Jesus event. On our side, we feel that Paul illustrates what happened after Constantine when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire: we became second-class citizens in civil rights and in religious considerations. Christianity became the very image and symbol of our oppression. We have to overcome, as I said before, memories and images of this oppression.

I feel that we can do this together in the United States, a pluralistic society enjoying the constitutional separation of church and state, in this democratic country.

Neuhaus: Especially in the United States, as you say, and that is very important indeed. I think it is no exaggeration to say that here and now, for the first time in history, there is the opportunity and therefore the obligation for Jews and Christians to engage one another in authentic dialogue. Surely, there have been rare individual Jews and rare Christians who have done that in the past, but it was not the engagement of communities. Here there are substantial numbers of Christians and Jews who can reach out to one another. Because of unspeakable tragedy, that is not the case in Germany or in most of the rest of Europe. And of course it is also not the case in Israel, where there is not the pluralistic context that makes such dialogue possible.

But, again, I am not at all sure that we Christians and Jews are acting on the opportunity and obligation that we have here. You and I are convinced that the bond between Christians and Jews can only be securely established on the basis of faith, of believing today, but in that respect I expect that we are in the minority in our communities. I remember some years ago being part of an interfaith panel in a midwestern city. The chairman of the event got up and held forth on how wonderful it was that sitting here in amity were a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew. How is this possible? he rhetorically asked. I was hoping he would say something about our community in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But no. He triumphantly concluded, “It is possible because, despite the fact that one is a Catholic and one is a Protestant and one is a Jew, we recognize that we are all Americans!” That was very sad, but not very surprising. Of course it was a very American meeting, and it would be hard to imagine its happening anywhere else. But the point missed is that, while the expression of the bond between us was very American, the reality of that bond was forged not by American civil religion but by the history of God’s redemptive work. If I respect you “despite” the fact that you are a Jew, we [haven’t] made a substantive advance beyond the “toleration” associated with the French Enlightenment and Europe, in which Jews were emancipated in terms of their civil rights as individuals, so long as they didn’t disrupt the arrangement by being too Jewish.

Klenicki: Exactly.

Neuhaus: Most important, they were not to be very Jewish in public. But such toleration, as became tragically evident in Europe, was a foundation of sand for the relationship between Jews and Christians. I mean, to put it quite bluntly, why should Christians, expecially when they are in the overwhelming majority, care very much about Jews and Judaism? As anti-Semites are always reminding us, here is this small minority, less than three percent of the population, exercising such inordinate influence in “our” society. As much as anti-Semitism may be contained at the moment in American life, we cannot forget that, on the left and right of the social and political spectrum, there are fever swamps that serve as lovely breeding grounds for such resentments. There is no profound and convincing answer to the question of why we must respect Jews and Judaism unless it is found in a religious, theological, and spiritual understanding of the bond between us. All of America’s legal and constitutional guarantees are, as James Madison said, just “parchment barriers” to social hostility unless they are backed up by a morally and religiously convincing answer to this question.

This book is out of print, but used copies can be found on Amazonand no doubt elsewhere.

The book, as mentioned, was published exactly twenty years ago. And Rabbi Leon Klenicki and Richard John Neuhaus both passed on last month, seventeen days apart.