Rabbi Asher Finkel (1934-2020): Rest in Peace

Rabbi Dr. Asher Finkel
Professor Emeritus
Jewish-Christian Studies
Graduate Program
Seton Hall University

You are righteous, O Lord
And all your deeds are just;
All your ways are mercy and truth;
You are the Judge of the world.
(Book of Tobit 3:2)

As the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies and the Master’s Program in Jewish-Christian Studies commemorates 45 years of academic work, it is with great sadness that I share the news that Rabbi Asher Finkel departed from this world on August 17, 2020. He was surrounded by his beloved wife, Jane, and his children and grandchildren as he gave his life into the merciful hands of his Lord.

“You are righteous, Lord, and your judgment is right. True and righteous Judge, blessed are you, all whose judgments are righteous and true.” (Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, p. 738).

When we studied the Book of Tobit, probably from the third century B.C.E., Rabbi Finkel pointed to the above quoted prayer of Tobit as an example of the continuity in the tradition of Judaism. Over the decades of his teaching as well as in his publications, he often drew attention to the resonances of the Biblical heritage that are shared in teachings of the Rabbis and the Christian Scriptures. His knowledge of both Jewish and Christian classics was unparalleled!

Over several generations the Finkel family has brought the profound moral message of Lithuanian Jewish education to Israel and the Diaspora. Rabbi Finkel’s uncle had brought the entire Mir Yeshiva to safety in Shanghai in 1940, thanks to the heroic deeds of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania. This is background to the message in Mishpacha at the occasion of Rabbi Finkel’s death.

This story of Rabbi Finkel’s deep love of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) reminds me of a quotation in one of Father Thomas Stransky’s essays:

Youth, what man’s age is like doth show,
We may our ends by our beginnings know.
(Sir John Denham (1615-1669), On Prudence).

May Rabbi Asher Finkel be bound up in the bundle of life, in the care of the Lord, his God! (1 Samuel 25:29).

Museums in Berlin

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a report by J.S. Marcus, “A New Look at Germany’s Jewish Past.” The Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by the architect David Libeskind, has completed a redesign of its core exhibition. This is available for a “visit with the museum’s new app, available in German and English.” Visit https://www.jmberlin.de/en/app to learn more and view the museum.

The life of the great Jewish political thinker, Hannah Arendt, is featured in this museum and also in a temporary exhibit, “Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century” in Berlin’s German Historical Museum until October 18.

Lament over Beirut

In May 1965 my flight from Nicosia, Cyprus to Beirut arrived at night. As the plane approached, I thought of the words in the Gospel: “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). This view of the city was beautiful! As I visited Lebanon I experienced the wonderful hospitality of the Middle East and learned how Christians, Muslims and Druse communities had developed a harmonious expression of political harmony that was shared to benefit all. Tragically, a decade later intrusive forces would disrupt the society and wreak havoc throughout the land. In recent years more than a million refugees from Syria have brought another challenge to a fragmented country.

On Tuesday, August 4th, a cache of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate left in 2014 by an unseaworthy ship exploded in the port area of the city, bringing death and devastation. What a disaster for the city, already struggling with political and social woes that are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic! See the following reports in The New York Times: “As Smoke Clears in Beirut, Shock Turns to Anger” and “As French President Visits Beirut, Lebanese Ask Where Their Leaders Are.”

From ancient times in the Middle East, the destruction of a city by earthquake or war has led survivors to recite prayers of lament. The five poems in the Jewish Scriptures called the Book of Lamentations, mistakenly attributed to Jeremiah the prophet, might be recalled in relation to this tragic situation of Beirut. Of course, the inspired poet took the prayer of the people directly to God; this can be imitated by the people of Lebanon at this time as they struggle to forgive their leaders for the neglect that allowed this tragedy to happen. May we see that generous assistance is offered by our leaders as the restoration of necessities will enable the Lebanese people to survive. May they have the strength, with divine help, to bring Lebanon back to much better times!

Hagia Sophia Cathedral – A Mosque Again

Mosaic of the Virgin and Child, which is located on the half dome of the apse in the Hagia Sophia.

The magnificent cathedral of Constantinople, completed during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (483-565) and consecrated in 537 or 538, was dedicated to Jesus as “Holy Wisdom” (see 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:6-9). The Muslim encroachment upon the Byzantine Empire culminated with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The church was recognized as an architectural wonder and became a mosque until 1934. We recall that the Ottoman Empire disintegrated after World War I and under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s leadership, Turkey became a secular state. The Cathedral became a museum and later UNESCO declared it to be a World Heritage site.

Although one might applaud the restoration of a place of worship to its purpose, the complications in this case are numerous! The Wall Street Journal of July 23, 2020 dedicated its weekly “Houses of Worship” column to this event, under the title “Turkey Retreats from Modernity.” On Friday, July 24th, the Journal’s report by David Gauthier-Villars includes the comments:

“Turning the site into a mosque again wouldn’t compromise its complex cultural and religious identity, Mr. Erdogan has said. Orthodox Christians are unconvinced, including those in Russia and Greece, who revere the site… ‘From our point of view, this decision violates the fragile interreligious and interconfessional balance that has been achieved in today’s world,’ said Metropolitan Hilarion, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The New York Times of July 24th presented a report by Carlotta Gall, “Erdogan Fulfills Cherished Goal, Opening Hagia Sophia to Prayers.”  This follows the editorial, “The Hagia Sophia Was a Cathedral, a Mosque and a Museum. It’s Converting Again” on July 22nd.

One might think that the return of a building to its purpose as place of worship would be greeted positively in the modern context of interfaith dialogue. However, in this case, Christians in Turkey and the world at large recall the tragic attacks on their lives and well-being from the 1800s until the end of World War I. Atrocities committed against the Armenian and Greek Christians by the Ottomans have not been acknowledged in Turkey, even as the crime of a past regime. The tiny Christian minority there today deserves the support of their brothers and sisters in faith. This expresses a principle enunciated by St. Paul: “As we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10). We hope that the present decade and beyond will become a time when minority Christian communities will experience a deep sense of peace in their homeland.

Seafarers and Their Families

Prayer printed after the Message of His Eminence Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson on the occasion of Sea Sunday, July 12, 2020.

Do we who enjoy the use of goods from distant lands think of the ways in which they come to our stores? How many hands are involved in the sea vessels that transport many of the things we purchase? People who have enjoyed a cruise have noted that many of the staff on the ships are on the sea for months at a time, living in crowded conditions and dependent of tips for a supplement to their wages, which they send to their families.

We may think that the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with our daily lives, but many people are truly in dire situations. The New York Times recently provided insight into what they are facing in “They Crossed Oceans to Lift Their Families Out of Poverty. Now, They Need Help.”

The Catholic Church and other faith communities have shown a great concern for sailors and those who work on ships. The Second Sunday of July is “Sea Sunday” throughout Catholic communities. This year Peter Cardinal Turkson, Prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, has addressed the situation of all those whose ordinary rhythm of months at sea and an annual visit to their homeland have faced unprecedented trials. His message and prayer are available on the Vatican website here.

One of the ancient titles for the Mother of Jesus is “Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.” The prayer printed after the address points to the many dangers that the poor face in their daily lives, especially in this time. Besides our prayers, are there ways we can help?

Directory for Catechesis: New Document of the Holy See

A copy of Titian’s “The Descent of the Holy Ghost” appears on the cover of the updated “Directory for Catechesis.” Titian / Public domain

The rapid changes brought about in the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been overwhelming to many. However, leaders have stepped forward to assist people in adapting in the face of grave exigencies. Our increasing dependence on the internet has accelerated, but already the challenge was recognized in many religious communities. A recent publication of the Holy See (“The Vatican”) provides insights into the Church’s effort to respond to the difficulties and opportunities that the Church sees on the road ahead.

The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization has issued the third Directory for Catechesis since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The preface notes that a span of 26 and 23 years separates these documents, the second building on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the third on the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, followed by the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, of Pope Francis (2013). The new developments that challenge the Church are “the phenomenon of digital culture and the globalization of culture” (p. 4, italics in the original).

The Directory refers to the kerygma, which in ancient times was a herald’s brief proclamation of important news. For Christians, the kerygma is the brief proclamation of the Death-and-Resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4)  in its salutary  impact on the world, as accepted by the faith-filled community. “All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the Kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis…” (Evangelii  Gaudium 164-165).

Many points in this Directory of 278 pages should be pondered by Catholic teachers of our faith. I draw attention to Chapter X, “Catechesis in the Face of Contemporary Cultural Scenarios.”  Here one finds reference to the context of inner-Christian ecumenism and catechesis in relation to Judaism. The two sections on Catholic-Jewish relations are rooted in the Second Vatican Council Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate) and documents from the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews:

Thanks to her Jewish roots the Church is anchored in salvation history. To understand better some aspects of her own life, the Church brings back to light the spiritual riches preserved in Judaism. The goals of dialogue will also include a firm stance against all forms of anti-Semitism and the shared commitment to peace, justice, and development among peoples (347).

Catechists on every level must teach that Jesus was a Jew at home in the Jewish tradition and “was decisively shaped by this religious milieu.” They must emphasize the unity of the two Testaments and that “the New Covenant does not replace God’s Covenant with Israel” (348).

The next section, “Catechesis and Digital Culture,” presents the positive and negative aspects of a new culture, “changing language, shaping mentalities and restructuring value hierarchies” (359). This technology can extend and enrich human cognitive capacities, but this environment may promote loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence. “These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate” (361).

The challenge in this new context is to move “from religious information to accompaniment and to the experience of God…Catechesis is called to find adequate means for addressing the big questions on the meaning of life, corporeality, affectivity, gender identity, justice and peace…” (371). The goal of religious instruction is to foster a transition “from the individualistic and isolated world of social media to the ecclesial community, the place where the experience of God creates communion and sharing of life” (372).

Building on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and recent magisterial documents, catechesis must deal with questions of bioethics (373-378), the integrity of the person (379-380), environmental engagement (381-383), options for the poor (385-388), social engagement (389-391) and the work environment (392-393).

Within the Christian and Jewish communities many teachers are grappling with the various challenges integral to the communication of faith to the younger generation, as well as “lifelong learning,” so emphasized in the Jewish tradition. There may be ways of building upon the responses being made to the rapid moving and global outreach of the technology that shapes our societies in so many ways. Are there approaches that can be shared?

Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520)

The five hundredth anniversary of Raphael’s death is the occasion in Rome for a major exhibit of his work as painter and architect. In The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Cammy Brothers offers “Rafaello 1483-1520’ Review: A Renaissance Reappraisal.” She asks why Raphael does not excite the interest that today is shown to Leonardo and Michelangelo? “Yet he was a painter and architect of tremendous virtuosity and energy, wide-ranging in his talents and capable of absorbing and transforming the latest stylistic innovations.”

The exhibit “Raffaello 1483-1520” in Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale will end on August 30. Unfortunately, the present restrictions on travel will limit the number of people who can attend. However, the website of the exhibit offers “A Walk in the Exhibition” in English (12 minutes) as well as “The film of the exhibition ‘Raffaello 1520-1483’” in Italian with English subtitles.

Music of Those Persecuted by the Nazis

The prisoners’ orchestra in Buchenwald concentration camp. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gedenkstaette Buchenwald

Music is an art that can transcend the limitations of language, bringing people together and allowing us of a later time to share something of an insight into their experience.  The study of music during the Nazi period, and especially in the concentration camps, is a special discipline that gives inspiring evidence of spiritual resistance to the brutality of the Nazis and their collaborators.

The New York Times offers a report by Milton Esterow, “Music From the Death Camps: Alive and Being Readied for a New Home.” The text focuses on the plan of Mr. Francisco Lotoro of Barletta in southeast Italy to build a museum, library and theatre dedicated to the study of music by “Jews… political and other religious prisoners in many countries and music created by musicians ‘of any national, social or religious background’.”

An organization called the Exil.Arte Centre at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts was founded in 2017 to recover and study music banned by the Nazis as “degenerate.” It arranges performances, prepares recordings and publishes books.

In addition to Mr. Esterow’s survey of other centers focusing on music that survived that tragic period, I wish to draw attention to the extensive work of Tamara Reps Freeman, D.M.A. (Rutgers University), who is an Adjunct Professor of Holocaust Music at St. Elizabeth College in Morristown-Convent Station and Montclair State University.  Visit her website at http://holocaustmusic.org/.

Lastly I would like to make reference to the global education network, ORT. This organization also maintains a website dedicated to the role of music in the Holocaust: http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/. The website features:

  • articles that describe the wide range of musical activities that took place in camps and ghettos across Nazi-occupied Europe
  • sound recordings of music and songs written and sung by victims
  • full-length compositions written primarily in Theresienstadt
  • a “Resources and References” page,which offers materials that have been created specifically for secondary school teachers as well as for those educators who are interested in including music in their Holocaust commemoration events”

Internally Displaced Persons: Uprooted in Their Own Land

The plight of refugees has not been featured in the news media for several months.  The Covid-19 pandemic has absorbed our attention and, more recently, we are shocked by the abuse of authority when certain police officers transgress by excessive use of force. Then perhaps we fail to consider how vulnerable these people in transit are to these threats, and we are challenged again to collaborate in education regarding rights and duties of each person in our societies.

The universal Church urges us to be aware of the multitude of refugees and other migrants who are in search of a home and future for their families. The estimated number, more than 60 million, refers to those who have been forced to flee from their country because of war or natural disaster.

On January 9, 2020 Pope Francis drew attention to “the tragedy of internally displaced people as one of the challenges of our contemporary world.” The estimated number who have been driven by terroristic acts or war from their homes and livelihood is estimated to be 20 million.

In his address for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on May 13, 2020, Pope Francis offered a challenge: “To preserve our common home and make it conform more and more to God’s original plan. We must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded” (Osservatore Romano, May 15, 2020 p. 7).

In order to deal with this grave situation, Cardinal Michael Czerny of the new Dicastery of the Holy See on Integral Human Development has published “Pastoral Orientations on Internally Displaced People.” It is available here on the Vatican website (48 pages).

In the past we have drawn attention to the frequent and devastating attacks on Christian communities in the northeastern areas of Nigeria. This grim situation continues as The Tablet (London) reports in “COMECE urges defence of Christians in Nigeria.” 

The New York Times published the report of Ruth Maclean, “When the Soldiers Meant to Protect You Instead Come to Kill.” Attacks by terrorists and, it seems, by government soldiers have resulted in the death of 2,000 people in the last 18 months.  Internally displaced people are estimated to be 850,000. Among the desperate needs of such refugees is collaboration of Christians, Muslims and others to become part of a healing and restoration process. The first step, however, seems to be required of governments of each country with such a major problem. In the name of common decency and in a true response to the needs of people who desire peace for their families, may leaders in these countries be inspired to service of the most vulnerable!

Pope Pius XII and Vatican Archives

Pope Pius XII, 1939, Fratelli Alinari, Florence. Unknown photographer. / Public domain

On March 2, 2020 the Vatican Archives for the reign of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) were opened for access by qualified researchers. The usual period of time before the documents relating to a papal reign are accessible has been 75 years. Pope Francis has hastened the opening in this case in response to the keen interest shown in several quarters. It might be noted that scholars, Fathers Robert Graham and Pierre Blet and others, had made twelve volumes of materials from the World War II era available, except for documents referring to persons who were still alive in 1965 (Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale). Now that 62 years have passed since the death of Pope Pius, it is unlikely that anyone mentioned in the archival holdings is still alive. Scholars can scrutinize these documents in order to develop a clearer insight into the issues that interest them.

Among the reports relating to this occasion, that of Ms. Lisa Palmieri Billig of the American Jewish Committee offers a detailed review: “Opening of Pius XII Archives: To speak or not to speak: that was the Question.” Steve Lipman’s report in the Jewish Week of March 3, 2020 quotes Jewish leaders in interfaith dialogue.

As we examine our conscience in preparing to worship, we acknowledge failure in thoughts, words, deeds and omissions. To what extent will Pope Pius XII’s reasons for failing to speak bluntly be evident from the archives? A serious reason for Pope Pius XII’s circumspection during the War years has been presented by Mark Riebling in Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2015).  In his review for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2016) p. 558-60, Father Kevin Spicer of Stonehill College, who has worked extensively on the German Church and clergy during the Nazi period, comments: “[Mr. Riebling] does offer evidence of contact between the Holy See and German resistance, but fails to substantiate any direct linkages… Only the opening of the papers of Pius XII’s pontificate, together perhaps with research in other repositories, will enable us to evaluate fairly the Pope’s legacy in the face of the Holocaust.”  This investigation is now possible, so we wish researchers well in their work!

The death of Mr. Rolf Hochhuth in Berlin on May 13, 2020, was the occasion for a lengthy obituary in The New York Times. As older readers may recall, the play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) dramatized the accusation that Pope Pius XII was silent regarding the persecution and genocide perpetuated against European Jewry. As a young German who struggled with the question of responsibility for such a horrendous destruction of life, Hochhuth strove to make the Pope responsible. He is quoted as writing: “Perhaps never before in history have so many people paid with their lives for the passivity of one single politician.” Thus, questions about the ascent of Adolf Hitler to the highest office in German political life and German acquiescence to the atrocities of his dictatorship were avoided. “For the Germans (the performance) was catharsis,” according to Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, quoted in the obituary. For some people, theatre and film productions have become an ersatz religion, seeming to provide a way to deal with issues of conscience. Did a question enter the minds of those “purified” by seeing The Deputy: “Would people like me listen to the Pope if he had spoken in crystal clear terms? Would we be moved into defiance of Nazi power? How would we have dealt with the inevitable reprisal?”

Among the statements by the national Catholic hierarchies of Hungary, Germany, Poland, Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States, published in the booklet Catholics Remember the Holocaust (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1998), I draw attention to that of the German bishops. They acknowledge: “We looked too fixedly at the threat to our own institutions and remained silent about the crimes committed against the Jews and Judaism” (p. 11). Recently, on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the German bishops have examined the record of their predecessors during the Nazi era: see The Tablet of May 11, 2020. The German Bishops’ 25 page document, which you may access here, will be examined carefully by people of many backgrounds. Relations between religious leaders and the political forces of many nations in our time should be scrutinized for lessons that spring from this analysis of the Churches in the Nazi era.