To paraphrase the Mishnah: Who is a great scholar? One whose insight has been repeated so often that we forget from whom we learned it.
By this standard of scholarly greatness, the passing of Prof. Franklin Littell on May 23 marks a profound loss. A Methodist minister from the American heartland, Littell took the opportunity of a professorship at Emory University to establish, in 1959, the first sequence of undergraduate and graduate courses in an American university devoted to the study of the destruction of European Jewry from 1933-45. Some years later, at Temple University in 1976, he founded the first doctoral program in Holocaust Studies.
Nowadays, of course — thanks in large part to the energies of Littell and his doctoral students — the study of the Holocaust is routine at major research universities and liberal arts colleges alike. The Ahmadinejads of the world and their cheerleaders may rant and rave, but any sane person must wonder: “How could you study modern history and not include study of the Holocaust?”
But things were not always so obvious. When Prof. Littell designed his earliest curricula, there was not yet even an agreed-upon name for this unprecedented loss of Jewish life and no textbooks. “The Holocaust” and “The Shoah,” so common today, were in those days devoid of capital letters and competed with such prosaic terms as “the recent Jewish catastrophe.” Many people wondered: “What special lesson can be learned from yet another massacre of Jews?”
But Prof. Littell’s claim to greatness is not built upon his success at promoting “The Holocaust” as a symbol of Jewish suffering. Who needs another symbol? Rather, what sets him apart is his courage in fearlessly following to its bitter end the logic of a simple question: “How could this have happened in the heart of Christian Europe?”
The simple answer — one that has transformed the course of much Christian religious reflection in the past 50 years — is this: “It happened because the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime resonated with nearly two millennia of anti-Jewish teaching and preaching on the part of the central institutions of European Christendom.”
Sounds like a no-brainer, eh? Not really, for Littell’s answer contained a major hiddush. While Christians may have committed the crimes that we know cumulatively as “the Holocaust,” the responsibility for their crimes can be ascribed not only to private perversity — of which there seems to have been plenty enough — but to the public traditions of Christianity itself. That is, the Holocaust didn’t merely happen in Christian Europe; Christianity was one of its primary causes. Try preaching that gospel, as a Christian, in the 1950s and early 1960s in a world committed to viewing Christendom within the benign halo of the “liberators” of the Jews from “Fascism!”
Prof. Littell and certain of his (mostly Christian) students and colleagues took it upon themselves to explore the rhetoric of Christian faith itself as a principal factor in the willingness of civilized Europeans to both ignore and contribute to the annihilation of European Jewish civilization. You will read elsewhere in this week’s paper the reflections of one such colleague the University of Washington’s own Professor Hubert Locke.
Littell’s task was not easy. He had to engage his own community in a project of self-criticism that threatened to engulf its entire faith tradition in a rushing riptide of critical waters. If, as Prof. Littell insisted, the task of uncovering the sources of the murder of European Jewry begins with criticism of the New Testament scriptures themselves as “texts of terror” that have caused incalculable harm to the Jews living under Christian political authority — well, where does criticism end? Does the study of the Holocaust entail the destruction of Christianity in its historically sanctified forms?
Despite the indifference and, in many cases, active hostility of many in his own religious community, Prof. Littell tirelessly drove his message home in course after course, lecture after lecture, article after article, book after book. His 1975 classic, The Crucifixion of the Jews, was only the most well-known of his Holocaust writings.
And he was no mere cataloger of historical evil. Prof. Littell was an activist in agitating against resurgent anti-Semitism in more recent times, a concern which made him as well a vocal and persuasive non-fundamentalist Christian voice in defense of Israel, unafraid to point a finger at liberal Christian anti-Semitism parading itself as “anti-Zionism.”
We Jews are famous for remembering our enemies. But the fact that we are alive to remember them reminds us that we have always enjoyed, in addition to God’s help, the support of steadfast friends. Yes, there may be Amalek; but there are also Jethro the Kenite and Rahab of Jericho! So let us take a moment to gratefully recall the example of one such friend, a genuine goy tzedek (righteous gentile) who spent his life fashioning a powerful tikkun in the Christian understanding of the role of the Jewish people in the scheme of history and in the faith of the Church.
May we live to welcome many more like him!