Leading up to the October anniversary of the historic document Nostra Aetate, the Prairie Messenger is featuring “capsule biographies,” which are also posted on the “Catholic-Jewish Relations” section of the Scarboro Interfaith website (http://www.scarboromissions.ca/JC_Relations/dialogue_partners.php). By October there will have been featured material on numerous individuals — Jews and Christians, men and women — who have played key roles in drafting the conciliar declaration, or who have led local, national or international efforts to put Nostra Aetate’s vision into practice, through various forms of dialogue, action and scholarship. This is the fifth in the series.
Rabbi Leon Klenicki, one of the most passionate and prolific modern Jewish voices in inter-religious dialogue, was born on Sept. 7, 1930, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to parents who had emigrated from Poland in the previous decade. In 1959, Leon received a scholarship to study in the United States, at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. After initial studies in philosophy, he graduated with a master’s degree and received his rabbinic ordination in 1967 from Hebrew Union College, having intensively studied the field of interfaith dialogue.
Returning to his native Argentina, he became the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in Buenos Aires, and director of the Latin American arm of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. It was in that second capacity that, in 1968, Klenicki took part in the first-ever formal gathering of Latin American Christian and Jewish leaders, held in Bogotá, Colombia, addressing the participants on the shared scriptural bonds linking Jews and Christians, but also recalling the long Christian history of persecuting Jews. The Middle Ages, he said, were a time when “cathedrals were raised to the sky while Jews had to go underground.” And yet, with a nod to recent changes in church teaching, he acknowledged: “The time of hope has arrived. The task is hard, but not impossible.”
He would lecture widely in Latin American centres, inaugurated a study of attitudes toward Jews in Latin American religious textbooks, and began a magazine called Teshuvah (Hebrew for “repentance”), to explore Jewish thought. Throughout his life, he remained a leading figure in the Reform movement of Judaism, especially in Spanish-speaking countries, editing and publishing numerous liturgical and educational texts aimed at meeting the needs of local communities.
In 1973, Klenicki moved to New York to become the director of Jewish-Catholic relations for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and, 11 years later, became its director of interfaith relations, a position he would hold until 2001. In those capacities, he was known for his ability to speak passionately and forcefully about important issues — but always in a respectful way that challenged but also invited further dialogue.
In 1987, he did not hesitate to reproach the Vatican when Pope John Paul II agreed to meet with Austrian President (and former UN Secretary-General) Kurt Waldheim, even after Waldheim’s service in a Nazi military unit had become a matter of public record. When, in 1997, the Vatican issued We Remember, its long-awaited statement on the Holocaust (Shoah), Klenicki praised many aspects of it but criticized others, saying that the church had missed a unique opportunity to forthrightly confront some of the painful issues raised by the wartime behaviour of European Catholics and their leaders. In any case, he said, “Now the deniers of the Holocaust in Europe have to deal with the Vatican.”
Klenicki’s publications in the field are extensive and wide-ranging, including discussions of problematic biblical passages; conversations with Christian clergy and scholars about theology, faith and prayer; evaluations of the Christian tradition of Passion plays; liturgical resources for joint Jewish-Christian celebrations of Passover and commemorations of the Holocaust; and recollections of Jewish communities in Latin America. For many years he worked closely with Dr. Eugene Fisher, the associate director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, and the two men collaborated on a number of books, statements and guidelines.
In a 1989 book that he co-authored with Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (Believing Today: Jew & Christian in Conversation), Klenicki wrote that “dialogue is not something that is in addition to being Jewish and Christian; it is an integral part of being Jewish and Christian today. The dialogue is not a hobbyhorse for ‘people who happen to be interested in that sort of thing.’ We are called to this enterprise by God, and it is his enterprise before it is ours. The dialogue is most fully served by our becoming more fully Christian and more fully Jewish. It is served by our disagreements as well as by our agreements. In sum, we think that the late Abraham Joshua Heschel put it well when he said, ‘Interfaith dialogue begins with faith’ ” (italics added).
In May of 2001, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews honoured Rabbi Klenicki for his many decades of leadership in interfaith dialogue and in 2007 he was inducted by Pope Benedict XVI into the papal Order of St. Gregory the Great. In January 2009 Rabbi León Klenicki died of cancer at the age of 78, leaving his wife, Myra Cohen Klenicki, and two children. In 2013 a number of his scholarly colleagues and friends published a volume of essays as a tribute to him, focusing on the areas of liturgy, spirituality, biblical interpretation, and theology, and his writings continue to be widely used in many educational and pastoral settings.
The biography below is taken, almost entirely, from the biography of Charlotte Klein written by Mary Kelly, NDS: “Pioneers in the United Kingdom: A Positive Beginning.” SIDIC Review 30:2 (1997): 9-13, and available online at: http://www.notredamedesion.org/admin/dialogue_sidicView.php?id=574. Some material has been added.
Charlotte Klein was born in Berlin in 1915 and brought up in a pious Orthodox Jewish home. She was a headstrong, passionate, impulsive personality with a great zest for life. As she grew to adolescence, she threw off religious observance whenever she could. However, the catastrophic Nazi regime came to power and the Klein family left Germany for Palestine (as it was then known). Anti-Semitism was thus a personal experience for her.
After becoming a Christian and joining the Sisters of Sion in Jerusalem, Charlotte Klein rediscovered the beauty and truth of Judaism and became aware of the teaching of contempt for Judaism in Christian teaching and the history of anti-Semitism in the church. Writing her doctorate thesis for London University on The Image of the Jew in German and English Fiction and Drama 1833-1933, she strove to overcome anti-Semitism wherever she encountered it and published articles on anti-Semitism in English society, on the Vatican and anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, on ritual murder and the Dreyfus Affair. A gifted teacher and linguist, she became known internationally as a lecturer in Germany, Italy, Belgium, North America and taught at universities in England, Germany and the United States. A number of her articles were published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.
However, her most important work was within the church. It can be divided into four main areas: 1) Overcoming Christian anti-Judaism; 2) Fostering a true image of Judaism among Christians; 3) Encouraging Jewish-Christian dialogue; 4) Promoting a new theology of the Jewish-Christian relationship.
In 1962, with the encouragement of her order, she founded the Study Centre for Christian-Jewish Relations, the aim of which was to foster a better understanding of Judaism and the Jewish-Christian relationship in the church. As well as a specialized library, an educational program was launched. A series of pamphlets explaining the Jewish roots of Christianity and those texts of the Gospels that have been difficult for Jewish-Christian relations were published, as well as a commentary on the Sunday lectionary. She followed closely the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, briefing Cardinal Heenan who was a member of the Vatican Secretariat responsible for the Declaration on Relations with Judaism.
During and after the Council, she wrote articles and gave lectures under both Jewish and Christian auspices explaining aspects of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate. She was instrumental in setting up the U.K. Bishops’ Commission to Implement the Declaration and was a founding member of the London Rainbow Group. Her lecture tours in Germany led to the foundation of the first house of the Sisters of Sion there.
Her experience of teaching at St. Georgen in Frankfurt motivated her to publish her book Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology (first published in German in 1975 and later in English in 1978), in which she showed that “the text-books studied by Christian theological students in Germany, and to a lesser extent in France, are full of all the old prejudices against the Pharisees, and against Judaism generally, as if the authors had learnt nothing at all either from modern scholarship or from modern history” (John D. Rayner, An Understanding of Judaism, 1987).
As well as the pamphlets of the Study Centre she published in various journals 47 articles in English, four in German, one in Italian and one in Swedish. Although well-known for her research into anti-Semitism and for forging a new relationship between the church and the Jewish people, it became more and more apparent to her that the latter raised questions for Christian self-understanding. It seemed imperative that theologians take seriously the questions posed to the church’s theology by Judaism. She wrote briefly on this question herself. After her death, as a fitting tribute to her, a conference of theologians on Christology and Religious Pluralism was organized. Some of the proceedings have been published (In Memoriam Charlotte Klein: Christology and Religious Pluralism).
Writing after her death, Charlotte’s nephew, Dr. Jacob Klein, recalled his aunt as “a cultured woman with a warm sense of humour, a strong sense of duty, and . . . a survivor of her early traumas, no doubt induced by her life in Hitler’s Germany.” Others remembered her as “a remarkable woman” and a gifted teacher. She was an eyewitness to the birth of the modern State of Israel, and to the transformation that took place in her own religious order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, in the decades after the Second World War. That transformation — which she helped to prepare and advance — is summed up beautifully in the text of the Sisters’ Constitutions today: “Our vocation gives us a particular responsibility to promote understanding and justice for the Jewish community, and to keep alive in the church the consciousness that, in some mysterious way, Christianity is linked to Judaism from its origin to its final destiny” (#14).
It was a vision Charlotte Klein passionately believed in, embodied and has left as a legacy to those who continue her work today.