Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Fisher
This excellent book not only tells the story of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who certainly lived up to the title but also narrates Jewish-Christian relations and the civil rights movement during his tenure with the Synagogue Council of America and the American Jewish Committee. The first two parts of the book speak of his youth in Baltimore in an Orthodox Jewish family and his coming of age studying to become a rabbi at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Tanenbaum worked as a leader of the Synagogue Council from 1954 to 1961, bringing it together with the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to work on programs encouraging Jews, Catholics and Protestants to work on joint social programs in their local communities. He arrived at the American Jewish Committee just at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council and, along with many other Jews, hoped and worked for a statement that the Catholic Church would issue condemning antisemitism and turning away from the ancient Christian teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism, which included the wholly false notion that Jews were collectively guilty of the death of Jesus.
Part III (pp. 69-144) gives the reader the history of the development of the conciliar declaration, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) which did indeed change the course of the history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People. It does this, of course, from the Jewish point of view, featuring the involvement of Marc and others, especially Judith Banki and Rabbi James Rudin, in reaching out to the bishops, in America and worldwide, who would vote on such a document. The saga of the development of the document is rich and complex, and is told here in a way that will grip the reader's interest. The declaration was first seen as a section of the statement on ecumenism (relations with other Christian churches). At the end it stood on its own, with the addition of sections on Islam and other world religions since the bishops who lived in Catholic communities in countries dominated by other religions quite rightly needed to take home good news, too. Written for the general reader, scholars and historians will also find new insights into the Second Vatican Council, since the authors pored through the private papers and copies of correspondence of Rabbi Tanenbaum.
Part IV is entitled, “A Prophet for Our Time,” as Rabbi Tanenbaum was often called. He was also quite rightly understood to be “the Jews' foremost apostle to the gentiles.” This section goes into his alliances with leading Protestant figures such as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, and how he worked with them to further civil rights. In turn, these major figures came to the aid of the Jewish community in key moments with regard to the State of Israel and the suffering of Jews who were being persecuted in the Soviet Union. Gaining the support of American presidents was at times the key to the success of these efforts.
The final section narrates the personal life of this very public figure, again relying on the rabbi's papers but also on the memories of his wife for the last ten years of his life, Georgette Bennett. This is a lively and ultimately very moving section, with a final Coda on their son, Joshua-Marc Tanenbaum. The book concludes with a list of those interviewed for it, helpful chapter notes, and a thorough index.
I have only one major caveat that I would raise, while giving this book my strongest recommendation to all readers, Christian or Jewish. This is the treatment of the Auschwitz convent incident (pp. 246-249) which repeats many of the misunderstanding many Jews had of the Carmelite nun's convent and intentions. The authors repeatedly state that the convent was “within” the death camp. It was not. It was in a building adjacent to but outside the wall of the camp. And the nuns' intent was never just to honor Polish Catholic victims, but to pray for all the victims, beginning with the Jews, and praying that the minds and hearts of all humans would be moved so that never again could such a genocide take place against Jews or any other endangered group. The nuns did not refuse to “obey” the local bishop or the pope. They simply waited until a resolution (a new building farther away that is also used as a museum and a place where people visiting Auschwitz can learn about it and the history of the Holocaust) was reached. They moved into the new building as soon as they could. The authors needed to delve more deeply into the history of this contentious incident before writing such a negative and misleading portrait of a group of women whose intentions were good, though initially misunderstood.