“Imagining Heschel,” Improving the World


The Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice and Public Understanding presented “Imagining Heschel: Catholicism and Other Religions” on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. in Dudley Birder Hall. The event consisted of readings from the play “Imagining Heschel,” by Colin Greer, and a discussion afterward with Greer, Rev. John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and Dr. Robert Kramer of the History department at St. Norbert College.

The play “Imagining Heschel” focuses on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century. During the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, Heschel was asked for help in removing anti-Semitism within Catholicism by Augustin Bea, a cardinal who had been tasked with improving Catholic-Jewish relations through the Council.

Heschel and Bea’s work lent a great deal to the creation of “Nostra Aetate” (Latin for “In Our Time”), a document released by Vatican II in 1965 that definitively rejected anti-Semitism and any notion of collective guilt of Jews for the death of Jesus.

Greer based “Imagining Heschel” on the interactions between Heschel and Bea during Vatican II, creating most of the dialogue out of his imagination, hence the title of the show. The production also includes two other speaking characters: Father Brian Martin, Bea’s secretary, and Jonah, Heschel’s driver.

“Imagining Heschel” deals not only with Christian, specifically Catholic, reconciliation toward Judaism but also patience for change and in suffering, the disorientation felt by many Catholics during and after Vatican II and the creation of the state of Israel and the resulting wars due to it.

Robert Pyne, Senior Director of Community Engagement and Director of the Norman Miller Center, introduced “Imagining Heschel.” Dr. Eliot Elfner read as Heschel, Fr. Jack McCarthy as Bea, Dr. Joel Mann as Martin, and Bryant McCray ’16 as Jonah. Catherine Kasten, Program Coordinator for the Norman Miller Center, read the stage directions of the show. Interns of the Norman Miller Center greeted and assisted audience members throughout the event. The readings lasted around 50 minutes.

After a short break, Pyne introduced Greer to the audience. Greer, unable to travel to De Pere from New York City due to health reasons, addressed the crowd through Skype.

“Heschel reminded me of my grandfather, a very pious man,” Greer stated.

Greer also said that he had created the figure of Fr. Martin specifically to offset Heschel and Bea and their desire for change to show that rewriting history is not easy.

Thanking Greer, Pyne ended the Skype connection and turned the conversation over to Rev. Pawlikowski and Dr. Kramer.

Pawlikowski initiated the discussion by going over the four recommendations Heschel made to the Catholic Church for improved relations with Jews. Heschel got three out of the four, but the last, the intention of converting Jews to Christianity, is still an issue today. Pawlikowski referred to the conversion of all Jews to Christianity as “a soft genocide.”

“Christians must ask ourselves, ‘Do we really want that?’” Pawlikowski said. “My answer is no.”

Pawlikowski also emphasized the importance of covering Christian-Jewish relations and rejecting anti-Semitism in the educational system, especially in colleges and theological schools.

Kramer then spoke of his experience growing up among mainly Christians while being Jewish. He described feeling confusion a lot: Some children would throw snowballs at him or call him “Christ-killer.” On the other hand, an elderly, first-generation Irish Catholic couple often served as babysitters for Kramer and were the closest people to him after his immediate family.

Kramer expressed his understanding that changes in thought and behavior take time, but he also referenced Pawlikowski’s comment on education in asking for more understanding of Judaism among Christians.

“When are local priests going to talk about it [respect and understanding toward Jews] with their congregations? When will it be internalized?”

A Q&A session was held after Pawlikowski and Kramer spoke, in which Kramer discussed the Christian community in Israel and Pawlikowski stated the need to update Catholic liturgy to follow the message of “Nostra Aetate.”

A reception followed the event in the vestibule of Dudley Birder Hall.


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