By Eugene J. Fisher
“Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice and Religious Reconciliation” by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober. Skyhorse Publishing (New York, 2019). 394 pp., $29.99.
This excellent book tells the story of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who certainly lived up to the title, and narrates Jewish-Christian relations during his tenure with the Synagogue Council of America and the American Jewish Committee. The book speaks of his youth in Baltimore in an Orthodox Jewish family and his studies at the Conservative Jewish theological seminary in New York.
Rabbi Tanenbaum worked for the Synagogue Council from 1954 to 1961, bringing it together with the National Council of Churches and the then-National Conference of Catholic Bishops to work on joint social programs in their local communities. He arrived at the American Jewish Committee at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council and worked for a statement that the Catholic Church would issue condemning anti-Semitism and turning away from the ancient Christian teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism.
Part III narrates the history of the development of the declaration “Nostra Aetate,” which did indeed change the course of the history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people featuring the involvement of Rabbi Tanenbaum and others, especially Judith Banki and Rabbi James Rudin, in reaching out to the bishops who would vote on the document. This narrative is told here in a way that will grip the reader’s interest. Written for the general reader, the account also will give historians new insights into the council.
The chapter titled “A Prophet for Our Time” goes into his alliances with leading figures such as the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he worked with them to further civil rights, the state of Israel and the cause of the Soviet Jews, often with the support of American presidents.
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 10 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.
I have only one major caveat, while giving this book my strongest recommendation. This is its treatment of the Auschwitz convent incident. The authors 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 pray for Polish Catholic victims, but for all the victims, beginning with the Jews.
Fisher is a professor of theology at St. Leo University in Florida.