Jews and Christians Together: On the deep, too-brief wisdom of Joseph Redfield Palmisano, S.J.

Cambridge, MA. On Christmas Day, Joseph Redfield Palmisano, S.J., died at Campion Center, the Jesuit health facility in Weston, MA., brought down finally by a brain tumor. Joe, a Boston College graduate, had worked as a Jesuit in Jamaica, given retreats at Eastern Point Retreat House (Gloucester) and studied for his degree at Trinity College in Dublin, at the Irish School of Ecumenics. But slowly, in the past few years, he had slowed down. He had just turned 41 when he died.

His funeral on Dec. 30 was a moving—sad, reflective, joyful—event that brought together his parents and brother, family and friends, at least 100 Jesuit concelebrants and a standing-room only congregation in the Jesuit chapel at Campion. Robert Levens, S.J., the Rector at Campion and presider at the Eucharist, Anthony Soohoo, S.J., the homilist, and many of us in conversation before and after the Mass, testified to how Joe radiated warmth and graciousness, simplicity and openness, a natural ability to get along with everyone and readiness to help others, a deep faith and companionship with Jesus and his fellow Jesuits, and, in his final illness, an edifying patience and surrender of his life into God’s hands, just after turning 41.

I knew Joe since he was an undergraduate at BC, but many knew him deeper and better than I over the years. The last time we had lunch together was two years ago. So all I can add here is a testimony to his contribution to interreligious dialogue, and specifically to building on the Second Vatican Council’s great heritage of closer and deeper relationships between Christians and Jews. His impressive book, Beyond the Walls: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edith Stein on the Significance of Empathy for Jewish-Christian Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2012) explored the vital movements that have and must underlie Jewish-Christian encounters in our era. Throughout, Joe reminds us, the dialogue must be nourished by empathy—a deepening communion with our Others, an intuitive connection that allows us to glimpse respectfully how they see themselves, a coming to be of friendships that change us and create for us a new home together. This is where the Jewish-Christian conversation can lead, if we understand what is possible and at stake.

Joe spells out the dynamics of this empathy in a sensitive and expertly researched portrayal of Edith Stein (1891-1942), a convert to Catholicism and nun who died in Auschwitz. As he puts it, drawing on her wisdom:

One may draw the analogy from Stein’s experience to the interreligious dialogue for “dialogues and conversations with people of other faith traditions usually begin with the familiar” and move towards “a progressive encounter with the unfamiliar … a movement—literal as much as metaphorical—over the threshold into a world where one’s sense of identity is questioned.” Hence, through the hermeneutic of Stein’s phenomenological theory and praxis we may enter the ebb and flow of the dialectic of giving and receiving that widens memory for us through Stein’s interreligiously important narrative. Stein incarnates a way of loving in both her writings and her praxis that responds to the givenness of another. Norris Clarke argues that any “particular action, if done consciously and responsibly, is inescapably my action.” By these repeated actions “the whole person behind the act” will “gradually construct an abiding moral portrait” of oneself, “like an artist’s self-portrait.”Stein’s narrative portrait is one of empathy (3).

In turn, he brings her vision of human and humane connectedness into conversation with that of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the 20th century:

In a fashion corresponding to Stein’s thesis on empathy, Heschel refines his categories in speaking of prayer as “an act of empathy” where “our reading and feeling the words of the prayers” is accomplished through “an imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words.” In this way we may con-primordially feel “the ideas with which the words are pregnant.” Heschel argues, “at first, the words and their meaning seem to lie beyond the horizon of the mind… we must, therefore, remember that the experience of prayer does not come all at once. It grows in the face of the word that comes ever more to light.”

Joe observes, “Notice the correspondence between Heschel’s and Stein’s perspectives. ‘I’ imaginatively project ‘myself’ towards the Other in prayer. And just as one rises to the ‘greatness’ of the words in the prayer of empathy, we rise to the greatness of the other when our prayer becomes the deed of a living empathy (71).

The book was well noticed and received very favorable reviews. See for instance the review by Zeb Garber or by Brenna Moore here in America.

Certainly, Joe might have influenced several generations of students on campus, opening for them the way of dialogue. And where might Joe's deep study and humane, spiritual learning have led him, in a next book or books on the Jewish-Christian encounter and communion? For one thing, he would have kept reminding us who are Christian to be courageous and humble in rediscovering ourselves in giving thanks for the Jewish roots of our Christian faith, that we might all the more deeply discover in Jews our neighbors and friends, our elder sisters and brothers. Near the book’s end he voices an insight that bears study in the over-heated political arena of 2016:

A Catholic ecclesio-theological rapprochement towards a concept of God who is always, already in dialogue with otherness respectfully recognizes, and engages with (and is not threatened by), Catholicism’s own Jewish otherness. This frank and mature affirmation allows for Jews to be our partners in dialogue as Jews, without any expectation, as Vatican II argues, for conversion. And yet, this basic affirmation has the power today of being subversive in the sense that our sharing of narratives with one another creates a richness in diversity that subtly challenges the postmodern isolationism of a life fragmented by fear of the other. Jewish and Christian stakeholders have been engaging with one another, especially since Vatican II, through a narrative exchange. The personal narratives and faith narratives, stories about self and community, have built up the bonds over the years (145).

And so, there can be no demonization or exclusion of the Other, as if the borders might be closed: “If a person is an end in him/herself, then the goal of every stakeholder regarding an interdependently minded way of proceeding will only be realized insofar as the different dialogue partners become vulnerable for one another through the drama of embrace.” (146) But deep and demanding virtues are then needed, since at times it will not be easy:

Our desire for empathy with the other will also mean simply waiting for, not forcing, the other to dialogue. And waiting is itself an empathic stance, an approach rooted and grounded in the silent and humble solidarity with “the powerless.” It is a teshuva of listening where a return to a shared future becomes possible only “when we become the victims’ ally.”

And so the work lies before us who continue:

The real-time work of reestablishing ethical relationships between oneself and many more others is our future, hope-filled work in Jewish-Christian dialogue. The theory and praxis of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edith Stein, against the horizon of the Shoah, have given us an action-transforming principle for this project: our dwelling together in empathy. Our con-primordial presence with one another in the world may only assist us in hastening slowly towards a deeper presence in the world, a way of being with one another and with the powerless from within the twenty-first century (148).

Presence to one another; an empathy that is also listening; waiting; solidarity with the powerless—all brings us full circle, back to Joe himself, the person and Jesuit. In his short life he exemplified, that is to say, the very ideal of the scholar whose thinking and writing stand in harmony with his praying, living, being. The book leads to the man, the man to the book.

Scholars like Joe are rare indeed, and the church needs more such women and men if we are to live up to the invitations and challenges of Vatican II and our ongoing dialogue with the Jewish people. For this reason too, among so many others, we will sorely, sadly, miss the voice and writing of this promising thinker, scholar, teacher, so deeply committed to the building of a 21st century Jewish-Christian understanding and friendship. Perhaps right now, though, might he not be sitting with Edith Stein and Abraham Heschel, in the communion that does not end?