May 20, 2015
Barukh shehecheyanu vekiyimanu vehigianu lazman hazeh. Blessed are you, God, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this moment. That is the Jewish b'rakhah, blessing, for celebrating auspicious occasions in both our personal and collective Jewish lives. The fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate is certainly a milestone worthy of that b'rakhah. The document transformed not only Catholic-Jewish relations and wider Christian-Jewish relations, but even Jewish history, all for the better. Nostra Aetate's power is not limited to the past, but rather ongoing, in the present and the future.
If for nearly two millennia Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was a pretext for contempt, violence and death directed at Jews, then Nostra Aetate must be acknowledged and appreciated as a life-saving document for Jews. The potential to save Jewish lives motivated Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he agreed to engage the Vatican during the document's formation. His role as a Jewish advisor in the fashioning of Nostra Aetate was both complex and controversial. But for Heschel one thing was clear. He viewed his encounters with the Vatican and Cardinal Augustin Bea in the early 1960s as his greatest opportunity to save Jewish lives. (Edward Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, p. 239)
During the last six months, we at American Jewish Committee, AJC, have been immersed in preparations for a uniquely Jewish commemoration and celebration of Nostra Aetate's fiftieth anniversary. Perhaps the greatest revelation in our research was the mixed reviews that Nostra Aetate received from AJC and others when the final version was first announced, a historical truth we dutifully documented in this brief history (show pamphlet) of Nostra Aetate's 50 years, available at our table in the lobby. In fact, after the overwhelming, landslide approval of the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" on October 15, 1965, AJC's public statement represented far less than Jewish communal excitement. The official reaction opened with the following:
The Vatican Council Declaration on the Jews has been awaited with hope by men of goodwill everywhere. We regret keenly some of the assertions in the Declaration, especially those that might give rise to misunderstandings.
"Keen regret"! and only then some very carefully worded, modest but guarded, applause:
Nevertheless, we view the adoption of the Declaration, especially its repudiation of the invidious charge of the collective guilt of Jews for the death of Jesus and its rejection of antisemitism, as an act of justice long overdue. We trust the Declaration will afford new opportunities for improved interreligious understanding and cooperation throughout the world.
And lastly, "Much will depend on the manner and vigor with which the affirmative principles embodied in this Declaration will be carried out."
Any sense of unbridled Jewish bliss would have to wait for two weeks later, when AJC reacted to the official Nostra Aetate promulgation on October 28, 1965, a date chosen by Pope Paul VI to honor his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, who was the inspiration behind Nostra Aetate and was elected pope on that date, seven years earlier.
On October 28, 1965, AJC's statement began much more generously:
The American Jewish Committee welcomes the promulgation by Pope Paul VI and the Vatican Council of the Declaration on Non-Christians, as a turning point in 1900 years of Jewish-Christian history and the climax to a historic effort to bring about a new era in relations between Catholics and Jews. A rejection of the charge of Jewish collective guilt for the Crucifixion and repudiation of antisemitism are significant clarifications of Church teachings that we hope will help purify the climate of relations between Christians and Jews throughout the world.
No mention of "keen regret" this time. One wonders what was going on at AJC between October 15 and October 28, 1965 that caused a change in tune. AJC's organizational angst regarding Nostra Aetate was not unique among American Jewish agencies. The Nostra Aetate ambivalence played out elsewhere in the Jewish world and foreshadowed a key element of American Jewish methodology in Catholic-Jewish relations since Nostra Aetate. More on that in a moment.
Sometimes the first reaction is the most candid and authentic, and "keen regret" was indeed the first AJC response. There are several possible explanations for this expression of regret. It may have been disappointment that the word "deicide" was dropped from the final version or that antisemitism was only "decried" in the final text, in lieu of condemned in an earlier draft.
It is also possible that AJC leaders were nervous that they had invested so much time, money, resources and energy and did not get everything that they had hoped for in the document. AJC had been working on Catholic-Jewish relations since nearly its founding in 1906, and more assiduously in the post-war years. And yet, there was no mention in Nostra Aetate of the Holocaust or Christian culpability in violence against Jews over millenia, and certainly no apology. The State of Israel, already in its 17th year and central to Jewish identity, is not mentioned. Maybe the Jews were hedging their bets on the prospects of this brief document.
It is similarly conceivable that AJC leaders were rattled by the proverbial, "Who speaks for the Jews?" Answer, dear Catholic friends, no one. With the run-up to Nostra Aetate, some of the Jewish communal fault lines were surfacing, not only the usual inter-organizational jockeying and politics, but also heated debate on religious, theological and doctrinal matters related to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. It is not coincidental that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leader of modern Orthodoxy, set very severe restrictions on interreligious dialogue in 1964, at the peak moment of conversations between Jewish organizations and the Vatican, restrictions that are still applied by much of modern Orthodox leadership today.
So how did we get from "keen regret" to full-blown Jewish acclaim fifty years later? The simple answer is that although Nostra Aetate is a revolutionary transformative document, its true greatness depended upon its implementation. From the perspective of fifty years, we can see how dramatic the impact would be on Catholic-Jewish relations and wider Christian-Jewish relations. If Nostra Aetate had become like so many other documents - just one herculean effort at one moment in time - we would not be gathering here today to sing its praises as a revolution.
Nostra Aetate did not just gather dust on the shelf. As a result of remarkable Catholic leadership in following up with "Guidelines," "Notes," "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," and a vast array of educational materials, Nostra Aetate was brought to life. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops played a singular role in making that happen. It was ably supported by the explosion of academic interest in Catholic-Jewish studies, with dozens of institutions affiliated today with CCJR, the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. And Nostra Aetate would become the gold standard by which all other Christian denominational documents on Judaism would be measured.
Without succumbing to undue thoughts of American exceptionalism, it is fair to say that it was very natural that significant leadership in implementing Nostra Aetate came from America, because America was the place where Jews and Catholics could live out the practical implications of Nostra Aetate. It was already a country where Christians and Jews lived side by side with genuine respect, in unprecedented ways. America is home to the largest and most successful Jewish diaspora community in history. With the destruction of European Jewry, it was here that the success of Nostra Aetate would be measured.
I offer an analogy from Jewish tradition for your consideration. In our tradition, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, is called the written Torah, Torah shebichtav. It is the Torah found in the ark of every synagogue. And the interpretation and application of that written Torah throughout the ages is known as the oral or unwritten Torah, Torah sheb'al peh, because until about 1,800 years ago there was a Jewish reluctance to write down the oral Torah. Today Judaism is not the written Torah alone. It is the written Torah as understood through the oral Torah. And the same could be said regarding Nostra Aetate. There is no Nostra Aetate today without its explication, amplification, and implementation.
The most important element of the Nostra Aetate oral Torah has been the visual created by the dramatic gestures of successive of successive popes. Pope John Paul II did this with the first papal visit to a synagogue since Peter, pilgrimages to Holocaust sites, and most dramatically his state visit to Israel in 2000, after the 1993 establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Pope Benedict repeated all of these actions as a clear statement and confirmation that this is what popes do. Pope Francis, who had been the beneficiary of post-Nostra Aetate ordination, did all of these things in a most natural way, as he rose through the church in Argentina. He continues in that path as the leader of all Catholics.
Although they are not official Church documents, these visuals have had an indelible impact that cannot be overemphasized: not only on Catholics and Jews, and not only on Christians, but on all who take note of the respect paid to the Jewish people and Judaism by the most influential religious leader in the world, the pope.
The Nostra Aetate oral Torah was not just about what Catholics were doing, but it was also about how Jews were responding. Jewish leadership required courage in responding to the Catholic outreach. It is surely not to be assumed that the positive Jewish response would be forthcoming. Jews could easily have rejected the Catholic turnaround, dismissing it, as one rabbi did, as "too little and too late," (Rabbi Harry Essrig, AJYB 1965, p. 127) or not going far enough to balance the atrocities of the centuries. Although there are significant exceptions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community, particularly among religious leaders, has been receptive to Catholic outreach. In barely one or two generations we moved from Jewish fear of and derisiveness toward Catholicism to varying levels of mutual respect.
Let us analyze for a moment why AJC first issued a guarded statement regarding Nostra Aetate in October 1965 and then, two weeks later, a more optimistic statement. This was emblematic and symptomatic of the Jewish approach to the entire Nostra Aetate process, before, during, and after the main event, whose fiftieth anniversary we are celebrating this year. The Catholic-Jewish relationship has been moving on an upward, positive, advancing trajectory. But there have been many challenging moments or "hiccups" along the way. On numerous occasions – some in the context of huge contretemps and others in the minutiae of insider theology, liturgy and the like - the Jewish community has shared its concerns regarding the general and particular direction of the evolving Catholic-Jewish relationship, but always in a style that would allow the relationship to live for another day. Repeatedly, Jewish leadership has criticized, sometimes quite strongly, various Catholic actions or statements that disturbed the Jewish community, but responsible Jewish leadership always stopped short of allowing one challenging moment in time to determine the course of our new history together. Controversies notwithstanding, there was enough trust to persevere in a new relationship despite the heavy burden of history.
No doubt between October 15 and October 28, 1965 there were some very interesting conversations held in the offices of AJC. I suspect they were asking themselves whether their initial reaction was too critical and could endanger future progress. They ultimately listened to the Talmudic dictum, "Tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta," literally, if you grab too much, you'll get nothing. Or in the idiom of the English language, they did not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Nostra Aetate is not perfect, but it certainly is good, and there must have been sufficient trust that the good could become better.
I offer one additional revealing example in which Catholics and Jews allowed the relationship to live for another day, this one from 1987, the 22nd year of Nostra Aetate, nine years into the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, beloved by Catholics and Jews. It was during the summer of 1987 when John Paul welcomed to the Vatican in a state visit the disgraced former secretary general of the United Nations and elected president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi connections and wartime actions against Jews had been revealed during the Austrian presidential campaign.
I have been thinking a lot lately about this serious crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations because my wife works at Temple Israel in Great Neck, NY, where Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, served for more than 50 years. Waxman was a leader in Catholic-Jewish relations and played a crucial role in navigating the Waldheim crisis.
The crisis was heightened by the already scheduled meeting to be held on September 11, 1987 between Pope John Paul and hundreds of American Jews in Miami, a Jewish capital. Jewish groups were beginning to announce their boycotts of the Miami encounter. Rabbi Waxman was serving as chair of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the official world Jewish dialogue partner with the Vatican. Many of the Jewish organizations represented here today are part of IJCIC – ADL, World Jewish Congress, B'nai Brith, AJC, the rabbinic and synagogue arms of the three major Jewish denominations and IJCIR, an Israeli interreligious relations organization. An IJCIC delegation went to the Vatican to discuss solutions to the crisis and met with John Paul at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. As has happened many times during the past fifty years, a crisis was turned into an opportunity.
As a result of the conversations in Italy, Pope John Paul II announced in Miami two very important milestones in Catholic-Jewish relations: 1) a commitment to producing a Catholic document on the Shoah and antisemitism, which was brought to light ten years later as "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," and 2) a public re-affirmation of the Jewish people's right to a homeland, which laid to rest suspicions that the Church had theological objections to the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Holy Land and led to the 1993 Vatican recognition of the State of Israel through the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See.
It is not a coincidence that the greatest stress points in Catholic-Jewish relations often revolve around issues related to the Shoah and the State of Israel. These are the two central events of modern Jewish history that provide the contours of Jewish identity today. It is nearly certain that these will be the areas of potential Catholic-Jewish controversy in the future. Regarding Israel, this was most recently demonstrated by the strong critical reaction from Israel and much of the leadership of world Jewry to the Vatican's new or not so new, but still rather public recognition of the State of Palestine in the last week.
And regarding the Shoah, one of the few remaining major unresolved chapters in the history of the Holocaust is the role of the Catholic Church and the leadership of Pope Pius XII. It is inevitable that there will be disagreements between Catholics and Jews regarding both the mechanisms and results of the opening of the Vatican wartime archives and the beatification process of Pope Pius.
In both of these issues history is instructive and a cause for confidence in our relationship. As is appropriate among true friends, there will be necessary airings of disagreement. But in this case the past is instructive for the future. The two communities have too much at stake to allow even these most critical events, whether they be interpretation, as in the case of the Shoah or policy, in the case of Israel, to undermine the progress which has been achieved between our two peoples. Navigating these rough roads will not happen by accident. It will require careful conversation and negotiation between leading Catholics and Jews. We will need to continue to trust one another and make our way together as critical friends with mutual respect.
In a memoir, Rabbi Waxman, who addressed Pope John Paul II in Miami on behalf of the Jewish people, indicated that a happy and important result of the Waldheim crisis was the establishment of the USCCB dialogue with the Synagogue Council of America, which Waxman built with his partner and friend, Bishop (now Cardinal) William Keeler (whom we wish well). That dialogue continues to this day on two tracks, one with the National Council of Synagogues and one with the Orthodox Union.
Finally, we cannot gather on the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate without acknowledging that in the last several years our two communities have experienced tragedy and horror that we thought were part of the tragic past, but are sadly very real today: the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere and the persecution, ethnic cleansing, and murder of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. This is a time calling out for collaboration and mutual support between Christians and Jews. And in that context we acknowledge optimistically that although Nostra Aetate's impact was felt most dramatically in the Christian-Jewish relationship, the document opened the door to that which is "true and holy" in other religions, extending a hand to Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam — as well as to Judaism.
We have come a long way in 50 years or perhaps, we should say, 2000 years. If there was any keen regret, it has surely dissipated and there is genuine cause for celebration on this fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate.
I opened with a Jewish blessing. Let me conclude with a Catholic one, a favorite of mine. These are the words of John Paul II:
As Christians and Jews... we are called to be a blessing to the world... It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews to be first a blessing to one another.
If we are not already there, we are certainly on our way.