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Daniel Sperber

Rabbi, Bar Ilan University, Israel

A little more than half a century ago, in 1965, the Catholic Church published its epoch-making documents Nostra Aetate. Undoubtedly the publication of this document constituted for Jews a watershed event. It created a new relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church, and consequently with Christianity in general. It paved the way to a more meaningful and open dialogue in which problems facing both religions could be discussed suggesting possible approaches, joint or specific. It undoubtedly took great courage and honesty on the part of the Papal authorities to reach such a radical statement. And anyone who peruses the preliminary drafts will see the great tension and struggle to find just the right formulation. Needless to say, this encyclical, to the extent it was known to the Jewish world, was greatly welcomed.

It was seen as a tragically belated act of contrition, coming after the horrific public disclosures of the full extent of the holocaust. It was felt that it reflected the guilt of the Church, a sense of an attempt of some sort of atonement, ever more so in view of the position of the holy See during the holocaust itself.

Furthermore, it was seen as a final admittance to what had been, from a Jewish viewpoint, a totally irrational accusation against the Jews, which had engendered almost two millennia of hatred, suffering, bloodshed, and inquisition, to mention but a few of the many expressions of this hatred.

Hence, Nostra Aetate was seen by many thinking Jews, especially the "survivors" of the holocaust, as a totally belated admission of an terrible historical injustice which plagued two millennia of Jewish life in Christian society with its attendant horrors.

Nonetheless, however belated it might be, ultimately it was, and must be, welcomed. For, as stated above, if forged the way to a new relationship between the two religions, in which the common and the similar would bear greater stress than the different.

It created a process of very positive and creative dialogue, not "inter-religious", but "intra-filial". So in 2002 the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a document entitled "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible", in which we read the following (paragraph 20):

… From the theological perspective the dialogue with Judaism has a completely different character and is on a different level in comparison with the other world religions. The faith of the Jews testified to in the Bible, found in the Old Testament, is not for Christians another religion but the foundation of their own faith, although clearly the figure of Jesus is the sole key for the Christian interpretation of the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The cornerstone of the Christian faith is Jesus (cf. Acts 4:11` 1 Pt 2:4-8). However, the dialogue with Judaism occupies a unique position for Christians` Christianity is by its roots connected with Judaism as with no other religion. Therefore the Jewish-Christian dialogue can only with reservations be termed "interreligious dialogue' in the true sense of the expression; one could however speak of a kind of 'intra-religious' or 'intra-familial' dialogue sui generis. In his address in the Roman Synagogue on 12 April 1986 Saint Pope John Paul II expressed this situation in these words: "The Jewish religion is not 'extrinsic' to us but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion/ You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers."

And in paragraph 25 we read:

Judaism and the Christian faith as seen in the New Testament are two ways by which God's people can make the Sacred Scriptures of Israel their own. The Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament is open therefore to both ways.

Similarly we read in paragraph 22:

Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Sacred Scriptures of the Second Temple period, and a reading analogous To the Christian reading which developed in a parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression.
Consequently, both are irreducible.

Consequently, among the various Jewish responses, on 9 December 2015, 28 Orthodox Rabbis released a statement through the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, declaring praise for Nostra Aetate, stating:

Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between God and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in World redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.

And this, indeed, has been the consequential development, triggered by Nostra Aetate and its subsequent elaborative encyclicals, creating an ever-closer relationships and mutual understanding of Catholic Christianity and Judaism.

So, in the light of this new relationship we can now confront our joint challenges, be they societal, such as secularization, theological, such as concepts of life, afterlife, salvation etc., with their attendant implications, abortion, birth-control, euthanasia, or ethical, such as the sanctity of the family unit, the sanctity of space and time, homo-lesbianism, and so forth. Such problems confront us both, as do the grave challenges of ecology and conservation, which have recently been addressed by the Holy See. So too, globalization with its far-reaching implications, and any number of additional issues that we must honestly and resolutely face. Joining forces openly and unapologically, utilizing our joint traditions and accumulated wisdom, and the overall similarities in our moral codes, drawing, as they do, on a common heritage, may perhaps serve to lead the way to further rectifications of the many misconceptions that plague us, and to remedies for the multiple ills that beset us all, to that which in Hebrew is called Tikkun Olam.