Jewish Documents & Statements
Between Jerusalem and Rome: The Shared Universal and the Respected Particular – Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate
- Created: February 10, 2016
- Written by The Conference of European Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America
This text is an institutional Orthodox Jewish reflection on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate. The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) is the primary rabbinical association in Europe, connecting more than 700 religious leaders of mainstream synagogue communities in Europe. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Although dated Adar I, 5776 (February 10, 2016) and the text having been formally adopted in March 2016 by the CER and the RCA, the statement has come to public notice early in 2017 on the websites of the Amitié Judéo-chrétienne de France (French translation by Cécile Le Paire) and on jcrelations.net. The English original may be found on the RCA website.
In the biblical account of creation, God fashions a single human being as the progenitor of all humanity. Thus, the Bible's unmistakable message is that all human beings are members of a single family. And after the deluge of Noah, this message is reinforced when the new phase of history is once again inaugurated by a single family. In the beginning, God’s providence is exercised over a universal, undifferentiated humanity.
As God chose Avraham, and subsequently Yitzchak and Yaakov, He entrusted them with a dual mission: to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind.
Ever since, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, we Jews encountered persecution after exile after persecution. And yet, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie,1 and His eternal covenant with the nation of Israel manifested itself time and again: despite the greatest adversities, our nation has endured.2 After the darkest hour since the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem, when six million of our brethren were viciously murdered and the embers of their bones were smoldering in the shadows of the Nazi crematoria, God's eternal covenant was once again manifest, as the remnants of Israel gathered their strength and enacted a miraculous reawakening of Jewish consciousness. Communities were reestablished throughout the Diaspora, and many Jews responded to the clarion call to return to Eretz Yisrael, where a sovereign Jewish state arose.
The Jewish people's dual obligations – to be a light unto the nations3 and to secure its own future despite the world’s hatred and violence – have been overwhelmingly difficult to fulfill. Despite innumerable obstacles, the Jewish nation has bequeathed many blessings upon mankind, both in the realms of the sciences, culture, philosophy, literature, technology and commerce, as well as in the realms of faith, spirituality, ethics and morality. These, too, are a manifestation of God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people.
Undoubtedly, the Shoah constitutes the historical nadir of the relations between Jews and our non-Jewish neighbors in Europe. Out of the continent nurtured by Christianity for over a millennium, a bitter and evil shoot sprouted forth, murdering six million of our brethren with industrial precision, including one and a half million children. Many of those who participated in this most heinous crime, exterminating entire families and communities, had been nurtured in Christian families and communities.4
At the same time, throughout that millennium, even in very dark times, heroic individuals arose – sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, both laymen and leaders – who fought against the persecution of Jews, helping them in the darkest of times.5
With the close of World War II, a new era of peaceful coexistence and acceptance began to emerge in Western European countries, and an era of bridge-building and tolerance took hold in many Christian denominations. Faith communities reevaluated their historical rejections of others, and decades of fruitful interaction and cooperation began. Moreover, though we Jews had achieved political emancipation a century or two before, we were not yet truly accepted as equal, full-fledged members of the nations in which we lived. Following the Shoah, Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora, as well as the right of the Jewish people to live as a sovereign nation in our own land, finally became obvious and natural.
During the ensuing seven decades, Jewish communities and spiritual leaders gradually reassessed Judaism's relationship with the members and leaders of other faith communities.
Turnaround – Nostra Aetate
Fifty years ago, twenty years after the Shoah, with its declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4),6 the Catholic Church began a process of introspection that increasingly led to any hostility toward Jews being expurgated from Church doctrine, enabling trust and confidence to grow between our respective faith communities.
In this regard, Pope John XXIII was a transformative figure in Jewish-Catholic relations no less than in the history of the Church itself. He played a courageous role in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, and it was his recognition of the need to revise “the teaching of contempt” that helped overcome resistance to change and ultimately facilitated the adoption of Nostra Aetate (no. 4).
In its most focused, concrete, and, for the Church, most dramatic7 assertion, Nostra Aetate recognized that any Jew who was not directly and personally involved in the Crucifixion did not bear any responsibility for it.8 Pope Benedict XVI's elaborations and explications of this theme are particularly noteworthy.9
In addition, basing itself on Christian Scriptures, Nostra Aetate asserted that the Divine election of Israel, which it calls “the gift of God,” will not be revoked, stating, “God ... does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” It issued the injunction that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.” Later, in 2013, Pope Francis elaborated upon this theme in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with His word.”10
Nostra Aetate also paved the way for the Vatican's 1993 establishment of full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Through the establishment of this relationship, the Catholic Church showed how it had truly repudiated its portrayal of the Jewish people as a nation condemned to wander until the final advent. This historic moment facilitated Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Israel in 2000, which served as another powerful demonstration of a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. Since then, the successive last two popes have also made similar state visits.
Nostra Aetate strongly “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” as a matter of religious duty. Accordingly, Pope John Paul II repeatedly affirmed that anti-Semitism is “a sin against God and humanity.” At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he recited the following prayer: “God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
Pope Francis recently recognized a new, pervasive and even fashionable form of anti-Semitism, when he told a World Jewish Congress delegation: “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism. There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.”11
Finally, Nostra Aetate called for fostering “mutual understanding and respect,” and for conducting “fraternal dialogues.” In 1974, Pope Paul VI heeded this call by creating the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; the Jewish community, in response to this call, has met regularly with Church representatives.
We applaud the work of popes, church leaders, and scholars who passionately contributed to these developments, including the strong-willed proponents of Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the end of World War II, whose collective work was a leading drive for Nostra Aetate. The most important milestones were the Second Vatican Council, the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the recognition of Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant, the appreciation of the Shoah and its antecedents, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. The theological writings of the heads of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews have contributed much to the Church documents which followed Nostra Aetate, as have the writings of numerous other theologians.
In its recent reflections on Nostra Aetate, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the Pontifical Commission unambiguously endorsed the notion that Jews are participants in God's salvation, calling this idea “an unfathomable divine mystery.”12 It further proclaimed that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”13 Though the Catholic Church has not disavowed witnessing to Jews, it has nonetheless shown understanding and sensitivity towards deeply held Jewish sensibilities, and distanced itself from active mission to Jews.
The transformation of the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish community is strikingly exemplified by the recent visit of Pope Francis to a synagogue, which will make him the third Pope to make this highly significant gesture. We echo his comment, “From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers. It is my hope that closeness, mutual understanding and respect between our two communities continue to grow.”
These welcoming attitudes and actions stand in stark contrast with centuries of teachings of contempt and of pervasive hostility, and herald a most encouraging chapter in an epic process of societal transformation.
Evaluation and Reevaluation
Initially, many Jewish leaders14 were skeptical of the sincerity of the Church’s overtures to the Jewish community, due to the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. Over time, it has become clear that the transformations in the Church’s attitudes and teachings are not only sincere but also increasingly profound, and that we are entering an era of growing tolerance, mutual respect, and solidarity between members of our respective faiths.
Orthodox Judaism – through the American Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America – had already been a part of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) set up in the late sixties, as the official Jewish representative for relations with the Vatican. A new page in the relations of Orthodox Judaism with the Catholic Church was turned with the establishment of the bilateral committee of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel with the Vatican, commencing in 2002 under the chairmanship of the chief rabbi of Haifa Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen. The published declarations from the thirteen meetings of this bilateral commission (alternating annually between Rome and Jerusalem) carefully avoid matters pertaining to fundamentals of faith, but rather address a broad spectrum of contemporary social and scientific challenges, highlighting shared values while respecting the differences between the two faith traditions.
We, both Catholics and Jews, acknowledge that this fraternity cannot sweep away our doctrinal differences; it does, rather, reinforce genuine mutual positive dispositions towards fundamental values that we share, including but not limited to reverence of the Hebrew Bible.15
The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of Jesus as the Messiah and the embodiment of the second person of a triune God create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism. The history of Jewish martyrdom in Christian Europe serves as tragic testimony to the devotion and tenacity with which Jews resisted beliefs incompatible with their ancient and eternal faith, which requires absolute fidelity to both the Written and Oral Torah. Despite those profound differences, some of Judaism’s highest authorities have asserted that Christians maintain a special status because they worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth Who liberated the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage and Who exercises providence over all creation.16
The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the internal deliberations of the respective faith communities. Judaism, drawing its particularity from its received Tradition, going back to the days of its glorious prophets and particularly to the Revelation at Sinai, will forever remain loyal to its principles, laws and eternal teachings. Furthermore, our interfaith discussions are informed by the profound insights of such great Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik,17 Rabbi Lord Emanuel Jakobovits,18 and many others, who eloquently argued that the religious experience is a private one which can often only be truly understood within the framework of its own faith community.
However, doctrinal differences and our inability to truly understand the meaning and mysteries of each other’s faiths do not and may not stand in the way of our peaceful collaboration for the betterment of our shared world and the lives of the children of Noah. To further this end, it is crucial that our faith communities continue to encounter, grow acquainted with, and earn each other's trust.
The Road Forward
Despite the irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.19
We understand our mission to be a light unto the nations to include contributing to humanity's appreciation for holiness, morality and piety. As the Western world grows more and more secular, it abandons many of the moral values shared by Jews and Christians. Religious freedom is thus increasingly threatened by the forces of both secularism and religious extremism. We therefore seek the partnership of the Catholic community in particular, and other faith communities in general, to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family, and “to cultivate the moral and religious conscience of society.”20
As a people who suffered from persecution and genocide throughout our history, we are all too aware of the very real danger facing many Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere they are persecuted and menaced by violence and death at the hands of those who invoke God's Name in vain through violence and terror.
We call upon the Church to join us in deepening our combat against our generation's new barbarism, namely the radical offshoots of Islam, which endanger our global society and does not spare the very numerous moderate Muslims. It threatens world peace in general and the Christian and Jewish communities in particular. We call on all people of good will to join forces to fight this evil.
Despite profound theological differences, Catholics and Jews share common beliefs in the Divine origin of the Torah and in an ultimate redemption, and now, also, in the affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education — not war, coercion, or social pressure — to influence and inspire.
We ordinarily refrain from expressing expectations regarding other faith communities' doctrines. However, certain kinds of doctrines cause real suffering; those Christian doctrines, rituals and teachings that express negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism do inspire and nurture anti-Semitism. Therefore, to extend the amicable relations and common causes cultivated between Catholics and Jews as a result of Nostra Aetate, we call upon all Christian denominations that have not yet done so to follow the example of the Catholic Church and excise anti-Semitism from their liturgy and doctrines, to end the active mission to Jews, and to work towards a better world hand-in-hand with us, the Jewish people.
We seek to deepen our dialogue and partnership with the Church in order to foster our mutual understanding and to advance the goals outlined above. We seek to find additional ways that will enable us, together, to improve the world: to go in God's ways, feed the hungry and dress the naked, give joy to widows and orphans, refuge to the persecuted and the oppressed, and thus merit His blessings.
Rosh Chodesh Adar I, 5776
1. Samuel 15:29.
2. Cf. Genesis 17:7 & 17:19, Leviticus 26:42-45, Deuteronomy 20:3-5, etc.
3. Isaiah 49:6.
4. Pope John Paul II wrote: "It is appropriate that, as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws to a close, the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children ...” (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 10 November 1994, 33: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 87, 1995, 25). The Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews wrote: “The fact that the Shoah took place in Europe, that is, in countries of long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christians towards the Jews” (We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah, 16 March 1998).
5. Two examples among the many such heroes of history are the abbot Bernard of Clairveax during the Crusades and Jules-Géraud Cardinal Saliège of Toulouse during World War II. When, during the Crusades, a fellow Cistercian monk began exhorting Germans to destroy the Jews before waging war on the Muslims, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux went personally to put a stop to it. As Rabbi Efraim of Bonn wrote: "One decent priest by the name of Bernard, a great figure and master of all the priests, who knew and understood their religion, said to them: … “My disciple who preached that the Jews should be destroyed spoke improperly, for it is written of them in the Book of Psalms, ‘Do not kill them lest my people forget.’” All the people regarded this priest as one of their saints, and our investigation did not indicate that he took bribes for speaking well of Israel. When they heard this, many of them stopped their efforts to bring about our deaths? (Sefer Zekhirah, ed. by A. M. Haberman, p. 18). Jules-Géraud Saliège (February 24, 1870—November 5, 1956) was the Catholic Archbishop of Toulouse from 1928 until his death, and was a significant figure in Catholic resistance to the pro-Nazis regime in France. He was made cardinal in 1946 by Pope Pius XII. Yad Vashem recognized him as a Righteous among the Nations for his efforts to protect Jews during the Shoah.
6. The main subject of this section is Nostra Aetate's fourth section, which deals particularly with the Catholic Church's relationship to the Jews. So as to read less tediously, henceforth reference will be made to just Nostra Aetate, however, throughout our document, it is particularly section 4 that we refer to.
7. Nostra Aetate's assertion is rooted in earlier church teachings, such as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, from 1566. Article 4 of that document's section entitled The Creed, relativizes the Jews' imputed guilt by proclaiming that the sinfulness of Christians contributed even more to the crucifixion. Nonetheless, accusations of deicide towards Jews continued for several more centuries. If the accusations became dulled over time, it was more likely on account of the Enlightenment, during which Jew-hatred lost some of its religious character in Europe. Nostra Aetate, on the other hand, coming on the heels of a Western desire to disavow the kinds of intense Jew-hatred that contributed to the Shoah, was nothing less than revolutionary in bringing about meaningful change in the Catholic Church in this regard.
8. The degree to which even first-century Jews played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus is itself a matter of scholarly controversy, but in terms of internal Christian doctrine, we recognize that absolving all other Jews from any responsibility for the crucifixion is an extremely significant step for the Church.
9. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 2011.
10. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Vatican 2013, §247, §249.
12. The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable, Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 2015 , §36-§39.
13. Ibid. §40.
14. See for example Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Responsa Iggerot Moshhe, Yoreh De’ah Vol. 3, §43, as well as French Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan in his remarks cited in Droit et liberté, December 1964, and in Hamodia, 16th of September 1965. Each identified areas where skepticism was warranted.
15. Commentary to Song of Songs (attributed to Nahmanides), in Kitve ha-Ramban, ed. Chavel, vol. II, pgs. 502-503; Ralbag, Milhamot, ed. Leipzig, pg. 356 and Commentary to the Torah, ed. Venice, pg. 2.
16. Tosafot Sanhedrin 63b, s.v. Asur; Rabbenu Yeruham ben Meshullam, Toledot Adam ve-Havvah 17:5; R. Moses Isserles to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 156:2; R. Moses Rivkis, Be’er ha-Golah to Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 226:1 & 425:5; R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Principles of Education, “Talmudic Judaism and Society,” pgs. 225-227.
17. Most notably in his essay “Confrontation,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought. 6.2 (1964).
18. See, for example, his “The Timely and the Timeless,” London 1977, pgs. 119-121.
19. The press statement issued at the fourth bilateral meeting between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See, in Grottaferrata (Rome, October 17-19, 2004) is particularly notable in this regard. It stated: "Conscious of the fact that there is not wide enough awareness in our respective communities of the momentous change that has taken place in the relationship between Catholics and Jews; and in light of our own committee's work and our current discussions on a shared vision for a just and ethical society; we declare: We are not enemies, but unequivocal partners in articulating the essential moral values for the survival and welfare of human society."
20. As formulated in Jacobovitz, ibid.