55 Years of Nostra Aetate

Rabbi Noam Marans shakes hands with Pope Francis

Fifty-five years ago, the Catholic church came out with a document that arguably did more not only to improve Jews’ relationships with Catholics, but also to make Jews physically safer and more at home in the world.

Nostra Aetate, which the Second Vatican Council passed by a 2,221-to-88 vote 55 years and one week ago, on October 28, 1965, redefined the church’s understanding of Jews by acknowledging, among other things, that all Jews are not responsible for the death of the Christian messiah.

That was monumental — and it also was just the start of a process that continues today; although the subsequent changes to the relationship between the church and the Jews have been smaller, they continue to be profound.

Last week, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations and the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews exchanged courtly messages that acknowledge Nostra Aetate’s power, cite some historical changes that it produced, and look forward to continued good relations and shared work.

Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. In that capacity, he’s also a member of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations; now, he’s its chair.

International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations was founded in 1970, so it’s an even half-century old this year; it was created to represent the Jewish world in its dialogue with the church. It’s a bit of a marvel; its members come from across the Jewish world, ranging from the Orthodox OU and RCA to the Conservative USCJ and RA and the Reform URJ and CCAR. (If there is anything that unites disparate groups from across the Jewish spectrum, it’s their shared love of initials.)

Other non-religiously affiliated Jewish member groups include the AJC, of course, and also the ADL, the World Jewish Congress, and Bnai Brith International, as well as the Israel Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations. International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations has representatives from around the world. All these groups come together, despite their many theological and sociological differences, to work with the Catholic church. “The Catholic church has just one address,” Rabbi Marans said ruefully. “Bless us, we have 14 million addresses.

 Rabbi David Berger
Rabbi David Berger
“When the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations is able to say something across ideological and organisational lines, as it does in this statement, that is indeed noteworthy.” In fact, he quoted a pundit as saying, “It took the Catholic church to bring the Jewish community together.”

As for the reason for all these diverse Jewish groups working together, “I think that the most important thing about this is that we’re playing the long game,” Rabbi Marans said. “This is all about delayed gratification. Nostra Aetate was not the beginning of the Catholic/Jewish relationship, but it was a milestone, which really is only the beginning of the process.

“Catholics like to say that the last three popes were the first three popes since Peter who have visited synagogues,” Rabbi Marans continued. (Peter, who was crucified by the Romans in around 68 C.E., is considered to have been the first pope.) “They are the first three popes to have gone on pilgrimage to the horrible but holy sites of the Holocaust. And most importantly, I would argue, they were the first three popes to begin the process of establishing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel and the signing of a fundamental agreement in 1993 which one could characterise as the second great milestone after Nostra Aetate.”

He is talking about delayed gratification, Rabbi Marans explained, because “the remarkable document that is Nostra Aetate, written in 1965, does not mention the Holocaust or the state of Israel. But it begins the process of establishing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, and the signing of a fundamental agreement in 1993 that one could characterise as the second great milestone after Nostra Aetate.

“Another amazing thing is that when the Catholic church extended its hand to the Jewish people, one could not assume that the Jewish people would be responsive. Nostra Aetate is the beginning of the process for redressing the entirety of the relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people. It says it rejects the collective guilt of Jews then and now — it is generally understood to be shorthand for rejecting the charge of deicide, then and now — but there were Jews and probably still are Jews who said and say it’s too little, too late. And that is not a completely unreasonable position. But if one believes that the safety and security of the Jewish people is the most important desideratum for the Jewish people — and I think that is incontrovertible — then we are obligated to address the root causes of anti-Semitism. And surely the anti-Judaism of Christianity for two millennia was a root cause.

“Our ability to move the needle on that has furthered the safety and security of the Jewish people.”

The church has released four major documents since Nostra Aetate, Rabbi Marans said; “Guidelines” in 1974, “Notes” in 1985, a “major statement on the Shoah called ‘We Remember,’ and on the 50th anniversary the longest of the documents, called ‘The Gifts and Callings Are Irrevocable.’

“That refers to a verse in Romans that was a scriptural basis for the new relationship with the Jewish people”; it’s about the permanence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, which was not broken by the Catholic church’s own covenant.

Rabbi Joshua Hess
Rabbi Joshua Hess
Joshua Hess is the rabbi of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden; he’s a member of International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

Why is Nostra Aetate important? “The simple answer is that it is important now because it set the course then for a new relationship between people of faith, and there are so many universal issues on which we are able to work together, and our working together strengthens morality. It strengthens the world. Rabbi Hess leads a modern Orthodox congregation. “The Orthodox community was very hesitant when Nostra Aetate first was promulgated,” he said. “It was very hesitant. Very cautious. There was a lot of scepticism — and there was good reason for that hesitation and scepticism.

“But you can see that by the church’s exoneration of the Jews from charges of deicide, by its condemning anti-Semitism, by its apologising for its silence during the Holocaust, by its establishing formal relations with the state of Israel, which meant accepting the state of Israel — these are tremendous steps in creating a safe space for both communities to engage in a relationship based on mutual values and concerns.”

Rabbi Hess’s connection to International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations began about a decade ago, a year into his time in Linden. The RCA, like the other rabbinical associations involved in International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, asked its young members if they’d like to be part of International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations’s emerging leadership conference. Rabbi Hess accepted the invitation; since then he’s gone to its meetings every two years, and recently moved up from the ranks of emerging leaders to the senior group. “I enjoy dialogue and having the chance to meet other people,” he said. “Having the opportunity to work with people of different faiths on issues of mutual concern and universal value — to work on something that doesn’t just improve the Jewish community but improves the world community. And that’s what we are trying to do.

“We are looking to inspire and impact and transform the world community. Probably this is one of the best platforms to do that.”

Rabbi Dr. David Berger of Teaneck is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University; he’s a member of International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations and one of his fields of study is the relationship between Christians and Jews.

Nostra Aetate has been extraordinarily important “because it overturns the perception of Jews and Judaism that has dominated Catholic thought for nearly two millennia,” Dr. Berger said. “So that whatever drawbacks that document had in Jewish eyes, we need to measure it against the historic imbalance that it redresses in effectively overturning the fundamental perception of the role of the Jews in the crucifixion.”

There are many internal theological problems that the church must confront — or chose not to confront but instead to elide — as it changes its relationships with Jews. Does it or does it not have the duty to proselytise? Does it have the duty to witness? Can the definitions of those words — neither of which are prominent in the Jewish vocabulary, at least as obligations — overlap in a way that provides some comfort for Catholics without repelling Jews?

“The Gifts and Callings Are Irrevocable” — the document released in 2015 — “attempted to provide a theological basis for refraining from any missionary activity directed at Jews,” Dr. Berger said. “From my perspective, I can see the theological difficulties in reaching that conclusion, which means that I feel a particular admiration for the people who formulated it, who essentially are struggling to overcome their own theology.”

Given all the demands and constraints of their theology, Dr. Berger said, he is touched by how responsible the church has been to Jewish concerns as it continues to adapt Nostra Aetate over these last 55 years. “There is a real sensitivity to Jewish concerns, even at this difficult time,” he said.


Rabbi Noam Marans shakes hands with Pope Francis
Rabbi Noam Marans shakes hands with Pope Francis as Rabbi David Rosen, the director of AJC’s International Interreligious Affairs, looks on.

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