Very, very few Jews understand the significance of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document whose fortieth anniversary passed last month. This is a pity, because even the most cautious and the most cynical should recognize that it just might have been the most significant development in our relationship with an adversary that battled us for millennia. Whether it fulfills this promise may depend, in no small measure, on our reaction to it.
Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) changed two thousand year old notions about Jews. For almost all of that time, two attitudes about Jews guaranteed contempt and persecution of Jews, as a matter of quasi-religious principle. The charge of deicide, that all Jews were responsible for the crucifixion, meant in the popular mind that Jews were guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable, and might be made to pay for it with their lives. They often did.
The second notion was replacement, or changes in the special relationship between G-d and Israel so clearly expressed in the Bible. With the rise of Christianity, the Israel of the Bible was “replaced” by the New Israel – namely practicing Christians. Jews had no further place in history, other than to survive till the end of time, bearing witness then to their mistake in rejecting the true religion, and along the way testifying to their degeneracy by living as the cast-offs of civilized society. The greatest gift one could offer them was the chance to convert. Alternatively, they could choose death. They often did.
Nostra Aetate upended both of these notions. It taught that Jews do not bear any more responsibility for the death of the Christian savior than any other people. It affirmed that G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken and eternal.
Jews – especially traditional Jews filled with a sense of the permanence of G-d’s Word – wonder how this could be done. How do you change a belief that the faithful assumed century after century? They do not understand that the Church does not see change as impossible. The Catholic Church overflows with tradition; it allows only for very slow change. But it does allow for it. Later generations can and do rethink old issues as society develops.
Unlike other denominations, when change occurs within the Catholic Church it has both teeth and staying power. The Church is hierarchical and authoritarian. When it speaks, its adherents are expected to listen. This means that the shift in attitude of the Catholic Church is binding, and will likely be around for the foreseeable future. (Protestants, on the other hand, know no real central authority. While conservative Protestants are beyond doubt the largest, most enthusiastic and most consistent supporters of both Jews and Israel today, there is no a priori reason why this could not change tomorrow if enough Protestant preachers started speaking differently. Luther was an anti-Semitic extremist. The fact that tens of millions of American Protestants enthusiastically support Israel does not stem from a change of central teaching, but from a change of heart. It could change back.)
A third element of Nostra Aetate concerned how people should act towards Jews. Antisemitism is now officially noted as a sin. For me, this alone is significant. To all skeptics: would you rather live in a world in which a hundred million Catholics see you as a collaborator of the Devil, or one in which they are instructed not to hate you? (I used to share a mike on Dennis Prager’s Religion on the Line show on KABC with a bright and articulate Franciscan whose friendship I valued. He was eventually transferred to a parish in Northern California. One Sunday, a couple stopped after the service to take issue with something he had said in his sermon. “Father, it doesn’t matter what you say. The trouble with this country is still those people.” He argued with them for a while; they held their own, and eventually just walked away. He ran after them, yelling for all to hear, “You had better be back during the week for Confession, because you are sinners!”) Should we not be appreciative of the chesed shown to us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu for this sea-change in orientation? For many hundreds of years, Jews inserted a prayer into the davening that asked Hashem to turn the hearts of governments favorably towards us. Is there any reason not to include the Vatican in that list of world powers?
Surely the message has not gotten to everyone. Nostra Aetate has not wiped out Catholic anti-Semitism. There are elements in the Church – from top to bottom – who are resistant to Nostra Aetate’s content, and are plotting to have it reversed. Think of Hutton Gibson, prominent Holocaust denier and anti-Semite, father of Mel, and his “traditionalist Catholics” who reject current Popes as illicit, largely because they reject the spirit of Vatican II. (Whenever we read of some tiff between the Vatican and Israel, we should pause before we smugly let out an “I told you so” about the new Pope. The Vatican is no monolith; competing voices and ideologies shape its pronouncements. There is little question that some of those voices represent retrograde elements who would like to keep old animosities strong.) You have to walk through life with blinders, however, not to encounter Catholics who were brought up on liberal doses of anti-Semitism at home – and had it drummed out of them by priests and nuns who were faithful to the new catechism of the Church, and the new teachings of Nostra Aetate.
Conversion of Jews is no longer the priority it once was. If the covenant with the Jews has never been broken, then somehow they do not need the embrace of the mother Church quite as other people do. To be sure, this notion is upsetting to many Catholics. Long educated to believe that there was no other portal to Heaven, it is upsetting to learn that there may be a Jewish back door.
In truth, the theology of all this is not yet entirely worked out. It is a work in progress. Some of the solutions proposed do not sound like much of an improvement over the old, but even they, practically speaking, call for treating Jews very differently from the way they were treated in the past. Many Catholics don’t mind the contradiction, or the struggle to find a way out of it.
While hopeful that more and more Jews will understand how positive a development Nostra Aetate was, I cannot completely fault those who have responded with ignorance, indifference, or outright suspicion. I can’t blame them, even as I try to gingerly offer an alternative. Jews are very much in the position of a battered wife, hearing her husband claim that he has turned over a new leaf. To be sure, violent husbands sometimes do change, albeit not very often. Their long-suffering spouses, though, need to remain cautious and vigilant for their own protection. The Jewish community, bruised and bloodied in two millennia of interaction with Rome, cannot be faulted for wanting to see hard evidence of change before it can learn to trust the voices of reconciliation.
We cannot, I think, be deaf to them either. What ought we do? We ought to take small and tentative steps towards changing some of our attitudes. We in the Orthodox community are univocally opposed to the old kind of ecumenical dialogue, aimed at a cross-fertilization and interpenetration of religious ideas. That is out of the question to us, and has been rejected by all Torah authorities, including Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, who was perhaps the most explicit and verbose about his opposition. We should, however, be able to recognize that some kinds of discussion have nothing to do with prodding each other to understand or respect (or dilute) religious teachings. There are areas in which our moral and ethical values coincide, especially in the Kulturkampf against the hedonistic, material and secular alternatives of our shared host culture. Few Jews realize that it is not only they who feel like an embattled minority – that committed Catholics, too, despite their greater numbers, feel mocked, disparaged and marginalized by the image-makers of general culture. We ought to be able to cooperate in waging common battle to convince (by persuasion, not religious coercion) fellow Americans to hold on to our shared treasured notions (even as we disagree about details of their application) about the specialness of human life, and about the importance of G-d in human affairs and decision-making.
Minimally, we ought to remember that those who are trying to find new interpretations of old texts are, well, people. They are theologians and priests and laypeople, but they are human beings with the usual complement of feelings and sensitivities. They would like to know that Jews are taking notice of their work, and that it is appreciated. Those of us who encounter such people should find ways to show it.