40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

Once upon a time there were two sisters, one a decade or so apart from the other.  As one girl reached adolescence the other had already gone off into the world.  And so it was, because the family wasn’t close, the two sisters knew of each other’s existence but not of their actual whereabouts.  They grew estranged and alienated the one from the other.  Years passed, children and grandchildren were born.  Over time, each was certain that she and her family alone survived to carry on their mother’s lineage and legacy.

Then one day, they happened to meet in a distant land.  The younger could not believe her eyes.  “This cannot be,” said the younger.  “I was certain you had died or been killed long ago, leaving no heirs.   Maybe I read something about it somewhere.  Or maybe one of my boys told me something bad had happened to you.  I was certain that my family and I were all that was left to carry on in our mother’s name.  I’m still not even sure you are whom you say you are!”  She was embarrassed and hung her head.

“Well,” said the elder.  “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  And she pulled out an ancient, stained multi-colored tunic and showed it to her sister.  Please examine this; is it my tunic or not?  I am your sister, do you not recognize me?  I am your sister, somewhat the worse for wear, but still alive and kicking after all these years.

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourself…God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.   I love you, regardless of what you may think, regardless of whatever criticisms I may have uttered in the past.

Looking about, the younger sister saw the women and the children.  “Who,” she asked, “are these with you?”  The elder answered:  “These are my children and grandchildren.  Can’t you see the family resemblance between our families?  I am your sister…

Then the younger embraced elder and, falling on her neck, she kissed her, and they wept.  On that day, Nostra Aetate was born.


The estrangement of the two sisters had lasted some 1900 years.  The estrangement was born when the elder sister rejected the younger’s right to build her own relationship with the mother but that rejection was repaid a thousand-fold by the younger sister’s creating a theology that rejected a continuing relationship between Jews and the God of Israel. The nadir of the relationship was the near total destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe during the Second World War.  However, just as the darkest moment precedes the dawn, the Holocaust also marks the turning point in Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism because its ferocity convinced many Christians that their faith had failed to act as its own teachings mandated.

Tonight we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the tentative embrace that marked the beginning of the sisters’ reconciliation.  How close we have grown in just 40 years—and yet how far we still have to go!

The Nostra Aetate declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, spoke positively about relations with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  But it paid the greatest attention to the Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. It condemned all forms of anti-Semitism, and called upon the Catholic Church to eliminate negative references to Judaism in its liturgies and instructional materials.  But more importantly, it made the very strong point that the Jews are still a people beloved of God and are not accursed, and must not be viewed, contrary to the centuries-old teaching, as Christ-killers.

All this is very important from perspective of the Jewish people since it is our survival and security being talked about here.

Was the document ideal? No—because it still clung to the old doctrine that Judaism has been superseded or replaced by the Christian church, but it also laid the foundation on which crucial declarations, documents and actions were later built.

Since Nostra Aetate,

  • Textbooks and catechisms used in Catholic schools have been purged of anti-Jewish materials.
  • There has been a genuine reevaluation of preaching and teaching.
  • Many Catholic colleges and universities, Seattle U. included, have established courses in Judaic and Holocaust studies.
  • Dialogues and joint study programs now exist on local, national and international levels.

Personally, I cannot praise the drafters of NA enough for taking the step they did.  I see NA as near total break from previous Christian attitudes towards Judaism and the Jewish people.  In a way that shows that the Catholic Church is still the standard bearer for the Christian faith, it forged a path for other groups, such as the World Council of Churches, to follow.   It opened a door in the Christian heart that hitherto had been officially and firmly locked and bolted.   Since Vatican II—and the beginning of our re-aligned dialogue—we seem to be in a new era of interfaith relations, all of it initiated by NA. Moreover, there is no question that the late Pope John Paul II providing outstanding leadership on this issue, in ways that are unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church.  (He was the first to visit a synagogue!)

We have moved from disputation to dialogue, from confrontation to cooperation, from oppression to opportunity, and from hostility to hope.

And yet how far do we still have to go:

1. Although the sisters have embraced; their children and grandchildren barely know one another. How do we go from a kiss to a full-body embrace, so that the people in our congregations feel and understand the changes of NA in their core beings?  The number one problem that we face is ignorance. After all these years, we still don’t know very much about each other. Without continuing attention to dialogue and mutual respect, it is likely that people will return to the earlier ways of preaching and teaching.  How long will it take for the teaching of contempt to vanish from the hearts of Christians?  How long will the remembrance of persecution and oppression color the minds of Jewish people?

The truth is that the Church has done much more to educate their people about Jews and Judaism than we Jews have done about Christians and Christianity.  I think this is due to the imbalanced power relationship that has marked the Jewish experience in Europe, and the fact that Judaism is more integral to Christianity than vice versa. In any event, many Christian denominations have felt the imperative to change their curricula; we Jews have not.  At least not yet.  In my opinion, this must change.

Along the way, there will be obstacles to the dialogue, such as:

  • Coming to grips with, and finding a point of reconciliation on, the period of the Holocaust, the role of Church and leading individuals during that period.  This remains a difficult challenging subject.
  • Developing a mutual appreciation of the meaning of State of Israel for Jews, the meaning of the Holy Land for Christians and Muslims, and the ties that connect them with Christian and Muslim Palestinians, and learning about the complexities of Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  • Lastly, perhaps most difficult, is to surrender our competing claims to absolute moral truth and to accept that there are diverse faith perspectives and moral stands on contemporary issues, such as abortion, birth control, and the end of life, issues which challenge our ability to practice tolerance and respect.

On both sides, clearly, there is enough work here for decades or even centuries…

2. Although the sisters have embraced, they have only just begun to search their memories for their long-dead mother—the multiple Judaisms of the first and second centuries of the common era. This mother died with the destruction of the Second Temple but gave birth both to two daughters: rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.   They are more alike than they choose to acknowledge, but different enough too.  If it took 1900 years for the Church to accept the legitimacy of its elder sister, is it any wonder that the Jewish people collectively have been slow to respond.

As we Jews begin to trust that the Christian inquiry into Judaism is designed to deepen Christian faith rather than to convert us, we will enter more easily into dialogue.  And as dialogue broadens and trust builds, it will eventually become almost impossible for the non-Orthodox Jewish community to teach about Christianity in a pre- Vatican II way.  Our people need to lean about the revolutionary changes in Christian thinking on Jews and Judaism in recent decades.

The one primary document of response is a statement drafted in 2000 and signed by several hundred Jewish scholars, called Dabru Emet, Speak the Truth, which basically says in response to NA “thanks, we appreciate it.”  But it has not institutional credibility, and nowhere does it even mention the possibility of reclaiming Jesus or his early followers as the Jews they were.  This, to my mind, is as necessary as the Church’s abandonment of supercessionism and is a complement to NA’s call on Christians to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers.  Searching for the mother is one way for us to deepen our common bonds.

3. Although the sisters have embraced, the world in which they dwell is also populated by people of other families. We need to recognize that these other faiths are part of our extended family as well, particularly Islam.  Traditionally, rabbinic Judaism has pragmatically affirmed that righteous action, regardless of one’s faith, is what merits an individual’s salvation.  It is less clear on whole faiths.  Breaking with Christian tradition, NA somewhat affirms the legitimacy of these other faith families and of Judaism.  But both our faiths still need to wrestle with the legitimacy of other faiths’ perspectives.  Can either of our faiths—or Islam too for that matter—really accept people whose faiths are based on radically different premises or are we condemned forever to replicate our past mistakes?

4. Although the sisters have embraced, as we learn about one another, as we search for our common mother, we most also ask some hard questions about the father. Although both our faiths are rooted in the belief of a loving and merciful God, they focus on worshiping a judgmental and punitive God.   We must recognize that, on some level, and for some reason, our theologies lead us to worship a God who, in part, is portrayed as a violent, abusive parent, willing to sacrifice His son in order to demonstrate his own power, willing to punish His people for centuries for some unspecified sin or as a test; a God who, according to many people, apparently still punishes- humanity with the random terror of earthquakes and hurricanes and so on, leaving the victims to wonder: “Why?”  But ours is not to reason why, rather to ask where does this god-concept come from and why do we still choose to cling to it?

5. Lastly, although the sisters have embraced, the world in which they dwell is a sorry mess. Now more than ever, we need to recognize our shared values and the urgency to put these shared values to work to heal our world.

We have a real task to work on together. Not dialogue for dialogue’s sake, but dialogue for the sake of action. We need to bring like-minded people of many faiths together to get involved in the issues that threaten our world from poverty and hunger, to preserving the environment and the lives of threatened species, to helping people deal with AIDS and other diseases, to resolving conflicts and making peace.  If we don’t do this, our religions will quickly and correctly be perceived by people around the world as irrelevant and insignificant.  We must bring our shared values together for Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.

When Pope John 23 first met with a Jewish delegation, he said simply: “I am Joseph your brother.”  In the story, with which I began this talk, the elder sister, being both Joseph and Jacob, said:  “I am your sister.”  Brother or sister, we are related.  We need to face one another honestly, with hesed, and then together turn to face our fellow human beings and say, as did Joseph to his brothers:  God has sent us ahead of you to ensure our survival on earth; join us; help us; work with us.