Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1965, Nostra Aetate (“in our time”), a declaration about the relationship of the Church to “non-Christian religions,” was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI.
The full text of this declaration can be found here. In the section on Jews (for whose sake the document was created), the charge of deicide was dropped from Catholic doctrine. This false charge had stood as the centuries-long raison d’etre for anti-Semitism in the Church. In correcting the record, the Church, in effect, created not only a revisionist history but also a revisionist theology. What the document also did was change the Christian relationship to Jews from one of parent/child to one of brothers. Why is this significant? To extend the metaphor of Christianity as children of Judaism necessitates the death of the parent, with the child serving as inheritor. But the metaphor of brotherhood holds no such notion of hierarchy. In this metaphor, Christianity and Judaism are equally valid faiths, both capable of offering salvation, neither usurping the other.
In part, the section on Jews in Nostra Aetate reads as follows:
in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone… 5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8). No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned. The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.
After a long hiatus of not offering a new post, I am writing about Nostra Aetate because yesterday I had the extraordinary honor and opportunity to attend a 50th anniversary commemoration at the United Nations, organized by the Holy See and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. I believe I was the only female rabbi in attendance and one of the few rabbis there who did not work for an interfaith organization (such as the American Jewish Committee or the ADL). Among the speakers were Bishop William Murphy who offered the Catholic keynote address, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi who offered the Jewish keynote address, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (who spoke via video), and Archbishop Bernadito Auza, among others.
Rabbi Sacks, author of the new book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, spoke about the greatest crime against humanity in our time being that against the Christians in the Middle East. The Hungarian ambassador to the UN said that, ironically, she was attending our session following taking testimony in another chamber from a young Yazidi girl who had been tortured for her faith (the Yazidis mainly live in Iraq today but are facing genocide).
Bernard-Henri Levi, one of the most prominent intellectuals in France and certainly one of the most influential Jews in the world, spoke eloquently about the history of Nostra Aetate, and why it should not be considered a historical moment in time but part of an ongoing process. Pope Francis continues the evolving nature of the relationship both because of his own close friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka (with whom he co-wrote the book On Heaven and Earth) and because of his stunning remark that “in the heart of every Christian there is a part that is a Jew.” Just last week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican issued a new declaration about Jews and the renunciation of conversion. The latest issue of The New Yorker contains an article about Pope Francis and his refusal to convert Jews.
M. Levi finished his outstanding keynote by speaking about our need now to express solidarity with our Muslim compatriots and our need to rewrite a Nostra Aetate/In Our Time to reflect that relationship.