Fifty years ago the Catholic Church made one of the most remarkable changes in the history of human religious history.

For close to two millennia, it had taught that the Church replaced Israel and that Judaism was, in fact, no longer a valid religious path. Jews were accused of killing god, deicide, and a bitter history of religious persecution ensued. As a combination of internal factors (advances in religious thought) and external circumstance (Christians confronting the horrors of the Holocaust and considering the contributing role of Christian teaching), the Second Vatican Council revised its teaching on Judaism in what is arguably the most extreme about-face undertaken in the relations between two religions in history. The changed theology has contributed greatly to improved Jewish-Catholic (and also broader Christian) relations, and paved the way to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See. 2015 has been celebrated as the jubilee of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the Council document that revised Catholic views of Judaism.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

What has been the Jewish response to this landmark declaration? On the whole, only experts in Jewish-Christian relations have engaged Nostra Aetate and it has remained beyond the threshold of awareness of most Jews and their leadership. Declaration is not the natural means of expression for Jews and up until very recently, there has been no attempt to respond in kind.

Soon after Nostra Aetate was published, the French Rabbinate drafted a text in recognition of the changes. The text was never published because there was skepticism as to whether the Church was really capable of changing. It is therefore a tribute to half a century of Jewish-Catholic relations that in recent days two rabbinic statements have been published in recognition and in response to Nostra Aetate.

The first statement, published in November by the French Rabbinate, now aware of the enduring benefits of the Christian theological revision, speaks of brotherhood between Jews and Christians, even as it points to a future that includes all religions and all humanity gathered in brotherhood around the one God. The statement takes note of the changes and then invites Jews to consider how they should act in the next fifty years.

The statement is significant in its recommendations. The most basic response is “to welcome Christianity as the religion of our brothers and sisters in synergy with Judaism”. “Welcome” is a form of recognition that expresses warmth, and “synergy” expresses common purpose and working in the world. This is spelled out later as an invitation to build a universal brotherhood, to achieve a common ethic, valid for the whole world. It also includes recognition of the need to get rid of prejudices that get in the way of better listening to the other religion, in terms of its self-understanding and its plan for the flourishing of humanity. “We must now strive to better understand each other, to appreciate, esteem, and love the other for what he or she is and accomplishes”. The statement recalls the broader horizons of all religions and considers dialogue between all religions as the next step, while it enshrines all these hopes “in the heart of our prayers”.

It is interesting to contrast this statement with one issued only a couple of weeks later by a group of Orthodox rabbis, of global provenance.
At its core, the Orthodox statement delivers a very similar message. Recognizing the enduring changes launched by Nostra Aetate, it speaks of Christians as our partners in world redemption and of a “common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on his name”. Nevertheless, the tone, and much of the substance, is different. The Orthodox statement is not so much a heartfelt welcome, based upon the reality of Christian existence and its recognition and validation, as it is a teaching that seeks to make the point to the common Orthodox practitioner, who is unaware of positive Jewish views of Christianity. Where the French statement was delivered during a festive celebration to Church officials, the Jewish statement that is ultimately a response to Nostra Aetate, speaks as much to the Jewish public as it does to the Church.

It is making the case for the legitimacy of Christianity, even as it seeks to offer a theological perspective on it. It is therefore much more pedagogic in tone and more daring theologically. Reference to covenant suggests Christianity too is a covenantal religion. It speaks of God’s intention in bringing about the Christian faith, compared to the de facto recognition of Christians in the French statement. It speaks of Christianity’s formation as “ the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies.” It also refers to God’s many messengers who reveal his Truth, thereby implying Christianity is a valid revelation of Truth, though some ambiguity remains as to whether this truth is theological or only moral.

The stakes are higher in the Orthodox statement that recognizes Christianity not only in empirical terms, but in apriori theological terms, grounded in various ways in divine purpose. Paradoxically, while it seeks to win over the faithful to a positive view of Christianity, citing the precedent of some of the most important rabbinic voices in history, it also puts forth what is arguably the most daring and principled Jewish view of Christianity as a divinely given religion, ever articulated. And because it seeks to make a point theologically, it does not include any of the much needed practical recommendations found in the French statement, even though it addresses an audience that would be very much in need of similar recommendations.

Perhaps because it is less principled, the French statement can better accommodate Christian faith. In affirming that Christians seek the same goals through a different path, it implicitly alludes to the core of Christian faith in Jesus, the Word, as a means of gaining a higher existence. By contrast, the Orthodox statement speaks of Christianity basically in Jewish terms — the covenant, the Noachide commandments. Perhaps the attempt to offer full theological validation leads to casting Christianity in fully Jewish terms, while the de-facto recognition of the French statement allows for a fuller recognition of the particularity of Christian faith on its own terms.

Reading both statements in tandem, we are led to several realizations and questions:

  • It is a remarkable achievement that Jewish authorities have finally been able to issue a response to Nostra Aetate in their own terms, based on half a century of positive relations and a recognition of the enduring changes in Catholic teaching.
  • It is noteworthy that, for both statements, where Jews and Christians come together is in their mission and service to the world, considered largely in ethical terms, centered around a common God.
  • That rabbinic authorities globally have responded to Nostra Aetate is an invitation to all who have refused to acknowledge changes in Catholic teaching to reconsider such refusal, and more broadly what a legitimate Jewish view of Christianity might be.
  • Within such recognition we note a scale of options, ranging from recognition of the reality of the other to principled theological affirmation, from reflection to prayer and from affirmation of the particularity of faith of the other to appreciation of the other in one’s own theological terms. This range is significant. It suggest there is more than one way of recognizing the other and of healing relations. For those who seek more principled affirmation, let them turn to the Orthodox statement. Those who may be put off by the stronger aspects of the Orthodox statement may find the French statement more palpable.
  • Finally, while both statements are aware of all of humanity, only the French statement situates Jewish-Christian relations within a broader view of all religions. This seems to be a necessary move in an increasingly multi-faith world, where we must seek to establish relations with multiple religions and to ground such relations in a view of God, humanity and Judaism’s relations with world religions.