A new, more positive phase in Christian-Jewish relations was ushered in when the Vatican, in the 1960s, officially modified its public attitude toward Jews.
At the Second Vatican Council, which convened from 1962 to 1965, the Roman Catholic church issued its historic Nostra Aetate declaration, which renounced the deicide accusation against Jews, underscored the common heritage of Catholics and Jews, and reaffirmed the Jewishness of Jesus and the apostles.
Mainstream Jewish leaders welcomed this path-breaking proclamation after centuries of Christian hostility to Judaism and Jews. But to what extent did Vatican II alter the nature of the church’s relationship with Jews?
Karma Ben-Johanan, a historian at Humboldt University of Berlin, examines this complex and vexing question in a penetrating book, Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations After Vatican II, published by Harvard University Press.
Focusing on the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish communities in her thoughtful study, Ben-Johanan concludes that Vatican II highlighted the ambivalent nature of Catholic-Jewish relations.
“For many Catholics, the reconciliation with the Jews caused a theological avalanche and disorder. For many Orthodox Jews, the demand to adapt themselves to the conciliatory perceptions of Christians seemed to be another attempt to force a Christian agenda and a Christian timetable on them, this time with a liberal flavor.”
In contextualizing the immense changes that have occurred since then, Ben-Johanan offers a concise overview of the evolution of Catholic teachings on Jews over the centuries.
“For hundreds of years, Christian tradition was inherently ambivalent toward Judaism, and attitudes were often blatantly hostile,” she writes. This condition created an “unbridgeable rift” between Christianity and Judaism.
Passages in the New Testament, which were often regarded as anti-Jewish by both Christians and Jews, presented Jews as faithless, blind, stubborn, callous and murderous. “The church, as opposed to the obsolete synagogue, was presented as the true heir of the biblical promises,” she says.
Church doctrine in its earliest years tolerated the degradation and humiliation of Jews, but drew the line at physically harming or killing them. And Jews were allowed to observe the rites of Judaism.
From the sixth century onward, the popes of the Middle Ages from Gregory I on down promulgated papal bulls that safeguarded the status of Jews in Christian lands, prohibited the seizure of their property, and forbade their forcible conversion to Christianity.
The role of Jews as moneylenders in the new market economy generated increasing hostility among the Christian masses, she notes. And during the First Crusade, Christian soldiers en route to the Holy Land murdered Jews and forcibly baptized them.
The “discovery” of the Talmud by Christian scholars, often with the assistance of Jewish converts, brought about a deterioration of Christian attitudes toward Jews. “From the twelfth century onward, Jews began to be portrayed as malevolent rather than as simply mistaken.” During this period, blood libel accusations were hurled against Jews.
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) compelled Jews to wear an identifying patch. And the expulsion of Jews from Britain, France and the German lands was justified by the need to protect Christians from their supposedly malevolent influence.
The conversion of Jews to Christianity, particularly in Spain, was seen as a miracle of divine providence. But eventually, Christian society was troubled by a sense that the new converts were insincere.
With the passage of time, Jews in Christian societies were confined to ghettos and restricted to certain trades. With the Enlightenment, the status of Jews improved, but religious tolerance gave rise to resistance and hostility.
Christian pressure to convert Jews prompted Jewish scholars to produce a slew of anti-Christian polemics.
In the wake of the Holocaust, many Catholics were convinced that the church needed to be reformed, says Ben-Johanan. “In the 1930s and early 1940s, some Catholics felt that the Nazis’ treatment of Jews was legitimate and that it was only right to discriminate against them as Christ killers whose perfidy posed a constant threat to the Christian community … Others recoiled at Nazi savagery, but to many of those, this was only a question of degree. They were not fundamentally opposed to anti-Jewish policies.”
It was commonly believed that only mass conversion could save Jews from divine punishment. This view was also adopted by outspoken opponents of antisemitism, including the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. By the same token, he argued that Israel was divinely promised to Jews and advised Muslims to relinquish their claim to it.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI explicitly denounced Nazi racism as antithetical to the tenets of Christianity, but he never mentioned Jews or antisemitism.
A postwar conference on Christian responsibility for antisemitism and the Holocaust was held in Switzerland in 1947, but it took the Vatican more than a decade to come to terms with Christianity’s complicity in the historic persecution of Jews.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who had been the Vatican’s apostolic delegate in Greece and Turkey during the war, became Pope John XXIII in 1958. In short order, he deleted offensive words from the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews and appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German biblical scholar, to take charge of a new committee preparing the groundwork for a discussion about Catholic relations with Jews.
“The major problem the church coped with in this context was the deicide teaching, which held Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion,” says Ben-Johanan.
Pope John Paul II — a Pole who had known Jews during his youth — was a conservative, a cleric of doctrine. Yet he sought a rapprochement with Jews through acts and gestures, personal meetings, diplomatic contacts and the creation of shared memories. A seminarian who had personally witnessed the Holocaust, and the former archbishop of Krakow, he was the first pope to visit a synagogue and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Paraphrasing Nostra Aetate, he deplored the “terrible tragedy of the Shoah” and denounced “the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.”
To Ben-Johanan, the pope’s visit to Israel was of immense importance. “The unequivocal expression of remorse proved a turning point in Jews’ feelings toward the Catholic church. The papal acknowledgement of the Holocaust involved more than moral commitment to the victims’ memory. John Paul II officially recognized the raison d’etre of the Jewish state.”
In her view, Catholic-Jewish relations were “better than ever” by the end of John Paul’s pontificate in 2005.
Unlike him, Pope Benedict XVI, a dour and distant German whose name was Joseph Ratzinger, did not have a special personal relation with Jews. Effectively absolving Christianity of any responsibility for the Holocaust, he maintained that it was perpetrated by Nazism, an “anti-Christian ideology.”
“Ratzinger viewed the hatred toward the people of Israel and the Old Testament as a profound hatred toward God himself, an attempt to murder him and erase his traces from history,” says Ben-Johanan. His contribution to Christian-Jewish amity was to promote relations on a doctrinal and intellectual plane and to “cleanse the tradition of hatred of Jews without violating the articles of faith.”
In the last segment of her book, she focuses on Jewish attitudes toward Christianity.
As conditions for European Jews improved in the 17th and 18th centuries, rabbis developed “a more tolerant” view of Christianity. But, as she shows, enmity toward Christianity in Orthodox Jewish circles remains entrenched to this day.
Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the leader of the haredi Satmar sect, criticized Israel for not having uprooted ancient churches in territories captured during the 1967 Six Day War. To haredim, Christianity was nothing less than idolatry. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an authoritative figure in the Israeli Sephardi community, also subscribed to this opinion.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, a leading rabbinical authority in Israel, referred to Christianity as a heresy. His son, Zvi Yehudah, fought a cultural war against the supposed influence of Christianity in Judaism. “Zvi Yehudah’s writings on Christianity are the most virulent pronouncements on the subject one can find, probably throughout the entire Jewish world,” she claims. He and his disciples perceived Christian support of Israel as a missionary strategy.
Moshe Feinstein, an influential haredi rabbi in the United States, likened interfaith conferences to plagues and refused to believe that Christian-Jewish dialogue signified a positive Christian reappraisal of Jews.
The equally important Orthodox rabbi, Joseph Ber Halevi Soloveitchik, was deeply suspicious of the appropriateness of theological discussions between Jews and Christians.
When Haskel Lookstein, a modern Orthodox rabbi in Manhattan, participated in an ecumenical service in an Episcopalian church, he was severely reprimanded by the Rabbinical Council of America.
There are exceptions to these rules, Ben-Johanan states.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the director of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, drew scathing Orthodox criticism until his death in 2019. And Rabbi David Rosen became the most prominent Orthodox Jewish figure in interfaith dialogue.
Rightly or wrongly, she compares Orthodox rejectionism to the tension between “the Christian extended hand and the Jewish refusal to accept it.” Or in Luke’s words (14:15-25), Jews are invited to a “great supper,” but decline with various degrees of politeness.