These are my remarks to the 20th Annual Christian-Jewish Dialog
March 5, 2013
This 20th annual colloquium comes at a moment of great change and uncertainty. Our world faces many challenges including the world economy, unending war and uprisings, ongoing genocides, people being oppressed and slaughtered in the name of religion. Specifically today we do not know who the next Pope will be and how he will interpret, advance or rollback the changes begun in what we call Vatican II. Will the next Pope follow in the footsteps of John XXIII and John Paul II or will he be like Innocent III who required all Jews to wear a yellow badge. Or, will he be like Benedict XVI who in 2008 reinstituted into the Good Friday Catholic Latin liturgy this prayer: “Let us also pray for the Jews: that god our Lord might enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind… Almighty and eternal God, whose desire it is that all men might be saved and come to the knowledge of truth, grant in your mercy that as the fullness of mankind enters into your Church, all Israel may be saved, through Christ our Lord.” and on the other hand in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth-II reaffirms and theologically expands Nostra Aetate’s teaching “...what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” thus reaffirming that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus?
When I was asked to make this presentation I had no idea what I would say but for some reason I said yes anyhow. I’ve taught university classes on Christian/Jewish dialog and have participated in more dialog sessions than I can count. Yet, through it all I never considered the impact of Nostra Aetate. In reflecting on the reasons behind this lack of consideration I believe it stems from 4 distinct yet perhaps subconsciously intertwined places.
First - I was only 9 years old when Pope Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate to be the guide to Catholic/Jewish relations. For all intents an purposes my life has been lived with Nostra Aetate to be Roman Catholic Church policy. I have never known anything different.
Second - Except for the 2 times I lived in Israel and my three years as an Assistant Rabbi in Memphis, Tennessee, my whole life has been spent living in primarily Roman Catholic neighborhoods and cities. In fact I spent my first 7 years in a Cleveland neighborhood where if you were white you were Catholic and if you were African-American you were Protestant. In 1960, day after President Kennedy was elected, I was beaten up on my way to school for being Catholic, even though I was Jewish. I spent the rest of my school years in a suburb of Cleveland which was 95% Italian Catholic, 4% Irish Catholic, 1% Jewish. Even the few Protestants would tell you they were Catholic in order to fit in. And of course let’s not forget my years at as an undergraduate at John Carroll University, one of the oldest Jesuit colleges in the United States.
Third - I feel a close connection to the way Catholicism understands its scriptures. It is very similar to Judaism’s understanding of the role of text. For both, scripture is to be interpreted through the lens of tradition as understood by faith. In other words, text is not literal and while Catholicism and Judaism draw different conclusions from our shared texts and have many divergent texts, the role they play in the two faiths is more similar than not.
Fourth - and most importantly - what matters to me most is not what others say about Judaism but rather what Judaism is. Not what I think of Catholicism or Christianity but rather how Catholics and Christians self-define their religions. I served on the Catholic Social Services board in Anchorage for almost 10 years. I was appointed by my friend and teacher Archbishop Francis Hurley. In my 6th or 7th year on the board, for the first time the priest who led the invocation for the meeting concluded with the words: “in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Every head snapped around to look at me asking with their eyes: “What would Harry say?” When the priest left the room several other board members apologized to me. I found that fascinating on many levels. My response to them was simply, “it’s not like I didn’t know this was Catholic Social Services.”
However, even I have to admit that the change in what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about Jews and Judaism and the words of its liturgy have had an impact on me, my life, my rabbinate and the Jews in America and in the world.
Jews like the number four so here too I see four different impacts that Vatican II in general and Nostra Aetate had on relationships with Jews.
1) Clearly, the Roman Catholic Church in America has changed its relationship with the Jewish Community. Conversations and dialogs became the norm rather than the rare exception after Vatican II. And while these changes have taken longer to find their way into some Latin American, African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Roman Catholic communities, it is clear that, literally, the word is spreading. In the 1990’s the Roman Catholic Church authorized new catechisms around the world. For the first time, after 30 years, the Church’s official teachings reflected the perspectives of Nostra Aetate.
We have now seen 2 Popes visiting synagogues, apologizing for the part the teachings of the Church have played in violence against Jews and even for the silence of the Church and its members during the Shoah, the Holocaust. On the local level, my Catholic friends from my public school were allowed to not only attend my Bar Mitzvah party but the actual service itself. Without the vision of Pope John XXIII and the implementation by Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the official Catholic Church teaching would remain that I and all Jews were not only responsible for the death of Jesus but that God allows Jews to remain in order that we should be oppressed as a symbol to all non-Catholics and non-Christians what comes from rejecting the salvation the Church offers through Jesus.
Yet, as I noted in my opening some believe there is still work to be done. Not only the prayer reauthorized by Benedict XVI but the lectionary for Good Friday and other times of the year include the Gospel narratives about the Passion and the eternal responsibility of the Jews for the death of Jesus. I say some believe there is still work to be done because in my mind that if there is work still needing to be done is a decision for the Roman Catholic Church itself to make. I have no place telling the Church it needs to change its teachings or liturgy. The apparent conflict between the sentiments of Nostra Aetate and the Church’s liturgy and lectionary are something for the Church to deal with or ignore.
2) As I have noted, I have had many opportunities to work and celebrate with Catholics and other Christians because of the impact of Nostra Aetate. By 1965 Jews had been attending John Carroll University for decades and Judaic studies classes were being taught there in the late 1950’s and the instructors were local rabbis. However, by the time I began my studies there the core curriculum had changed. We were still required to take at least 2 religious studies classes but only Catholics were required to take classes in Catholicism. I was able to fulfill my religious studies requirement by taking Hebrew Scriptures and Introduction to Judaism.
But in other ways I was still singled out for being Jewish. My 2 favorite professors were both priests. One taught American History and the other religious studies. Every semester on the last day of class my American History professor would say: “Now, to all you men in the room, except of course for Harry, I would strongly encourage each of you to consider the priesthood as your vocation.” As I read the alumni news each year it seems the only person to enter the clergy was, yes, me.
Prior to Nostra Aetate not only would I not have been appointed to the board of Catholic Social Services I would not have been invited to speak in the Cathedral during mass or had Archbishop Hurley serve as the master of ceremonies at my goodbye celebration in Anchorage.
Clearly these experiences are not unique to me. But I have appreciated them and now, because I was asked to prepare this talk, understand the role that Nostra Aetate had in bringing them into my life and into the lives of other Jews.
3) I had been taught, and my research for this talk has confirmed, that the Roman Catholic Church’s reflection on its relationship with Judaism and Jews had a major impact on several Protestant denominations leading them to also undertake this kind of reflection.
In 1964, the Episcopal Church rejected the charge of deicide against the Jews. The Lutheran Church in 1971 stated that there is no Biblical or theological reasons for anti-Semitism and that Lutherans were called on to find other understandings of the anti-Judaism passages in the Gospels. In 1994 they added that “Lutherans live out our faith with love and respect for the Jews.”
In 1972 the Methodist Church in the United States published these powerful words as its official position regarding dialogs with Jews: “Christian participants should make clear that they do not justify past injustice done by Christians to Jews and that there is no tenable biblical or theological base for anti-semitism and that they themselves want to be free of it.”
In 1987 the United Church of Christ adopted the concept that the Jews had an eternal covenant with God. In that same year and in subsequent statements through 2008 the Presbyterian Church decided that supersessionism needed to be reconsidered and that the survival of Judaism is a Divine mystery. They also affirmed that Jews are in a covenantal relationship with God and repented the Church’s teaching of contempt for Jews. The Presbyterian statements go on to affirm that it is the duty of Christians to spread the Gospel and proselytize but that it was improper for the purpose of dialog with Jews to be our ultimate conversion to Christianity.
Baptists and other evangelical denominations have adopted similar statements in the past 50 years.
4) There are still issues and flash points that we need to deal with in both the Jewish and Christian communities.
a. Both communities have much to learn about each other. Most Jews only know Christianity through popular culture. This includes everything from a Charlie Brown Christmas through Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Many Christians do not seem to understand that Jews do not celebrate Christmas. My wife often tells stories of people she worked with who had advanced graduate degrees from major universities who each year would say things like: “I know you’re Jewish but you do celebrate Christmas right?”
b. For Christians, the cross or the crucifix is a symbol of life and hope. Because of the history between the Church and the Jews until the late 20th Century, many Jews see these symbols of Christianity as symbols of death and hatred. It is clear that 1600 years of Christian anti-Judaism led to the development of anti-Semitism in Europe and ultimately the acceptance by so many of Hitler’s plans to exterminate all Jews. While these feelings in Jewish community toward Christianity and Christians are fading with new generations growing up in a time when Jews and Christians have been getting along, what most Jews Christians and Muslims do not understand that until the last parts of the 19th Century, Jews fared better when living under Muslim rule than under the rule of Christians.
c. When all else is stripped away the simple, basic difference between Judaism and Christianity boils down to Jews believe the Messiah or Messianic Age has not yet come and very specifically Jesus was not the Messiah and Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, he has come once and will come again. While most of us simply accept this distinction some Christians including some Catholic churches support congregations for so called Messianic Jews or Hebrew Christians. While this is America and people can call themselves whatever they want, if one believes the Messiah has come, whether Jesus or some other person, one is not Jewish. In fact, every time a significant portion of the Jewish community has decided that someone is the Messiah, it turned out to be a major disaster often ending in many Jewish deaths.
c. Jews have done a poor job of explaining the complex and core place that Israel as a land and a state for us. Christians need to understand that for a large majority of Jews who do not live in Israel there is no distinction between calling for a Mid-East peace solution that would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state and anti-Semitism. I am not saying that Jews feel everything Israel does is just or moral. Yet never doubt the absolute commitment of the Jewish community to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. Think of it like this: we as Americans take great pleasure in criticizing our American government, but, all of us want America to survive and thrive.
Because of the depth of feelings in the Jewish community and opposite feelings in some parts of the Christian community dialog about Israel and the Mid-East remains the most sensitive and hardest dialog to engage in. Paradoxically, I personally find it easier to dialog about Israel with many members of the Muslim community than the Christian community.
Finally, some thoughts about what is next. I believe it is time we all not only accept who we are and what we believe but move into being comfortable with it. Here is what I mean. My clergy support group in Anchorage gave new meaning to the concept of diversity. We ranged from the most liberal Presbyterian minister to the Archbishop to a non-denominational minister who made Jerry Falwell seem like a communist. While Rick was extremely conservative, he never had to ask “What would Jesus do?” because it was such an ingrained part of who he was. I don’t think I have ever met a more kind, gentle caring, and passionate person. Whenever Rick and I would have lunch the beginning of the meal went like this:
Rick: “Harry you know I really care about you.”
Me: “Of course I do Rick.”
Rick: “Then you know I have to ask.”
Me: “And you know my answer.”
Rick: “Are you ready to take Jesus into your heart as your personal savior.”
Me: “No, do you want to bless our food so we can eat or is it my turn.”
Eventually we got it down to:
Rick: “Are you ready.”
Me: “Nope, let’s eat.”
There was no pretense between us. Rick was simply who he was, so confident in his faith that even though he had to ask he could accept my answer and still pray for my soul. I was and am confident enough in my faith that I didn’t feel threatened or harassed. I felt his care and hope.
I am not advocating that we evangelize each other in our dialogs. Far from it. What I believe is our next step is to be confident enough in our own belief and faith that our dialog can move past what we agree on and be able to share our differences. This is neither tolerance nor acceptance of each other. To me, tolerance is the most destructive word in interfaith or inter-group relations. There are many things in this world I do not like. On a trivial level, I know I have to eat vegetables and I tolerate doing so, that is I put up with eating a salad even though I would rather have something that actually tastes good to me. We tolerate things and people we do not like. Acceptance is almost as bad. Acceptance is passive and often comes with a sigh - oh, ok.
It is time we begin to dig deeper, discuss and even argue from a place of openness without threatening or feeling threatened. We should be proud enough of our differences for they differentiate us from each other. At the same time we should be humble and self confident enough to understand that discussing our differences enables us to further solidify what we believe. Perhaps this 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate can close the door on our adolescent dialogs and move us toward mature caring relationships.