This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest events in religious history. It was an event so groundbreaking and transformational that we can’t even remember a time before it. But all I have to do is ask my grandparents. There was a time when many Jews and Catholics did not get along at all.
My older relatives remember as children being harassed, spit on, or and beaten up on the way home from school by young Catholics who had learned in their Sunday school classes that Jews had killed Jesus. On Easter, there could be moments when it felt risky to be out in the streets.
People of my parents’ generation remember being ill at ease talking about religion with Catholic friends and colleagues, who didn’t necessarily espouse anti-Semitic views but didn’t necessarily have a favorable view of Jews, either.
As a 29 year-old rabbi, I remember nothing but love. I remember getting cards and hugs from Catholic neighbors and friends on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah. I remember running in the bird sanctuary of my alma mater with a traditional Catholic who wanted to have “at least 9 children” but had nothing but affection for Jews, whom he saw as fellow people of God. I remember a dear Catholic colleague bringing his son to meet me at my synagogue earlier this year, so that his son could learn about Judaism and how beautifully it connected with his own faith.
Loving, openhearted relationships are now the norm between Catholic and Jewish communities. But it could not have been so without Nostra Aetate, the landmark accord that the Church promulgated as part of the Second Vatican Council. The proclamation affirms the sacred nature of the Jewish people and their covenant with God:
Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.
The theological clarification of Nostra Aetate was mirrored by continued changes in the attitudes of Vatican leadership and the Catholic Church as an institution. These shifts were so significant that it is difficult for many to envision a time before them.
This week, on December 16th, leaders from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC), which liaises on behalf of the Jewish community with the Vatican and World Council of Churches, and includes representatives from major Jewish organizations, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, convened a celebration at the United Nations in collaboration with the Holy See. It commemorated the full half-century since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate and looked ahead to the promising future of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy delivered a keynote address, along with discourse from leaders of both communities, including Archbishop Bernardito Auza, who leads the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations.
I am fortunate to be one of the CCAR’s representatives to this organization and had the privilege of helping to convene the gathering at the United Nations. It was a moment of celebration and formally acknowledged just how far Jewish and Catholic communities had come in their relations with one another.
I had the unlikely opportunity to speak at the convening, providing the perspective of a younger person, who was not alive until decades after Nostra Aetate was issued. For me as a Millennial and a rabbi, it seemed fearfully evident how easy it would be to overlook the time before Nostra Aetate. The document falls prey to its own success, as changes happened so quickly since its issuance that we can scarcely conceive of what it might have been like to be called a Christ-killer or have anti-Semitism run rampant in the world’s largest religious institution.
Many young Jews and Catholics have never even heard of the document. But when it is easiest to forget, we should be particularly keen to remember.
The process of creating Nostra Aetate and the tremendous efforts on the part of Jewish and Catholic leaders to lay the groundwork for it should serve as an enduring example. Even the most fraught of inter-communal relationships can be changed. Nostra Aetate should be not merely a reminder of the past, but also a guide to the future.
Yes, it took years of toil and challenging conversation within and between Catholic and Jewish leadership circles to complete. But in the end, Nostra Aetate is an enduring testament to interreligious dialogue and a reminder of the good it can do. In our time of turbulence and global uncertainty, it should serve as a guide to our steps and call us to improve relations between the Jewish community and those of other faith traditions.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.