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    10 questions about Nostra Aetate

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at an event hosted by Mandelbaum House, Sydney, to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, on Thursday, 26 November 2015.

    nostra-aetateSince the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate’s Jewish chapter has evoked so much scholarly analysis, I decided that this evening, instead of a more or less academic approach, what I would do was to ask questions – not four questions as is the case among Jews on Passover, but ten.

    Let me introduce the subject by some probably obvious preliminary remarks. The centuries have seen countless (generally hostile) encounters between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. Some observers have delineated the relationship or lack of it in a series of Ds – Deicide, Denigration, Disdain, Disputation, Destruction: occasionally Dialogue. There is even a D of today, but we will come to it in due course.

    But first, a story from the once massive Eastern European Jewish world. In those days travel was generally by wagon. Jews would give each other advice: “If your driver is a Catholic, watch what he does at a crossroads. If there is a statue of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, see whether he makes obeisance. If he does, continue with him; if not, jump down and run!”

    The advice, however, didn’t always work. Jews found to their cost that even if the driver was a religious believer, indeed davka if he was, he was not uninfected by antisemitism. Whoever the driver was, Jews were never safe. Religiosity was no guarantee that a driver could be trusted. The Jew was the eternal negative symbol. The slogans were simple: “The Jews rejected Christ: God rejected the Jews”.

    There is a view that social and economic factors played a large role in the culture that demeaned Jews and Judaism. The fact is that it was theology that mostly bred this culture. The wartime Pope may have lacked the moral courage to admit this unambiguously. Obeisance to statues at the crossroads did not protect Jews, or anyone. True, Germany, the nurturer of Nazism, was more Protestant than Catholic, but that absolves neither the Catholics nor the Protestants of harbouring anti-Jewish theology.

    Then came the Holocaust. And within a few years, Nostra Aetate. What an impressive act of moral courage it was for the Church to make an irreversible change in thinking. Whatever the diplomatic compromises and literary convolutions that happened on the way, Nostra Aetate outlawed Catholic antisemitism. It was too late to save the millions of martyrs, but the Church said mea culpa. 1965 was one of the two great years for the Jews: 1948 was the other. In another context, Rabbi Soloveitchik said about orthodoxy within Judaism, “They don’t laugh at us any more”. After 1965 and the subsequent clarificatory documents, the Catholic Church doesn’t disdain us any more.

    As I foreshadowed a minute ago, I have ten questions to ask.

    These are my personal questions, even though they probably articulate what many people, both Catholics and Jews, have in their minds as (or if) they direct their attention to the seminal document which is our focus this evening. For ease of reference I will be using the phrase “Nostra Aetate” in a limited sense to denote the Jewish chapter of the document, even though I am well aware that the entire document ranges much further afield.

    In addition, the reception and application of Nostra Aetate has come in widely varying forms and it is possible that I might be accused of trying to impose a degree of uniformity on the material which doesn’t necessarily accord with the facts. All I can say in my own defence is that interfaith, particularly Catholic-Jewish relations, have figured so prominently in my thinking, speaking, writing and activity over these 50 years that I believe that my understanding and instinct on the whole issue are reliable.

    This being said, let me first state my set of questions as a whole, and then address them one by one and attempt some answers:
    1. What was Nostra Aetate really saying?
    2. Were the Catholics listening?
    3. What about the other Christians? (were they at least eavesdropping?)
    4. What did the Jewish world expect?
    5. What did the Jews actually get?
    6. Do Jews regard the exercise as worthwhile?
    7. What would Jesus have said about it?
    8. Is Nostra Aetate still relevant?
    9. Is there any chance of an Islamic “Nostra Aetate” (whether about Jews or Christians)?
    10. Does Nostra Aetate improve our chances of global peace and survival?

    Question 1: What was Nostra Aetate really saying?

    My seminary teacher in London, Dr Naphtali Wieder, introduced us to the classical Jewish commentators on the Bible. If we were studying Abraham Ibn Ezra that day, he wouldn’t simply ask, “What does Ibn Ezra say?” but “What does Ibn Ezra mean to say?” Similarly, our first question tonight is not just the text of Nostra Aetate but its sub-text and context.

    It actually was a very short document. The discussion on the Jews was only one section. Like every draft, it went through a range of versions and formulations. We have the text; the real question is what the text meant to say. Pope John XXIII knew what he wanted. He even called it “a little holy madness”. Maybe he wondered if he would really succeed. Despite papal policy, this was to be a Council document. Critical questions had to be dealt with. Was the Jewish chapter to be phrased negatively, merely rejecting the antisemitism of the past? Was anything positive to be said about the continuing value of Judaism and the God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people?

    Catholics and Jews both lobbied energetically, leaving Cardinal Bea to weave a path. The dramatic story is told in Cardinal Cassidy’s Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue published in 2005. In the end the Church denounced antisemitism and rejected the notion that Christians had replaced Jews as the people of God (though it still said that Jewish authorities “pressed for the death of Christ”). It understood that Christian love had become hatred for Jews. But the discussion did not close there, and later documents refined and extended the dialogue. What we mark tonight is not one document but an ongoing process. The 1965 document made it all possible by removing what has been called the “mentality of opposition between Jew and Christian”.

    Question 2: Were the Catholics really listening?

    I believe so, not that it was easy. With the challenge of Nostra Aetate, listening and internalising was a tough challenge. They had to accept that their Church had sinned. They had heard often enough that human beings sin, but a Church? To get them to listen the document had to be phrased in a certain style of language, but it had the advantage that on the whole the Roman Catholic communion has internal discipline, so that a Vatican policy begins with the status of authority.

    Roman Catholics themselves have grumbles and fissures, but a groundmaking, groundshaking declaration such as Nostra Aetate conveys a clear message which – difficult or not – the faithful know they must heed, turn into practical steps and implement.

    My impression is that this declaration has been hearkened to more readily than some other church documents, perhaps because it deals with ideology and not personal and family issues like birth control.

    After 50 years it must be said that the Church has remained steady in its commitment to Nostra Aetate. Bishops and priests needed time to re-think and be re-educated; ordinary church people are learning to follow suit. Despite occasional hiccoughs, it is not really the Catholics with whom the Jewish people have problems today.

    Question 3: What about the other Christians (were they are least eavesdropping)?

    I always felt there was a paradox. Poland, where half the six million Jewish martyrs lived, was a Catholic country, but Germany, the birth place of Nazism, was significantly Protestant. It was not before time that the Catholics issued their Nostra Aetate, but the Protestant statements were rather piecemeal and limited, and hardly any Protestant groups have exerted themselves to establish and maintain support for Jews on a level with the Catholic effort.

    This is not to denigrate the Ten Points of Seelisberg of 1946, but the Protestant denominations, singly or together, have generally failed to face the challenge. The only ones with a positive theological stance towards Jews and Judaism are some of the Evangelicals, though there are Jewish critics who say that Evangelical support for Israel has hidden missionary motives.

    Question 4: What did the Jewish world expect?

    A number of things:
    • repudiation of antisemitism at all times and in all places,
    • guilt for Christian foundations that made the Holocaust possible,
    • apology for unhistorical teaching about Jews,
    • acknowledgement that Judaism is alive, neither fossilised not superseded,
    • rejection of missionary targeting of Jews,
    • admission that God stands by His covenant with the Jewish people,
    • admission that there is theological space for Judaism,
    • recognition that the Jews are a people as well as a faith and that Israel the land is intrinsic to Jewish identity.

    Question 5: What did the Jews actually get?

    Most of the above list, but not all at once: some aspects came later, partly because of Jewish advocacy, partly because the Nostra Aetate was not the end but the beginning of a process.

    It was easier to try and make amends to the Jews for their sufferings than to ideologically legitimise Judaism: Dr Anthony Kenny contrasted those “whose heart, in regard to Jews and Judaism, was in the right place but whose head had not yet sufficiently emerged from the old supersessionist theology”. Eventually the Church found it possible to rise above it, not without agonies of exegesis.

    The coup de grace was the Vatican recognition of the State of Israel, though it had been there de facto for some years. There were ups and downs in almost every area of the relationship, e.g. the attempt to create a Christian site at one of the worst camps of annihilation, and times that the incumbent Pope remained silent when outsiders publicly traduced Jews and Israel.

    Throughout these years a series of good personal and professional relationships built up between Catholic and Jewish leaders. This networking, mostly conducted behind the scenes, proved firm and helpful. Jewish representations to the Catholic bishops were almost always well received. This was and is certainly the case in Australia.

    Question 6: Do Jews regard the exercise as worthwhile?

    Heschel said, “It was the Church that brought the knowledge of the God of Abraham to the gentiles. It was the Church that made the Hebrew Scripture available to mankind. This we Jews acknowledge with a grateful heart.”

    Jews also obviously acknowledge the moral courage of Nostra Aetate. But they cannot forget the black memories of nearly 2000 years. It is a blessing that the Roman Catholic Church has come into the modern world and become contrite. But aren’t Jews still in pain after all the centuries of suffering, a pain that will not go away? The slogan that time is a great healer is not really true, though with time, some pain becomes chronic rather than acute.

    On the whole the Jewish people only want to be themselves and left alone. They blame “the Church” (Christians of all stripes and styles) for their calamities; some still feel a stab of pain when they see a Christian clergyman. It might be cynical, but my impression is that if they know of Nostra Aetate they are at least grateful that “the Church” has quietened down.

    Question 7: What would Jesus have said about it?

    On the most basic level Jesus would say, “As a Jew I endorse the Biblical teaching that all human beings, whether Jew or gentile, are entitled to justice and love”. Recalling the difficult tensions that divided him from at least some of the Jewish leadership of his time, he would have added, “If they had understood and accepted my special status, many centuries of bitterness might have been prevented.”

    He would, nonetheless, emphasise that out of love for him, no human group, including – especially including – the Jews, should be denied the right to live according to their own conscience and commitments.

    He would note with wry sadness that Nazism, some of whose supporters rang the church bells, would have cast him into Buchenwald or Auschwitz as a Jew, unconcerned as to the shape of his Jewish beliefs. He would have learned that post-Holocaust scholarship has become more interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity and that Jews and Christians are seeking ways of disagreeing agreeably.

    He would also be sad that both Jews and Christians are today under siege and suffering discrimination and persecution.

    Question 8: Is Nostra Aetate still relevant?

    History has moved on, bringing new challenges for both groups, separately or together. Nostra Aetate remains relevant. The effects of the Holocaust will never dissipate both as an open wound for Jews and a global challenge to what Martin Buber called the order of being.

    What are the new challenges? Primarily the resurgence of intolerance and even antisemitism, often cloaked as criticism of Israel. Having found its tongue, Christianity must retain the ability and will to speak out and be ever vigilant to ensure that it has ”clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24). A Nostra Aetate that removes the stain of deicide must provoke Christianity to ensure that nobody’s religion, conscience or legitimacy can ever again be threatened or attacked.

    Part of the new challenge is for Christianity (with Jewish support) to quash anti-Christian prejudices that attack churches, church-people and freedom of conscience. But a Chassidic teacher adds a further agenda item. He sees being obsessed with the past as unconstructive; with the time spent on looking back, people should be “stringing pearls for Heaven”. That’s what we need to do next: to join together in stringing pearls.

    Question 9: Is there any chance of an Islamic Nostra Aetate (whether about Jews or Christians)?

    There’s no parallel. Jews and Christians have had a long history of unpleasantness which Nostra Aetate has done much to address. Relationships with Islam have taken a different direction, recently clouded by political realities. Parts of the Quran are negative about Jews, but there were times of cross-fertilisation. Islam did not push Jews into gas chambers, though it deemed the Jews inferior. What Jews hope for is not an apology but appreciation.

    Politics as well as religion make it unlikely that Islam will ever be able to uproot all its pejorative statements about Jews, but it can and must acknowledge the ongoing Jewish contribution to civilisation and recognise the status of the Jewish Temple Mount and the unbroken Jewish tie to the Land of Israel. Quranic teaching must find a way to accord equity and legitimacy to other faiths. Jews can work with Muslims as they do with Christians, but there must be mutual respect and appreciation.

    Question 10: Does Nostra Aetate improve our chances of global peace and survival?

    What Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt” is not limited to the Jewish-Christian area. All human groups must learn to live together, sit together, talk together, pray and sing together, even laugh together. All are Children of God. All have all one Father; one God has created them. They can find each other. They can lose one another. Mighty forces – blood and fire – threaten all of us, but there are also mighty opportunities to see the face of a brother or sister in the other. This is the final generation that can see the world engulfed or extricated. The brotherhood enshrined in Nostra Aetate is the way of saving the planet.

    God and religion are constantly dragged into military or political conflict. Both sides shout their religiosity. Consider the appeals to God on both sides of the Falklands conflict. If anything gave Him a heavenly headache, it was each side demanding that He listen to them. All the religions concerned happened to be monotheistic. All were Christians: all called upon God… the same God.

    How can there be a fight between the Catholic and the Protestant God? How can the Islamic God be pitted against the Christian God? What about the Jewish God? Indeed, the Jewish God, and His Islamic and Christian versions, is torn apart internally too, with every sect purporting to be His policemen. If God were so minded He would echo Shakespeare and say, “A plague on both your houses!”

    Those who inflame and invoke religious passions should leave God’s name out of their conflicts altogether and attempt to live by the ethics they share, principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Do not hate your brother in your heart, “Seek peace and pursue it”, “Justice, justice shall you follow”, and “When you see your neighbour’s animal weighed down by its load, don’t walk away”. Living by the Divine law without fanfare or fanaticism is the true way to be a believer. Will it work? Heschel said, “I’m an optimist – against my better judgment”.

    We started off with a series of Ds. The Ds which will save the world are two more – Dreaming – with mutual respect, and Doing – stringing pearls for Heaven.


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    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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