Fifty years ago, in October 1965, the Catholic Church published “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.” This document, prepared by the Second Vatican Council, is also known by its Latin name Nostra Ætate, which translates as “in our times.” Two recent documents, one Catholic and the other Jewish, were just published that make us think that the document of the Second Vatican Council should be, in fact, “In Our Extraordinary Times.”
On 10 December 2015 the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable.” (old/broken link: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/relations-jews-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20151210_ebraismo-nostra-aetate_en.html) Continuing a trajectory that began with Nostra Ætate, the document is a “reflection…on current theological questions that have developed since the Second Vatican Council.” While the document does not break radically new ground, it makes important clarifications concerning Catholic relations with Jews.
Historically, the document clarifies, for example, that Nostra Ætate did not explicitly state that God’s covenant with the Jews was never invalidated. That position was stated by Pope John Paul II in his meeting with members of the Jewish community in Mainz, Germany, on 18 November 1980. The document also states with great clarity that the Letter to the Hebrews, often used to indicate that Judaism was “superseded” by Christianity, “has no intention of proving the promises of the Old Covenant to be false, but on the contrary treats them as valid.” Continuing this theme, the commission states that “the church does not replace the people of God of Israel,” rejects the notion that Jews “can no longer be considered the people of God” and adds “…it does not in any way follow that Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.”
This theological position has clear practical implications that the Catholic Church recognizes and accepts: “The church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
“The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” is indeed itself a gift to the ongoing relationship between Catholics and Jews. It moves the relationship to a deeper level, clarifies many important theological points and courageously draws practical conclusions. However, as important as the document is, it is the continuation of a trajectory that is 50 years old. As such it is not radically new and it certainly does not indicate any change of direction.
Coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — on 3 December 2015 the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) published an “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement of Christianity.” (old/broken link: https://cjcuc.com/site/2015/12/03/orthodox-rabbinic-statement-on-christianity/) This document is by any measure extraordinary. It states, “As did Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi [great Jewish thinkers of the 12th and 11th centuries respectively] we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations” (Par. 3).
This statement is not merely generous and broad spirited, but also most remarkable given the history of Catholic-Orthodox Jewish relations. While “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” mentions that “dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has to that extent enabled more open relations between Orthodox Judaism and the Catholic Church,” the recent statement of the Orthodox rabbis goes even further.
Although painful, it is not difficult for Christians to see the distrust that many Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, might feel toward Christianity. Centuries of discrimination, persecution and theological disdain (often referred to as supercessionism) had given Orthodox Jews, whose memory is equally as long as that of the Catholic Church, little reason to trust that Christians would ever see them other than “objects” of conversion.
However, there was a far more formidable obstacle of which most Catholics and Christians were and remain unaware. One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century was Rabbi Joseph B. Solevetchik (1903-1993). A member of what has been referred to as the “Solevetchik rabbinical dynasty,” Rabbi Solevetchik belonged to a long family of Eastern European orthodox rabbis. He worked in the United States for most of his adult life and was renowned for his intelligence and knowledge. His writings were and continue to be very influential in the Orthodox Jewish community.
In 1964, the year before Nostra Ætate, Rabbi Solevetchik published “Confrontation” in the Spring-Summer edition of the Jewish journal, Tradition. This article has to a great extent determined the nature and parameter of Orthodox Jewish-Catholic relations for the past 50 years.
While Rabbi Solevetchik considered it essential for Orthodox Jews to work with Christians and others in the overall society, his attitude toward any type of religious or theological dialogue was at best pessimistic. In his article he refers often to Christianity as “the religion of the many.” Understandably, he is concerned about the uniqueness of Judaism. He states “…the divine imperatives and commandments to which a faith community is unreservedly committed must not be equated with the ritual and ethos of another community” (p. 18), noting that it “is futile to find common denominators” (p. 1).
His fears are rooted in a long, painful history. “We are not ready for a meeting with another faith community in which we shall become the object of observation…” (p.21). “Nor are we related to any other faith community as “brethren” even though “separated.” (ibid). For Rabbi Solevetchik, when speaking of faith, “the whole idea of a tradition of faiths and the continuum of revealed doctrines…is utterly absurd” (p.22).
Again and again he expresses his fear that Judaism will lose its uniqueness and identity. Although he never uses the term, Solevetchik dreads Judaism being reduced to a type of “Proto-Christianity,” lacking its own uniqueness and value. Fifty years after Nostra Ætate it is easy to forget that the rabbi’s fears were not groundless for almost all of our 2000-year common history.
Thus it is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of this recent “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity.” Arriving at the present level of trust and understanding — while recognizing there are still many areas which need further reflection — is a monument to the vitality and faithfulness of both Judaism and Christianity. The Orthodox rabbis were able to overcome incredible historical, intellectual and theological obstacles to arrive at this point and at the same time to be faithful to their history and tradition.
Their statement is one of great courage and hope for the future. The Catholic Church for its part continues to refine, purify and, where necessary, correct attitudes that were theologically deficient and all too often destructive.
In a world racked by religiously inspired violence, the example of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue provides hope and perhaps even a paradigm for the overcoming of deep differences and painful histories even after 2000 years.