A Jewish Reflection on Nostra Aetate


Forty years ago when Nostra Aetate was proclaimed, I was a rabbi in one of the affluent suburbs of New York. I was not a beginner. My father, may he rest in peace, had been a prominent Conservative rabbi, and I had been trained in the best department of oriental studies in the world and been ordained in the academic track of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. My synagogue was next door to the most important Catholic parish in our town. But, for all that, as the biblical Jacob said of his vision of the ladder, “And I, I did not know.” I did not realize the importance of Nostra Aetate as it was happening. Later, when I began interfaith work with Catholics, I learned.

            As I went deeper into dialogue with Catholics (and with Protestants), I also learned that there were not very many of my fellow Jews who were interested in theological and in spiritual dialogue. All of us were deeply, and justly, concerned with political dialogue on a wide variety of subjects that were, and are, of concern to us. We were very interested in discussing social action -- integration, parochial education, abortion, and the use of public space for the display of religious objects such as crŹches and menorot. We did not always agree with our Christian partners in dialogue but we had something to discuss. However, as a group, we were not particularly interested in discussing belief, faith, messiah, incarnation, crucifixion, the place of Jesus, God, revelation, salvation, and so on.

            There were three reasons for our reticence to discuss theology and spirituality. First, Jews had a long and very bad memory of theological discussion in the past. Most such discussion was nothing of the kind. It was formal dispute before a Catholic tribunal, the outcome of which was determined in advance: the Jews would lose and a pogrom would follow. Subsequent dialogue was not much better: it turned out to be an opportunity to convert Jews without a pogrom and was followed by head shaking at the stubbornness of the Jews and prayers that we would someday see the truth. To put in clearly, Jews did not believe Christians were sincere about theological dialogue though we were prepared to admit that they could discuss social and political issues fairly.

            Second, Jews themselves were not primarily theological or spiritual in their orientation to life. By this I mean that Jewish existence was not framed in theological, spiritual, or faith-oriented categories. After the shoah, Jews realized that “God helps those who help themselves” and we, Jews, had better look to our continued existence as a people. Particularly, we had better do our very, very best to explain, justify, and help our Christian friends and partners realize the crucial nature of the State of Israel in Jewish existence and continuity. This is still true: Christians, Catholics among them, define themselves by their faith and their spiritual culture. Jews are glad just to survive, and we know we have to fight for our survival. It is hard, but it is indispensable to our self-understanding to have our Catholic friends know that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not just forms of racism; they are threats to our very existence, as individuals and as a group. To put it in succinct form: in their respective self-understandings, Jews are incorrigibly political and Christians are incorrigibly theological. Dialogue was, therefore, a very long and painful process – and it remains so. Jews never understood that it took the Holy See decades to recognize the State of Israel. All attempt at dialogue without that was just noise, at least as far as Jews were concerned.

            The third reason for our reticence in dialogue was that there were precious few people qualified to engage in theological dialogue, and even fewer in spiritual dialogue.

            Some of us were exceptions to this rule because our own self-understanding, while rooted firmly in the political realities of post-shoah Jewish existence, is also rooted in the living presence of God in our own lives and, hence, in theology, spirituality, and faith. And so, when I was invited to be the second Jew in history to teach at the Gregorian Pontifical Institute, I taught the Zohar, the most profound mystical-theological text in Judaism. When invited to teach at a local monastery, I taught Psalms and was honored by being asked to stay with the brothers (not in the guest house) and to engage in exchanges about our respective spiritual lives – to discuss the fear of God as experienced by hermetic monks and to discuss what it is like to face God directly, without the intercessory figure of Jesus. In dialogue on the shoah, I have been drawn into discussions about the difference between Jewish repentance and Catholic absolution, and between the behavior of some very brave, very spiritual Catholics and the behavior of much of the hierarchy in which they lived.

In spite of all this good dialogue, I realized that there was still much to be discussed on subjects of concern to my community: Why weren’t the Vatican archives for the period of the shoah completely open? How can the Church expect even Catholics to take it seriously when it will not admit its own errors qua the Church in the shoah? What is the position of the Catholic Church on the security of the State of Israel? In its justified concern for the rights of Palestinians, what price will the Church exact from Israel? How effective was Nostra Aetate in effacing the teaching of contempt? How does the Church monitor the effects of these great teaching documents? How can the Church affirm Judaism while, at the same time, affirm some kind of witness to the Jews? Is there a difference between witness and evangelization? Between dialogue and proselytization? These questions, particularly the political ones, haunt Jews.

As an active member and leader of the Jewish community, I am on watch. It is my historic responsibility to pursue this political agendum with Catholics. I do not want my children, my grandchildren, or my many students to ask, “Hey, Pop / Professor Blumenthal, where were you? What did you do to prevent the political catastrophe that has befallen our people?” We, Jews of the free world, slept while our brothers and sisters were annihilated. We cannot be guilty of that again, even if our persistence seems offensive or wrong-headed to our dialogue partners.

            What, then, does Nostra Aetate mean forty years later to someone who believes in theological and spiritual dialogue? It means that we must ask the indulgence of, and count on the understanding of, our Catholic partners when we return again and again to the matters that are closest to our heart, those that touch on our survival as a people; namely, the security of the State of Israel and the recrudescence of antisemitism in the Christian world. These do matter to us; they are crucial. The ability to count on our Catholic partners to back us up on these matters, even if we disagree on some specific issues, is crucial. Without this confidence, there is no real dialogue; there are just meetings.

            In the spirit of Nostra Aetate, we must affirm jointly the holy and the good. We must affirm our belief in a Creator and Legislator who, through various means, makes it clear that we are in God’s world and not that God is in our world; that we are God’s servants, not the other way around. This must include a firm fight against clergy abuse in both our traditions because that egregious sin compromises not only our respective institutions but it undermines the faith that people place in us as shepherds of God’s flock.

            In the spirit of Nostra Aetate, we must agree to disagree on many subjects and issues: the beginning of life, maybe its end; the nature of true salvation; the issue of public funding for private education; the centrality of peoplehood; and so on. All these will be subjects on which some of us will disagree with others and on which our respective bureaucracies will not agree. But we must practice disagreement with respect, not just political respect but spiritual and religious respect.

            Finally, we must be modest; we must avoid the hubris of the newly-arrived. We have been preceded by giants: Cardinal Bea, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others. In addition, many, many others have paved the way for us in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, investing years of energy and heart in creating relationships, forming frameworks and contexts for dialogue, and in drafting documents and teaching materials such as “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” “The Pontifical Biblical Commission Document on the Jews and Their Scriptures,” “God’s Mercy Endures Forever,” etc. We do not need to, nor is it proper that we think we need to, reinvent the wheel. The wheels of Catholic-Jewish dialogue set in motion by Nostra Aetate have been turning for forty years. We need to consult with those who have that experience, affirm what they have accomplished, and continue their work. If we do not, we fall prey to the sin of pride, and we also will waste a lot of time and energy.

As to a theology of God, I think here, too, modesty should be the order of the day. Both Catholic and Jewish tradition have been thinking about this subject for millennia. Whole libraries embody the insights of these traditions. Both traditions have depth of learnedness and spiritual insight that only patient study and inner awareness can reveal. Study which is not only intellectually learned but also spiritually aware is the only response to the need for a mutually understood theology of God.


A Jewish Meditation on Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II, because of his deep spiritual commitment to reconciliation with the Jewish people and because of his own early contact with Jews, took five major steps that, from the Jewish point of view, were crucial in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

First, Pope John Paul II recognized the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. It is hard for non-Jews to appreciate this because most of them are safe and secure in their own homelands. But Jews have been  wandering since the time of Jesus, and even earlier. Since just after his death, they have been without a homeland, without a government that they could call their own. Further, Jews have been persecuted by Christians and Muslims for 1700 and 1400 years respectively, culminating in the shoah and in the incessant war against the State of Israel by Palestinians and other Arabs. The admission by the Pope, on behalf of the Catholic Church, that the land of Israel is the homeland of the Jews and that the State of Israel is the political embodiment of the sovereignty of the Jewish people was an enormous step forward in Catholic-Jewish understanding.

            Second, John Paul II reinforced and strengthened the Nostra Aetate teachings of the Church: that the Jews are not guilty of deicide, that Christianity does not supersede or replace the ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people, and that Jews are not to be targeted for evangelization. Doing this in the face of resistance within the Church was a great step forward.

            Third, John Paul II went out of his way to greet and receive Jews. He went to the synagogue in Rome. He traveled to Israel. He prayed at the Western Wall. He visited the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial. And he received Jewish visitors all the time.

            Fourth, John Paul II brought the shoah to the center of Catholic consciousness. He visited Auschwitz. He organized a shoah memorial concert. And he asked forgiveness, several times, from the Jewish people and God for the role played by individual Catholics in the shoah.

            Fifth, John Paul II embodied the Christian teaching that the love of Jesus extends to everyone. He believed and practiced the Christian ethic that reconciliation must precede justice. In a world torn apart by terror  and wracked by war, in a world of increasing social and personal violence, John Paul II embodied the teaching of love and reconciliation – the kind of love for which all people yearn and which very few receive. It is not a Jewish way of seeing the world but it is a Christian way, and John Paul II in his life was a witness to this.

Pope John Paul II pursued Catholic-Jewish reconciliation even with me. When I was  in Rome, I was privileged to meet Pope John Paul II. Because of my position at the Gregorian, my wife, my son, and I were in the front row for one of the Wednesday morning audiences. The Pope came down the line, shaking hands and blessing everyone. When he came to us, I, as I was told to do, introduced myself as Rabbi Blumenthal, wished him good health, and presented him with three books I had written. The Holy Father stopped in his tracks as soon as I introduced myself and started a discussion with me, much to the consternation of the paparazzi who attend him at all times. When we finished, he took my hand in both his hands and said, “God bless you,” without invoking Jesus Christ and without making the sign of the cross. I introduced my wife who spoke to him briefly and, when he finished, the Pope took her hand and mine in both of his hands and repeated his blessing, again without invoking Jesus Christ and without making the sign of the cross. We introduced our son and, again, at the end, the Holy Father took the hands of all of us in both his hands and said his words of blessing, without invoking Jesus Christ and without making the sign of the cross. This was the Pope, in his audience hall, giving his Catholic blessing, and I, I was just a rabbi and professor of Jewish Studies who happened to be teaching in one of his schools. Yet, Pope John Paul II was committed to the tradition of Nostra Aetate and he wanted to honor our difference while affirming our common rootedness in God. So he blessed us without reference to the particularity of his own faith.


A Jew Looks to the Future of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue


His Holiness, John Paul II, has moved to his final resting place and the Catholic Church has taken up the task of choosing a new leader; Jews are uneasy. Pope John Paul II did so much for Catholic-Jewish relations; will his successor follow suit or will he revert to older Catholic attitudes and teachings? Jews will be watching carefully the actions of the new pontiff in the five areas where John Paul II took important steps.

John Paul II recognized the State of Israel as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people. By doing so, he did not thereby endorse the policies of any particular Israeli government and, even as he recognized the right of the Jewish people to a state of its own, he affirmed a similar right for the Palestinians. The temptation for every world leader, but especially for the head of the Catholic Church with its very complex history of relations with the Jews, is to press for peace at the expense of the Jewish state. While Jews everywhere, including Israel, welcome everyone’s efforts on behalf of peace, the next Pope will need to accompany all his efforts in this matter with an unshakeable commitment to the safety and continued security of the Jewish people within the State of Israel. Efforts that are not accompanied by this explicit commitment will fall on suspicious ears and untrusting hearts.

John Paul II continued and expanded the teaching of the Church on the subject of the Jews. These ideas reversed many centuries of Catholic doctrine; they have, however, not been universally accepted. Indeed, there are very powerful forces within the Catholic Church that would reverse these teachings, or at least condemn them to inaction. The next Pope will need to energetically enforce these doctrines through education and Church discipline, otherwise the Second Vatican Council that revised the Church’s view of Judaism will become a blip in Catholic history, and Jewish-Catholic relations will regress.

John Paul II reached out to the Jewish people in concrete ways. Actions count, and the next Pope will need to continue to act in such ways. Communication is not just the act of conveying information; it is an act of building trust. The next Pope will also have to be careful about whom he designates to represent the Church in Israel and elsewhere, and will need to make sure that their acts, too, are consonant with the goals of Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

John Paul II brought the shoah to the forefront of Catholic reflection. As memory of the shoah fades and as the temptation to sweep responsibility for it under the rug grows, the new Pope will need to confront vigorously the desire to forget. Ceremonies will need to be created and renewed, and unresolved issues will have to be forthrightly addressed such as the beatification of Pius XII, the full opening of the papal archives from the war period, and the responsibility of the Catholic Church per se in the shoah. To be sure, the Church’s fight against antisemitism will need to be pursued with a great deal of energy in a world where its recrudescence is seen in Europe and new excrescences are seen in the Middle East and elsewhere.

John Paul II modeled Christian love and reconciliation. The next Pope will need to have the courage to follow this path and not get bogged down in doctrine, history, politics, and bureaucracy. It will be a painful and difficult path in a world skeptical of the power of love.

Pope John Paul II left very large shoes to fill but it is not impossible for his successor to fill them. To accomplish this goal, he will need a deep sense of piety and a deep faith that God has a special relationship with the Jews that is part of the spiritual reality of Catholic faith and practice. Without a spiritual and theological bond to the Jewish people and its concrete existence, I don’t know where the new pontiff would draw the strength that he will need to govern the Church in justice, love, and faithfulness. If the new Pope can achieve this degree of spirituality, he will not betray the legacy of his blessed predecessor, John Paul II, but will become the faithful shepherd that legacy.


* This reflection is based on a paper given at a conference held by the Interfaith Theological Forum and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate; upon an interview given to CNN as the late Pope John Paul II lay dying; upon reflections shared at the Catholic mass held at Emory University after his death; and upon a column written for the Religious News Service which was released on April 7, 2005.