On the Fortieth Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

Very, very few Jews understand the significance of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document whose fortieth anniversary passed last month. This is a pity, because even the most cautious and the most cynical should recognize that it just might have been the most significant development in our relationship with an adversary that battled us for millennia. Whether it fulfills this promise may depend, in no small measure, on our reaction to it.

Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) changed two thousand year old notions about Jews. For almost all of that time, two attitudes about Jews guaranteed contempt and persecution of Jews, as a matter of quasi-religious principle. The charge of deicide, that all Jews were responsible for the crucifixion, meant in the popular mind that Jews were guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable, and might be made to pay for it with their lives. They often did.

The second notion was replacement, or changes in the special relationship between G-d and Israel so clearly expressed in the Bible. With the rise of Christianity, the Israel of the Bible was “replaced” by the New Israel – namely practicing Christians. Jews had no further place in history, other than to survive till the end of time, bearing witness then to their mistake in rejecting the true religion, and along the way testifying to their degeneracy by living as the cast-offs of civilized society. The greatest gift one could offer them was the chance to convert. Alternatively, they could choose death. They often did.

Nostra Aetate upended both of these notions. It taught that Jews do not bear any more responsibility for the death of the Christian savior than any other people. It affirmed that G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken and eternal.

Jews – especially traditional Jews filled with a sense of the permanence of G-d’s Word – wonder how this could be done. How do you change a belief that the faithful assumed century after century? They do not understand that the Church does not see change as impossible. The Catholic Church overflows with tradition; it allows only for very slow change. But it does allow for it. Later generations can and do rethink old issues as society develops.

Unlike other denominations, when change occurs within the Catholic Church it has both teeth and staying power. The Church is hierarchical and authoritarian. When it speaks, its adherents are expected to listen. This means that the shift in attitude of the Catholic Church is binding, and will likely be around for the foreseeable future. (Protestants, on the other hand, know no real central authority. While conservative Protestants are beyond doubt the largest, most enthusiastic and most consistent supporters of both Jews and Israel today, there is no a priori reason why this could not change tomorrow if enough Protestant preachers started speaking differently. Luther was an anti-Semitic extremist. The fact that tens of millions of American Protestants enthusiastically support Israel does not stem from a change of central teaching, but from a change of heart. It could change back.)

A third element of Nostra Aetate concerned how people should act towards Jews. Antisemitism is now officially noted as a sin. For me, this alone is significant. To all skeptics: would you rather live in a world in which a hundred million Catholics see you as a collaborator of the Devil, or one in which they are instructed not to hate you? (I used to share a mike on Dennis Prager’s Religion on the Line show on KABC with a bright and articulate Franciscan whose friendship I valued. He was eventually transferred to a parish in Northern California. One Sunday, a couple stopped after the service to take issue with something he had said in his sermon. “Father, it doesn’t matter what you say. The trouble with this country is still those people.” He argued with them for a while; they held their own, and eventually just walked away. He ran after them, yelling for all to hear, “You had better be back during the week for Confession, because you are sinners!”) Should we not be appreciative of the chesed shown to us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu for this sea-change in orientation? For many hundreds of years, Jews inserted a prayer into the davening that asked Hashem to turn the hearts of governments favorably towards us. Is there any reason not to include the Vatican in that list of world powers?

Surely the message has not gotten to everyone. Nostra Aetate has not wiped out Catholic anti-Semitism. There are elements in the Church – from top to bottom – who are resistant to Nostra Aetate’s content, and are plotting to have it reversed. Think of Hutton Gibson, prominent Holocaust denier and anti-Semite, father of Mel, and his “traditionalist Catholics” who reject current Popes as illicit, largely because they reject the spirit of Vatican II. (Whenever we read of some tiff between the Vatican and Israel, we should pause before we smugly let out an “I told you so” about the new Pope. The Vatican is no monolith; competing voices and ideologies shape its pronouncements. There is little question that some of those voices represent retrograde elements who would like to keep old animosities strong.) You have to walk through life with blinders, however, not to encounter Catholics who were brought up on liberal doses of anti-Semitism at home – and had it drummed out of them by priests and nuns who were faithful to the new catechism of the Church, and the new teachings of Nostra Aetate.

Conversion of Jews is no longer the priority it once was. If the covenant with the Jews has never been broken, then somehow they do not need the embrace of the mother Church quite as other people do. To be sure, this notion is upsetting to many Catholics. Long educated to believe that there was no other portal to Heaven, it is upsetting to learn that there may be a Jewish back door.

In truth, the theology of all this is not yet entirely worked out. It is a work in progress. Some of the solutions proposed do not sound like much of an improvement over the old, but even they, practically speaking, call for treating Jews very differently from the way they were treated in the past. Many Catholics don’t mind the contradiction, or the struggle to find a way out of it.

While hopeful that more and more Jews will understand how positive a development Nostra Aetate was, I cannot completely fault those who have responded with ignorance, indifference, or outright suspicion. I can’t blame them, even as I try to gingerly offer an alternative. Jews are very much in the position of a battered wife, hearing her husband claim that he has turned over a new leaf. To be sure, violent husbands sometimes do change, albeit not very often. Their long-suffering spouses, though, need to remain cautious and vigilant for their own protection. The Jewish community, bruised and bloodied in two millennia of interaction with Rome, cannot be faulted for wanting to see hard evidence of change before it can learn to trust the voices of reconciliation.

We cannot, I think, be deaf to them either. What ought we do? We ought to take small and tentative steps towards changing some of our attitudes. We in the Orthodox community are univocally opposed to the old kind of ecumenical dialogue, aimed at a cross-fertilization and interpenetration of religious ideas. That is out of the question to us, and has been rejected by all Torah authorities, including Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, who was perhaps the most explicit and verbose about his opposition. We should, however, be able to recognize that some kinds of discussion have nothing to do with prodding each other to understand or respect (or dilute) religious teachings. There are areas in which our moral and ethical values coincide, especially in the Kulturkampf against the hedonistic, material and secular alternatives of our shared host culture. Few Jews realize that it is not only they who feel like an embattled minority – that committed Catholics, too, despite their greater numbers, feel mocked, disparaged and marginalized by the image-makers of general culture. We ought to be able to cooperate in waging common battle to convince (by persuasion, not religious coercion) fellow Americans to hold on to our shared treasured notions (even as we disagree about details of their application) about the specialness of human life, and about the importance of G-d in human affairs and decision-making.

Minimally, we ought to remember that those who are trying to find new interpretations of old texts are, well, people. They are theologians and priests and laypeople, but they are human beings with the usual complement of feelings and sensitivities. They would like to know that Jews are taking notice of their work, and that it is appreciated. Those of us who encounter such people should find ways to show it.

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4 Responses

  1. EG says:

    This a another wonderful article from your great site. It is also a fine rejoinder to the recent misguided pronouncements of Mr Abe Foxman. How did this happen to our American Jewish leadership and what can be done to redirect their energies toward common objectives?

  2. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    A generally excellent article. However, I’d like to take exception to one item and clarify another.

    I take strong exception to the idea that conservative Protestants as a whole are “supporters” of Jews — unless you really thing that attempts to convert us count as support. The Southern Baptist International Mission Board alone has targeted exactly 5,589,039 Jews for conversion — and that doesn’t count that denominations efforts in North America! They say so on their own internet site:


    I wish I were making this up. The Southern Baptist Convention is by far the largest single Protestant sect in the United States. The comparison of these efforts to the Catholic Church’s official renunciation of conversion efforts is striking. While not all conservative Protestants agree with the Southern Baptists, many do and we should be wary

    The clarification is that neither Hutton Gibson nor Mel Gibson are Catholic for precisely the reasons given: their refusal to accept the authority of the Popes and Church Councils. Cardinal Roger Mahony confirmed this in an interview a few years ago. The Gibson’s bigotry should not reflect on real Catholics.

  3. Max Stesel says:

    Dear R. Adlerstein
    I do not know personally many Catholics, nor am I an expert on the Catholic Church, but as an amateurish observer I question the significance of Nostra Aetate for the Jewish people. The reason is that Catholic Church today is less than a shadow of what it was for the past two thousand years. Its backyard, Western Europe, it the one of the most non-religious, possibly anti-religious parts of the world. Catholic church has always been a populist church. Its branches in various parts of the world had incorporated many elements of the local cutures and religions in quest to secure followers. I question how long the Catholic Church will be on our side of the barricades in the culture war.
    Consider their official ambiguity on evolution.


    Do they not realize that the debate of Evolutionists vs. Intelligent Design is not a scientific debate from either side’s perspective? Rather it is a battle for the separation of the church and state, the Church’s of Atheism dominance of the public school system.
    The Rev. George Coyne, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, encourages to “move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God” to that of “encouraging parent”. Is this not a road map to compromise between Catholicism and the forces of Moral Relativism?
    I am not sure if Nostra Aetate was a result of a slow process or if it was a delayed reaction to recognition of the Church’s largely horrific role in the Holocaust. I wonder if it is not only a matter of time till the College of Cardinals will purposely or by chance elect a liberal Pope who with a stroke of a pen will reverse Church’s position on traditional family and other battleground moral issues. Considering the Church’s populist tradition and its weak positions in Western Europe and to some extent in the U.S., this scenario is quite realistic.
    Perhaps, we should focus inward and rectify ourselves for we have no permanent allies in the entire world, we are still a nation which is meant to dwell alone.

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Max Stesel,

    It is true that Catholicism (indeed religion of any kind) is on the wane in West Europe. However, that does not make them irrelevant. Not only are they the largest denomination in the US, but most of South America, which is very religious, is Catholic.

    Perhaps, we should focus inward and rectify ourselves for we have no permanent allies in the entire world,

    Of course we have no permanent allies. But we do not need to worry about who our allies may or may not be in two centuries. Our descendants will be perfectly capable to making that decision at that time. We only need to worry about the battles and issues that G-d has seen fit to put in front of us, and the allies and enemies that we have in this time.

    we are still a nation which is meant to dwell alone.

    Given how long we’ve been in the diaspora, I suspect that we were meant to be dispersed.

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