By Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz
My dear friend Monsignor Alan Detscher recently sent me a document “hot off the press.” It was released from the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations and is entitled The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable. This important document marks the 50th anniversary of the theologically revolutionary declaration that was the “Nostra Aetate.”
Nostra Aetate is the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that permanently re-defined the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. This declaration recognized that over the course of history, Christianity had brought to the world evil deeds that were committed by “sons and daughters of the Church.” It also recognized that the Holocaust was a culmination of centuries of anti-Semitic attitudes and practices that made viable the rise of the Third Reich. With this momentous shift in church theology, the Catholic-Jewish relationship was able to appropriately develop a sibling love and appreciation for one and another.
While Nostra Aetate was adopted in 1965, the first major bearing of fruit came in 1974, when Pope Paul VI established a formal mechanism by which to improve Catholic-Jewish relations—the “Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.”
At the end of 1974 this commission set forth the guidelines by which every Catholic was to see within their lives and their relationships effective sibling love and living with their Jewish co-religionists. Catholics were instructed to acquire knowledge of the basic components of Judaism, and perceive the commonalities of religious ideas, values and practices. Catholics were urged to seek active educational and social dialogue with Jews, and specifically to increase significantly cooperative joint social action projects.
The further evolution in Nostra Aetate came in 1985, when the commission changed the parameters of what should be permitted or ritually said in Church as connected to the Jewish People. The Catholic was to see the firm connection between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian Testament (New Testament) and validate their Jewish roots of Christian faith. The Church formally recognized the permanence of the establishment of the State of Israel and declared the Jewish nation should be perceived as a “historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design.”
In 1998 the commission formally denounced the Church’s anti-Semitic historical acts and took responsibility for being complicit in the murder of Jews throughout the centuries, most notably in the inferno that was the Holocaust. Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, with both his words and actions, sought to assure that the Church would “help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices… And enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust) will never again be possible.”
Pope John Paul II succeeded in fostering and deepening the power of Nostra Aetate in every day Catholic and Jewish lives. He was the first pope to visit Auschwitz and to join in worship services at synagogues. He was the first Pope to visit the State of Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall (the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple). He met with an uncountable number of Jewish groups and laid the foundation for Pope Benedict XVI to do the same. Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, I had the honor of joining the Pope’s celebration of this monumental document in Rome.
Now, with Pope Francis, we continue the major strides of the past 50 years. When Pope Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was already highly committed to Jewish-Catholic dialogue and meaningful relationships. He visited Israel in 2014, also prayed at the Wailing Wall, and additionally prayed for the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum.
Now 50 years after Nostra Aetate, the story of Church and Synagogue is the fulfillment of the vision of the Psalmist: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.” (Ps. 133:1)
We have together enabled the blossoming of our common spiritual heritage. While we all should celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, we cannot take our many positive strides for granted.
Tonight (Jan. 8), we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate with a very special evening hosted by our Sholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano will join us in celebration of this important anniversary. He will preach at our 6:30 p.m. Sabbath service and make a presentation at an interfaith Shabbat dinner at 7:30 pm
(The suggested dinner donation is $15 per adult and $5 per child; please RSVP to Alice Schoen, firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-542-7165.)
The evening is being co-sponsored by many of our local houses of worship and Jewish organizations, including: the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies, AJC of Westchester/Fairfield, the Center for Hope & Renewal, Christ Church of Greenwich, Greenwich Chaplaincy Services, Greenwich Reform Synagogue, Greenwich Hospital’s Spiritual Care Department, the Interfaith Council of Southwest Connecticut, St. Catherine of Siena, Temple Sholom, and UCONN Hillel.
Join us for our celebration—a time for prayer, reflection, dialogue, and fellowship. Together, let us affirm that we are truly loving brothers and sisters who enjoy dwelling together in unity.
Mitchell Hurvitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Greenwich.