Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Nostra Aetate: A Personal Reflection

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Nostra Aetate: A Personal Reflection

Article excerpt

In a sense, the history of Catholic-Jewish relations from the 1940's to the present can be likened to the progress of the protagonist of Dante's Divine Comedy, beginning with the inferno of the Shoah--the attempt by baptized Christians to eradicate the Jewish People, the People of God, the People of Jesus of Nazareth. With Nostra aetate the Catholic Church began its quest for a new understanding of its Sacred Scriptures and the Jewish people who wrote them. With so much evil in the history of Christian mistreatment of Jews and denigration of Judaism over the centuries, we have moved into Purgatorio, a period of intense reflection on our sinful past, of repentance, and of turning anew toward God's People, the Jews. Jesus, we believe today, was not accidentally Jewish. His Jewishness is part of the divine plan for humanity. So, to understand Christianity we Catholics have to understand Judaism and learn from Jews--through dialogue rather than disputation--how they interpret their TaNaCh, the Hebrew Scriptures, and how we might best understand it today in light of the changing circumstances of the twenty-first century.

We are called by the same God, the One God of Israel, to work together with the Jewish People to prepare the way for what we Christians call the return, and the Jews call the coming, of the Messiah--and, with it, the age of universal justice and peace for all humankind. Jews call this common task "tikkun olam," repairing our broken world. We can prepare the way for the messianic age by working together with Jews to aid the poor and heal the sick, to ensure justice for all in our society and in the world, and to eradicate Antisemitism and other forms of racism. In this way we will help to bring about the new paradise, a richer and deeper one than that lost by the first couple through their disobedience to God and their attempt, like those who built the tower of Babel, to become gods.

My purpose here is to reflect upon the overall significance of the five decades of Christian-Jewish dialogue in the form of a personal reflection, based on my own experiences in the dialogue over these past fifty years. The new relationship that we call the "Christian-Jewish dialogue" began in the wake of the Holocaust, which must be viewed as the ultimate irruption of evil into human history. Far too many Christians, lured by an ideology of racial hatred, were complicit in this evil. The aim was no less than the extermination of the Jewish people, thus obliterating from humanity their witness to the One God, the God of Israel. Given this tragic history, the dialogue between the churches and the Jews that has occurred since 1945 has been both a vital necessity and, in a real sense, a divine miracle in our own time.

My own involvement in the dialogue began when I was a student at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, from 1961 to 1965. We were, as we like to say, "the class of the Council" (the Second Vatican Council), which took place during those years. (1) We were privileged, at the close of each session of the Council, to receive first-hand reports on its inner workings from Archbishop of Detroit Cardinal John Dearden's two periti (theological experts) at the Council. We spoke of the confluence of the issuance of Nostra aetate and our graduation at our recent fiftieth-anniversary reunion at the seminary and how we were involved in civil rights, which was an interfaith as well as interracial activity because of the involvement of so many Jews in the efforts to bring about racial equality and to expunge the lingering effects of the great American sin of slavery.

This was a time of opening up, aggiornamento, in a broad sense. We became involved in the civil-rights movement and delved into philosophers and theologians of other traditions, Protestant and Jewish, such as Martin Buber. I was particularly attracted to the study of what I then called the "Old Testament," with its traditions and rich insights that reflect the experience of centuries of inspired, prophetic wisdom. …

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