Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Jump-Starting the Conversation between Jews and Catholics. (Vatican II: 40 Years Later)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Jump-Starting the Conversation between Jews and Catholics. (Vatican II: 40 Years Later)

Article excerpt

When the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) began, I had just completed a two-year tour of duty as a United States Air Force chaplain in Japan and Korea, and was starting my civilian rabbinic career at Temple B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Mo.

My military chaplaincy experience in Asia followed by living in America's heartland provided me unique vantage points to observe the historic three-year gathering of the world's Catholic bishops in Rome as they vigorously debated, among other things, the church's future relationship with Jews and Judaism.

As the only rabbi assigned to the U.S. bases in southern Japan, I worked closely on a daily basis with both Catholic and Protestant clergy. We shared the same chapel space for our offices, various religious services and classes. We also cooperated on a host of official military duties including being present at aircraft and auto accidents involving Americans, as well as counseling troubled military personnel and their families.

It was my first taste of authentic interreligious cooperation, and despite the passage of 40 years, I vividly remember the positive attitudes many of my Christian colleagues, especially the Catholic chaplains, expressed toward Jews and Judaism. Those attitudes were the direct result of chaplains serving together in America's multi-religious, multiracial and multiethnic armed forces.

Preserving the spiritual lives of our military men and women in harm's way required an active form of religious pluralism and clergy collaboration that was frequently absent in American civilian life during the early 1960s. Passive tolerance of one another was not sufficient in the armed forces; mutual esteem and respect were absolutely necessary.

My positive chaplaincy experiences with Catholics predated the extraordinary achievements of the Second Vatican Council that were to come in later years, and they represented a preview of what was possible in interreligious relations.

Once I was out of uniform, America's Midwest also presented me something quite surprising. For even as the bishops were deliberating at the Vatican, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Bishop Charles Helmsing publicly reached out in warm friendship to the Kansas City Jewish community. Joining him in this pioneering effort were the leaders of Rockhurst College, now Rockhurst University, a local Catholic school.

I also remember the skepticism expressed by both Jews and Catholics in Kansas City as the bishops at the Second Vatican Council grappled with their church's long record of negative relations with the synagogue and its people. The skeptics were certain nothing important would emerge from the council in the area of interreligious relations since there was so much to confront and overcome.

The Nazi Holocaust (1933-1945), the murder of 6 million Jews, took place in the heart of "Christian Europe," and the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East in 1948 were unspoken, perhaps unwanted, guests at the Second Vatican Council and influenced the discussions. Both events, one horrific and one heroic, demanded a radical recasting of long-held Catholic theological, cultural, liturgical and pedagogical beliefs about Jews and Judaism. Could it happen? Past history seemed to say no.

The baleful deeply embedded record of Christian anti-Jewish writings and teachings is well documented, and the apt phrase, "the teaching of contempt," succinctly describes much of the past 2,000 years. Tragically, there were more shadows than light in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Three examples, each from a different period of history, reflect that Christian animus. The fourth century saint, John Chrysostom, called Jews "assassins of Christ," and he considered the synagogue "worse than a brothel." In 1543 Martin Luther taught that all Jews in Germany should be "put under one roof" and if they still proved too dangerous for society, the "poisonous bitter worms" should be driven out of Germany "for all time. …

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