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Most Jews did not notice the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. This is a pity. Even the most cautious and cynical among us should recognize that this Vatican II document might have been the most significant development in our relationship with a long-standing adversary. Whether it fulfills this promise may depend in no small measure on our reaction to it.
Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) changed notions about the Jewish people that had held sway for almost 2,000 years. For almost all that time, two attitudes of the Catholic Church guaranteed contempt and persecution of Jews as a matter of quasi-religious principle.
The first was the charge of deicide - that all Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion. In the popular mind, it meant 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 God and Israel that is so clearly expressed in the Bible. According to this doctrine, 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 until the end of time, bearing witness 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 notions. It taught that Jews do not bear any more collective responsibility for the death of the Christian savior than any other people. It affirmed that God's covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken and eternal.
Jews - especially traditional Jews filled with a sense of the permanence of God'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 Christian 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.
A third element of Nostra Aetate concerned how people should act towards Jews. Anti-Semitism 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?
Occasionally, I used to share a mike on a Los Angeles radio program with a bright and articulate Franciscan whose friendship I came to value. One Sunday, after he was transferred to another parish, a couple stopped after the service to tell him "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 thank God for this sea-change in orientation?
NOSTRA AETATE has not wiped out Catholic anti-Semitism. You have to walk through life with blinders on 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 teachings of Nostra Aetate.
Conversion of Jews, however, 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 much as other people do. Long educated to believe that there was no other portal to Heaven, it is upsetting to many Catholics to learn that there may be a Jewish back door.
The theology of all this, moreover, is a work in progress. Some of the solutions proposed do not sound like much of an improvement, but even they, practically speaking, call for treating Jews very differently. Many Catholics don't mind the contradiction, or the struggle to find a way out of it.
While hopeful that more Jews will understand how positive a development Nostra Aetate was, I cannot completely fault those who have responded with indifference or outright suspicion.
Jews are very much in the position of a battered wife hearing her husband claim that he has turned over a new leaf. Violent husbands sometimes do change, albeit not very often. Their long-suffering spouses 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 trust the voices of reconciliation.
Yet we cannot, I think, be deaf to them either. What ought we do?
We ought to take tentative steps toward changing some of our attitudes. The Orthodox community is univocally opposed to the old kind of ecumenical dialogue, aimed at an interpenetration of religious ideas. We too, however, should recognize that some kinds of discussion have nothing to do with impressing religious teachings.
There are areas in which our moral and ethical values coincide, especially in the Kulturkampf against the hedonistic and material alternatives of our shared host culture. It is not only observant Jews who feel like an embattled minority - committed Catholics, too, despite their greater numbers, feel marginalized by the image-makers of popular culture.
Particularly in America, we ought to wage a common battle to persuade our fellow citizens to hold on to our shared treasured notions (even as we disagree about important parts of their meaning) about the specialness of human life, and about the importance of God in human affairs.
Minimally, we ought to remember that those who are trying to find new interpretations of old texts are, well, people. They are 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.
The writer, an Orthodox rabbi, is Sydney M. Irmas Chair of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
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