Should the pope’s visit to Israel inspire a Jewish ‘Nostra Aetate’?

I asked my 10-year-old daughter if she was learning about the month of Ramadan. “Rama-what?” she replied.

Interfaith community jewish muslim 311 (photo credit: Zamir Hassan / JTA)
Interfaith community jewish muslim 311
(photo credit: Zamir Hassan / JTA)
By the time you read this, the pope will have left Jerusalem. This visit was, in itself, the high-water mark of a remarkable journey: that of a man who embodies hope in the way few people still do in our modern world, and of a Church that took a brutally honest look at itself, in the long shadow of post-Holocaust Rome, and radically transformed its entire attitude to Judaism with the Nostra Aetate document.
Nowhere is it clearer that Nostra Aetate works – really and truly makes a difference – than in how the Catholic Church talks about Israel. While the Church of Scotland entitles their Holy Land politico-epistle, “The inheritance of Abraham?” with that hurtful slap of a question mark, and the director of Greenbelt refers to Israel in a tent full of thousands of Christians as “The land once called holy,” the pope visited Yad Vashem and the refugee camps in the West Bank in the same weekend, literally walking the bridge between contending narratives with pure grace.
The Nostra Aetete states: “The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed at Jews at anytime and by anyone,” and the Church means it.
Besides the Nostra Aetate, without that act of repentance, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish these modern church diatribes against Israel from the dark, haunting statements of the past. When does the modern call for boycotts of Israel from within such Protestant demonimations ever cease to recall the vitriolic shouts of a Martin Luther writing: “We all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews, lest we become guilty sharers before God in the lies, blasphemy, the defamation, and the curses which the mad Jews indulge in so freely and wantonly”?
Nostra Aetate, the pope at the Western Wall – these bring me hope.
However, the pope’s trip also saddened me. I’ll try to describe this melancholia by way of a recent exchange I had with my own local Orthodox synagogue in Edgware. On Saturday morning, the synagogue in question was constructing an “open learning seminar” (yes, a frum Limmud) and the rabbi asked me to teach.
“It would be an honor,” I replied, “I’m currently working on a really fascinating study of Jewish midrashim that may actually have their roots in the Koran and the Hadith.”
“That won’t do at all,” the rabbi responded immediately. “There is enough wisdom within our own tradition, we don’t need to look elsewhere.”
Let me remind you that this is no shtieble in Stamford Hill, this is a thriving Modern Orthodox community, with parents that work in the city and kids that learn in the local Jewish day school. Wait a moment, the Jewish day school. That’s another sad story.
During Ramadan last year, I asked my 10-year-old daughter if she was learning about the month of Ramadan.
“Rama-what?” she replied.
“Muhammad?” I asked, probing a bit further.
“How about Buddha?” “No.”
“The Hindu Shiva?” Blank stare.
I do interfaith for a living; this was not good. The next day, I called up the head teacher and asked for an explanation. She sent me the London Beth Din’s Official Guidelines for Teaching Other World Religions in Jewish Day Schools. Which reads, in part: “Pupils may not learn about the religions underpinnings of non-Jewish faith calendar events. [Which, I guess, means that Christmas is the day for Santa and presents and, you know, not for baby Jesus. The Coca-Cola PR team would be so pleased.] Pupils may not learn about the images to be found within non-Jewish places of worship.”
Finally, the only reason that a Jewish day school might conceivably be able to show the children any non-Jewish holy books was to “teach that many non-Jewish faiths have rather positive and proactive attitudes toward conversion, and the implications for Jews” and to “show their basis [in these holy books] for any anti-Semitic views.”
That is to say, during school hours my daughter will never learn what lies inside a church or mosque, and the only time she could even hope to glimpse the New Testament or the Koran or the Upanishads would be to ferret out the egregious evangelical lines, or worse, the virulent anti-Jewish parts.
Gentle reader, can you now see why I am embittered? In our jobs, our friendships, our hobbies, our tellys and technology, we embrace the world, while with our faith we are training our congregants and our children to inhabit a tiny shtetle of the mind.
And I write this as the pope is praying fervently at the Western Wall: I am left wondering, when will my rabbis come together and write the Jewish Nostra Aetate? When will traditional Orthodox Anglo-Jewry admit that its synagogue doors could open a crack, and its school curricula turn, ever so slightly, toward the wide spectrum of spiritual values that are not our own?
When will my rabbis ever say, like Nostra Aetate articulated nearly 50 years ago, that they regard with “sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she [The Church] holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men”?
The author, a rabbi, is the interfaith and social action consultant to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.