A Compass for Reconciliation
Rabbi David Rosen

A Jewish perspective on the new document "The Gifts and the Calling of God"

Firstly let me express my profound gratitude to Cardinal Koch, Bishop Farrell and Fr Hofmann, for the invitation to share the podium at this press conference. As Fr Hofmann has noted, the presence here of Jewish representatives is itself a powerful and eloquent testimony of the rediscovered fraternity between Catholics and Jews. And even though the document released is addressed to and for the Catholic faithful, in as much as it concerns the relationship of the Church to the Jewish People, it is graciously respectful to the latter to have a Jewish presence at such a press conference. This is most heartening, reflecting the truly revolutionary change in the Catholic approach towards Jews and Judaism.

Indeed as this document notes, section 4 of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions which deals with the Church’s relationship to the Jewish People (and which this document describes as the “heart” of Nostra Aetate), was remarkable above all precisely for ushering in this new positive approach of “fundamental esteem” and which has been described as a Copernican revolution in the Church’s attitude towards Judaism and Jewry.

As Cardinal Koch noted in his presentation at the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate here in Rome six weeks ago “For the first time in history, (an) ecumenical council expressed itself explicitly and positively with regard to the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism”, serving as a “compass toward reconciliation between Christians and Jews, valid both for the present and for the future.”

Nostra Aetate opened up the way for subsequent Popes to further affirm the unique bond between the Church and the Jewish People which this text documents, and to see Jewry as a living source of Divine inspiration for the Church. In the words of Pope Francis, “God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with His word” (Evangelii Gaudium, 249).

The upshot of this positive regard for the Jewish people is the clear repudiation affirmed in this document of any “replacement or supersession theology which sets against one another ... a Church of the Gentiles [against a] rejected Synagogue whose place it takes.”

What this document reveals accordingly is not only the advancement of the recommendations of the 1974 Guidelines on Nostra Aetate, to appreciate and respect Jewish self-understanding; but also a deepening recognition of the place of Torah in the life of the Jewish people; and (in accordance with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s work) an acknowledgement of the integrity of Jewish reading of the Bible that is different from the Christian one. Indeed the very fact that the document also quotes extensively from Jewish rabbinical sources is further testimony of this respect.

Allow me to reiterate again the point that both Cardinal Koch and Fr Hofmann have made, that this is a Catholic document reflecting Catholic theology. Inevitably then, there are passages in it that do not and cannot resonate with a Jewish theology. However as already mentioned, to its great credit, this document seeks to reflect a sincere comprehension of Jewish self-understanding.

Perhaps then I may be permitted in the spirit of our mutual respect and friendship to point out that to fully respect Jewish self-understanding, it is also necessary to appreciate the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish People, and that appears to be missing.

Indeed even in terms of the historical survey of the milestones along this remarkable journey since Nostra Aetate, the establishment of full bilateral relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See (very much guided and promoted by St Pope John Paul II) was one of the historic highlights. Moreover, the preamble and the first article of the Fundamental Agreement between the two parties, precisely acknowledges this significance. Without Nostra Aetate, the establishment of these relations would surely not have been feasible. The Fundamental Agreement not only paved the way for the historic papal pilgrimages to the Holy Land and thus to the establishment of the bilateral commission with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, but arguably reflected more than anything else the fact that the Catholic Church had truly repudiated its portrayal of the Jewish people as condemned wanderers to be homeless until the final advent.

The document’s reference to the state of religious minorities as the litmus test regarding Religious Freedom, is particularly pertinent in the Middle East today; and thus the situation of Christians in Israel to which the document refers, stands in marked contrast to most other places in the region.

However, allow me to observe that the importance of the Jewish-Christian relationship in the Holy Land is not simply to prove the question of Religious Freedom. It is also a litmus test of the degree to which Nostra Aetate and the subsequent teaching of the Magisterium are internalized precisely where Christians are a minority and Jews are a majority and not only vice versa; and in this regard there still remains much educational work to be done.

The reference to peace in the Holy Land as pertinent to the Catholic-Jewish relationship is also important. The peoples there live in mutual alienation and disappointment, and I believe that the Catholic Church can play an important role in rebuilding trust, such as the initiative of prayer for peace taken by Pope Francis.

Let me express the hope that there soon will be further initiatives to enable religion to be a source of healing rather than con- flict; and to ensure that these are co-ordinated with those who have the political authority to pave the way to enable the land and the city of peace to fulfil its name. Let me express my particular appreciation for the document’s emphasis on the responsibility of “educational institutions, particularly [those for] the training of priests, [to] integrate into their curricula both Nostra Aetate and the subsequent documents of the Holy See regarding the implementation of the Conciliar declaration”. Arguably this remains the most notable challenge in taking the achievements from their Olympian heights down to the grass roots universally.

Similarly the call for joint action could not be more timely. The document refers to the International Jewish-Catholic Liaison Committee’s collaboration in Argentina in 2004; and I might add that subsequently there was significant collaboration at the ILC meeting in Cape Town where Jewish and Catholic health-care organizations and initiatives working particularly with the victims of AIDS, were brought together to facilitate collaboration and become greater than the sum of their different parts. I strongly echo the sentiments in this document that there is much more that we can do together both in addressing the ills of modern society and in combatting prejudice, bigotry and anti-Semitism which the Church has forcefully condemned and which is reiterated in this document.

Finally let me come to the subject of “complementarity” to which the document refers, based on Pope Francis’ own words in Evangelii Gaudium concerning “read[ing] the texts of Hebrew Scriptures together ... and “min[ing] the riches of God’s word”. This document further expands the notion of complementarity when it declares that “on the one hand ... the Church without Israel would be in danger of losing its locus in the history of salvation”; and then adds “by the same token Jews could ... arrive at the insight that Israel without the Church would be in danger of remaining too particularist and of failing to grasp the universality of its experience of God.”

Permit me to note that there is hardly a symmetry in these regards. The former expresses an understanding of the intrinsic character of the Church, while the latter warns against a possible misunderstanding and maybe even abuse of the Jewish concept of election and loss of a sense of universal responsibility. Not only is there a profound asymmetry between the two in as much as the Church’s need for Israel is a matter of Christianity’s foundational self-understanding; but the real danger of ethnic insularity is hardly something of which Judaism was unaware before the emergence of Christianity and for which Judaism is specifically in “need” of the Church. This warning is most prominent in Hebrew prophetic scripture, perhaps most dramatically in the writing of Amos, and is articulated throughout Talmudic and mediaeval Jewish literature.

And on the other hand, one might note that an assertively universal doctrine is in just as much danger, as it can become exclusive, imperialist and triumphalist, even more so.

Nevertheless, Jewish luminaries over the centuries have indeed themselves articulated a concept of complementarity in seeing Christianity as a Divine vehicle by which the universal truths that Judaism brought to the world, can in fact be more effectively disseminated throughout the universe beyond the limitations posed by Jewish Peoplehood.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the greatest rabbinical leaders of the 19th century, even saw the break between Church and Synagogue as a necessary part of that Divine plan to facilitate Christianity’s universal task.

Some have gone a little further in this regard to understand the concept of complementarity in the parallel role in which the Jewish focus on the communal covenant with God and the Christian focus on the individual relationship with God may serve to balance one another. Indeed there are those who have suggested that the communal autonomy that Judaism affirms, may serve more appropriately as a model for a modern multicultural society, while Christianity may provide a better response for individual alienation in the contemporary world.

Another suggestion of some theologians regarding such complementarity relates to the relationship between the Jewish re- minder that the Kingdom of Heaven has not yet fully arrived, and the Christian awareness that in some ways that Kingdom has already rooted itself in the here and now.

However the very fact that we can talk about complementarity is itself a powerful demonstration of how far we have come along this remarkable journey of transformation and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews over the last half century. This has been in no small part due to the quotidian work and leadership of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jewish People, and the document released today is one more significant milestone along this truly wondrous path for which we must all give thanks to the One Creator and Guide of Heaven and Earth.


L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18-25 December 2015, page 13

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