“50 Years Since Nostra Aetate” with The International Council of Christians and Jews

“Jews are non-Christian in a way that other religions are not.” Meredeth Banki, speaker at the International Council of Christians and Jews, said this when speaking about her experience as part of the Roman Jewish community during Vatican II deliberations on restructuring the Catholic Church’s historical relationship with Jews.

The 2015 annual meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews was themed “50 Years Since Nostra Aetate.” Throughout the conference, the attentive, committed audience proffered educated questions and a high level of discourse and learning, honed over years of working together. Since the conference was dialogue-oriented and not strictly academic, participants shared more personal narratives in a humorous and spontaneous tone, and panels and exchanges were grounded in commitment, information, and experience—not primarily in theory or texts.

The International Council of Christians and Jews was officially inaugurated after Vatican II, building upon the establishment of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in 1947. The member organizations engage in the historic renewal of Jewish-Christian relations. The website conveys their mission: “Founded as a reaction to the Holocaust, the Shoah, in the awareness that ways must be found to examine the deeply engrained roots of mistrust, hatred and fear that culminated in one of the worst evils in human history, theologians, historians and educators included the still fragile structure of enlightenment and the human rights movements of the inter-war period.”

The ICCJ conference featured a meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo DiSegni, who shared stories of his encounters with Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. The next day the conferencegoers had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where he delivered a teaching sermon about Jewish-Christian relations, noting that Nostra Aetate “represents a definitive ‘yes;’ to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable ‘no’ to anti-Semitism.” Pope Francis focused his remarks on the common reverence for the monotheistic God shared by Jews and Christians, noting that God, “in his infinite goodness and wisdom, always blesses our commitment to dialogue.”

During Vatican II deliberations between 1963-1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was invited to submit suggestions for positive Council action. He returned to the Council that they should emphasize a collective rejection of deicide charges against Jews, forge recognition of Jews as Jews and not as incomplete or primitive Christians, and create institutions that dissolve religious prejudice.

Vatican II deliberations received some resistance from Jews. Some said the Church is antisemitic by its nature and efforts to change it are futile and demeaning. They said, “Esau will always hate Jacob.” They said, “Antisemitism is a Christian problem—so let the Christians change it.” Meredeth Banki said that she, Heschel, and other pro-Council Jews answered these naysayers with words from the Civil Rights movement: “racism may be a white problem, but blacks are required to show up and walk with whites as they transform their thinking.”

Steve Innes, an American Anglican working with ICCJ in London, commented that Christian-Jewish dialogue is a niche practice, and its nature has shifted since the founding of ICCJ. Today there is more appreciation of particularity and diversity, as opposed the beginning years’ focus on commonality. Moreover, the dialogue has broadened into an Abrahamic dialogue that includes Muslims.

At the conference’s opening session at the Pontifical Urbania University, I wondered how many Jews were there. Counting yarmulkes wouldn’t tell me much—what about women, what about non-observant Jews? Later at a workshop, I guessed that the woman in front of me was Jewish, but then she began to count her rosary beads. My seatmate at the workshop, who works for the ICCJ, said the distribution of Christians and Jews was around 60/40—as usual in formal dialogues. There were also Italian politicians and ambassadors present, and many Jewish and Christian clergy of various denominations.

Keynote speaker Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and rabbi of the Argentinian Jewish community Benei Tikva, was introduced as “the most famous rabbi in the world” because of his book On Heaven and Earth on Jewish-Christian dialogue, co-authored with the former Archbishop of Argentina, i.e., the current Pope Francis.

In his address Rabbi Skorka discussed Dabru Emet, a September 2000 document concerning the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, signed by over 220 rabbis and intellectuals from all branches of Judaism. Rabbi Skorka reminded the audience of Christian support and protection of Jews during the Holocaust—as well as centuries of theologically-founded anti-Semitism. He called for a full explanation of the role of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, asserting, “The Church cannot enter into an authentic relationship with Judaism or be a moral authority until it cleanses itself of anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Skorka discussed Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1964 essay Confrontation, which argued that interfaith dialogue blurs the absolute and exclusive truths of the respective faiths, asking participants to abandon and soften their sacred claims. Soloveitchik insisted that theological discussions should be reserved for intimate, religiously homogenous contexts. But Rabbi Skorka argued that Rabbi Soloveitchik did not have the right sense of the friendship and curiosity at the heart of dialogue, and that Martin Buber’s idea of humanizing relations better expresses the aim of dialogue. Two thousand years after divisive schisms split these communities, it is possible for Jews and Christians to be a “blessing upon the nations,” and Rabbi Skorka sees dialogue as a mutual responsibility.

Rabbi Skorka’s address placed a finger on the pulse of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, cutting straight to the tenderest issues: Church stances during the Holocaust, centuries of antisemitism, and superficial Jewish positions that refuse the dialogue.

Sometimes during interfaith dialogue, pronounced and irreconcilable differences come to the fore. The ICCJ dialogue does not shy from such differences. In fact, difference emerged from the first hours of the conference, as a concert had been planned in the main lecture hall. The first half of the concert was Christian-themed, and the second was Jewish-themed. Before the concert began, the ICCJ Immediate Past President Deborah Weissman approached the microphone. She welcomed Christians of all denominations, reminding the audience that there are many opinions among Christians. And then she said, “if you don’t know, there are also many different opinions among Jews. So we will listen to tonight’s Jewish portion of the concert in a different venue.” The ultra-Orthodox at the concert had objected to the performance of Jewish music in the grand Aula Magna Hall, with its looming crucifix on the wall. So, after the Christian music was played, the ICCJ crowd rose and filed outside, gathering to feast on pizzette together while the Jewish cantors lifted their voices under a pink twilight sky.

The concert culminated in a rousing circle of Jewish folk-dancing, which certainly wouldn’t have been possible in the tight rows of the Aula Magna. The moment of religious difference resolved itself under the fresh sky as Jews and Christians joined hands and skipped together in joyful rhythm.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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