The Fortieth Anniversary of Nostra Aetate (Boston College website)

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Lustiger, Jean-Marie

Italia       27/10/2005

What a long way we have come together, we Jews and Catholics, in more than half a century!
The fortieth anniversary of the Declaration Nostra Aetate coincides with the sixtieth anniversary of the Soviet troops’ entry into the Auschwitz camp. As new forms of antisemitism are appearing, this double commemoration leads us to acknowledge that the memory of the Shoah weighs upon human conscience as an enormous burden of sorrow and shame. “Such a crime had been unheard of, and until then unimaginable,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it recently at the Cologne Synagogue.
We should now pause to give thanks to all those who have worked to establish a new relationship between Jews and Catholics based on trust, esteem, and respect – making true friendship possible. There are many such people on both sides. Allow me to mention only one name, that of Pope John Paul II.
For this occasion, I have chosen to reflect upon the call that Pope Benedict XVI sent out to conclude his address at the Cologne Synagogue. He invited us to “ look forward to the tasks that await us today and tomorrow [... so we can] join in giving an ever more harmonious witness and to work together on the practical level. ”
Today in the West, one often hears about a “Judaeo-Christian” civilization, most of the time in order to criticize it, to free individuals from the constraints that it allegedly imposes upon their behaviors and upon society as a whole.
Thus, it can be said of these observers that they are as distant from Christianity as they are from Judaism and so lump them together in the same bag.
To identify in the heart of our civilization a Judaeo-Christian “ world-view ” will certainly not satisfy all Jews or all Christians, but it attests from the outside two facts that are essential for our topic:
The first is that Jew and Christians together have a responsibility toward civilization and the whole of humanity.
The second is that Jews and Christians bear together the weight of biblical Revelation.
On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, I suggest that we allow this outside perspective to challenge us, and to think about our common responsibility. What can, what must the meeting of Jews and Christians – or rather their reconciliation, or, even better, their meeting anew – bring to the world at a time when a global civilization is taking shape amidst conflicts and oppositions, convergences and exchanges, but also regressions? It is not significant that the “meeting anew” of Jews and the Catholic Church should take place in this critical and magnificent context of major upheavals with unforeseeable consequences?
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1. There undoubtedly exists a convergence between Jews and Christians – at least if they are true to their faith – to point out the moral requirements necessary for life in society.
In the last century, they found themselves on the same side in the criticism of totalitarian powers. These authorities, since they “dictated the law,” set themselves up as the masters of good and evil. Any authority is, of course, tempted to do the same. But Jews and Christians share a very clear common vision: the law that imposes itself upon human conscience has a source higher than any human being; good cannot be defined according to wishes or opinions, but asserts itself in this world where everything is relative, and offers itself as an absolute to the choices that liberty has to make; and this indisputable standard in the management of temporal affairs makes of politics a reality that is worthy of human destiny.
The wisdom of human law and its weight upon human conscience does not result only from the sanctions that accompany it, but above all from the justice that it introduces into human relationships. Such law, or any just law, rest on the foundation, most of the time invisibly, of God’s holy will as it was revealed on Mount Sinai . In some way or other, the law receives from God a certain sacred quality, which also characterizes humanity, to whom it is addressed.
This common conviction of Jews and Christians is developed into a rational discourse, which has made up the corpus of natural law, and permitted the assertion of the inalienable dignity of the human person, on which human rights are ultimately grounded.
Allow me here to evoke a little known episode in the drafting of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II. To go beyond the classical wording of natural law, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla suggested using the personalist approach initiated by Max Scheler, in which one bishop saw the thought of Martin Buber.
This ethical vision of politics challenges from the inside its potential arbitrariness; it aims at enlightening the exercise of power, not at undermining it. It bears witness to true wisdom, which the Bible tells us comes from God.
Is this not a very high ideal of humanity? The status of the Jewish people and of Christians as watchers and witnesses of God’s reign challenges and relativizes any human rule. Are we not together, Jews and Christians, responsible and answerable to the whole of humankind for this political rationality?
Is this not the necessary wisdom that is missing in the case of the global institutions that were set up to regulate peace between the nations, but which conflicting forces and interests hardly allow to work according to the requirements of law and justice (see Genesis 18:19) that would make them efficient?
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2. This conviction is rooted in the Revelation on Mount Sinai .
Let us take a look at the way Jews and Christians receive the gift of the Law, or the Commandments.
It is not my task to tackle the central question of the observance of the precepts as commented on by rabbinic traditions.
However, I always find it necessary to remind Christians of what observing the 613 commandments means. As they were codified in tradition, they concern the whole life of religious Jews, from prayer and personal and collective study to all other areas of human existence: morals, family and business relationships, etc. All these commandments are received as coming explicitly from God’s will. The nearest thing in Christianity to Jewish life in this light would be monasticism, although what is dealt with here is life with a family and all the requirements of what is called the life of the laity.
And for Christians? I may surprise those among you who are not familiar with Catholic doctrine – whether Jews or even Christians – if I claim that in substance these commandments are received by Christians as God’s Revelation, given in the Bible itself.
Just look up the Catechism of the Catholic Church as it was published under the authority of Pope John Paul II, and you will see that morals are developed within the framework of the Ten Commandments, which structure the ethical reflection on humanity’s personal and social action.
Of course, as disciples of Jesus, we no doubt have a different way of understanding these commandments and putting them into practice. For a Christian, the authoritative commentary of God’s commandments is the way Jesus lived them out and asks us to live them out.
It is an interpretation given to “ Shema , Israel : you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Matthew 22:36 ). The first rule of behavior sums up the Law and the Prophets in the commandment of the love of God and of brotherly love (Leviticus 19:18 ; Matthew 22:39 ), in the image of, and as a participation in the love taught by Jesus to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12 ).
A short-sighted look might see insuperable differences between these two visions. A deeper look will acknowledge that they have a common source, as both are of God. The consequences for human behavior are similar, even when justice and peace are developed along diverse ways and are lived out by tapping distinct spiritual resources. Of course, these differences cannot be overlooked. They are even essential to our experience. Nevertheless, as far as humanity is concerned, the convergence between Jews and Christians allows them to carry out with more strength and respect their specific mission of vigilance and testimony.
The Christian experience may have, at times, led to a certain relativization of the commandments in the name of charity. Of course, the love of God and the neighbor is for the Christian as well as for the Jew the fullness of the Law: no phrasing can be more accurate, or stronger, or more beautiful. What remains vital is that the requirements of love be strictly understood and structured by respect for God’s will. A fruitful convergence might consist in reminding Christians that they cannot omit what God commands, and Jews that the commandment of love at the beginning of the Shema is the key of all that derives from it, in human relationships as well as towards God.
Christian universalism has revealed to all the nations of the world – sometimes in a secularized form – what was given to Israel on Mount Sinai . Israel remains its guarantor, undoubtedly along with Christians, for the good of all humanity.
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3. We then have to ask ourselves about the universality of Revelation. What can the getting together of Jews and Christians mean for humanity as a whole?
Obviously, I am not going to answer this question in the terms of public opinion. Some will fear calamitous results, as this might threaten the independence and freedom of specific national or religious identities. Others, or maybe the same, will wonder how two religions that history has so radically separated can unite their forces so deeply in order to contribute to bringing cultures and religions together.
As a matter of fact, this relationship to the whole of humanity is inscribed in the very origin of Judaism. Remember the blessing given to Abraham: “In you all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Also remember the prophetic announcement that all nations will come to worship the One and Only Lord of earth and heaven in his Temple .
On the Christian side, the Jewish apostles of Jesus have (not without much struggling) obeyed that prophetic oracle, as they discovered, almost in spite of themselves, that the gift of the Spirit was also granted to the pagans. In fact, the order that Jesus gave to his followers, to go to all nations (the goyim) and make among them disciples who will be baptized (Matthew 28:19), makes Christians share the Jewish hope for the world. At the same time the spiritual attitudes and the experiences of the one and the other remain opposite in this respect.
For the Jewish people is in a paradoxical situation. It remains a people, and keeps on claiming to be called so. The question whether it is a people like or unlike all others has been asked since its origin. We are not a people like the other nations, because we were gathered by God to serve him, and we are a nation like all others when a king or some power is aspired to. What remains is that, in the current context of globalization, the Jews and the Jewish communities spread all over the world are indeed participants in the diversity of the cultures and the nations, without blurring their belonging to “the Jewish people.”
In the same way, it can be argued that being a Christian incorporates each person and each community into the common life of the Messiah’s Church, which is present through the times of history in all nations and in every culture.
The issue I am trying to focus on is the one raised by globalization. Is it some solidarity that gathers all humanity? Is the price to pay the denial or the oblivion of the particularities that were until today considered as assets, but can now appear as relics of the past, or obstacles? Certainly not.
But the responsibility given by God’s Word to Jews and Christians – each according to their own call and traditions – is to bring humanity to the awareness of its unity and of its unique vocation. The latter is rooted in its origin. As the first pages of Genesis put it, humankind was created by God “in his image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26 ). Within human diversity there exists watchful people and witnesses of the light of the origin, whose mission is not to impose, but to help humankind decipher its destiny.
Jews are aware of their historic particularity, since this Revelation was entrusted to them first, once and for all, irrevocably. It is in the experience of a people molded by this Election that sacred history has taken flesh in human history. For the Jewish people, the temptation is obviously to lock itself up in this particularity, and therefore to drain it of its universal salvific relevance.
Christians too have become the beneficiaries of this first blessing since, at the time when the Church was born from the Jews, some pagans as well got to share with them in this blessing and its Promise. Along the centuries, Christians too were to be tempted to recreate their own particularities of the national or confessional type; but they lost in the process the sense of their roots, of the origin that guarantees their hope.
Still, as they get together and size up their differences, both Jews and Christians can better understand what is given to them as a self-evident foundation: the task to reveal to divided humankind the call to a unity that is stronger and greater than its immense diversity.
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4. Evoking such perspectives does not amount to threatening either Jewish originality or Christian identity.
Let us try to explain this. “Salvation comes from the Jews,” as Jesus teaches to a woman of Samaria in the Gospel according to St. John ( 4:22 ).
Without the Jews, Christian universality could melt into some abstract humanism. The Christian experience shows that, at the cost of sometimes enormous difficulties and ambiguities, cultural diversity can be respected, and each culture can be enhanced, as the daughter of the One, by acknowledging the unity of humankind.
Without Christians, can Judaism, as the bearer of the blessing that is promised to all nations, carry out its own mission without being dissolved in the universal rationality of Enlightenment and depriving of its substance the history that begat it?
One lesson can be drawn from the meditation over these contradictions: Jews and Christians are to get together so that they can grasp, perhaps, what God demands from them. Their common experiences as well as their diverging perceptions of the divine blessing reveal the shape of the unity and universal communion that is rooted in the Promise made to Abraham, announced by the Prophets, and attested by the Catholic Church, as she believes with humble boldness.
This claim may sound somewhat exaggerated. But it does take into account one difficulty that each one of us is led to confront at this time of globalization.
As far as Jews are concerned, what is their identity? Is it the Israeli national identity, or the diasporic identity? What is it grounded on?
What can be answered in the light of the Catholic faith was expressed most strikingly by Pope John Paul II in his prayer at the Warsaw ghetto. Here it is:
God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Jesus Christ, you in whom all is included, you towards whom everything moves, you who are the end of everything, hear our prayers for the Jewish people, whom you still consider dear because of their forefathers.
Awaken in them a constant and ever more vital desire to fathom your Truth and your Love.
Assist them, so that their search for peace and justice may reveal to the world the power of your blessing.
Support them, so that they may be loved and respected by those who still do not understand the extent of their sufferings, and by those who out of concern and solidarity share the pain of the wounds that have been inflicted upon them.
Remember the new generations, the young people and children, so that they understand that your plan of redemption includes all humanity and that you are the beginning and the ultimate goal of all peoples.
This clearly means that in the Catholic faith Jewish identity is rooted in God’s gift – an irrevocable gift, as St. Paul put it; a gift that comes before any other sociological, cultural or political determination in history. This gift from God somehow makes up the vocation of the Jewish people, which is to reveal the divine blessing to the world.
And as for Christians, is their universalist message nothing more than a mask for Roman, then Western imperialism? How can it spread itself among the cultures of the world without losing its strength and content in the process? The problem is especially acute when Christians are carrying the biblical message, including the Torah, to such nations as those of Asia, which (as Gandhi did) find themselves ready to welcome the value of Jesus Christ as a message of liberation, but claim they have nothing to do with the Bible since they have their own scriptures and sacred history. At the risk of losing itself by giving up its universality, Christianity cannot accept being uprooted from Israel , that is to say, outside of the Covenant and God’s first choice. The meeting of Jews and Christians, or their bond with the tensions between them that are always to be respected, thus offers all humanity its original face and strengthens its hope for peaceful unity.
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5. What, then, is the foundation of the coming together of Jews and Christians? What do the one and the other have in common that justifies an alliance between them?
The answer is inscribed on the very first page of the New Testament. Open it and you will find a genealogy. Here are its first lines: “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah and his brothers [...].” These words introduce, as the first evangelist says, “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
The Christian receives from the Jewish people the totality of the Scripture: the Law, the Prophets, and the other Writings. We receive it as what it is: the Word of God. And this is true of all Christians – Protestants, Catholics or Orthodox – whatever the crimes that may have been committed or the ups and downs of history. This Holy Scripture cannot be separated from those to whom it was first addressed, or from the languages in which it was originally formulated. The Church receives each and every one of these words as inspired by God’s Spirit. It wants to remain faithful to it. It can’t even survive without it, even though some, like Marcion, insisted on a radical split that would have eradicated the biblical Scripture, history, the Covenant, and the Election from the faith of Jesus’ disciples.
But was there not a symmetrical reduction on the Jewish side, for reasons that are sometimes only too obvious to us and that need not be recalled here? The law that prevailed was that of silence. Jews have often said in the past that they had no need of Christians from a religious point of view.
In fact, we can recognize in these opposing attitudes the rupture that rather quickly took place in before the message of Jesus of Nazareth as a sign of contradiction.
Jews and Christians or Catholics share both a common root and a conflict. But from the same Christian perspective, this conflict is part of the expectation that human history will reach its achievement according to God’s will, which is the familiar horizon of Jewish thought as well.
Jews as well as Christians are spurred on by hope. They have in common Revelation, which has been received and transmitted, and which makes them look forward toward this End whose features have been characterized on each side by the experience of centuries, of cultures and peoples, and by what each one accepts or refuses from the other.
Who could fail to feel here that the tensions can be all the greater and the more painful as the points of agreement and communion are stronger? As soon as we share the same root, any tension is experienced as the source of a wound or a denial; but it can also be understood in the hope for an ever more powerful light.
Today, as we look at history, and while the rapprochement cannot make differences less acute, the urgency of the call received at the beginning forces the separated brothers, the elder one and the younger one, to fulfill , each one for his own part, the mission he has been given. Neither can carry it out without the other, nor can they force or downgrade the other.
The current condition of humanity somehow anticipates, even if obscurely and sometimes contrastingly, the hope conveyed by the Prophets and proclaimed by the New Testament. It would be an illusion and a lie to overlook our differences and our personal faiths in order to make that common hope become a reality. It would be a fatal mistake and, in fact, an abdication. But everyone is called to progress in the service of justice and peace that the divine Providence assigns to him.
The common link between Jews and Christians is the source of their alliance in this century and guarantees the work they have to carry out under pain of failing in their duty toward humanity. The balance and peace of the world are at stake here.
What Jews and Catholics share for the future is not limited to controlling contentious matters. It cannot be satisfied with peaceful mutual understanding. For the future requires work on what is shared as well as on what separates, and such work is now possible, since it is grounded on the certainty of a friendship that is God’s will. May the differences and tensions become a goad to reach, always more carefully and obediently, ever deeper into the mystery of which history has made us the joint heirs.

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