Fifteenth Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

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Elio Toaff - Chief Rabbi of Rome

Italia       28/10/1980

On October 28, 1980 SIDIC commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the promulgation of the declaration Nostra Aetate" by the Second Vatican Council. This took the form of the cultural evening at the Cancelleria in Rome. One of the main speakers on that occasion was Cardinal Johannes Willebrands whose text was published in the SIDIC Review vol. XIV, No. 1, 1981. Below is the address of Rabbi Toaff on that same occasion.

Fifteen years have gone by since, on October 28, 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Declaration Nostra Aerate, addressed to the Catholics of the whole world which, among other things, deals with the important questions of relations with non-Christian religions and Judaism in particular.

For many years until this time the Church had not been concerned, in official and important documents, with the Jewish people. Perhaps because this people had expiated the sins of the world through the holocaust of millions of her children during the last world war, the Church of Rome, once life had returned to normal at the end of hostilities, felt the need of stating her relations with the Jews in a manner completely different from that of the past.

The Winds of Change

Already during the period in which nazism arose and when the world conflict was in progress, Popes of the time had more or less explicitly condemned antisemitism and the persecution to which the Jews were being subjected. But it was only thanks to Pope John XXIII and the unforgettable Cardinal Augustin Bea, to whom I was linked by sincere bonds of friendship, that the question of the relations between the Church and the Jews was tackled courageously and lovingly, with the determination of removing from the Church any remnant of hostility or enmity with regard to the Jews. This was how Pope John, in convoking the Council, wanted the problem of the Jews to be faced. Cardinal Bea was therefore commissioned to draw up the document that would be submitted to the conciliar Fathers.

If the document which was thus produced and presented had been approved as it was at this first editing it would have been better, since there would have been no doubt about the question of "deicide" and the collective responsibility of the Jewish people. We know that for many centuries this accusation had been the basis for so much painful misunderstanding that it prevented a full and fraternal dialogue between Jews and Christians and was therefore also the direct or indirect cause of many tears and of much bloodshed.

Certainly the idea of the innocence of the Jewish people concerning the passion and death of Jesus is clearly expressed in Nostra Aetate. It is undeniably true that what counts is the idea itself and not the words that express it but, according to the opinion that is widespread among Jews, the word "deicide" should have been preserved in the text because a precise reference to the "deicide" terminology with which Jews have been labelled for centuries was considered necessary. Then too, the replacing of "condemns ... antisemitism" that was in the Bea text by the word "deplores" in the final deaf t has been and still is a perplexing change for Jews.

It seems to me that, for the sake of truth, I should mention these matters this evening, not in order to make sterile criticisms but purely to state the rather negative reaction of the Jewish world. In spite of these observations however, we should recognize that the historical importance of such a conciliar document cannot be ignored; it has finally opened a dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. The significance of this event consists in the fact that the partners in the dialogue speak together as equals with the same dignity and the same respect for one another. What then is the basis for this dialogue? It consists in everything that can help the partners know one another better, deepen their knowledge of each other in the realms of faith, of religion and of tradition. They need to discover what they have in common and study what separates them in a spirit of fraternity and of good understanding, to collaborate in the work of spreading the divine word, to be a blessing for all peoples of the earth according to God's promise to Abraham. Another merit of the Declaration Nostra Aetate is to have removed the foundation for what Jules Isaac has called `the teaching of contempt", stating that it has no basis either in Scripture or in Christian theology. The millenia of prejudice against the Jews are explicitly condemned and the historical and spiritual bonds which link the Church to the Jewish people are suitably underlined.

Progress since Vatican II

Fifteen years have gone by since the Second Vatican Council promulgated this document. I think it is well worth while to examine what are its effects and what progress has been made in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

It is a great pleasure to note the establishment and development of centers for Jewish-Christian friendship which work diligently and seriously to make Judaism better known. This leads to an effective and profound dialogue resulting in a return of the whole Christian community to its Jewish roots and to a search for its true identity.

The Protestant theologian Barth, a little while before his death, wrote this significant phrase: 'Let us never forget that the only truly ecumenical question is our relations with Israel".

The main aim of dialogue is the discovery of truth and we know that this discovery is a difficult one that has to be sought passionately and constantly, day by day, that has to be strenuously protected lest we run the risk of losing one of the greatest values of our existence.

Here in Italy SIDIC deserves recognition for being in the vanguard of this ecumenical work which it does intelligently, discreetly and with notable success. On this subject I cannot refrain from remembering a great friend, a chosen soul, one of the just, to whom I was bound by a sincere and heartfelt friendship, Fr. Cornelis Rijk, may his memory he a blessing. His untimely death took him away from his work and his mission on earth, that of making the people of Israel and its culture known, of eliminating centuries of prejudice, of substituting hatred by love, despise by esteem, rejection by collaboration.

The Centro Pro Unione at Rome also, as well as the SEFER group — Studies, Facts, Research — are doing excellent work to increase knowledge of Judaism throughout Christianity and to support the Jewish-Christian diaolgue "with the aim of dispelling centuries of prejudice and of initiating theological research and study-. I cannot omit the modest but continual work of the various associations for Jewish-Christian friendship, the one in Florence first of all, which for many years,through the publication of its bulletin, has succeeded in spreading its ideas over a much wider area.

We must recognize, unfortunately, that this initiative is only in its beginning and still too little known at the grass roots level. To be truthful, I have to admit that not all Catholic and Christian circles are ready for such encounter and dialogue with Jews. It should be stressed also that among Jews there are groups which reject the encounter and are closed to dialogue either through diffidence or suspicion that behind the dialogue there are missionary intentions.

An Important French Initiative

In April 1973 the French Episcopate issued its Pastoral Guidelines on the Attitudes of Christians in their Relations with Judaism. This document is certainly the most important text published in France on the question and is fully in accord with the Declaration on the Jews of the Second Vatican Council. It touches three fundamental points: Christians should consider Judaism as a reality that is not only social and historical but also religious: not as a relic of the past but as a living reality throughout the centuries through its fidelity to the One God, through the intensity of its Scripture study in order to discover, in the light of revelation, the meaning of life, and lastly, through its constant effort to rebuild itself into a united community. Secondly, it denounces and condemns antisemitism, "which feeds on false theological arguments". The French Episcopate notes that outbursts of antisemitism are provoked — among other things — by the idea that every Jew is a God-killer, because this theological, historical and juridical error makes the whole of the Jewish people indiscriminately guilty of the passion and death of Jesus. The third point is a new and most important one, being given the difficulty of making a clear theological judgment on the return of the Jewish people to its land. The document affirms precisely — examining the problem from a strictly religious point of view — "We Christians must first of all not forget the gift once made by God to the people of Israel of a land where it was called to be reunited". For the sake of objectivity I should perhaps add that not everyone accepted the point of view of the French Episcopate and contrary positions have been taken.

Guidelines and Suggestions

Nine years after the publication of the Declaration there appeared finally the official Guidelines and Suggestions for the Implementation of the conciliar document. The long period that transpired before the Guidelines were issued was explained in the text itself. Since during that period many initiatives had been taken in different countries, it was easier to enuntiate more clearly the conditions under which a new relationship between Jews and Christians could be worked out and developed.

This is a most important document which was received in the Jewish world with much satisfaction and gratitude. The condemnation of antisemitism is expressed clearly and unequivocably. Dialogue presupposes that each side wishes to increase and deepen its knowledge of the other in an atmosphere of the deepest mutual respect. The liturgy of the two religions should be studied in order to find the common elements that exist and to effect "a living community in the service of God, and in the service of man for the love of God". Teaching and education should aim at encouraging research into Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations, especially in exegesis, theology, history and sociology. Finally, the last section of the Guidelines deals with social action, conceived of as the fulfilment of the teaching of the prophets and directed towards the search for social justice and peace.

In giving on overall judgment on these Guidelines, I think it can be affirmed that they were drawn up after the experiences made during the nine years that followed the promulgation of the Declaration; they took into account above all the reception that Christians had given to the initiatives that were aimed at opening up a dialogue and a collaboration with Jews. This favorable response with its possibilities for action has resulted in an ethusiastic reception by Jews. Allow me to make one comment: the document would have been perfect had it spoken of the return of Jews to their land as did the text of the French Bishops. Far be it from me to want to introduce political considerations into thispresentation which should preserve its purely religious character. When we speak of Israel and Judaism however, we must realize that we are speaking of a people with its own civilization, religion and culture. It follows then, not from political moves but from the words of Scripture. The Lord has promised his people a land — in which he would place his Name — as an eternal inheritance. He has pledged that one day they would come back from their exile. This is an element therefore that is deeply and supremely religious. The prophets, in fact, introducing a universal aspect, foretell that the day will come when all peoples of the earth will assemble there when the Kingdom of God will have been re-established in the world.

I shall conclude by affirming that the Declaration and the Guidelines are two milestones which, in contemporary history, point out the way that the Church and Judaism are taking as they draw closer together. Much has been done, much is being done, but there is still a great deal more that remains to be accomplished. If we can succeed in interesting an ever increasing number of persons of good will in this well-deserving work of ours, a big step will have been taken along the difficult path of reconciliation, collaboration and understanding.

In such a delicate and arduous task, fifteen years is a very short time if we consider what has to be done to do away with misunderstanding, prejudice and the mistrust of centuries. If however this work is no longer restricted to a chosen few but is, as we wish, extended to everyone, then the way to harmony, peace and justice, to fraternity and love, will open up before us.

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Inserito 01/01/1970