On Wednesday night, November 4th, Rabbi Jacob Luski, my dear friend, was honored along with two others by the Bon Secours Health Care System and its St. Petersburg units, Bon Secours-Maria Manor Nursing facility and Bon Secours Place Assisted Living and Alzheimers Care Unit for his presence and service in our community. I was there, proud of both my friend and the recognition our Catholic community would shower on him. It marked the third straight Wednesday night that the Rabbi, his wife Joann, and his parents and I spent together.
Readers of this space perhaps read my talk delivered at Rabbi Lusky’s Congregation Bnai Israel marking the fiftieth anniversary of the document of Vatican II on the Church and its relation to non-Christian religions.
Rabbi Jacob Luski giving his talk. Photo kindness of Dr. Michael Tkacik
On the following Wednesday night, Rabbi Luski came to the Cathedral of St. Jude and spoke as I did and from his perspective of that significant watershed moment. Below is to be found his talk in its entirety. I recommend you read it in its entirety for further insights into this moment in Catholic-Jewish relationships and I renew my profound respect and affection for Rabbi Jacob and his family (natural and congregational).
FIFTY YEARS AFTER NOSTRA AETATE
Shalom! I am most honored to be here today as your guest. I was so pleased that Bishop Robert Lynch accepted the invitation to address our community, as he did last week at Congregation B’nai Israel. Your most eloquent and bold remarks presented a unique historic opportunity for our religious communities to address the state of Catholic-Jewish relations, fifty years after Nostra Aetate. This golden anniversary is an opportunity to encourage Catholics, Jews and all people of good will to learn more about Nostra Aetate and educate others, while celebrating and offering thanksgiving that we live in a post – Nostra Aetate world. We must nourish this achievement.
Bishop Lynch, I have enjoyed our relationship both on a professional and personal level. For almost twenty years we have shared so much, which brings us to this exciting evening. Joanne and I have enjoyed your warmth, friendship, openness, and sincerity throughout the years. We pray for your continued good health and enthusiasm as you lead the Diocese of St. Petersburginto the future. We appreciate you! And we love you!
Nostra Aetate is named for its opening words, “In our day.” Today, October 28, 2015 marks exactly fifty years from October 28, 1965, the date of the Nostra Aetate declaration by the Second Vatican Council, under the imprimatur of Pope Paul VI. Now dialogue and partnership among religious groups and religious leaders assume new urgency. There are representatives of religion in this country and throughout the world, who believe and proclaim that faith in God requires them to disrespect, oppose, persecute, or kill believers in the name of God. Torah, the foundation of the Jewish people, teaches respect for other faiths and other ways of practicing Judaism. Now, as ever, religious leaders must raise their voices for interreligious respect as loudly and persistently as we can.
A battleship was out on the high seas and there was a very heavy fog in the area. The visibility was so poor, the captain stayed on the bridge to make sure that everything was all right. Shortly before midnight, the lookout came to him and reported: “Sir, there is a light directly ahead of us.”
The captain asked: “Is it steady, or is it moving away?”
The lookout replied: “It is steady, captain, and it is right in front of us.”
The captain called the signalman and said: “Signal that ship ahead to change course by twenty degrees.”
The signalman did. And back came the reply: “You change your course by twenty degrees.”
The captain was insulted. He said: “Send back a message, ‘I am a captain, and so you change course by twenty degrees.’”
Back came the message; “I am the lighthouse.”
The captain changed his course at once.
I share this story, for it explains why we have come here tonight. We live in a foggy world, a world in which it is very easy to wander off course, and not even know it. We have learned the hard way that the lighthouse sees things more clearly than we do. That it has the power to cut through the fog that beclouds our vision, better than we can. These two weeks, Catholics and Jews in St. Petersburg, come together in order to check with the lighthouse, to make corrections in our course, as we move forward.
For that is what the Torah and your tradition are, they are lighthouses. They have been cutting through the fog and illuminating the world for all these centuries, and it behooves us, when the fog is thick, and we cannot find our way, to check our course with the help of the lighthouse.
Bishop Lynch, the message you presented fourteen years ago to the Jewish community in 2001 at Congregation B’nai Israel of St. Petersburg was an important one for Catholic-Jewish relations in the Tampa Bay area. The first time a Catholic Bishop, a religious leader made such a positive statement about the future relationship of our religious local communities.
The gathering in October 2004 for priestly renewal, where over 100 priests spent a day learning about Judaism with a dozen Tampa Bay Rabbis was an enormous step in creating understanding and newly found working relationships amongst our religious leaders.
Your message of continued support for such exchanges created avenues of discussion for our religious leaders of Tampa Bay.
And your message last week, enumerating the successes and challenges fifty years after Nostra Aetate was again a unique historic moment for our religious community. We have come a long way.
Let us review some of the milestones in modern Catholic-Jewish relations which have improved tremendously on local, national and international levels since the Second Vatican Council.
Many have noted that there have probably been more positive encounters between Jews and Catholics in the last fifty years than in the previous fifteen hundred. These years have been a time of renewal, hope and growing cooperation between our faiths, evidenced by the multitude of Catholic-Jewish dialogue groups, organizations and institutions that emerged throughout the world since the Second Vatican Council.
On October 28, 1965, fifty years ago today, the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul VI issued Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions.
This document in chapter four addressed the issue of Christian attitudes towards the Jewish people. This document marked the end to a long era in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, and the beginning of a new age of dialogue between our two ancient communities.
What did Nostra Aetate say about Judaism? Why was it such a historic declaration?
It repudiated the long standing charge of deicide, that the Jews killed Jesus.
It affirmed the religious bond and spiritual legacy shared by Jews and the church.
It implied that God and the Jews abide in covenant, the brit, a recognition that was made explicit by John Paul II and subsequent Popes.
It deplored “all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed at Jews at any time or from any source.”
It stressed the need for accurate biblical interpretation and religious education, so that negative views of Jews and Judaism are not presented as biblically based or as authentic Catholic teaching.
It called for respectful dialogue and collaborative biblical and theological inquiry between Jews and Catholics.
It expressed no interest in further efforts to baptize Jews.
It relegated the resolution of the Jewish and Christian disagreement over Jesus’ significance, to the end of history.
Nostra Aetate has been described as a “sea-change,” effectively reversing centuries of the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, which held that the Jews were collectively and perpetually accursed for the death of Jesus, and that God replaced them with the church, as the new “Israel.”
Fifty years later, we can ask, did Nostra Aetate resolve all the issues between Jews and Catholics? No.
There are defining differences in how Jews and Catholics understand and relate to God. Nostra Aetate started a new age of respectful interaction, in which distorted and polemical claims about each other’s traditions can be corrected, while cherishing the distinctive identities and insights of each community.
In 1965 Nostra Aetate did not explicitly discuss certain topics, such as the State of Israel, the Holocaust, and whether Catholics should seek to convert Jews.
Since then, many have been the milestones.
In 1974 a new Vatican commission was formed and guidelines and suggestions for implementing the declaration were presented.
In 1978 Pope John Paul II began a twenty six year pontificate, and set out to build a new relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. The conciliatory 1965 document inspired Pope John Paul II not just to tolerate Jews, not just to have theological discussions with them… not just to meet with them… but to invite them into a providential, emergent partnership.
In 1980 pope John Paul II addressed the Jewish community in Mainz, West Germany, insisting on the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jews, a theme repeated in subsequent church teachings.
In 1986, John Paul II became the first Pope in history to visit Rome’s Great Synagogue. He reiterated the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of all discrimination toward the Jews. He stated: “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religions. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
In 1993, Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties, easing decades of diplomatic tensions between the two states.
In 1997 at a Vatican symposium “roots of anti-Judaism in the Christian milieu” John Paul II stated: “In the Christian world…erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people… have circulated too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people.”
In 1998 in the long awaited document on the Holocaust, “We remember: a reflection on the Shoah”, the church expressed repentance for those Christians who failed to oppose the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
In the year 2000 Pope John Paul II undertook a historic visit to Israel, during which he visited Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel Maaravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Fifteen years ago a historic scholarly document ‘Dabru Emet’ presented suggestions about how Jews and Christians might better relate to one another.
In 2005 Pope Benedict’s first official correspondence as a Pope was a letter of congratulations to the Chief Rabbi emeritus of Rome’s Great Synagogue, Dr. Elio Toaff, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
Pope Benedict visited synagogues in Cologne, West Germany, New York City, and the Great Synagogue in Rome in 2010, repeating the historic visit made there by his predecessor.
Just ten years ago, Pope Benedict on the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate wrote: “The Jewish Christian dialogue must continue to enrich and deepen the bonds of friendship which have developed, while preaching, we must be committed to ensuring that our mutual relations are presented in the light of the principles set forth by the council.”
In 2009 Pope Benedict visited Israel meeting with religious and political leaders in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, expressing the solidarity of the Catholic Church with the people of that region.
In March 2013 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis. One of his first acts was to send a message to Rome’s Jewish community informing them of his election, and inviting their presence for his Installation Mass.
We quickly came to know that Pope Francis had a long standing and warm relationship with Argentina’s Jewish community and he had just published a book of his conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a close friend and colleague. “On heaven and earth: Pope Francis on faith, family and the church in the twenty-first century.”
A year into his papacy, Pope Francis paid his first papal visit to the holy land, visiting Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories accompanied by his good friend, Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano.
These are some of the milestones in modern Catholic-Jewish relations.
Many rabbinic leaders and scholars have been involved in this Catholic- Jewish dialogue over the last five decades. Outstanding Jewish leaders as Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Leon Klenicki, Marc Tannenbaum, Mordecai Waxman and David Rosen.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg laid out the need to create a theology that acknowledges that both Judaism and Christianity are God’s messengers to humanity. Both communities must recognize that God has broadened the channels of redemption and that we are partners in spreading divine teachings and joint witnesses to modernity, adding our input of morality and the ethical, to science and democracy.
The ADL, the Anti-Defamation League sponsors the Bearing Witness program where Catholic educators travel to Israel, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, improving Jewish-Catholic relations, teaching about Jewish theology, and anti-Semitism. A group was set to travel in the summer of 2014, but the rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza postponed the trip until this past summer. This program ensures that the next generation of Catholics, born decades after the Second Vatican Council and its Nostra Aetate declaration, understands its significance. The hundreds of Catholic educators who participated in the Bearing Witness program, influenced tens of thousands of young minds over the years.
There is much to build on here. The ancient Jewish text, the Tosefta, clearly states that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. Jewish sources repeatedly proclaim the doctrine ‘mipnei darchei shalom,’ or for the sake of peace, which enjoins Jews to “seek peace and pursue peace” with everyone, including our non-Jewish neighbors. The rabbinic teaching of the Noahide commandments is relevant as are other such teachings, which are building blocks by which we can develop further dialogue.
Nostra Aetate has been liberating for both Christians and Jews. It has enabled Christianity to advance beyond its burdensome past regarding Jews and Judaism. It represents for Jews the possibility that Christianity would no longer threaten their security and well-being. For creative religious thinkers, it facilitated consideration of a positive role for Christianity in the divine plan.
Pope Francis emphasized commonalities between Judaism and Christianity in a meeting with members of the International Council of Christians and Jews, this July. He stated: “Christians, all Christians, have Jewish roots. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the one God, the God of the covenant, who reveals himself through his word. In seeking a right attitude towards God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life, and Jews to the teaching of the Torah. This pattern of theological reflection on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity arises precisely from Nostra Aetate, and upon this solid basis can be developed yet further. Pope Francis once again declared, that Nostra Aetate is a “document which represents a definitive ‘yes’ to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable ‘no’ to anti-Semitism.”
Just last month, Pope Francis met with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin in Rome. In the exchange of gifts President Rivlin gave the Pope a replica of a tablet with the inscription “House of David,” the earliest known mention of King David that has been found outside of the Hebrew Bible. Pope Francis presented President Rivlin with a bronze medallion featuring a rock split in two held together by an olive branch emerging from the fissure, inscribed “look for what unites, overcome that which divides.”
A few weeks ago in Philadelphia, Saint Joseph University unveiled a new sculpture, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in our time.” The title is reference to a sculpture that adorned many medieval churches. It depicted the victory of Ecclesia, the church, over Synagoga, a blindfolded woman who, looking down, represented Judaism. In the new sculpture, both women are equal, sitting together and looking at each other’s holy text. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis’s good friend unveiled the statue. Pope Francis, Rabbi Skorka at his side, made a surprise visit to bless the sculpture symbolizing catholic unity with Jews, and to convey his own message of respect for the Jewish people. As Rabbi Skorka said, “Our friendship is a paradigm of what has to be the great relationship between Jews and Christians.” The two religious leaders shared a moment at the new sculpture, as the pontiff blessed it with holy water. We witnessed another example of both their friendship and their shared commitment to bridging their distinct religious beliefs.
Just think, Bishop Lynch you began this process in St. Petersburg, on October 28, 1999, when His Eminence, William Cardinal Keeler, a member of the United States Bishop’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and your good friend and mentor in interfaith relations visited our community. You invited the Tampa Bay Rabbis to lunch, a kosher lunch catered by Jo-El’s Specialty Foods no less, here at the Cathedral, to meet with Cardinal Keeler. That afternoon a process of change began in our Tampa Bay area. Who could have predicted all the ensuing opportunities for dialogue and learning that have taken place, right here in our back yards?
As we stop and view the last two thousand years of history, one can proudly acknowledge that the Church has taken extraordinary steps at many levels, in a very short time, fifty years. We find ourselves in an extraordinary moment in Catholic-Jewish relations. There is a growing harmony and very satisfying level of discourse. The Catholic Church is working hard to make certain that the positions it has taken filter down to the parish level and are communicated sincerely and effectively. We want to be your partners in helping you make this happen.
As the fog continues to lift, as long-fraught relations between Catholics and Jews dramatically improve, we mark fifty years after Nostra Aetate. We look out into the future.
Bishop Lynch, as a Rabbi in the Jewish community and your friend, I declare that we are grateful and acknowledge the many advances that have been made. Your invitation tonight on the golden anniversary of this historic declaration, we graciously applaud, as another major positive effort.
In our Jewish tradition, we always conclude with a prayer, a request for peace:“Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol yisrael, v’imru, Amen….” May He who establishes peace in the heavens, grant peace for us, for Israel and for all humankind, and let us say, Amen.
–Talk given by Rabbi Jacob Luski