September 25th, 2015
“What do you know about Nostra Aetate?”
I was a bit taken aback by the question. It wasn’t a question that often comes up in casual conversation. It was especially unusual for me to hear it asked by an Orthodox Jewish friend right after the completion of Shacharit on Shabbat morning. The person who asked the question was Jay, an older man who serves as the “gabbai” in the Shul. The position of gabbai can roughly be translated as sexton, but to me Jay is like a master of ceremonies, keeping the Jewish service running smoothly. A Jewish service on Shabbat has at least as many moving parts as a Catholic Mass. Jay brings an extensive knowledge of the Jewish liturgy, along with a deep understanding of the Hebrew language, to his work in the synagogue. He knows his stuff.
Since Jay is so deeply immersed in his own religious tradition, it was a surprise to me that he would ask about the Vatican II document concerning the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions. As it turns out, Jay, along with his wife, Deena, are part of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is connected with the Catholic Jewish conference, which is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Nostra Aetate. So Jay is interested in the document, and how it has affected the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church over the last half century. He is looking at it from the Jewish side of the equation (by the way, Jay is a mathematician). I think that he is most interested in how Catholics have changed their view of Judaism.
I thought for a moment, and I tried to answer Jay’s question. I told him, “If it weren’t for Nostra Aetate, I wouldn’t be here. Not at all.” That’s the truth.
I was suddenly struck by how much this document from Vatican II has affected my life. I have been hanging out at Lake Park Synagogue for almost six years now. Without Nostra Aetate, I would never have even ventured into a synagogue, much less attended the services. Without it, I would not have close Jewish friends. Without it, I would not love the Torah and Jewish spirituality.
Let me say at this point that I am a bit of an outlier. Most people, most Catholics are not interested in other religious traditions. I am odd in the fact that I actively try to learn about other faiths. I spend time with Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews. This isn’t normal, so I have probably been impacted more by Nostra Aetate than the average Catholic. Even so, the document has created huge changes in attitudes, both within the Church and outside of it.
Fifty years isn’t a long time, at least as far as religion is concerned. Things move along at a glacial pace. Prejudices die hard. So it is with Nostra Aetate. Relations between Catholics and Jews have indeed changed, but not as much as one would hope.
When I first came to Lake Park Synagogue, I met Rabbi Shlomo Levin. He was probably the perfect person to introduce me to Orthodox Judaism. He was friendly and open and funny. I am not sure that I would have stayed as long as I have with this Shul, if it had not been for him. He invited me and my wife to lunches at his house on Shabbat. We met his wife, Noa, and his children. That is when I really learned how it felt to be part of a Jewish community. I talked with him, and we told each other about our families. We became friends. That was the most important thing. We became friends.
I have learned a few things about the practical aspects of Nostra Aetate over the years. For one thing, people have tended to be suspicious, at least initially, when I have tried to learn about other traditions. The first question I got from the Jews was, “So, you want to convert?”. My answer was “no”. The next question from some of the members of the synagogue was, “So, why are you here?”. Actually, that’s a good question. My eventual answer was that a Christian who does not understand Judaism is an orphan. We get 95% of our spiritual DNA from the Jews. We ought to know something about them. I now know a little bit.
Just because I am interested in Judaism does not mean that my Jewish friends are interested in Catholicism. They aren’t. Well, Jay is interested, but in some ways he is an outlier like I am. My point is that there is not necessarily a reciprocal relationship. People at the synagogue are glad to tell me all about Judaism, but they often couldn’t care less about my faith.
Patience really is a virtue. Not long ago, another friend of mine, Ken, invited me to his house for lunch on Shabbat. He often has me over to visit, but this time he wanted to talk about prayer. We had a long and fruitful conversation, for which I am very grateful. The fact is that we didn’t have this particular discussion until we had known each other for several years. We had to trust each other and be comfortable enough to talk about the things that really matter to us. We had a very deep and personal conversation that would have been impossible earlier in our relationship. Things take time. If I really want to talk about religion to somebody from another tradition, then I have to have that trust first.
Religion is experiential. Books and films can help a person learn about other faiths, but being there is essential. For me, going to the services on Shabbat and celebrating the holy days made it real. An authentic faith tradition involves every aspect of a person’s life. To learn about that tradition, I have had to try to live it, at least somewhat. I had to be there.
So, what do you know about Nostra Aetate?