A well-known Jewish parable tells the story of a young man who was hiking on a journey. It was common at that time to follow signposts, which displayed the names of various destinations and pointed in different directions. At one particular crossroads on his way, the young man found the signpost had fallen down or had been knocked over, and he did not know in which direction he should proceed. An old man passing by gave him some simple advice: If you want to know in which direction to continue, stand the signpost up with the name of the place you have come from pointing in the direction from which you have come.
In order to understand not only where we are, but in which direction to proceed, we need to appreciate where we have come from. On the journey of Christian-Jewish relations, some have said that Jews have memorized by heart the pages of history that Christians have torn out and thrown away. One might say more simply that there is much ignorance in both communities about one another in relation to both the past and the present.
The conversation held between Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, and Pope Pius X not long before Herzl’s death in 1904 gives some evidence of where we used to be. Herzl came to Pius seeking support for his vision of the re-establishment of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel. The pope’s response was far from supportive. According to Herzl, Pius stated that the Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Thus while we cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, we could never sanction it.
Now, Pius was not especially hostile towards the Jewish people. On the contrary, many a church leader would not have given Herzl so much as the time of day. Pius was simply expressing one part of the normative view of Jews that had been held throughout Christendom for many centuries: the Jews rejected Christ and were guilty of the crime of deicide; consequently, they had been rejected by the Creator in favor of the Christians, who were the new Israel. These attitudes, known as supercessionism and the teaching of contempt, laid the groundwork for centuries of discrimination, persecution and violence against Jews, culminating in the Shoah, in which one-third of Jewry was murdered.
This tragedy impelled a major transformation in Christian teaching towards Jews and Judaism. As the Christian author David L. Edwards puts it:
Righteous Gentiles, including some bishops, did save tens of thousands of Jews, but their efforts were small in comparison with the fact of (the extermination of) six million murders, a colossal and cold-blooded crime which would have been impossible without a general indifference to the fate of the victims. The Holocaust became European Christianity’s most terrible source of guiltof course, not because the murderers were pious or because church leaders had been entirely silent about the laws and actions of the Nazis over the years, but because of the undeniable record of anti-Semitism in the churches’ teaching over the centuries. Not only ignorant peasants or monks but also eminent theologians and spiritual teachers had attacked the Jews as the killers of Christ, as a people now abandoned by God, a race deserving not its envied wealth but revenge for plots and acts against innocent Christians.
Not only had the Jews of Rome been forced to live in a ghetto until popes no longer governed that city; not only had Luther allowed himself to shoot inflammatory words at this easy target; but almost everywhere in Europe, Jews had been made to seem strange, sinister and repulsive. A long road of disgraceful preaching was one of the paths across the centuries which led to the Nazis’ death camps and in the end, not Judaism but Christianity was discredited.
Among the notable exceptions was Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII. As apostolic delegate in Istanbul, Roncalli saved thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis and their collaborators and was deeply moved by the plight of the Jewish people. Pope John proved to be nothing less than a visionary for his time. He convened the historic Second Vatican Council. Exactly 40 years ago, that council produced the historic document Nostra Aetate, which dealt with the relationship between Catholicism and other religions, in particular Judaism.
Nostra Aetate rejected the accusation of deicide against the Jews at any time; it affirmed that the divine covenant with the Jewish people remained unbroken. In doing so, it eliminated in one stroke the theological objections to the idea of the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland and to sovereignty within it. The document refuted any suggestion that the Jews are rejected or accursed, declaring the contrary to be the case; it categorically condemned anti-Semitism. Nostra Aetate called for fraternal dialogue and studies between Christians and Jews.
Christian-Jewish relations have come a very long way since then. The late Pope John Paul II’s contribution to this journey of reconciliation was particularly remarkable. Undoubtedly, his own personal history was a factor in this. In his childhood, John Paul had had friendships with Jews. He witnessed the Shoah in Poland. As pope, he profoundly understood the power of images to communicate messages. Thus, while the Vatican released significant documents regarding Catholic-Jewish relations during his pontificate, it was the pope’s visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986 that served to convey most effectively the church’s position; so, too, did the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which was facilitated by the pope’s personal involvement. But it was probably the papal visit to Israel in the year 2000 that most clearly testified to the transformation that had taken place in Christian-Jewish relations. Millions saw the pope standing in tearful solidarity with Jewish suffering at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. They also watched him at the Western Wall, placing in prayerful respect for Jewish tradition the text of the prayer he had composed for a service of repentance at the Vatican shortly beforehand. In that prayer he asked divine forgiveness for sins perpetrated against Jews in the name of Christianity through the ages. These images had an enormous impact on the Jewish world and, I suspect, on the Christian world as well.
Pope Benedict XVI, the close partner of Pope John Paul II on this road of reconciliation with the Jewish people, has already demonstrated his personal commitment in this regard. Both his visit to the synagogue in Cologne and our meeting on Sept. 15, together with my colleague the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, is testimony to this.
One of the fruits of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel was the establishment and work of a Permanent Committee between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican. The purpose of this bilateral committee is to establish cordial personal relations between Jewish and Christian institutions and representatives, and to overcome existing prejudice and misunderstanding within our respective faith communities. The committee was also born out of our recognition that we have shared ethical values and moral responsibilities that demand cooperation and collaboration, today more than ever before.
Our sages teach us that The whole Torah [that is, the whole of Judaism] is for the sake of the ways of peace. It demands that we who share such values must work together for the promotion of the sanctity of human life and dignity.
The fact that today we live in an era in which this is possible and indeed obligatory is something that 2,000 years of our ancestors could only view with amazement. May we be worthy of this transformation and its challenge.