Several years ago, I was leading the Erev Shabbat service at Temple Habonim, which happened to fall on Friday, Dec. 25. I began my sermon/discussion that evening with the words, “Merry Christmas.” Many of the 20 or so congregants in attendance seemed stunned.
Merry Christmas,” I repeated, and proceeded to engage the group in a lively discussion concerning their obvious discomfort at hearing their rabbi greet them with “Merry Christmas” – on Shabbat, no less. The ensuing back-and-forth centered on how it feels to be a distinct and often conspicuous minority in largely Christian American culture, especially at Christmas.
I pointed out that when we feel secure in our Jewish identity, we have no reason to feel threatened by Christmas. I added that in some ways I seem to enjoy Christmas more than Barrington’s Catholic priests and Protestant ministers who, year after year, must face the physical and emotional demands that are part and parcel of this season of sky-high expectations. While my colleagues were busy, busy, busy, I could lean back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful carols, whose joyful sounds seemed to be everywhere.
I confess that I was not always so comfortable being Jewish in Christian America. My mother found the need to remind me over and over again that in grade school her Catholic classmates would taunt her with, “Why did you kill our God?” And she would go on to repeat stories of the anti-Semitism she experienced as a young woman looking for work. By way of contrast, despite the fact that I am a rabbi – or, perhaps, because I am a rabbi – I have experienced almost no anti-Semitism during my adult life. I have been fortunate to live in an era of improving Christian-Jewish relations in general and, in particular, improving Catholic-Jewish relations.
A major turning point in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church came on Oct. 28, 1965, the day of the promulgation of Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, called in Latin Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). In one sweep, this document reversed a large number of anti-Jewish accusations that over centuries had become incorporated into Catholic doctrine.
As Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Ph.D., professor of Judaeo-Christian studies at the Hebrew Union College, noted in his Oct. 22, 2015, lecture at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, this document (along with the supplementary Oct. 22, 1974, Guidelines and the June 24, 1985, Notes) made clear “that the death of Jesus ‘cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today;’...that Catholics should strive to understand the significance, in Jewish theology, of the bond between the Israelite people and the Holy Land; that Catholics should strive to better comprehend ‘the manner in which Jews identify themselves’ and ‘by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience;’ and that Catholicism prohibits harboring, expressing or condoning anti-Semitism of any kind.”
For the past year or so, a number of Catholic institutions have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Just this past Nov. 3, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, gave the keynote address at Providence College’s packed St. Dominic Chapel as the culmination of a series of addresses on the significance of the Vatican II document. The cardinal spoke for about 45 minutes on the topic of Catholic and Jewish Dialogue: 2000 Years But Just Beginning.
While Dolan was optimism personified, the last three words of the title of his talk, “But Just Beginning,” suggests that while much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. It seems to me that for quite some time there has been excellent communication between rabbis and priests on both the national and local levels. In my last few years as rabbi of Barrington’s Temple Habonim, I had the privilege of attending a monthly rabbis-priests luncheon hosted by Providence’s Temple Emanu-El. During these meetings, we had the opportunity to discuss many issues of mutual concern, ranging from the history of Catholic anti-Semitism to our differing interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. We were knowledgeable and appreciative of the many doors opened by the promulgation of Nostra Aetate in 1965.
On the other hand, I suspect that our laity, both Jewish and Catholic, remains largely unaware of the proceedings of Vatican II. A major challenge for rabbis and priests in the coming months and years is to bring the message of Nostra Aetate into the breadth and depth of our respective communities.
This year Dec. 24 on our solar calendar and 25 Kislev on our lunar Jewish calendar bring together Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah. This meeting of our distinct Jewish and Christian traditions on a single December evening reminds us of how interdependent our lives as Jews and Christians have become here in America. This is especially true for us Jews and Catholics, both of whose communities have for generations lived as minorities in Protestant America.
Fortunately, much has improved since the days when my mother was taunted with the question, “Why did you kill our God?” The 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration of Vatican II provides a firm foundation upon which we Jews and Catholics can learn to walk hand in hand into a future of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.