Confronting Nostra Aetate
By: Naftali Ehrenkranz
In the past century, the Jewish people's relationship to the rest of the world has progressed significantly, but in its growth it has also raised many equally significant issues. How does an Observant Jew integrate themself into the rest of society without compromising their Halachic values? How as Jews, do we communicate with the rest of the nations? How open can we be in interfaith dialog without violating our halacha or ethics? In the 1960's, two authorities, one from Orthodox Judaism and one from Catholic Chrisitianity, made grea strides regarding the issue of interreligious conversation. Rav Soloveitchik addressed this issue in his masterpeice "Confrontation" (Tradition vol. 6 no. 2), and the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI graciously helped with this topic with the Nostra Aetate.
The first half of the Rav's "Confrontation" uses the story of Adam to explain man's confrontation in this world. He confronts his environment, knowledge, and the rest of mankind in his journey towards perfection and understanding. The second half of this brilliant essay discusses the Rav's view on the Jewish-Christian relationship. The Rav, in order to clarify his halachic perspective on this issue, went on to set four conditions that must be held in order for a Jew to succesfully participate in interfaith dialog. First, we have to declare ourselves as an independent religion; we do not revolve around the Christian faith. Judaism isn't the "stepping stone" towards Christianity (or any other religion in those regards). Secondly, we are not one religious group with Christianity. We are similar in some ways with Christians, but the differences in our faiths vastly outweigh those similarities. The third and fourth conditions, since they are both very alike, can be combined into one rule: we should always act with tact and refrain from suggesting any changes to the Christian faith; rather, we should portray our faith in the way we act. Just as we do not want any other faith to be forced down our throats, so, too, should we prevent ourselves from becoming "Jewish missionaries". He emphasized in this piece, that these rules must be adhered strictly when discussing religion with Christians.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chancellor and founder of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), and a former student of Rav Soloveitchik raised two interesting points in his commentary on "Confrontation". First, the Rambam, in one of his responsa, actually permitted Jews to teach the Torah to Christians. The second point Rabbi Riskin brought up was about how the Catholic Church's Nostra Aetate was written only two years after the Rav wrote "Confrontation". This brings us to an important question: had "Confrontation" been written after Nostra Aetate, would it have been written any differently?
In order to answer this question, we must anaylze part 4 of the Nostra Aetate, the section discussing Jews in relation to the Catholic Church, in conjunction with the Rav's four conditions of interfaith dialog. It first goes on to say that Christianity's roots lie in the Jews' Old Testament and in Jews such as Jesus and the Apostles. This part gives the first two conditions of "Confronatation" a purpose. The Nostra Aetate seems to imply that Judaism was just a step towards Christianity. The Nostra Aetate then states that God holds the Jews dear even though they did not accept the Gospel. Also, since the Christians and Jews are so alike, they must both recognize one another with understanding and respect when discussing faith. This section actually shares the same theme of the third and fourth conditions set in "Confrontation": respect of each other's faith and not forcing beliefs upon each other. Lastly, the Nostra Aetate states that although the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, the Church does not hold present-day Jews accountable for their ancestors' actions. Also the Church denounces all forms of anti-semitism. Although the Nostra Aetate did help start peace in between the Jews and the Christians, it still gave more of a reason for Rav Soloveitchik to have wrriten "Confrontation".
It seems that not only did the Nostra Aetate not change "Confrontation", but it actually strengthened the whole purpose of the essay. The Nostra Aetate made a wonderful effort at easing the tension between Jews and Christians in the post-WWII world, but it still described Judaism as a religion orbitting the Christian faith, which is directly contrary to what was stated in the first two conditions in "Confrontation". All in all, as Orthodox Jews, we must not be afraid of participating in the interreligious conversation because alll religions in the world are united through their belief in one God; and through this shared belief we can all, someday, acheive peace.