What Happened When Jews Stopped Being Jesus’ Killers

The Rev. Robert J. McNamara plans to do something this Friday evening that would have been unthinkable in the first 2,000 years of the Catholic Church: He’s going to a synagogue.

More unthinkable, he’s going to be delivering the Shabbat sermon.

Indeed, until fairly recently, the Catholic Church forbade priests to step foot into synagogues, even under the highly unlikely circumstances that they had been invited. After all, according to the church’s official stance, Jews were infidels who rejected and killed Christ and who needed to be converted in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

But this Friday evening, along with 100 or so parishioners from St. Bernadine of Siena Catholic Church, McNamara will share the bima with Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. And he will very likely receive a standing ovation from the Jewish congregants.

Why? What changed?

What happened was something called Nostra Aetate, perhaps the most important document issued by Vatican Council II in Rome, and essentially the church’s first positive statement about Judaism since the Christian Bible began to be codified nearly 2,000 years ago.

Nostra Aetate (in our time), the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965. Radically reversing the church’s previous position, it states, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” referring to Judaism, as well as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

The landmark document’s fourth section pertains particularly to Jews, accepting that Jews also live in covenant with God. It states, ” … this sacred council remembers the spiritual ties which link the people of the new covenant with the stock of Abraham.”

Nostra Aetate removes the charge of deicide, absolving all Jews, past and present, of killing Jesus. It also clearly “deplores all hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time or from any source.”

And perhaps most ground-breaking, it advocates previously forbidden dialogue, declaring, “Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage, this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be obtained, especially, by way of biblical and theological inquiry and through friendly discussions.”

Nostra Aetate, according Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, is “a short document but one whose implications and repercussions are enormous.” And perhaps nowhere is this truer than Los Angeles, home of the largest U.S. archdiocese, with almost 5 million Catholics and the second-largest U.S. Jewish population of about 550,000.

Here the 40th anniversary was publicly celebrated on Sept. 22 before a gathering of about 350 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in an event jointly organized by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But Catholic-Jewish relations in this city have not always been so cordial.

While Nostra Aetate received an overwhelming 2,221 votes to 88 by the bishops in Rome in 1965, it received a far less favorable reception in Los Angeles by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, known for his archconservative views and opposition to Vatican II reforms.

McIntyre, who earned a reputation as a prolific “builder of schools,” was known to greatly admire Jewish real estate developers. He claimed, in fact, that every time a Jewish developer completed a large project, he would build a church or parochial school nearby.

He was less enthusiastic, however, about building interfaith relations.

Still, as far back as 1955, without McIntyre’s endorsement and even before Nostra Aetate’s arrival, the AJC, in conjunction with Loyola University president, the Rev. Charles S. Casassa, S.J., started the Summer Human Relations Workshop. The classes, comprised priests, nuns and seminarians, with a smattering of Jews, Protestants and nonbelievers, dealt with discrimination issues.

Casassa was assisted, beginning in 1958, by Dr. Neil Sandberg, who moved to Los Angeles as AJC’s western regional director and helped expand interfaith programs.

But when Sandberg suggested increasing these Catholic-Jewish outreach efforts, McIntyre responded, “We have dialogue; I talk to Edgar all the time,” referring to his close friendship with the late Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

But the groundwork had been laid by Nostra Aetate, by Casassa and Sandberg and, indirectly, by a situation at Carver Junior High School, where representatives of several faiths came together to defuse racial unrest in 1969.

Less than four years after the Watts Riots, with relations between the school’s Black Student Union and the United Mexican-American Students tense and with threats from the area superintendent to expel the black students, a small group of clergy was called in.

That was the first meeting of Monsignor Royale Vadakin, then associate pastor of All Souls Church in Alhambra, and Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

That effort triggered the founding of the Interreligious Council of Southern California in 1970, as well as a life-long friendship between Vadakin and Wolf that transformed the Catholic-Jewish landscape of Southern California.

Vadakin and Wolf became so close that Wolf’s grandson, confused at age 5 when hearing that Vadakin was Catholic, mused, “I thought Father Vadakin and papa were brothers.”

Together, they created the Priest-Rabbi Committee, sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the archdiocese’s Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, a new position offered to Vadakin in 1971.

One of the Priest-Rabbi Committee’s early concerns dealt with several Christian Bible passages read during Lent and Holy Week that fostered anti-Semitic sentiments. One such passage was the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, where the people cry out, “Crucify him” (Matthew 27:22) and, “Let his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).

The response was Lenten Pastoral Reflections, the committee’s first formal statement, issued in 1977, which offered suggestions for handling such highly charged material. “We cannot make the mistake of blaming the whole Jewish people (of 33 C.E. or of today) for Jesus’ death,” the statement advised.

Vadakin and Wolf also tackled controversial subjects in the Catholic-Jewish Respect Life Committee, which they formed in 1975 in conjunction with AJC and which included priests, rabbis and lay people from both communities. Their first topic was abortion. Many Jewish groups have long been associated with maintaining the legality of abortions, which the church opposes. Despite disagreement on this matter, discussions remained respectful.

“Was I destined to do this [interfaith work]?” Vadakin asked. “I don’t know.”

His childhood recollections include any number of positive experiences with Jews. His father worked for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and the whole family looked on Sears President Julius Rosenwald as a great hero for instituting a profit-sharing plan. Plus, living in Pacific Palisades, Jews and Catholics — who were equally disliked and discriminated against by the Methodist majority — tended to band together.

More surprising, perhaps, is the devotion to interreligious work by Wolf, who grew up in Nazi Germany. A rabbinic student in 1935, he was saved when Hebrew Union College brought him and four other students to the Cincinnati campus

“In some ways, you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to engage in Catholic-Jewish dialogue,” said Vadakin, now vicar general of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, “but he had just a very basic belief in the goodness of the human heart.”

And, in fact, Wolf’s son, Dan, believes his father, who died in 2004, reached out even more because of his early experiences in Germany and in Dothan, Ala., home of his first pulpit. There, blacks, Jews and Catholics were discriminated against by the Baptist majority, but Wolf, according to his son, was “determined to reform the South.” Dan Wolf said, “He saw firsthand what happens if groups don’t relate to each other.”

Today, Jews and Catholics in the United States, for the most part, do relate well to one another. And while most, outside of clergy and academics, are not familiar with the actual Nostra Aetate document and its significance, they recognize and appreciate a changed environment.

They saw Pope John Paul II, on his visit to Israel in 2000, inserting a note asking forgiveness in the Western Wall and conversing with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem. And Benedict XVI, on his first trip outside Rome as pope in August, spoke at a synagogue in Cologne, Germany.

Closer to home, contemporary works by 14 Jewish and Christian artists depicting Passover and Easter themes were displayed together last spring at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in an exhibition titled, “Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith Interpret Their Holy Days.”

And there are many educational programs.

Wolf and Vadakin’s Jewish Intern Program, taken over by the AJC and renamed the Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, sends Rabbi Michael Perelmuter into classes of ninth- through 12th-grade students at 17 archdiocesan high schools.

On the Jewish side, also since 1992, Catholic educator Dr. Michael Kerze has been visiting 12th-grade Jewish studies classes at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, comparing such Catholic and Jewish concepts as repentance and covenant. He also teaches a class at Milken Middle School in which, Kerze said, students move beyond asking questions about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to questions about the virgin birth and the Trinity.

Many Catholic leaders believe that Christians need to study the Torah and Judaism to better understand their own religion. But not all Jewish educators believe the reverse is true, because American Jews live in a culture permeated by Christianity.

That’s not the view, however, of Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJC western regional director, who pointed out that society typically offers a kind of “watered-down” Christianity. “The more we learn about other religions, the more we learn about our own,” he said.

Still, difficulties and even irreconcilable differences are inevitably going to arise between Catholics and Jews, given their conflicting concepts of covenant and the Messiah, of sin and redemption. And people on both sides are leery of proselytizing, some fearing that contact could lead to a departure from the tenets of their faith or even to conversion.

Many Jews have a deep distrust of non-Jews and fear even walking into a church. Middie Giesberg, for example, a devoted member of the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference since 1978, remembers growing up in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood in Portland, Maine, and being scared to death just walking past a large Catholic church every day on her way to school.

And for the Orthodox community, Jewish-Catholic relations are generally not on the radar.

“It’s not that it’s not important, but when the Orthodox community does look outward, it has generally been in search of support for Israel, and that’s not the Catholic community, generally speaking,” said Yosef Kanefsky, rabbi of B’nai Judea Congregation in Los Angeles and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The limits of religious rapprochement were evident in the reaction to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Many Jewish leaders criticized the film as blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Christ. Many Christians, including Pope John Paul II, characterized the film as an accurate rendition of events as described in the Bible. Pope John Paul II said, “It is as it was.”

The film “was clearly a ripple and a setback, but it’s not going to impede our progress or our work together,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

And AJC’s Greenebaum believes that the reaction to the film actually speaks to the success of Nostra Aetate. “Passion plays throughout history have been great causes of pogroms and violence against Jews,” he said, noting that Gibson’s film did not provoke such a response.

Years earlier, in fact, a notable segment of the Jewish community thought a meaningful acknowledgement was long overdue. Dabru Emet, a response to Nostra Aetate and subsequent Christian statements, was issued in September 2000 and signed by 300 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.

“We believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism,” reads the text of Dabru Emet [speak the truth]. “We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.” It presents eight statements on how Jews and Christians might relate to one another.

And Catholic and Jewish leaders recognize solid reasons for engaging in this work.

“Too often people look to each other in moments of crisis. It’s so much more important to establish positive relations before the crises hit,” said Temple Aliyah’s Vogel.

“We can study and learn each other’s traditions and beliefs and better understand our own,” Greenebaum added.

But there’s more work to be done.

Both Catholic and Jewish leaders would like to see more education, including more serious study of texts.

“I think that the average Jewish person knows precious little about Nostra Aetate and Catholic doctrine, about what unites us and what divides us,” Diamond said.

Some Catholics would like to see Jewish students learn more about Catholicism. “What I’d like to see, to be honest with you, is a little bit more reciprocity here,” said the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

Some religious leaders would also like to see more parish-synagogue partnerships.

Historically Wilshire Boulevard Temple developed ties with neighboring St. Basil Catholic Church and University Synagogue with St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Brentwood. But only Temple Aliyah and St. Bernadine of Siena appear to have an active exchange, dating back about seven years to a joint scripture study initiated by Sister Malua Conheady and Rabbi Tsafreer Lev.

Catholic and Jewish leaders would also like to see more joint community involvement.

“Look at the needs of our city. We both have charitable organizations. Why do we continually have to work as individual entities instead of pooling our resources to help people?” Smith said.

But that sort of challenge is a far cry from a Catholicism that for centuries made theological war on Judaism and sometimes actual war on Jews.

“We are both heirs to Abraham’s challenge, ‘vehyai bracha’ or ‘become a blessing,'” said Rabbi Michael Signer, professor of Jewish thought and culture at the University of Notre Dame. “As John Paul II said to us, first we need to become a blessing to one another. And then to the world. That’s the challenge that 40 years of Nostra Aetate lays before us.”

Nostra Aetate Events

Oct. 21 — “Two Faiths, One Community.” The Rev. Robert McNamara speaks at 8:15 p.m. at Temple Aliyah’s Shabbat service at 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Oct. 28 — “40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate.” Rabbi Mark Diamond and the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith speak at University Synagogue’s Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m., 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Nov. 3 — The Anti-Defamation League’s third annual “Bearing Witness Dinner,” 6:30-8 p.m. at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call Jacquelyn Louk, (310) 446-8000, ext. 232.

Nov. 3 — “Nostra Aetate Today,” a lecture by Dr. Elizabeth Seitz Shewmon, 7:30-9:30 p.m., University of Judaism, 1500 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For information go to www.uj.edu or call (310) 440-1246.

Nov. 11 — “All About Eve: Saint or Sinner?” at the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., St. Bernadine of Siena Church, 24410 Calvert St., Woodland Hills. For information, call Barbara Durand (805) 497-1370 or Tova Dershowitz, (310) 474-4883.

Nov. 12 — Vatican II: Nostra Aetate and Interreligous Dialogue, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Loyola Marymount University Extension, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. For information, go to www.lmu.edu or call (310) 338-2700