Nostra Aetate 50th Anniversary Marked by Controversial Vatican and Rabbinic Statements

Two statements, one Papal and one Rabbinic, addressing the status of Christian-Jewish interfaith relations emerged with great fanfare last month, only to cause confusion, denial, debate, and some embarrassment among Catholic and Jewish sources. A number of evangelical leaders also weighed in with critical reviews.

The December 10th  Vatican statement, "The Gifts and Calling of God are irrevocable" and the December 7th Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) initiated Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity: "To Do the Will of Our..., seemed deliberately orchestrated to generate, or at least preserve, the kind of historic euphoria and momentum created 50 years ago by Nostra Aetate .

Nostra Aetate (also known as the Vatican ll declaration) changed the way the Catholic Church viewed other faiths – not only Judaism - and paved the way for improved Catholic-Jewish relations in a post-Holocaust era. For the purpose of this report it is important to keep in mind that Nostra Aetate “was a unilateral declaration by the Roman Catholic Church that was the product of internal soul-searching, not of dialogue." JewishIsrael will be expounding on this concept in part 2 of this report.

With Christian-Jewish relations on the brink, as evidenced by a noticeable rise in cross-denominational church anti-Israelism, it seems that the recent flurry of frantic interfaith activity may have been created to stem the ominous tide and to protect the vision of what was largely perceived to be the new era  of Christian love, from this newest wave of Church-driven anti-Semitism. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's dream juxtaposed against the grim reality is illustrated well in this Laurie Cardoza-Moore production.

Here in Part 1 of this report, JewishIsrael explores the reaction and the misunderstandings generated by the both the Vatican and CJCUC rabbinic initiated declarations, as well as the recent attempts at damage control. The interfaith acrobatics read like a tragic comedy and have more than a few people humming Tom Lehrer's 1960's parody "The Vatican Rag" which was inspired by Vatican II.


To Convert or Not to Convert? A Sense of Deja Vu

Jewish media sources made much ado over a section in the new Vatican document concerning the policy of discouraging the targeting for conversion of Jews by organized Catholic missions. However neither the media, press conferences nor press releases can ever do justice to the Vatican's highly theological documents which consistently uphold church doctrine on salvation and reaffirm the Christian obligation to witness faith in jesus christ to the Jews.

The result was that most major non-Catholic press sources ran misleadingly simplistic and dramatic banner headlines declaring "Vatican Says Catholics Shouldn’t Try to Convert Jews". Immediately thereafter, official Vatican and Catholic sources downplayed such blanket assertions and instead ran far more subdued headlines, devoid of a reference to conversion or mention of a policy change on Christian “witnessing” to Jews. Some renowned Catholic scholars have announced that the Church’s declaration was largely misunderstood and proclaimed the document itself to be non-binding.

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the ongoing PR tug-of-war that regularly takes place between Jewish and Christian interfaith advocates, each claiming to have come out on top in the "friendly" fight for the truth.

As it is, the Catholic Church has not used organized missions to convert Jews for many years, and has a documented history of disavowing targeted proselytizing directed at the Jewish people. But again, when it comes to interfaith Catholic-Jewish declarations, it seems that a lot gets lost in the translation and goes over the heads of all parties involved. The following excerpt from the October 21, 2002 issue of America Magazine, a national Catholic weekly, reads like déjà vu:

On Aug. 12, 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site published a story to the effect that the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, in dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues, had just issued a document, Reflections on Covenant and Mission, stating that “targeting Jews for conversion to Christianity” is “no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”

The press reports were predictably oversimplified. The Boston Globe for Aug. 13 posted a story on its front page, “Catholics Reject Evangelization of Jews.” The Washington Post on Aug. 17 carried the headline, “U.S. Catholic Bishops Disown Efforts to Convert Jews.” The “weblog” of Christianity Today for the week of Aug. 12 declared, “Jews Are Already Saved, Say U.S. Catholic Bishops.”

The 2002 article went on to describe a critical reaction from evangelical leaders, not unlike what we've seen this past month from the likes of Jews for Jesus, messianic apologist Dr. Michael Brown and - heads up - Shomron activists. Even William Koenig tweeted his disapproval.

It should also come as no surprise that seven years later, in 2009, US Bishops seemed to partially recant on that non-conversionary position with yet another document, causing an uproar in the American Jewish community

Also in 2009, during a papal visit to Israel, there was a mysterious, unsubstantiated, claim by then Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger that, “the Catholic Church will cease all missionary activity among Jews… Rabbi Yona Metzger thanked the pope for his announcement, calling it an "historic agreement and, "for us, an immensely important message.“ At the time, the Jerusalem Post ran the sole report under the headlines 'Vatican to stop missionizing Jews'.

Conversion Through Dialogue

Here is where the directives of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Z"L, proscribing interfaith theological dialogue, come out ever-so-clear. Despite Catholic sensitivity regarding the organized proselyting of Jews, post-Nostra Aetate declarations regularly reaffirm the need to witness to the Jews. And Catholic Church officials continue to consider interfaith encounters and dialogue with the Jews to be an opening for evangelizing and an opportunity to witness their faith in jesus:

"…true interreligious dialogue on the part of the Christian supposes the desire to make Jesus Christ better known, recognized and loved; proclaiming Jesus Christ is to be carried out in the Gospel spirit of dialogue."--- Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue: "Dialogue and Proc..., marking 25 years after Nostra Aetate

It is well-documented that Rav Soloveitchik was especially concerned that Jewish participants engaging in interfaith endeavors would submit to expectations to reciprocate or trade favors in theological discussions. Since Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church has anxiously awaited reciprocity and complimentary gestures from the Jews:

"…the Declaration was only the beginning of a beginning. Many historical and theological tasks must still be encouraged and developed further: we have fragments, but not yet a fully elaborated theology of Judaism, and we are also waiting for – if it is at all possible – a Jewish theology of Christianity." ---Walter Cardinal Casper, at the Vatican's 40th anniversary commemoration of Nostra Aetate.

Yet, this hasn't stopped certain rabbis from throwing caution to the wind, and throwing Rav Soloveitchik's guidelines out the window, by engaging the church in theological encounters – often with convoluted and disappointing results.

In Time for Christmas

The “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity” was released just prior to Chanukah, but the night before Christmas the popular messianic publication Israel Today published headlines which read "Orthodox Rabbis Bring Jesus Home for Christmas". Excerpts:

"These outstanding Orthodox rabbis are not ashamed to exalt the name of Jesus, welcoming the carpenter from Nazareth back into the Jewish fold."


"Saying that Jesus, even more than any other Jewish Sage, honored, strengthened and protected the “immutability of the Torah,” is an extraordinary acknowledgement. These leading rabbis are turning the tides of history by removing one of the main stumbling blocks in the path of a major Jewish reclamation of Jesus!"


"What we are now witnessing is the undoing of 2,000 years of Jewish rejection and animosity towards Jesus, a miracle by any estimation. For the out-and-out refusal by Jews to accept Jesus is slowly, but surely, coming to an end, as growing numbers of prestigious Orthodox rabbis welcome Jesus back."


A number of news sources seemed thrown by the CJCUC description ‘Orthodox Rabbinic’ and chose to accompany their reports with a photo bank image of traditional and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, giving the impression that the statement had won wide-ranging approval in the Orthodox world.

This seemed especially deceptive and disturbing, as the majority of traditional and modern Orthodox Rabbis affiliated with such bodies as the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Orthodox Union (OU), the largest groups representing Orthodox rabbis, continue to adhere to and endorse the far-reaching guidelines on interfaith matters set down by Rav Soloveitchik Z"L.  This point was reiterated by Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA in the article "Orthodox rabbis’ statement calls Christianity part of God’s plan" published by Religion News Service (RNS), one of first media outlets reporting on the so-called "Orthodox Rabbinic" initiative.

Prominent Jewish scholars and a number of publications critically dissected both the Vatican statement and the rabbinic statement. JewishIsrael’s Rabbinic Director, Sholom Gold, issued a widely disseminated critique of the CJCUC initiative.

The Christian Examiner has most recently reported that, ”The group of rabbis who issued a proclamation that Christianity is part of God's divine plan and a cooperative, ‘fraternal’ religion with Judaism has been forced to respond to significant criticism – primarily from other Jews – a month after they made their announcement”.

Indeed based on the recent articles and statements featuring Rabbis Riskin and Eugene Koren as well as CJCUC executive director David Nekrutman,  "the first Orthodox Jewish institution of its kind dedicated to theological dialogue with Christians" is indeed in serious damage control mode.

A Darkly Clouded "New Dawn" with a Gloomy Forecast

In defense of the "orthodox rabbinic" initiative, CJCUC's Academic Director Rabbi Eugene Korn told BIN news, “Now that nearly every Christian church condemns anti-Semitism and affirms God’s covenant with the Jewish people, there is no reason not to examine these positive views of Christianity.”

This flies directly in the face of the facts on the ground.

Just over a week ago, evangelical activist Laurie Cardoza-Moore, of the messianic Christian affiliated organization PJTN teamed up with CAMERA in a conference that addressed "Evangelical Christians, Jews and Israel: Looming Threats To An His....For over two years Cardoza-Moore has been reporting on "the new anti-Semitism against the Jews", claiming that the BDS movement in largely church-driven and that evangelical churches are joining in the "mounting anti-Israel crusade".

Cardoza-Moore's assessment and video productions unintentionally, and perhaps ironically, expose Rabbi Riskin's optimistic vision of 13 million Jews joining hands with 2 billion Christians to fight Jihadism as nothing more than a pipe dream. And that fantasy has led to a very real and complicated situation on the ground in Israel with Christians with missionary intentions exercising influence and gaining a significant foothold in the Jewish state.

Actually Cardozo-Moore is partially responsible for some of the push to use the anniversary of Nostra Aetate as a tool to influence world churches in the fight against anti-Semitism. JewishIsrael reported on this tactic in August 2015. JewishIsrael warned Jewish leadership about the pitfalls of encouraging devout Christians to take a theological/covenantal/biblical stand rather, than a moral stand with the State of Israel.

Jewish leaders should be very wary of Cardoza-Moore's approach. The promotion for the CAMERA-PJTN conference infers that Jewish community scholars and leaders will be witnessing on the Jewishness of Jesus in connection (or in exchange, perhaps?) for PJTN and other Christian efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

In May 2014, JewishIsrael reported on a growing a consensus across the political and religious divide acknowledging a significant weakening of evangelical support for Israel. But as far back as September 2007, JewishIsrael saw the change coming and forewarned about it in the article Theopolitical Climate Change:

"Suddenly, progressive voices in the evangelical movement are stepping forward and putting poverty and environmental concerns at the top of their agenda. They are meeting with Arab ambassadors, distancing themselves from Israel's national camp, and promoting a two-state solution. Theopolitical winds could be shifting."

Interfaith cooperation between Catholics and Jews has indeed improved over the years since the Vatican ll initiative, but the going has been very tough and at times disappointing. Whereas soul-searching by the church in a post-holocaust era has led to results, Jewish attempts at theological dialogue and efforts to pressure the Catholic Church for doctrinal changes often leads to misunderstandings with damaging results – something JewishIsrael will explore more in part 2 of this report.

In this particular case involving the CJCUC, it seems that recent desperate attempts at preserving the myth of the new dawn in Jewish-Christian relations has resulted in a comedy of errors that spells tragedy for Judaism. The CJCUC and their affiliates have a lot to answer for.

Related Posts:

A Statement by Rabbi Dr. Sholom Gold in Response to the CJCUC Initiated "Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity"

Professor David Berger Assesses Problems with "Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity"

Yoram Hazony Weighs In on Media Distortion of Vatican Conversion Po.

CJCUC Improving Christian Relations or Destroying Jewish Foundations?

Rabbi Riskin Confronts Rav Soloveitchik in Makor Rishon: Jewish Isr...

Rabbi Gold responds to Rabbi Riskin's interfaith praise service

Rabbi Gold's letter to the editor of Makor Rishon (Hebrew)

Rabbi Sholom Gold responds to Rabbi Riskin's article in Makor Rishon (English)

Dr. David Berger Responds to Rabbi Riskin in Makor Rishon

Response by Rabbi Sholom Gold to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Justification and Limitations of Interfaith Dialogue by Rabbi Wurzb...

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