The Jewish-Christian relationship, 50 years after ‘Nostra Aetate’

December 3, 2015

General

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Mount Zion Temple, St. Paul, gave the following remarks Dec. 2 at a banquet at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel commemorating the 50th Anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council.

If you stand in front of Notre Dame in Paris and gaze up, you will see below the famous gargoyles and among the many sculptures, two particular figures in prominence, one on the left and one on the right of the main entrance to the cathedral. Synagoga and Ecclesia.

Synagoga representing the Jews is a female figure that is bent, with a broken staff symbolic of a broken covenant. In contrast is Ecclesia, also a female figure, representing Christianity that is upright and triumphant.

I mention this because when I first saw Notre Dame as a kid in 1982 it was in a context of harmony between Catholics and Jews. I never saw those sculptures as anything but history. That is the remarkable legacy of “Nostra Aetate” and the paradigm shift it ushered in for the relationship between Catholics and Jews, and Catholics to Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus and eventually to all interfaith dialogue.

Rabbi Adam Spilker

Rabbi Adam Spilker

In the Jerusalem Talmud we are taught, “Upon three things the world rests: upon justice, upon truth, upon peace. And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails, and peace is established.” In a world sorely in need of all three, it is important to celebrate an area where justice to the Jewish people was done and truth and peace became possible between Catholics and Jews.

No institution is an island and immune to changing times. When an institution as immense as the Catholic Church makes any change, it is done with considerable thought and prayer. Without addressing its many dimensions and manifold perceptions, I stand here tonight to praise the Catholic Church for a decision in 1965 that ushered in a remarkable new era for the Jewish people. For Jews used to taunts of being called “Christ-killers,” the power of this Vatican statement was breathtaking.

In many ways, 1965 captured decades of growing relations. In St. Paul, contributions for the beautiful cathedral that graces our skyline and is now over 100 years old, came from many people outside of the Catholic community including Jews. This parallels the funding of my own congregation, Mount Zion’s third building on Holly and Avon Streets finished in 1903 that came from across Minnesota from Catholic, Protestant and Jew alike. St. Paul with its more Catholic milieu than Minneapolis was in general more accepting of the Jewish community.

Protestant Christian churches did take their cue from the Catholic Church but it took longer. My congregation has a dialogue with a Lutheran Church, Gloria Dei, which is part of the ELCA. The ELCA did not come up with a parallel statement on clarifying history about Jesus’ death and the relationship with the Jewish people until 1994.

I remember celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” when I was given the opportunity to teach a partial credit “Jewish-Christian Relations” class at Duke University with my friend Ted Smith who became a Presbyterian minister. As students we were given the ability to design a class to be taught to our peers. When we decided to put together the class, it was at a high point for Christian-Jewish relations in America. There were biennial national conferences attended by hundreds of scholars, clergy and laity which I had the fortune of attending in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Connecticut. Today the interfaith landscape is more diverse and complex but thankfully still strong in some parts of the country including here. One teaching from that class I will never forget from Roman Catholic priest Raimondo Pannikar who says that we will never fully know whether the messiah has come or not, that is we will never fully reconcile theological differences. In the meantime, let’s roll up our sleeves and work for justice and peace in our community together.

Religious pluralism should never be taken for granted. Just listen to what some are saying about our brother and sister Muslims in America and around the world. We have a common covenant through Noah that has never been abrogated and we need to honor God by seeing everyone first and foremost as in the image of that God. Interfaith work takes commitment, persistence and trust. And it is essential in our world sorely in need of religious voices of tolerance and peace.

I am grateful for the efforts of the Archdiocese through Father Erich Rutten whom I have had the pleasure of working with over many years now and the partnership that the Minnesota Rabbinical Association has in the JCRC under the wise leadership of Steve Hunegs.

The Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Relations recently hosted a two day conference at the University of St. Thomas to commemorate this 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate.” There I learned from Professor Mary Boys (Union Theological Seminary, New York) about a recently made sculpture that captures the change in Church doctrine. It is in Philadelphia made for the 50th Anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” Synagoga and Ecclesia are situated side by side, both triumphant, Synagoga with a Torah scroll, Ecccesia with a book of the Word, their equal covenants honored. Pope Francis blessed this sculpture during his recent visit. This is the vision of a world redeemed, ancient faiths in partnership. May our understanding across faiths continue to grow in our own community and may God grant us strength to sustain a world of justice, truth, and peace.

Rabbi Spilker has served Mount Zion Temple for the past 18 years. Mount Zion is the oldest Jewish congregation in the Upper Midwest, founded in 1856, and is situated in its third location on Summit Avenue. Rabbi Spilker works with his wife, Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker, the congregation’s first invested cantor, and Rabbi Esther Adler and Cantor Jennifer Strauss-Klein.

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