600 words that changed 2,000 years of Catholic-Jewish relations

Pages from the Oct. 27, 1965 Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

October marked the 50th anniversary of the approval of the historic, 6,000-word Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), through which the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church preached tolerance of non-Christian religions.  

Six hundred words in the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” were contained in its “Statement on the Jews,” which forever transformed the relationship between the church and world Jewry after 2,000 years of hostility and estrangement. Of singular significance was its declaration absolving Jews of being solely and permanently responsible for the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. 

For centuries, Catholics and much of the Christian world accused Jews of being “Christ-killers,” guilty of the crime of deicide. This charge led to the slaughter of Jews during the Crusades, their persecution during the Spanish Inquisition and to the “religious” basis of the hatred of the Jews espoused by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Vatican II was convened in 1959 by Pope John XXIII to examine doctrinal issues. By 1965, Pope Paul VI was the leader of the church when the historic statement on the Jews was approved as part of the official Vatican II documents.

The statement “opened the door for Jews and Christians to enter into a new era of sincere and honest conversation about matters of faith,” wrote Reconstructionist Rabbi Arthur Gilbert in his 1968 book “The Vatican Council and the Jews,” which details the dramatic events leading up to Vatican II’s “Statement on the Jews.”

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Of greatest significance is the official repudiation of the centuries-old libel that Jews were “Christ-killers,” a false charge that was used for centuries as a justification for persecution and attacks against Jews. The statement asserts: 

“Although the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, nevertheless what happened to Christ in his Passion cannot be attributed to all Jews without distinction, then alive, nor to the Jews of today. Although the church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected by God or accursed, as if this follows from Holy Scriptures.”

Jewish scholars have noted that while members of the Sanhedrin, the 70-member Jewish court then in existence, opposed the teachings of Jesus and the claims by his followers that he was the promised Messiah or the literal son of God, the court did not have the legal authority to sentence anyone to death.

That power was solely in the hands of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, who pronounced the death sentence on Jesus of Nazareth for treason against Rome. Pilate was later removed from office by Roman authorities for excessive cruelty.

St. Louis responses

While most Jewish leaders warmly welcomed the “Statement on the Jews,” a minority expressed disappointment that it did not go far enough or that it did not serve its intended purpose.

One of the strongest denunciations was expressed in a sermon by the late Rabbi Julius J. Nodel of Congregation Shaare Emeth. In a blistering sermon and in a follow-up interview by the late Geoffrey Fisher, then-editor of the Jewish Light, Nodel said he criticized Pope Paul VI and the council’s statement because “I had to give voice to the strength of my own convictions.”  

“I do not feel the pulpit should stultify for the sake of expediency when there are certain truths that have to be pronounced,” he said.

Nodel told the Light that his purpose in being critical of the Vatican Council was to make sure that this community’s Jews were “not overwhelmed by the Vatican action. … I was more interested in the inner effect that the schema (statement) on the Jews would have on Christianity rather than have it evoke a tremendous ‘thank you’ from the Jewish community for finally being pardoned for a crime that Jews did not commit.”

The Jewish Light’s editorial on Oct. 27, 1965, was relatively lukewarm and cautious in its response to the council’s actions.

“The EcumenicalCouncil’s endorsement of the declaration of the Jews has been greeted by Jewish leaders throughout the world with reactions ranging from enthusiasm to disappointment,” the editorial said, “While the lengthy controversy that marked the finalization of the document would seem to have already drained from it some of its intended effect, it does open the way to improved inter-religious understanding.”

The harshly negative sermon by Nodel and the less-than-enthusiastic initial editorial in the Jewish Light were in a tiny minority among local, national and global Jewish leaders.Rabbi Joseph R. Rosenbloom of Temple Emanuel, then president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, called the Vatican statement “a monumental and important one.”

The late Alfred Fleishman, then president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis said, “I feel, along with many others, that the importance of the council’s declaration concerning the Jews is that it is a beginning, rather than a triumphant celebration. In the larger sense, what it represents to me is the recognition by the leaders of the Catholic church of the corrosion of prejudice in religion and in life. Its recognition of this and the responsibility of the church to do all in its power to help free the world from group hatred and bigotry is praiseworthy. In this light the significance of the action by the Vatican Council has great meaning.”

On the national and international level, the response to the Vatican’s “Statement on the Jews” was mostly positive, with only a few expressing reservations. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late and revered champion of human and civil rights, the rabbi who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, called the encyclical “an important moment in the history of Christian-Jewish relations.” 

Morris B. Abram, then president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization that played and continues to play a major role in fostering Catholic-Jewish understanding, said adoptionof the declaration on the Jews was “an act of justice long overdue.” He expressed the hope that the declaration, especially its repudiation of the “invidious charge of the collective guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus, and its rejection of anti-Semitism would afford new opportunities for improved inter-religious understanding and cooperation throughout the world.”

After 50 years, it is clear that the Vatican II “Statement on the Jews” has had an enduring and positive effect on Catholic-Jewish relations worldwide. 

Its golden anniversary was celebrated in the Vatican, in Washington, D.C., and in St. Louis by various Jewish, Catholic and interfaith organizations and individuals.