The Two Key Documents of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue

Professor David Novak Views «Nostra Aetate» and «Dabru Emet»

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ROME, APRIL 18, 2002 ( How are Jewish-Catholic relations faring, from the Jewish perspective?

ZENIT turned to David Novak, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto and author «Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification,» (Oxford University Press, 1989), for an answer.

Novak is attending the conference «John Paul II and Church Dialogue in the 21st Century» at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum today. The conference is held in collaboration with the Catholic Studies Program of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

ZENIT: What´s one of the key theological points of reference for interreligious dialogue today?

Novak: In 1965, Vatican Council II issued the document «Nostra Aetate» as the official teaching of the Catholic Church on the Jews and Judaism. The historical significance of this document is one that has not only been felt in the past, but it is one that continues in the present, and which shows every sign of reaching into the future.

«Nostra Aetate´s» past significance is how it expressed the Church´s recognition of the religious legitimacy of the Jewish people retaining our distinct identity. This is because the everlasting covenant of God with the Jewish people has not — indeed cannot — be annulled.

Because the covenant is everlasting, we Jews always have a sufficient reason to survive, even to flourish. Through «Nostra Aetate» the Church recognized the Jews in a way quite similar to the way we Jews must authentically recognize ourselves with any true connection to our origins.

Q: What implication does that have for Jewish-Catholic relations specifically?

Novak: «Nostra Aetate» began to formulate, from the Catholic side of the relationship, a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations. It began that formulation, as befits a document of the magisterium, on a high theological plane. From that high theological plane has emerged a very rarified form of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

For the past 37 years or so, there have been many significant encounters between Catholic and Jewish theologians. Not only have there been formal dialogues and symposia but, more important, there has been the development of long-term friendships between some of the most important Catholic and Jewish theologians. These friendships have been formed with considerable intellectual gravitas. This is especially been the case in North America.

Q: Initial Jewish reaction to «Nostra Aetate» was not enthusiastic, unlike today …

Novak: It took a long time for the Jews to properly respond to the Catholic-Jewish relationship begun in «Nostra Aetate.» There are several reasons for that delay, including diplomatic and historical impediments. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, a group of Jewish scholars of decidedly theological concerns began to plan an appropriate response to the new Christian-Jewish relationship.

Finally, four Jewish scholars, who have long theological experience in Jewish-Christian dialogue and a deep commitment to it, took it upon ourselves to formulate a Jewish response to the new Jewish-Christian relationship.

I am proud to have been one of the four Jewish scholars who finally issued, in September 2000, «Dabru Emet [Speak the Truth]: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity».

Over 200 rabbis, and other Jewish scholars and leaders signed our statement, which appeared as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. To date, the statement has been translated into at least eight languages. It has received wide publicity. Its reception by most Christians, certainly by most Catholics, has been quite favorable.

Q: And the reaction by Jews …?

Novak: The reception of «Dabru Emet» by Jews has been mixed. Some Jews have applauded it; other Jews have rejected it; other Jews have ignored it.

Nevertheless, «Dabru Emet» has set the agenda for Jewish-Christian relations in the present. No Jew addressing Jewish-Christian relations, whether positively or negatively, will be able to ignore it. And even those Jews who have ignored «Dabru Emet» will have it thrown up to them whenever they have to engage in serious relations with Christians.

Thus those Jews who have applauded the statement will have to develop their own reasons for that support. Those Jews who have rejected the statement will have to develop their own reasons for that rejection.

What «Dabru Emet» has done is to encourage, and even force, Jews who are engaged in any kind of relations with the non-Jewish world, a significant part of which is Christian, to speak theologically. If they cannot or will not do that, then Christians have a right to wonder whether Judaism has a theology. No Christian should conclude that because of Jewish rejection or ignorance of «Dabru Emet» that «there is no Torah in Israel.

Q: So there are documents on both sides that will feed the interreligious dialogue?

Novak: «Nostra Aetate» and «Dabru Emet» offer a way to get our dialogue back on a solid theological track. To illustrate this point, let me refer to the first proposition of «Dabru Emet»: «Jews and Christians worship the same God.» That proposition provides more than enough material for our current theological dialogue.

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