Nostra Aetate after 40 years.
In Western culture, however, reaching a 40th year is complicated. No age carries as many complex, contradictory signals. As Stanley Brandes makes clear in his monograph Forty: The Age and the Symbol, this milestone is filled with divergent meanings. Reaching this age connotes, alternately, completion/old age or renewal/rebirth. It frequently signals loss, and just as routinely announces new possibility. Attaining year forty, in other words, means having arrived at "middle age," with both the anxieties and possibilities that such a moment has come to mean.
On some level, the brouhaha over Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ neatly bespeaks these conflicting sentiments about interfaith relations forty years after the publication of Nostra Aetate. Some see in the movie distressing evidence that four plus decades of biblical scholarship and serious theological examination of the "teaching of contempt" have not had much impact. For them, one blockbuster destroyed almost all accomplishments. For them, the reported up-tick in polls showing America's young believing Jews are guilty of deicide demonstrates that whatever the fruits of interfaith understanding, such endeavors are now past midlife, slated for early interment.
For others, the vigorous debate sparked by the movie, from serious interfaith conversations at Christian seminaries [I was at three such] to countless op-ed pieces, from wide ranging scholarly essays to many books [there are four superb anthologies I recently consulted in preparation for a set of classes] confirm that these past four decades have had enormously positive consequences. For those subscribing to this view, without Nostra Aetate, without the subsequent documents, consultations, and study institutes, the reaction to Gibson's movie would have been far more muted. For them, the important work of the last forty years has provided the context and platform for future vital encounter, has even occasioned a time of renewed energy and rebirth.
Similarly, the recent flap stemming from the decision of the national body of the Presbyterian Church-U.S.A. to adopt several resolutions, including one funding a Messianic congregation [subsequently rescinded] and another on selective divestment from firms doing Israeli business, suggest to the doubters that interfaith work is uselessly "old hat," and of little account. Others, by contrast, believe the important work has but begun, and that Jewish lethargy, an understandable lack of enthusiasm for the hard work this current time demands, accounts for some of the disappointments.
But no matter which view we might subscribe to, might there be some concrete guidance for the future? As one dedicated to this work, who is sometimes dismayed but more often animated by the prospects, I routinely search for tangible guidance for the future. As I contemplated this assignment for Midstream, I suddenly recalled a meeting 20 years ago, in the exciting "teenage" years of interfaith activity after Nostra Aetate's release.
It was 1983. The setting was the Boston National Workshop on Jewish-Christian Relations. The final talk at the meetings was given by Professor Krister Stendhal, then the eminent scholar of early Christianity at Harvard, shortly thereafter to be named Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Sweden.
His talk enfolded within it a famous Hasidic story, told in the name of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, who said to his students: "How to love others is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn when, moved by the hour, he asked a companion: 'Tell me, do you love me or don't you?' The second answered: 'I love you very much.' The other replied: 'Do you know what brings me pain?' The second asked: 'But how can I possibly know what brings you pain?' At that, the first responded: 'But if you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?'" And then, Rabbi Moshe concluded: "Understand then, my students, that to know the sorrow of others, and to bear it--that is true love."
That was the version Bishop Stendhal told. Then he added, if I recall correctly, this addendum. "Over the first twenty years in the Jewish-Christian relationship, as we have begun reconciling with each other, we have dwelt, appropriately, on those moments of history both tragic and painful. In so doing, we have begun the journey of coming to love one another."
"But now,' he said, "is the time to enlarge Rabbi Moshe's insight. Now is the hour to realize that if we are to be genuinely, intimately connected, we must know not only each other's pain; we must also know, and feel, what brings joy and verve to one another, too."
"We Christians must understand the exhilaration Jews feel in keeping God's commandments, in their embrace of a devout life, in their celebration of their people's return to the land of its birth. And Jews must come to see more fully the immeasurable joy we Christians experience through the teachings, sacrifice and promise of Jesus of Nazareth."
That's how I recollect the talk he gave twenty-two years ago. In vain, I tried to find it in some file, to locate it at a library, so as to confirm my faltering memory. No luck! And a search of cyberspace was equally fruitless. So perhaps I am not remembering precisely his words. But as to the sentiment he conveyed, and of its attendant sense of urgency, I am quite confident.
Two decades later, it is abundantly clear that Bishop Stendhal was right. Nostra Aetate was only a beginning. It dwelt, fittingly, on the pain both faith communities have experienced. Accordingly, these first decades have led us to dwell on the darknesses that have befouled the connections of one community to the other. But the hour for the advice he commended has arrived; now is the time to focus on the joys of our respective faiths, to enable each faith community to better understand what it is that makes us, and our community, "come alive."
One of the most illustrious of the Hasidic masters, Nahman of Bratslav, taught that "estrangement grows out of despair." He particularly had in mind separation from God, and surely he is right. But his words could just as easily apply to the rupture between Jews and Christians. Our dwelling only upon the anguishes of the past amplifies the hopelessness. We would be well advised to follow the advice of Nahman, and of Bishop Stendhal, and to direct our hearts, and conversations, to the countless gifts our faiths bestow on us, and for which we rejoice.
Rabbi Barry Cytron is the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and professor of Jewish studies.