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This Month's Good News: I am Joseph Your Brother

Sermon by Rabbi Aron 

December 18, 2015 

The news has been filled with so many tragedies, such appalling  remarks  and frightening stories, that when there was a little bit of positive news over the past few weeks, I was thankful to have something uplifting  to talk about tonight.

I am referring to two stories recently in the news regarding the relationship between Jews and Catholics. The first concerned a Papal pronouncement and the second a statement by a group of Orthodox rabbis.

Recently the Vatican issued a new document called “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”. It follows on Vatican II or more formally on the 1965  “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, “ which is celebrating its jubilee anniversary this year. Vatican II created a revolution in Jewish Catholic relations declaring contemporary Jews not responsible for the death of Jesus. It also addressed anti-Semitism head on and spoke about the validity of Judaism as a religion. It contributed to greatly improved Jewish/Christian relations and opened the way for diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. It was called “the most extreme about face undertaken in the relations between two religions in history.”

It is important to remember that anyone who lived 100 years, or even 70 years ago would have called such a change in the Catholic Church impossible.

The latest document follows in the spirit of Pope Paul VI promoting good relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. Calling on Jews and Christians to work together to make the world a better place, it goes further than any previous Church pronouncement in insisting that Jews do not need to be converted to Christianity to find salvation. It stresses that the relationship of the Catholic Church with Judaism is unique because of Christianity’s roots in Judaism. Further it restates the position taken in Vatican II that the Church does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel. And finally, it very explicitly says something that was not in Vatican II, that “Catholics must refrain from active attempts to convert Jews."

I am quoting directly from the document: “The Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards the Jews.”

This is all very much in keeping with the philosophy of Pope Francis, who had close relations with Jewish leaders in Argentina,  and since becoming Pope  has visited Israel and promoted the study of Hebrew Scriptures .

The statement that there should be no  mission to convert the Jews is particularly significant because of actions taken by Pope Benedict that had unsettled Catholic Jewish relations and seemed to be a repudiation of Vatican II. IN 2008 Pope Benedict revised a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the old Latin liturgy, which had fallen largely out of use after Vatican II. While Pope Benedict removed the prayer’s reference to Jews’ “blindness” and a request that God “take the veil from their hearts,” the same idea was found reworded in a request that God “enlighten (Jews’) hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” Many Jewish leaders rejected the revised language and the re-inclusion in this prayer which had not been in use, including Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. As a result of this action, Italy’s rabbis boycotted an interreligious event with Catholics the following year.

The new statement, returns the church to the rejection of this prayer which was implied in Vatican II and takes the church even further in rejecting proselytizing to the Jews. It is interesting to me that right wing Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony quotes the text,” In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews” ,

but still rejects the view that this statement means what the Wall Street Journal Headline stated: “New Vatican Document Says Church Doesn’t Seek Conversion of the Jews.” A professor at HUC used to call that camp, “they all hate us all the time”, the group “that can’t take yes for an answer”.

The correctness of the understanding that this new statement is against Jewish outreach can be seen in the strong reaction from some of the more fundamentalist Protestants. David Brickner, for example, executive director of Jews for Jesus, said in a statement issued last Friday that his organization finds the position “…egregious, especially coming from an institution which seeks to represent a significant number of Christians in the world.” Brickner accused the Vatican of pandering to Jewish leaders.
 

The parallel story, which has not received quite as much coverage, came to my attention when I received an excited note from Father Jon Pedigo, with whom I have worked in inter-religious affairs locally for over 15 years. He referred to a recent statement by a group of Orthodox rabbis recognizing Christianity as part of God’s plan.

 

The Vatican News gave extensive coverage to this statement called, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians” which was signed by over 25 prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel, United States and Europe .  

In its opening paragraph, from which the document gets its name, it states: “We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters.” It calls for cooperation between Jews and Christians to address the moral and religious challenges of our times.

There have been other statements from the Jewish community on Christianity, most notably Dabru Emet in 2000 and more recently a statement by the French Rabbinate, but these were not embraced by Orthodox rabbis.

The recent statement references Vatican II and speaks to the changed relationship between Jews and Catholics over the past 50 years. It also draws on traditional Jewish thinkers including Maimonides, Yehudah HaLevi, Jacob Emden and Samson Raphael Hirsch who have each made statements recognizing value in Christianity. Most notably it states: “We acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”

 

Clearly the recent statement by the Church played a role in the creation of this document, which includes the words: “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.” Further they quote “the  Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Bilateral Commission with the Holy See under the leadership of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, “We are no longer enemies, but unequivocal partners in articulating the essential moral values for the survival and welfare of humanity.  Neither of us can achieve G-d’s mission in this world alone.”

In the world around us we may see conflicts that seem unsolvable and perhaps in our own lives estrangements that seemed destined to go on forever. On this Shabbat when we read of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, it is good to be reminded that progress towards better relations is possible even among groups that seemed to have no chance of better relations.

We remember what a shock it was to the world, when during  the 1960s, Pope John XXIII met with a delegation of Jews and said, "I am Joseph Your Brother" marking the beginning of a new relationship between Jews and Catholics. Let us also see the conflicts in our world today in a more optimistic light, open to reconciliation. Ken Yehi Ratzon- so may it be God’s will.

 

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