Eight of the world’s leading Orthodox rabbis had a special audience with Pope Francis last week in the Vatican at which they presented the first official response from the Jewish world to Nostra Aetate, the 1965 pronouncement by the Catholic church on its major change in attitude towards Jews.
Nostra Aetate, Latin for “Our Time”, was devised by Pope Paul VI to set out ways for the Catholic world to deal with non-Christian communities. Announced by the Second Vatican Council, its ground-breaking fourth chapter deals entirely with Catholic-Jewish relations and for the first time denounced antisemitism and the treatment of Jews as the people who had rejected the Messiah.
The Vatican document has been upheld by every subsequent pope and is said to have led to the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, and subsequent papal visits to the Jewish state.
The chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, who led the rabbinical delegation to Pope Francis in his role as president of the Council of European Rabbis (CER), said that it had been decided to mark the more than 50 years since Nostra Aetate with an official declaration “which represents 90 per cent of the Orthodox Jewish world". Rabbi Goldschmidt added: "It is the first time there has been an official response.”
Rabbi Goldschmidt said: “Initially there was great scepticism about the change in attitude by the Catholic Church. But we have come to see that the changes were indeed profound, and today we see the church as partners and allies in the challenges which the Jewish people face.”
In a statement titled “Between Jerusalem and Rome”, signed by rabbis from Europe, America and Israel, including the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, who is vice-president of the CER, the rabbis note that “religious freedom is increasingly threatened by the forces of both secularism and religious extremism”.
They call on both Catholics and other faith communities “to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family, and 'to cultivate the moral and religious conscience of society'.”
Most strongly, the rabbis declare that “we are all too aware of the very real danger facing many Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere; as they are persecuted and menaced by violence and death at the hands of those who invoke God's Name in vain through violence and terror”.
Receiving the delegation and welcoming the rabbinical response, Pope Francis, who had close relations with Jewish spiritual leaders in Argentina before becoming pope — he even co-hosted a TV show with a rabbi — said that Nostra Aetate “represented the Magna Carta of the Church’s dialogue with the Jewish world”.
He believed that relations between the faiths had become “ increasingly friendly and fraternal...In recent decades, we have been able to draw closer to one another and to engage in an effective and fruitful dialogue. We have grown in mutual understanding and deepened our bonds of friendship”.