Reform Judaism Leaders Urge U.S. Jews and Catholics to Promote Interreligious Understanding at the C
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Reform Judaism Leaders Urge U.S. Jews and Catholics to Promote Interreligious Understanding at the C

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The leaders of Reform Judaism called on American Jews and Catholics today to join in a new and wide-ranging program aimed at promoting inter-religious understanding at the church and synagogue level.

The action by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) is believed to mark the first time a Jewish denomination has sought to bring together synagogue members and church-goers in activities seeking to create better understanding of each other’s beliefs.

The program was adopted by unanimous vote of 150 members of the UAHC Board of Trustees at its semi-annual meeting in the Grand Hyatt Hotel. In a resolution, the board urged the UAHC’s 780 member-synagogues, composed of 1.3 million Jews, to undertake:

* Catholic-Jewish dialogues to explore the issues that divide as well as those that united the two communities.

* The exchange of teachers and team-teaching by priests and rabbis in Catholic parochial and Jewish religious schools.

* Catholic-Jewish dialogue and joint action on nuclear disarmament, economic justice and other issues on which the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations have adopted parallel policy positions.


The resolution hailed the 20th anniversary of the issuance by the Second Vatican Council of “Nostra Aetate,” which repudiated the charge of deicide against Jews and condemned anti-Semitism. But while welcoming the progress in Christian-Jewish relations since then, the UAHC trustees said:

“The most effective efforts to eliminate mistrust and misunderstanding have taken place so far on the national and diocesan level, rather than in the local community…. The people in the pews too often remain ignorant of the vast changes in the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews, so that misunderstanding may still persist on the grass roots level.”

The board also instructed UAHC’s educational arm to prepare materials commemorating the 20th anniversary of Vatican 11 and “to assure that information regarding the changes in Catholicism since then is disseminated on a regular basis to congregations, religious educators and youth.”

The Reform Jewish leaders acted after hearing from both Catholic and Jewish experts on interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue, and after Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, told the meeting: “We do not say that all differences have been obliterated, for they have not, and tensions remain: the Vatican’s failure to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel, the Pope’s meeting with (PLO chief Yasir) Arafat, the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust. But the deadly sting has been removed, and our differences are reduced to their proper proportion.”


The need for “understanding and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews is made even more urgent by the demands of economic justice and nuclear disarmament. The prophetic cry of peace with justice is part of a shared vision that impels us to work together,” Schindler said.

He pointed out that the basis for that cooperation was laid 20 years ago in Nostra Aetate, “which luminously transformed the way Catholics and Jews look at one another. Pope John XXIII did what President Reagan failed to do when he visited Bitburg: he recognized the past for what it was, and instead of absolving the Church he determined to transform it. But if Catholic dogma has been transformed, not enough Catholics have been — and too few Jews are involved in dialogue. We can sit back and wait for it to happen, or we can take affirmative action to make it happen. I propose that we act, and I believe we will find a cooperative spirit and an eagerness to join with us, both in repairing the errors of the past and in building together a better world for tomorrow.”


The Rev. Edward Flannery, author of “The Anguish of the Jews” and a pioneer in ecumenical efforts, told the Reform Jewish leaders that “against the backdrop of the near 2,000 years that preceded Nostra Aetate, the progress we have made over the past two decades in interfaith understanding has been an unparalleled triumph in human relations. Looking at the past 20 years in the shorter run, however, they appear — in light of the magnitude and urgency of the task before us — as faltering and slothful.”

The Catholic ecumenist, who now serves as director of the Office of Continuing Education of the Clergy in the Diocese of Providence, R.I., continued:

“Anti-Semitism is the supreme challenge of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. That is because Christians generally are all but totally ignorant of what happened to Jews in Christian history and of the complicity of the church in the development of anti-Semitism — the latter a page torn from our history books.

“From the widespread ignorance of the anti-Semitic record results an indifference not only to the problem of anti-Semitism but to the entire Jewish encounter. This indifference creates on the Christian side the chief obstacle to progress in our relations. At the same time, exposure to the magnitude and scandal of this record generates in every open-hearted Christian a sense of urgency vis-a-vis Jewish-Christian relations as nothing else can.

“On this 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, let us acknowledge that though this precious document has been well promulgated by the Vatican and some national hierarchies, and followed up by other excellent documents, it has not been implemented in most dioceses, let alone parishes, pulpits and schools.”


Flannery said the “litmus-test” of Jewish-Christian relations was the State of Israel. He told the Reform Jewish leaders:

“To Jews, Israel was and is central to their conerns and to their Judaism. To Christians it is a peripheral issue, laden with misunderstanding, often unwelcome in the dialogue, often seen as an illegitimate injection of politics into a dialogue that is religious in nature and purpose. This disparity of views on so vital an issue can only invite trouble for our interfaith efforts.”


Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, Long Island, chairman of the UAHC’s committee on interreligious affairs, told a session of the weekend meeting that many Jews were skeptical of Nostra Aetate when it was issued 20 years ago. A commonly-held view, he said, was: “It’s about time. How grateful need we be for being told we have a right to exist?” He continued:

“But surely now we can see what potential this document held for a new era. Catholic textbooks have been purged of anti-Jewish material, anti-Semitic prayers have been removed from liturgy and seminaries are changing their teachings about Jews and Judaism. Catholic schools are incorporating the study of the history of modern Jews and Judaism into their curricula, including an understanding of the Holocaust as well as the role of Israel for the Jewish people.

“Rabbis and Jewish educators now frequently teach in Catholic seminaries and parochial schools. There can be little doubt that relations between Catholicism and Judaism hold the potential for being better than they have ever been.”

But Davidson was critical of the Jewish community’s interreligious activity, asserting: “We have certainly not measured up to the opportunities of this new time. The baggage of suspicion and distrust of non-Jews which we carry around is nearly as weighty as ever. Clearly 2,000 years of Christian-inspired oppression of Jews cannot and should not be forgotten overnight, even in 20 years. But we seem to prefer to live with our hurts than to seek the healing that might prepare a better era for the generations to come.

“It is an attitude we must learn to shake, just as we must abandon the anti-goyim mentality that isolates us from constructive relationships with the Christian community.”

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