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“Nostra Aetate” at 50 (Essay #1 of 2):
Is Lay Jews’ Ardor Stalling Out?

This year marks the 50th[1]anniversary of Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate” Declaration (1965), lifting from Jews perpetual corporate blame for Jesus’ death and repudiating other long-standing denigrations. Yet has the Declaration maintained its vitality to lay Jews or instead faded from their consciousness? I have contended[2] that there has been a significant decline in lay Jews’ interest but that a reversal is still achievable. Now likely the first statistical survey on this matter has been completed (2015), a rabbinical seminarian’s M.A. thesis from part of which I draw here, in Essay #1. (Essay #2 proposes the most promising way to revitalize lay Jewish interest.)

By Michael J. Cook
Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati campus
May 2015

A 2015 M.A. thesis by an advisee, Michael E. Harvey (a candidate for rabbinical ordination), is entitled “‘Nostra Aetate’ and the Abiding Response: the Case of 50 Years of Graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.”[3] He attempts to survey a pool of 1,500+ Jewish professionals graduated by his alma mater, Reform Judaism’s multi-campus seminary, from 1965 through today: namely rabbis and cantors (active and emeriti), Jewish educators, communal service directors, professors in varied religious fields, and chaplains (hospital as well as military).

As for this survey’s suitability, Reform Judaism has long been in the vanguard of Jewish interfaith matters, due especially to its Ph.D. program awarding over 300 doctorates in Judaica to Christians alone (in addition to Jews). Whenever our Christian students enroll in joint courses with their Jewish counterparts, interfaith “laboratories” result. Cincinnati’s campus, meanwhile, is the only Jewish seminary in history requiring technical training in New Testament for rabbinical ordination. The wide spectrum of job placements for our Jewish graduates affords them vantage points for gauging sentiments of their lay constituents, as on interfaith matters. Regarding the M.A. thesis at hand, moreover, we find that most of these respondents, although now professionals in their own positions, are themselves likewise “lay” Jews—in the sense that even most rabbis, e.g., lack the sophisticated training in theological interchange that dominates and is currently required during “Nostra Aetate” conferences. Of course all the more so are those even less attuned to religious matters “lay” Jews.


As for background, lay Jewish excitement over the change represented by Vatican II had been intensely positive, even momentous, when, during October 1965, bishops who had assembled at St. Peter’s Basilica passed the watershed “Nostra Aetate”[4] Declaration by a vote of 2,221 to 88. This was eventually followed-up by two lengthy confirmatory Vatican documents, the first in 1974, the second in 1985.[5] These “Guidelines” and then “Notes” elaborated on the fundamentally changed orientation that had been advanced by “Nostra Aetate,” after centuries of intense anti-Jewish polemic generated by accrued promulgations, writings, liturgy, and sermons, to the effect that:

As for the 1965 reversal, with the approach of each significant 10-year anniversary of “Nostra Aetate’s” promulgation I have enthusiastically recalibrated my teaching to emphasize the historic implications of the 1965, 1974, and 1985 documents, all of these consistent with the Vatican’s new broad prohibition of harboring, expressing, or condoning antisemitism of any kind. Now some of the significant particulars were of quite a different order:

Ensuing since 1965 has been a wondrous and unprecedented proliferation of interfaith Catholic-Jewish (“Nostra Aetate”) conferences, and also analytical books and essays on what had transpired, with Jewish theologians and scholars generally maintaining their fervor and honored by participation. Yet such ardor has not been maintained within ranks of many lay Jews whose interest, by this year’s 50th anniversary, appears to be on the wane (a decline sharply accelerated by the way the Mel Gibson ordeal had been handled in 2003-04—see Essay #2). Since I conceptualize “Nostra Aetate” less in terms of reaching a destination than as launching further progress, I believe that we must revitalize Jewish lay eagerness and not blithely allow this downslide in interest to continue unimpeded.

Properly speaking, of course, Vatican doctrinal documents are earmarked for Catholics, not Jews, so is this a Jewish matter at all? Here, the complex of the three Vatican documents is unusual in that provisions, in 1974 and 1985, respectively, direct Catholics to strive to understand “the manner in which Jews identify themselves” and “by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.”[6] Further, Catholicism now recognizes that much of its essence must be defined in relation to the Jewish people from ancient times through the end of times. In this light, then, all three of these documents could be processed as earmarked also for Jews.


Turning now to the Harvey survey, of the more than 1,500 Hebrew Union College graduates whom he solicited for his research (some already retired[7]), the 51% response rate was statistically significant. Indeed, 477 of the 762 replies were submitted the initial day of contact. Most of the carefully-framed 30 statements that Harvey posed for the recipients were designed to elicit replies of: “agree” or “agree strongly”; “disagree” or “disagree strongly”; “neither agree nor disagree”; or “am insufficiently informed to answer”—with space available in each case for elaboration. Replies of “insufficiently informed” may constitute a red flag if they reach a high enough plateau, inviting our reactions of how and why this degree of unawareness could still be the case after passage of five full decades!

Following inquiries establishing the respondents’ age, and the nature and locations and extent of their training and employment, Harvey ascertained (and displayed graphically) the degree to which respondents assessed themselves as genuinely equipped to react to the topics posed:

Several among the many other questions were pivotal in confirming a decline in Jewish lay interest:

What Does the Expression “Historical (and Non-Theological) Terms” Entail?

The theologically-driven agenda that may marginalize historically-disposed lay Jews advances as prospective themes for discussion: “God’s essence,” “covenant,” “chosenness,” “mission,” “nature of Sin,” “salvation,” “redemption,” “atonement,” “eschatology” (God’s plan for the end of days), etc., commonly heard by attending Jews along these sample lines:

And many such others. By contrast, subjects of a “historical (and non-theological)” agenda could include:

In all these respects, among still others, Jews view themselves less in terms of a theology than of a civilization, culture, or peoplehood, making at least some historically-oriented topics—including especially the history of the Bible’s development—ripe for dialogue.

Key Related Observations

[1] The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, of Chicago—in his 1995 lecture in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University (titled Antisemitism: The Historical Legacy and the Continuing Challenge for Christians)—issued a clarion call for Catholics that “the history of antisemitism and of anti-Judaic theology be restored [not eliminated but restored] to ... Catholic teaching materials ... to tell the full story of the Church’s treatment of Jews over the centuries, ending with a rejection of the shadow side of that history and theology at the Second Vatican Council. The Church needs to engage in public repentance.”[11] His view meshed with the sensitive 1990 question by Father John Pawlikowski (Catholic Theological Union) as to whether “Jews cannot recover from the deep scarring left on the Jewish consciousness by the bitter history of Christian persecution of Jews,”[12] and that this may be what impedes the bonding of our peoples for which many Catholic theologians have deeply yearned.

If a whole generation of Catholic laypersons, now said to be schooled in the proper channels for post-1965 relations, nonetheless remains insufficiently aware of the details of Jews’ persecution at Christian hands pre-1965, then the ardor initially so vibrant among lay Jews to celebrate “Nostra Aetate” anniversaries could not but diminish. Apropos of Bernardin’s appeal, in Catholic universities where I have taught I have never encountered any undergraduate who verbalized antecedent awareness of the nature and dimensions of Catholic persecution of Jews over the centuries—until “shocked” into discovering this from assigned readings or class discussion.

Bernardin’s warning about failure sufficiently to teach the Catholic laity pre-1965 history became sharply evinced, in year 2000, when Pope John Paul II, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, asked forgiveness for Church-wrongdoing presumably toward Jews. A plurality of the Jewish respondents to Harvey, by 33% to 25%, doubted that most Catholics understood for what the Pope was apologizing (the remainder were non-committal). This is consistent with that year’s March 27 issue of U.S. News & World Report, where John Leo captioned his write-up of the Pope’s apology: “Can you please be a bit more specific?”[13] Nor had the 1998 document, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” either in circulation or content, adequately conveyed what Bernardin had in mind.[14]

[2] The three major “Nostra Aetate” documents and discussions thereon continue, overwhelmingly, to identify modern Judaism far more in relation to the Jewish Bible than to the far later works of the rabbinic literature, through which all branches of Judaism have been generated and channeled: e.g., the Midrash, the Mishnah, the Talmud, medieval Commentaries, and later Codes and Responsa. While a degree of recognition may indeed be intimated within some published Catholic pieces—actually, even within the “Nostra Aetate” complex itself[15]—it is not commensurate with the towering influence of this enormous corpus (with very good reason do Jews use the expression “the sea of the Talmud”).

[3] Many Catholic theologians and academicians themselves have undergone rigorous training in what are called “historical-critical” analyses of Gospel texts—the history of the Gospel traditions’ creation and transmission, and even sociological and political motives that may underlie their formation and reformulation. Accordingly, amidst theologically-driven discourse—in which lay Jews feel inarticulate—potentially fascinating historical-critical analyses of Gospel texts may readily fall by the way-side.


In summation and conclusion: the intended focus of this Essay #1 is hardly to criticize but to explore what, if anything, we should attempt to do to reverse waning Jewish lay interest in Vatican II. One answer may lie with a new competing option: the historical-critical study of the Gospels by lay Jews on their own, who today are independently finding this absorbing, even exciting, as an arena of exploration they have long denied themselves. What warrants explanation, here, is how widespread is the channeling of this programming especially in today’s synagogue environment (see Essay #2). Can the results of this energy be harnessed by welcoming onto the agenda of Catholic-Jewish dialogue: how do Jews react to Gospel themes and texts as cited by the three-fold “Nostra Aetate” complex itself?


[1] For ease of reading, this essay’s statistics are cast in numerical form rather than spelled out.

[2] “Mind the Gap”: Bridging One Dozen Lacunae in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (Boston: Center for Christian-Jewish Relations, Boston College: 2013), 33pp.; and “‘Nostra Aetate’s Processing of Gospel Texts: … Reactions by Lay Jews,” A Jubilant Jubilee: Vatican II at Fifty Years, ed. Gilbert Rosenthal (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 248-61.

[3] Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for ordination by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati, 2015).

[4] Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions “Nostra Aetate,” Oct 28, 1965; named from its opening words, “In our time.”

[5] Respectively: “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ (n. 4),” Oct 22, 1974; and “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church,” Jun 24, 1985. A still later document not included in this study: “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” Mar 16, 1998—here excluded because it largely falls outside the parameters of the other three (also it is relatively removed from scriptural matters per se and in my experience much less known by lay Jews, and possibly even most Catholics).

[6] “Guidelines” (Introduction and Preamble), and “Notes” (I - Religious Teaching and Judaism 4).

[7] Obviously, those deceased are not included in the figures.

[8] Interpretation and application of Jewish scriptural figures, events, and motifs as prototypes of the New Testament themes that are claimed to fulfill them (the intended inference: the same God is at work in both Testaments).

[9] Presuming, as I do, that any of the final Gospel redactors could have been of Gentile extraction.

[10] Gerald Darring presents terms and sponsors: “The Holocaust and the Teaching of Contempt,” .

[11] Emphases added. Antisemitism: The Historical Legacy and the Continuing Challenge for Christians. Jerusalem: Hebrew Univ., 1995; published Fairfield, CT.: Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart Univ. (1995), 16, 19. Cf. Cook, “Jewish Views of Jesus,” Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture (Chicago: Spertus Inst. of Jewish Studies, Mar 26, 2007), 44 pp.

[12] John T. Pawlikowski, “Rethinking Christianity: A Challenge to Jewish Attitudes,” Moment, 15:4 (Aug 1990): 36-39. Emphasis added.

[13] Referencing John Leo,

[14] See above, note 5. Many Jews found it protective of the Gospels and Church (consider the extended praise of controversial Pius XII). For critique of the document by the IJCIC (International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations:

[15] “Notes” VI:1 (superficially only) and III.8 (which misassumes that “pharisees” in rabbinic literature must always equate to the Gospel leadership group; Hebrew words could have differing referents depending on context. Cf. Ellis Rivkin, “Defining the Pharisees,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40,41 [1969–70]: 205–49).

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