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Simone Cohen Scott

Simone Cohen Scott: Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of Nostra Aetate-Catholic-Jewish Dialogue

by Simone Cohen Scott, November 27, 2015



Recently I attended a watershed event, in three parts.  It was entitled 'God Desires the Heart'.   The occasion was the anniversary of the historic Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), a document promulgated in Rome by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965, which attempts to amend the relationship of the Catholic Church with Non-Christian Religions.


It mentions Hinduism, Buddhism, spends a section on Islam, but the focus of the document, and this trilogy of commemorative evenings, is the fourth section, the attitude of the Church toward Judaism. Essentially, the point it makes is that the Jews did not kill Christ, and furthermore that they, the Jews, need not be converted to Christianity in order to enter the Kingdom of God.   Such a momentous break from a two millennia long attitude deserves commemoration and celebration and it's high time.  Nostra Aetate should be read by every serious Catholic and Jew, and is easily available on the internet. 


Credit goes to Father Kevin Bettens of Mary Mother of the Church for having the courage to spearhead these evenings of Catholic/Jewish Dialogue, together with Greg Barrett, a parishioner there who chaired all three evenings, Father Sam Argenziano of Holy Rosary Church, and Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.


The evenings were arranged to begin with an overview of the Catholic Church's previous position.  The following week, four survivors of the Holocaust, who have made their homes in Winnipeg, told of their lives during those years.  The wind-up evening provided an outline of the Judaic faith currently, followed by an interfaith prayer session.


The First Evening


The first presentation, Father Sam addressing 'The Longest Hatred', was startling.  No holds were barred.  He began by acknowledging that Jews and Christians are relatives, in fact, brothers, and that there need never have been a divide between them, that the basis of Christianity, the so-called 'Old Testament', or Tenach (a Hebrew acronym for the five books of Moses, the Writings, and the Prophets), was, and still is, the religion of Jesus. He emphasized that three of the four Gospels were written by Jews, decades after the fact, after the narratives had been processed through word-of-mouth, and were neither on-the-spot reporting nor verbatim quotes.




In the early centuries of the Common Era, belief that Jesus was the Messiah took hold among both gentiles and Jews; in fact, as Father Sam pointed out, Jesus-believing Jews were just another sect in the synagogues. It was Constantine, needing to unite factious gentile factions under one banner, who chose 'the Jews' to be the 'scapegoat', the antagonist, the 'other'. 


The evening's program shifted to a 20 minute excerpt from a full-length film based on a 1991 book by Holocaust scholar Robert S. Wistrich, entitled 'The Longest Hatred'.  The video begins by showing statues of two women which adorned the portals of cathedrals in Europe from the Middle Ages, named Ecclesia, majestic and proud, crowned with a diadem, holding a chalice, and Synagoga, slumped, blindfolded, with broken tablets of the Law in her hand. The film's moderator, Dr. Ken Hanson, recites vitriolic pronouncements uttered by key people, Fathers of the Christian religion, demonizing Jews by stages, century after century:  Justin Martyr: “... circumcision, an infamous mark imposed.....on the murderers of Christ and the prophets....”; St. John Chrysostom: “The Jews are only fit to be butchered, their behaviour is not better than that of swine and oxen in their gross lewdness...”  The other Church fathers, Tertullian, Origen, Irenaeaus, Jerome, all maintained the charge of deicide. 


Dr. Hanson suggests the history of antisemitism can be presented as an horrific three-act play:


Act One: You cannot live among us as Jews.  The solution, convert to Christianity.  St. Augustine: “Judaism is a corruption.”  And so in 1095, the First Crusade descended on Jewish communities all along the Rhine and Danube River valleys.  There were unspeakable atrocities.  Rather than convert to Christianity, many Jews took their own lives, a practice called Kaddush haShem.  While the slaughter went on in Jerusalem, back in Europe false tales were being told.  They developed into what came to be known as the 'blood libel',  that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make matzos, the unleavened bread used at Passover.


In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Church decided that something was necessary to immediately differentiate Jews from the Christians. The Jewish Badge of Shame was invented. It was England that first insisted a yellow cloth be worn above the heart.  Another libel was circulated,  that Jews would sneak into churches, steal the wafer of the Mass, tear it up, and trample it. This became known as 'Desecration of the Host', providing another reason to hate and kill Jews, including burning them at the stake. Jews were even blamed for the Black Plague.  Pope Clement VI, in 1348, denounced this attitude and these practices, but no one listened.


Act Two: You cannot live among us.  There were expulsions from England, France, Spain.  Almost every century saw an expulsion of Jews, their assets seized.  Jews had been barred from every trade and profession,  and the Church did not countenance usury;  the task of lending money was given to the Jews.  This is where the label 'money-grubbing' came from. 


The expulsion from Spain in 1492 was the greatest Jewish catastrophe since the destruction of the Second Temple.  Many fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa, but most settled in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, which seemed safe at that time.  But in 1569 Poland annexed the Ukraine, gaining an Eastern Orthodox population which hated the Catholic Pope, and saw the Jews as their lackeys.  In 1647, a peasant revolt, led by Bogdan Chmienicki, destroyed the Jewish communities East of the Dniepper River.  Thousands fled West, across the river to the towns, where they were massacred.  Over a two year period, 300 Polish Jewish communities, 100,000 lives, were destroyed.


The Reformation too added its vitriol.  Martin Luther, in the early 16th century, at first called Jews brothers, but when they insisted on remaining in their own belief, he expressed vicious hatred.  By 1543, in his book “On the Jews and Their Lies”,  he thought it fitting to write: “...set fire to their synagogues,... seize their houses...”, which led to (among other heinous actions), the burning of prayer books, the forbidding of rabbis to teach.




Act III: You cannot live.  The Twentieth Century brought in a full scale, methodical, determined, genocide.  In his book Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler wrote: “Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” (Significantly, in 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass,  a state-sponsored spree of violence directed against Jews, was conducted throughout Germany and Austria.  It was the opening salvo of the Holocaust.   It is commemorated annually on November 9th, by Jews worldwide.)


Our narrator,  Dr. Hanson, considers this history: Pope Sixtus IV (1478); Tomas de Torquemada (1492); Martin Luther (1543); Adolph Hitler (1934), and asks this question:  “Was the genocidal racial antisemitism of Hitler and the Nazis something different from the religious antisemitism that predominated in Christian Europe for so many centuries, or was one simply the direct descence of the other?” 


Father Sam returned to the podium after the video.  The mood was very sombre. In the fifty years since Nostra Aetate, progress had been made, he said, but not enough.  He referred to the title of this event, 'God Desires the Heart', as being the most important consideration, going forward.  In referring to the current situation in the world he spoke about the prophetic books of the Bible. The Book of Daniel is to the Jews what the Book of Revelation is to the Church, he said, and that in order to absorb what they are intended to portray, these Books needed to be read in one sitting. 


Next time: The Second Evening



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