Built in the year 81 C.E., the Arch of Titus stands dramatically in the Roman Forum, commemorating Titus’s military triumph over the Jews and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 11 years earlier. A bas-relief on the inside of the arch depicting Roman soldiers carrying the spoils of victory highlights the massive menorah.
Contemplating this monument to the past while in Rome recently for a conference on the seminal Vatican document “Nostra Aetate,” I was struck by an apparent irony: As radically improved as Catholic-Jewish relations have been since “Nostra Aetate” was issued 40 years ago this week, the church has yet to fully take into account the complex interlocking of peoplehood, faith and attachment to land that characterizes Judaism and is represented graphically on this arch.
In “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council repudiated nearly two millennia of Christian instruction proclaiming that the Jewish people had been punished with humiliating exile for crucifying Jesus and refusing to accept him as the messiah. While “Nostra Aetate” declared that “it is true that the Church is the new people of God,” it went on to instruct that “the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.”
The document called for a new relationship with the Jews, advancing “mutual understanding and appreciation.” Through the years that have followed, liturgy referring to the Jews and instruction about them have been significantly changed. The Jewish Bible and the Gospels have been interpreted in new ways, the Church has respectfully explored Christianity’s origins in Judaism and antisemitism has been branded a sin.
Before Vatican II, the Church had taught that God’s covenant with the Jews was abrogated by a new covenant with the believers in Jesus. Presentations delivered at the conference I attended at the Pontifical Gregorian University made clear just how far Catholics and Jews have come since “Nostra Aetate” was issued in dealing with theological issues revolving around the question of covenant, as well as in other areas. The good will and collegiality fostered by four decades of outreach and dialogue between clergy, scholars and organizational officials was palpable.
But at the same time, several Jewish participants at the conference, beginning with Ruth Langer of Boston College, made clear that from their perspective there is another issue yet to be resolved: the Jewish people’s connection with the land and the State of Israel.
The Holy See formally recognized Israel in 1993 — 45 years after its establishment — a delayed but nonetheless important step in many ways. With the Vatican’s action affirming the Jewish people’s re-establishment of sovereignty in their ancient homeland, the notion that exile was a permanent and necessary condition was definitively undercut, making the formal establishment of relations between the Holy See and Israel a practical act that followed from and complemented the assertions of “Nostra Aetate.”
Still, from that time until today the Vatican has maintained a two-track approach, relating to Jews as a religion through dialogue while seeing its relations with Israel purely in a political framework. The Vatican even deals with the two matters through different offices. This mindset can be seen in other situations, as well.
While in Rome, I joined a delegation from the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago in Saint Peter’s Square at a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Coincidentally, as the text for his homily that day, the pope chose a passage from the Psalms that references God’s bringing his people back to the “Promised Land.” In his reflection, the pope emphasized the way that God works in history and described the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and their redemption as prefiguring individual salvation.
By speaking in generic terms while interpreting this “Old Testament” text, he avoided the supersessionist, sectarian triumphalism of an earlier age. All the same, he treated the passage from the Jewish Bible referencing the connection of the Jewish people with the Land of Israel in universal and symbolic terms only, taking no notice of the particular way that such a passage resonates for the Jewish people themselves.
As the pope’s homily inplied, what remains absent from the post-“Nostra Aetate” encounter of Jews and Catholics — especially with the Vatican — is full-blown recognition of the fact that Jews are not simply practitioners of their religion, and that their connection with Israel is not just a political matter. Jews are members of a people whose connection to Israel is essential to their identity and sense of self. For Jews, peoplehood and faith are intertwined existentially.
Talking about the obligation to pursue “a better mutual understanding and renewed mutual esteem,” the guidelines for implementing “Nostra Aetate” issued by the Vatican in 1974 say: “On the practical level in particular, Christians must therefore strive… to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” The practice of maintaining a dialogue with the Jews that focuses purely on religious matters while seeing anything having to do with Israel as existing merely in the political realm fails to relate fully to Jews as Jews regard themselves. While many Catholics and Jews engaged in dialogue have advanced that kind of understanding, similar work needs to be done by others, as well.
The Arch of Titus, weatherworn and crumbling, is surrounded by the ruins of an empire that is no more. No longer the triumphant gateway it was built to be, it has become a curiosity for the visiting tourist.
But as I concluded while gazing at the scene that the arch portrays, the very menorah that had been looted from the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem and that was displayed as an icon of the defeated, exiled and humiliated Jews has been symbolically reclaimed by the Jewish people. It has been returned to their land as the emblem of the State of Israel, through which nearly 2,000 years of exile have been reversed. That menorah encapsulates the amalgam of religious traditions and practices, historic experiences, language, culture and attachment to a particular land that defines Jewish peoplehood.
As the 40th anniversary of the historic issuing of “Nostra Aetate” is widely commemorated this week, a challenge still facing the Catholic-Jewish encounter set in motion by the document is for the Catholic participants to better understand and relate to the Jews as we are — and as we understand ourselves in our time. And that means dealing with our sense of connection to Israel as a central aspect of our totality.
Michael Kotzin is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.