Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2012

Perspectives: Understanding our own faith

By Albert Lewis, Local columnist

---- — Fifty years ago (Oct. 28, 1962), the Second Vatican Council officially adopted the text of Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) which was the result of countless meetings, debates and discussions within the Vatican and throughout the Catholic world.

This document redefined the ways in which the Catholic religion would approach non-Christian religions, and, most importantly for me as a Jew — the way in which the church would approach and understand Judaism was significantly altered. It declared that the Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the killing of Jesus.

Nostra Aetate opened a new window for Catholic-Jewish dialogue and condemned "all hatreds, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism." Further, the document affirmed the Jewishness of Jesus, and repudiated the age old charge of deicide.

For most non-Jews, the renunciation of "The Jews killed Jesus" probably had little effect on daily lives. But its effect on me and many of my generation was highly significant. Having been called a "Christ killer" too many times in my childhood, and having been told by my childhood Catholic friends that priests and sisters did not want me to enter a Catholic church (which I wanted to better understand), I felt barriers had been moved. I wanted to know and understand more.

Obviously it took considerable time for Nostra Aetate to be read and understood by the Catholic and non-Catholic world. In September 2000, a document titled Dabru Emet (Let us speak the Truth) was printed in the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun by a number of highly respected rabbis and Jewish scholars. And the open dialogue that could have been initiated for the previous 1,500 years began!

Over the last number of years, I have been fortunate to teach with Monsignor Gaspar Ancona about Nostra Aetate and Dabru Emet. My beloved friend and I have been able to look at texts and responses, share our honest feelings and further open this important dialogue. Gus and I and our students and audiences have learned much from one another.

Recently I had a very enjoyable experience teaching at Calvin College in the CALL program. This was my first invitation to Calvin and I found the students engaging and open and wanting to understand me as much as I wanted to understand them and their values.

There is so much room (and real need) in our world for open and honest dialogue. And there are ways to ask questions that are respectful and probing.

If I am asked, "Please tell me why you don't believe"¦" I am likely to see the questioner as wanting to solidify his or her position, rather than understand and be open to mine. If, however, the question is framed as, "Please help me to better understand the Jewish attitude toward "¦" I am more inclined to hear a request for knowledge and an openness to another way of looking at a given belief or practice.

You and I have so much to teach one another about our deepest beliefs and most human questions. Just as the Nostra Aetate document repudiated any and all attempts to convert Jews, any dialogue today, between any and all religious communities, must also begin with such transparency.

Whenever I teach a course on Jewish Thought, I tell my students, "If I do my job well, you will better understand and appreciate who you are as Christians. It is not my goal to convert you to Judaism. It is my goal for you to understand me and to better understand your own faith."

I welcome your thoughts.

Dr. Albert M. Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City. He is a public speaker and author of "Soul Sounds: Reflections on Life," available at Contact him through the Record-Eagle, 120 W. Front, Traverse City, MI 49684.