December 2015
Nostra Aetate: Living it Out in the Next Generation
By Rabbi Joshua Stanton, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Esteemed dignitaries, leaders, colleagues, and friends:


Nostra Aetate, the landmark statement promulgated 50 years ago this year, addressed not merely a neighborly dispute, but a far more painful one residing within the family of our respective traditions. Birthed by the same God, revealed to us by most of the same prophets and sages and sacred leaders, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity separated like Siamese twins in a process that caused both much pain. Rather than experiencing fraternal love, our religions experienced sibling rivalry and pain.


Nostra Aetate and the singular dialogue that took place in the years leading up to it have set us on a new course and enabled the bonds of sibling love to reemerge in ways unthinkable for centuries. The question for me as a young rabbi is what we will do with the love and regard that has reemerged in the past half century between our communities. How will we harness it to change our fractured and darkening world?


I grew up during an era in which the very idea of friction between Jews and Catholics in the United States was confined to my grandparents’ stories. I never heard anything but a kind word from Catholic neighbors who sent me cards on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah and Catholic friends with whom I frequented the running trails in the bird sanctuary of my alma mater. I never thought to return their kindness with anything less than the regard that they had shown me. What was from a historical standpoint remarkable was the very ease of our friendships. The miraculous had become a reality of daily life. It is a reality that I, like so many others of my generation, have long taken for granted.


Today’s gathering is in many ways about rededicating ourselves to the bonds of sibling love between Catholic and Jewish communities around the world. I propose that study, reflection, and commemoration of Nostra Aetate are necessary but insufficient at a moment such as this. It must be, as our rabbinic sages put it, study for the sake of just action. Our fractured and divided world needs the model of Nostra Aetate not merely as a beacon of light from the past, but also for the future as we navigate this dark and turbulent time.


I have the privilege of serving on the Board of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, a key partner to the Vatican in interfaith dialogue and collaboration. I will have the privilege of working with leaders from the Vatican and my own religious community to plan an international conference for young religious leaders in Jerusalem this June. At a leadership level, inspiration from Nostra Aetate remains alive and well within the Jewish and Catholic communities.


But we can do more to ensure the same level of focus in our local communities. Are parish priests and local rabbis – not to mention Muslim imams and Buddhist nuns, Hindu Swamis and humanist chaplains – studying Nostra Aetate and the history surrounding it as a guide to good deeds and just actions?


I am here today along with a number of lay and clergy leaders from Tribe, a community dedicated to engaging and empowering young Jewish professionals living right here in New York City. They are some of the people who most inspire me as a rabbi. Yet as has been made evident to me in their reflections to me is how infrequently we turn to Nostra Aetate as source of inspiration to proactively reach out to and collaborate with other communities of faith. If in the painful era following World War II visionaries so changed our future through a sacred proclamation, then in our own era rife with pain, what can we do to reach across lines of faith to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and cultivate our own innate sense of spiritual vitality? What can we do, as part of an ever more-interconnected world to ensure that spiritual provincialism and divisive dogma loses in the war of ideas currently taking place in the ether of the truly global invention we call the Internet?


The Vatican’s recent pronouncement about Jewish-Catholic relations surely stirred our spirits and opened our minds to the renewed possibility of fraternal love.


But in addition, our next steps must come from lives well lived, communities genuinely interconnected, and an abiding hope that springs from the wisdom conveyed in the bible that we are our brothers’ keepers. The historical beacon of Nostra Aetate must radiate light forward for the generations to come and the generation of which I am a part and which is just now coming of age.


Nostra Aetate literaly means, “In our time.” Yes, it was written by visionary leaders two generations ago. But it is in our time that its meaning must come to be more fully understood and potential more fully realized. That vision was not merely of gatherings for leaders and halls of international diplomacy, but of changed lives and beliefs clarified so as to leave space for the religious ‘other’ in our prayers and practices. It was of young leaders who studied the past and used it to guide the future. It was of sibling rivalries that we would not allow to end in enmity, but harnessed as a source of love with which to heal the world. May we have the strength not merely to know and commemorate, but also to live out the vision that speaks so clearly and with such resonance in our time and the rising leaders of a new generation.


Thank you.


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