[Published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, October 23, 2020, p. 2.]
55 Years after Nostra Aetate
by Abraham Skorka
At the beginning of October, Pope Francis presented his encyclical Fratelli tutti to the world. His message, which is a call to a human brotherhood and sisterhood that excludes no one, is rooted in the vision of the Hebrew prophets. Beginning with the generation of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Micah, the prophets envisioned a time when people would no longer raise swords against one another. Instead, every people would in their own way acknowledge the Creator who expects justice and love from all humanity. This vision also informed the later development of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism and surely inspired the Pope at this critical moment in world history.
One of the central themes of the encyclical is a phrase that Francis highly values: “dialogue with the other.” The Pope calls on a fragmented humanity to see itself as a unity, as a family. He offers a powerful reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan to convey the crucial lesson that COVID-19 is also teaching us: the urgent need to overcome divisions through encounters and dialogues that lead to knowledge and affection among peoples.
The post-New Testament rabbinic tradition developed similar ideas. The midrash Bereishit Rabbah, 24 tells about a difference of opinion between the sage Shimon Ben Azzai and the famous Rabbi Akiva. Akiva said that the biblical verse Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the fundamental principle of the Torah, that is, it sums up its essence. Ben Azzai held instead that the verse Genesis 5:1, “This is the account of Adam’s family line—on the day that God created humankind, God made it in God’s likeness”, better summarizes the Torah. Some 250 years later, Rabbi Tanchuma expounded upon Ben Azzai’s position. If one relied only on Leviticus 19:18, he explained, they might wrongly say “Since I am scorned, I should scorn my fellow as well; since I have been cursed, I will curse my fellow as well.” But, said Tanchumah, “if you act thus, realize who it is that you are willing to have humiliated— ‘the one who was made in the likeness of God.’” In other words, we must see the radiance of God in the face of our neighbor.
It is interesting to see the parallel between this rabbinical discussion and Matthew 22:36-40. There Jesus combines Leviticus 19:18 with Deuteronomy 6:4, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Thus, we see that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism both derive a similar insight from biblical Israel: the love of God is indivisibly linked to love of neighbour. Or as the encyclical puts it, because we are all made in God’s likeness, we need to be “neighbors without borders.”
A chapter of Fratelli tutti is devoted to all religions being at the service of human brotherhood and sisterhood. It is therefore fitting that this same month in which the new encyclical was released also marks 55 years since the issuance of the conciliar declaration, Nostra Aetate. It is explicitly mentioned in paragraph 277 of Fratelli tutti, but its spirit of dialogue can be found throughout the encyclical.
The first fruit of the encounter between Jews and Catholics that began after the Shoah and centuries of misunderstanding and contempt, Nostra Aetate marked a milestone in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. Its great achievement was that it led to concrete measures to promote friendship between Jews and Catholics. There had to be a reckoning of past failings, a sincere dedication to listening to each other’s viewpoints, a genuine valuing of the other’s spiritual richness, and the active commitment to work together on behalf of humanity. Building such a new relationship takes time and still continues, but the achievement of significant rapprochement between Catholics and Jews serves as the paradigm for efforts toward amity and common purpose among all the religions.
The impact of Nostra Aetate can also be seen in the document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” that Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb signed in 2019 and to which Fratelli tutti refers. This key Catholic-Muslim text is a fruit of Nostra Aetate’s desire “to work sincerely for mutual understanding” between the two great religions. Indeed, the encyclical draws to a close by quoting their joint appeal for peace, justice and fraternity, “In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace.”
To this, surely all human beings can respond, “Amen!”