By Charles Bernsen
At the point in the annual Community Relations Seder when an auditorium full of Catholics and Jews stood to face the open door and raise their voices in song to welcome the prophet Elijah – harbinger of the messiah – Rabbi Mark Schiftan paraphrased the renowned Jewish author Elie Wiesel.
“As long as some of us are waiting for the messiah and others of us are waiting for the messiah to return, why don’t we sit and wait together,” Rabbi Schiftan said.
His remark brought spontaneous applause from more than 350 people – lay Catholics and Jews, rabbis and priests, nuns and cantors and high school students of both faiths – who dined, sang, prayed and even danced together as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that changed the church’s relationship with Judaism and other non-Christian faiths.
The event – the eighth Community Relations Seder sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee – “creates a real sense of two communities being together,” said the Very Rev. David R. Choby, bishop of Nashville and the seder’s honorary host, in opening remarks.
Nostra Aetate, promulgated as part of the doctrinal reforms of the Second Vatican Council, rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and its theological underpinning, the belief that all Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. Choby called the document “transformational” in that it that allowed Catholics and Jews to begin developing “mutual trust and affection” and, through events like the seder, appreciate what their traditions have in common.
“Both our faiths have at their base a sense of gratitude for the way that God has blessed us,” Bishop Choby said. “And we have much to be grateful for since that document was signed 50 years ago.”
The seder was developed by Abbie Wolf, the Federation’s community relations director and Community Relations Committee members Mary Shelton and Linda Kartoz Doochin, the event chair and vice chair respectively. It followed a unique haggadah – “We Were Strangers: A Nostra Aetate Seder” – written by Wolf and Shelton. Built around the theme of Catholic-Jewish estrangement and reconciliation, it included passages about the how Nostra Aetatecame to be and the role of key historical figures – Jules Isaac, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Augustin Cardinal Bea and Pope John XXIII — as well a modified version of the list of plagues, including “the pain of seeing our children lured away to other faiths” and “the pain of being feared.”
Rabbi Schiftan led the seder, injecting humor – there was the inevitable comparison between matzah and communion wafers – while at the same emphasizing the significance of the gathering and the document it celebrated.
“A thousand years ago – even 100 years ago – it would have been unimaginable to our ancestors that a room like this – Jews and Catholics together – could have gathered in peace and brotherhood,” he said.
The event also included remarks by Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt and an expert in Jewish-Christian relations, who, alluding to the changes brought by Nostra Aetate, said, “It is through the graciousness of the Catholic Church that we can have this meal together.”
Levine recalled that as a young Jewish child being raised in a heavily Catholic community, she had an early fascination with the faith and saw little difference between it and her own until a young Catholic girl accused her of “killing God.” Shocked by the anti-Semitic slur and determined to find the source of this “error,” the little 7-year-old Jewish girl began studying the Catholic catechisms – documents that explain church doctrine and beliefs – at a nearby church.
“I never experienced anything but acceptance,” said Levine said, who came to understand that her Catholic instructors “chose to read those passages with love.”
What her experience and Nostra Aetate demonstrate, Levine said, is that religious reconciliation, even of faiths long estranged, is possible “as long as we read [sacred texts] together and judge each other by the best of our traditions.”
The music, always an important element of the Community Relations Seder, was even more significant this year because it made tangible the cooperative spirit of the event as Jewish artists — singer-songwriter Batsheva, cantorial soloist Lisa Silver, and instrumentalists Jonathan Yudkin and John Mock — were joined by Catholic vocalists Kevin Raymond and Dee Simone of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. The music included traditional Passover hymns and songs, including two versions of “Who Knows One,” one in Yiddish and another in Ladino, as well as two versions of “Hineh Ma Tov,” one in Hebrew and the other in Latin.
The event ended with a giant circle dance to a rousing version of “L’shana Ha-baah B’Yerushlayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem). •