The importance of interfaith relations takes center stage at Rodef Shalom

The importance of interfaith relations takes center stage at Rodef Shalom

The Harris panel included, from left, Bishop David Zubik, Rabbi James Rudin, Tim Crain and Rabbi Aaron Bisno. Karen Hochberg, also pictured, is the PAJC executive editor. (Photos provided by Karen Hochberg)
The Harris panel included, from left, Bishop David Zubik, Rabbi James Rudin, Tim Crain and Rabbi Aaron Bisno. Karen Hochberg, also pictured, is the PAJC executive editor. (Photos provided by Karen Hochberg)

There is something noteworthy about a rabbi writing a book about three Catholic cardinals that is then published by a Protestant publishing house, observed Rabbi James Rudin, who has worked for decades on improving interfaith relations.

And so his 2011 book, “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations,” published by the Grand Rapids Christian publisher Wm. B. Eerdmans, is not only the telling of how three cardinals’ personal experiences with Jews led to the adoption of Nostra Aetate at the Vatican 50 years ago, but the book itself also has become tangible evidence of the fruit of fostering interfaith relationships.

Rudin, the senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee, was in town last week as the featured speaker at Rodef Shalom Congregation’s annual Harris Lecture. He was part of a panel Feb. 11 that included Tim Crain, director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University, and Bishop David Zubik, and was moderated by Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom. On Feb. 12, Rudin delivered a lunchtime address at Rodef Shalom to interfaith clergy members entitled “Christians and Jews: the Unfinished Agenda.”

The Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee partnered with Rodef Shalom in sponsoring the programs, which were presented in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the Catholic church of Nostra Aetate, a declaration that repudiated ancient anti-Semitic Christian charges against Jews, and reaffirmed God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

The story of how Nostra Aetate came to pass is instructive in guiding interfaith relations into the future, Rudin said.

Although Rudin did not know Cardinals Cushing or Spellman personally, he was a friend to O’Connor, who died in 2000.

“The bishops had been debating this statement on Jews for two or three years,” Rudin recounted in an interview while he was in town. “It looked like Nostra Aetate would get tabled.”

That’s when the three American cardinals — who were all theologically conservative, according to Rudin — decided to make a big push for adoption of this statement on mutual respect and a condemnation of anti-Semitism.

Cushing and Spellman even traveled to the Vatican to deliver speeches in favor of Nostra Aetate, Rudin said.

“All three cardinals were products of an Irish-Catholic background, but they all knew Jews as people rather than as two- dimensional characters.”

In fact, Rudin noted, Cushing’s own brother-in-law, Richard Pearlstein, who was married to Cushing’s sister Dolly, was Jewish.

“The rumor was that Cushing’s theology was that God loves Dolly, and Dolly loves Richard, therefore God loves Richard,” Rudin said.

O’Connor, who had served 25 years in the Navy, came to know a lot of Jews during his service, Rudin said. In addition to his pushing for Nostra Aetate, he was also very instrumental in the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel in the mid-1990s.

“All three cardinals knew Jews,” Rudin said. “They had interreligious relations up close and personal. When you know someone as a human being, and not just through cartoon strips, or as targets for conversion, your attitude and theology changes.”

It was American religious pluralism that was the reason for the passage of the historic document, Rudin posited.

“In America, we are able to have positive interreligious cooperation and constructive relations,” he said. “If we can’t have it in America, we couldn’t have it anywhere.”

The power of interpersonal relations is an important lesson to learn as the next generation takes the reins in moving interfaith relations ahead in the years to come, according to Rudin.

“Chronology is moving on for all of us,” he said. “It’s been 70 years since the end of the Holocaust. It’s been 50 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, two Jewish and Catholic generations have grown up. It’s very important that the teaching and advances that we made move to the next generation.

“The people like Cardinals Cushing, Spellman and O’Connor, and those on the Jewish side in that generation, were like Moses,” he continued. “We’re the Joshua generation. And that generation has to understand that — like in American history — you can’t just sit on the Constitution and expect that things will be automatic.”

The success of interfaith relations comes down to work on the ground, although Nostra Aetate did provide a solid framework, said Rudin, who was born in Pittsburgh and lived on Bartlett Street until he was six years old when he moved to Alexandria, Virginia with his family.

“In our time, Nostra Aetate was for the whole Catholic Church, for the whole world,” Rudin said. “It was a wholesale statement. The retail end comes in with our local parishes. That’s where the work has to be done.”

Interfaith relations will continue to improve, he said, when individuals commit to working on “one to one relations.”

“After 40 years in the field, I know that when you engage lay people and clergy in interfaith work, they grow even stronger in their own religions,” he observed.

Rudin’s new book, “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press, is scheduled to be released later this year.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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