Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Jew, Jesus, Who Changed the Life of the Chief Rabbi of Rome

He changed it so much that he had himself baptized in the Catholic Church. His book "Il Nazareno" has been reprinted and reviewed in "L'Osservatore Romano" by a Jewish scholar. And meanwhile, the second volume of the pope's "Jesus of Nazareth" is going to the printer

by Sandro Magister

ROME, February 24, 2010 – The first person he told that he had finished writing his book about Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, on the day after his visit to the synagogue of Rome, last January 18.

The rabbi is the American Jacob Neusner, and the author of the book is Benedict XVI.

The first volume of "Jesus of Nazareth" by pope Joseph Ratzinger was released three years ago. And now the second and concluding volume of the work, dedicated to the passion and resurrection of Jesus and to the infancy narratives, is ready for translation and printing.

Meanwhile, however, with significant coordination of timing, another important book about Jesus has been reprinted in recent days in Italy, entitled "Il Nazareno," written more than seventy years ago by a great Italian rabbi.

Not only that. A very positive review of this new edition of the book was published on February 20 in "L'Osservatore Romano," written by a famous scholar, Anna Foa, a Jewish professor of history at the University of Rome "La Sapienza."

And this review also marks an important new development. The author of the book, Israel Zoller, was chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Rome. And in 1945, he converted to the Catholic faith.

The stunning news of his conversion rocked the Roman and Italian Jewish community. And it responded with a silence that lasted for decades.

Anna Foa's review in "the pope's newspaper" has definitively broken this silence. Moreover, she has acknowledged that in that book, although it was written many years before its author's conversion, there already "seemed to appear between the lines a recognition of the messianic character of Christ."


Israel Zoller was born in 1881 in Brodj, a village in Austro-Hungarian Galicia, now within the borders of Poland. At the age of six, he emigrated with his family to Stanislavia, now Ivano-Frankivsk, in Ukraine. He studied in L'viv and then in Florence. After settling in Italy, his surname was altered to Zolli. He was chief rabbi in Trieste and taught Jewish literature at the University of Padua. In Rome, he was elected as chief rabbi and as director of the rabbinical college. He resigned at the beginning of 1945, and in February asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church. He took the name of Eugenio, the same as that of the pope at the time, Pius XII. He died in 1956.

His autobiography, written in 1947 and reprinted in Italy six years ago, helps a great deal in understanding the journey and significance of his conversion to the Christian faith.

Ever since he was a child, for him, Jesus was present in all his mystery. In a world that recalls the paintings of Chagall, the Jewish painter who was born and lived in those same Eastern lands between Europe and Russia (see photo): the village, the synagogue, the corn fields covered with snow, the Jewish school with its severe teacher, the roosters on the rooftops... And all the airborne figures in the starry sky: the characters of the Bible.

But that's just it, Jesus is there too, right away. There's the crucifix in the home of his classmate:

"Why was He crucified? Why do we children become so different in His presence? No, no, He couldn't have been bad. Maybe He was and maybe He wasn't – who knows? – the Servant of God whose canticles we read in school. I don't know anything, but I'm sure of one thing: He was good, and so... and so, why did they crucify Him?"

Right away, there are the Gospels and the New Testament:

"All by myself, I read the Gospel, and experienced measureless delight. What a surprise I received in the middle of the green lawn: 'But I say to you: Love your enemies.' And from the height of the cross: 'Father, forgive them.' The New Testament really is a covenant... brand new! Everything in it seemed to me to have an extraordinary importance. Teachings like: 'Blessed are the pure of heart' and the prayer from the cross draw a line of demarcation between the world of ancient ideas and a new moral cosmos. Yes! Here there arises a new world. Here are delineated the sublime forms of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the persecuted who have not persecuted in return, but have loved."

Baptism would come many years later. And in the autobiography this appears as the natural messianic flowering of a Jewish branch that remains alive, laden with destiny from the beginning.

Israel Zoller later became Eugenio Zoller, prefiguring in his life the establishing of fraternal relations between Christianity and Judaism that today has risen to agenda of the Church's supreme leader.

A fraternal relationship that hinges entirely on the main difference between the two faiths: the recognition of Jesus as "my Lord and my God."

This is the same difference brought to light by Benedict XVI in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount in the first volume of his "Jesus of Nazareth." In which his friend the rabbi Jacob Neusner is the emblem of the devout Jew who refuses to accept the divinity of Jesus, now as then.

But here it is, the review by the Jewish Foa of "Il Nazareno" by Rabbi Zolli, in the February 20, 2010 issue of "L'Osservatore Romano."


The rabbi who studied Jesus

by Anna Foa

The book "Il Nazareno" by Eugenio Zolli appeared in 1938, published by the Istituto delle Edizioni Accademiche in Udine. Israel Zolli, who would later become Eugenio, was at the time chief rabbi in Trieste, and had not yet become – as he would a year later – chief rabbi of Rome in the place of Rabbi David Prato, who was driven out in 1938 because he was a Zionist. A few months after the publication of this book, Mussolini's racist laws made Zolli – born in Brody, in Galicia, but raised in Italy – a stateless person, and hurled him into the harsh years of persecution. Seven years later, in February 1945, causing great scandal in the Italian Jewish world and a great stir in the non-Jewish community as well, Israel Zolli converted to Catholicism, taking Pope Pacelli's name with baptism, and thus becoming Eugenio Zolli.

A volume about Jesus Christ written by a prominent rabbi, then, destined a short time later, in spite of this book and the vague whiff of heresy that surrounded him for many years, to become the leading rabbi of the Roman Jewish community.

Is the book a prefiguring of the author's later journey, an anticipation of his subsequent baptism? Or does it reflect a journey of exegetical studies, with attention to the figure of Jesus Christ, undertaken by much European Jewish exegetical thought beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century?

The latter is the perspective in which it is placed, in his extensive and valuable postscript, by the book's editor, Alberto Latorre, in analyzing Jewish and Christian studies on Christ in those crucial decades of the early twentieth century, and situating Zolli's work in this context.

The rabbi from Trieste writes about Jesus and about relations between early Christianity and the rabbinical culture of the time with accents and ideas not dissimilar from those of his teachers at the rabbinical college of Florence, Chayes and Margulies, and raising far less serious controversies than Joseph Klausner's book on "Jesus the Nazarene," which at its publication in Hebrew in Jerusalem in 1921 was attacked by both Orthodox Jews and Christians, as recalled, in an interesting selection from one of his novels quoted by Latorre in the postscript, by the writer Amos Oz, Klausner's great-nephew,.

This area of study was very popular with Jewish scholars all over Europe, and in particular with those from Germany, heirs of the Science of Judaism and linked with the reformed currents, which strongly emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and highlighted the correspondences between rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity. But it was also a favorite of Christian scholars, especially Protestant ones, in nineteenth-century Germany, in the setting of the school of Tubingen and of the later schools of liberal theology, and was assimilated, at the beginning of the new century, by modernist Catholic scholars.

This context, connected to the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis, is of great interest to both sides.

If this was the cultural atmosphere in which Zolli's massive study was born, it must also be said that this was an atmosphere in which there were extremely few contributions from the Italian Jewish world. Some exceptions are the rabbinical college of Livorno, where Elia Benamozegh taught in the second half of the nineteenth century, the rabbinical college of Florence, with its nucleus of teachers from Galicia, and Trieste, a city that was culturally and until 1918 even politically Hapsburg, open to all the cultural currents of Mitteleuropa, not least, with Weiss, that of psychoanalysis. Florence and Trieste had extremely close ties with Zolli, who had completed his studies in Florence and was a rabbi in Trieste for twenty years.

But Italian Jewish culture was far from these broader cultural currents connected to the experience of German studies, and to the secular imprint made on these by the reformed Jewish movement.

Italian Jewish culture did not share this attention to the historical figure of Christianity, to the Jewish categories of its preaching, and to its Jewish roots in general. Its contours were more traditional and provincial, and at that historical moment linked Italian Judaism with Catholic exegetical studies, which were also fairly distant, except for a few figures more closely connected to modernism, sharing the historical-critical exegetical approach widespread in the rest of Europe.

In his volume, which collected writings previously published in the journal of Raffaele Pettazzoni, "Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni," and of the modernist Ernesto Buonaiuti, "Ricerche religiose," Zolli proceeded by using, in addition to the historical-critical method, the comparative analysis of religions.

In his conclusions, he departed significantly from both established Jewish exegesis and the dogmas of the Catholic Church. He strongly emphasized the resemblance between Jesus' preaching and Judaism, postulated an original drafting of the Gospels in Hebrew and Aramaic, denied that the term "nazarene" was derived from Nazareth – an argument used by those who supported the non-historicity of Jesus – and claimed that the Eucharist had come from an evolution of the Jewish Passover "seder."

Moreover, in the text there seemed to appear between the lines a recognition of the messianic character of Christ. This certainly would have been enough to provoke opposite reactions from Jews and Catholics. Nonetheless, these reactions didn't come. According to the editor of the book, Latorre, the Catholic world had no intention of drawing attention to a volume "so difficult to decipher and contextualize," at a moment when the modernist crisis had just recently reappeared, and the antisemitic climate was making it dangerous to discuss such sensitive topics.

So the Church preferred to remain silent about the volume, or almost silent (with the exception of the substantially positive reviews on the part of the Jesuits of "La Civiltà Cattolica"), declining even to use in an apologetical vein a text in which a famous rabbi seemed to be making a veiled reference to the messianic nature of Christ.

As for the lack of objections from the Jewish side, the historical context in which the book appeared, that of the racial laws of 1938, was not conducive to raising such delicate questions, especially in the crucial months between 1938 and 1939, in which some in the Church, like Fr. Agostino Gemelli, seemed to be hoping for a blending of racist doctrines and the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the volume was greatly appreciated by the academic world in Italy and beyond. In November of 1938, Ernesto Buonaiuti wrote an enthusiastic review in "Ricerche Religiose."

Beyond the strictly exegetical questions, the volume presents many strictly historical issues for the consideration of today's reader, and prompts many questions about the life of Israel/Eugenio Zolli and about the nature of his conversion.

His conversion was certainly the result of a meditated decision, the result of a long and difficult journey, but it was also a conversion that required him to adjust his accents and emphases, yet didn't seem to change substantially the nature of his fundamental approach: a rigorously critical analysis of the biblical texts, which lifted him above any orthodoxy, and led him to accentuate the historical connections between rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, and to grasp in the figure of the Jewish Jesus the key to this complex moment of passage and transformation.

"Il Nazareno" belongs to the Jewish phase of Zolli's scholarly work, but the changes introduced by conversion into his later critical work are fairly few, and perhaps motivated only by reasons of obedience and prudence.

So it was between Jewish Wissenschaft and Christian modernism that the inseparably religious and scientific journey of Zolli's work unfolded.

A liminal figure whom the Jews, understandably hurt by his defection, did not understand, and whom the Church in the postwar period, at a time still light years away from Jewish-Christian openness, preferred to leave to the side.

"Il Nazareno" is the highest fruit of this being on the boundary, between the different orthodoxies.


The book:

Eugenio Zolli, "Il Nazareno. Studi di esegesi neotestamentaria alla luce dell'aramaico e del pensiero rabbinico", edited by Alberto Latorre, San Paolo, Milan, 2009, pp. 618, euro 42.00.


The newspaper of the Holy See, in which Anna Foa's review of the book by Zolli was published on February 20:

> L'Osservatore Romano

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