20 February 2010 Anna Foa reviews “The Nazarene” by Israel Zolli, Rome’s Chief Rabbi who became a Catholic in 1945
In his autobiography, Before the Dawn: Autobiographical Reflections by Eugenio Zolli, Former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Zolli said that while presiding over the religious service in the synagogue on the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1944, he experienced a vision of Jesus.
On February 13, 1945, Zolli, his second wife, and daughter converted to Catholicism (his first wife having died years earlier). He was baptized at the Gregorian University by Mgr. Luigi Traglia in the presence of Father Paolo Dezza; his godfather was Augustin Bea. Zolli was christened “Eugenio Maria Zolli” in homage to Pope Pius XII who was born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli.
By Alan Brill: A review just appeared in Italian, and is online in translation, by the Jewish Historian Anna Foa of “Il Nazareno” by Rabbi Zolli. Jews do not usually want to discuss the case of the Chief Rabbi of Rome who converted to Catholicism after the war and became Eugenio Zolli. The review attempts to situate his views within trends in Jewish scholarship and what was being taught at the various seminaries and Jewish academies. Unlike the German Jewish authors (Geiger, Buber) and later Israeli authors (Klausner) who painted Jesus as a liberal Jew, Zolli stresses the discontinuity of the two faiths. Christianity as forgiveness and love.
“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.”
On the other hand, he warned the Jewish community of Rome of the true threat of the Nazis and wanted to declare a total state of emergency and the Jewish community leaders did not see the need. “One cannot deny that the measures he suggested — such as the closing of the temple and of the oratories, the general alarm, and many other things — would have saved the lives, if not of all, of very many Jews.”
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.
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 Zoll.
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 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…
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.
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.
Zolli wrote: “Conversion consists in responding to a call from God. A man is not converted at the time he chooses, but at the hour when he receives God’s call. When the call is heard, he who receives it has only one thing to do: obey. Paul is ‘converted’. Did he abandon the God of Israel? Did he cease to love Israel? It would be absurd to think so. But then? The convert is who feels impelled by an irresistible force to leave a pre-established order and seek his own proper way. It would be easier to continue along the road he was on.”
Prayer: Lord, you alone know our thoughts and motives. Judge us with your grace and mercy, and discern our hearts. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.