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07/12/2019 08:24:48 AM


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Friday night, two weeks ago, we davened in Rome’s Great Synagogue. And although we found the Great Synagogue to be a little too, well, “great” for our usual davening taste, I actually experienced something so moving that evening in the Great Synagogue,  that it literally and unexpectedly brought me to tears.

The Great Synagogue, as you know if you have visited, is situated in the corner of what from 1555 until 1870 had been the Jewish Ghetto, established originally by Pope Paul IV, in the effort to subjugate and isolate the Jewish community that had been in the city since the days of Julius Ceaser. And it wasn’t only to subjugate and to isolate. There was another purpose too.

The Pope further directed that the church of Santa Maria della Pieta be built just outside the ghetto’s gate. The church building still stands there today, diagonally across from the Great Synagogue. When we walked by it on that Friday morning, I was at first puzzled by the fact that the church had a inscription in Hebrew letters displayed on its façade. It is actually a quote from Yeshayahu (65: 2-3)

פֵּרַ֧שְׂתִּי יָדַ֛י כָּל־הַיּ֖וֹם אֶל־עַ֣ם סוֹרֵ֑ר הַהֹלְכִים֙ הַדֶּ֣רֶךְ לֹא־ט֔וֹב אַחַ֖ר מַחְשְׁבֹתֵיהֶֽם׃

I constantly spread out My hands to a disloyal people, who walk the way that is not good, following their own designs;

הָעָ֗ם הַמַּכְעִיסִ֥ים אוֹתִ֛י עַל־פָּנַ֖י תָּמִ֑יד

The people who provoke My anger, continually, to My face,

After a minute it occurred to me what was happening here. Words that had originally been  Yeshiyahu’s admonition of the idolaters among Israel, were here being used by the Church as an admonition of the Jews of the ghetto, for their stubborn disloyalty to God in not accepting Jesus as their lord. The church of Santa Maria della Pieta was one of several churches ringing the ghetto in which the Jewish community was compelled to gather every Saturday, to hear fire and brimstone sermons – not about the parsha. The ghetto was also an overt effort to convert the Jews.

Friday afternoon we visited the Roman Forum and naturally spent some time contemplating the Arch of Titus. Rick Steve’s audio tour was our guide, and while his opening words about the Arch contained little in the way of new information for we the Arch of Titus-initiated, his commentary was very striking, and it  brought me right back to inscription on the Church façade. “The Romans”, he said, “had a reputation as benevolent conquerors, who tolerated the local customs. All they required was allegiance to the empire, shown by worshipping the emperor as god. No problem for most conquered people, who already had a half dozen gods on their prayer list anyway. But the Jews of Israel believed in only one God, and it wasn’t the emperor. Israel revolted, and after a short but bitter war, the Romans defeated the rebels, took Jerusalem, sacked their Temple, and brought home 50,000 Jewish slaves, who were forced to build this arch, which celebrates their defeat”.

I stood beneath the Arch for a moment and thought about two things. One, about how much trouble this monotheism deal has gotten us into over the course of history. And two, that a more practical people would have made different decisions.  

Soon it was getting late even for a long Friday, and we went back to shower and change and get ready for Shabbat. And then off to the Great Synagogue. I had some trouble following Kabbalat Shabbat – Nusach Romi is really its own thing - but Ma’ariv is always Ma’ariv, and soon enough we arrived at Shma. Like you, I have recited the first line of Shma tens of thousands of times in my life. This time though, turned out to be very different.

Shna Yisrael… Hashem Echad! Here it was, the idea that infuriated Titus, and enraged the popes. An idea deemed so seditious and subversive and unnerving that it had be uprooted and destroyed, or quarantined and relentlessly attacked. The idea for which we suffered no end of humiliation and indignity, an idea which we had every practical reason to surrender.

Sitting in my pew, two miles from the arch of Titus, and 50 yards from Santa Maria della Pieta, hot tears rolled down my cheeks as I struggled to summon my voice to pronounce the words.  

It didn’t help that we were also sitting - 100 yards in the other direction - from Largo Sixteen Octtobre, where in October of 1943, the Nazis rounded up and deported 2000 of Rome’s Jews to death camps.

 Or that the very building we were in was there because in 1904, when the Italian government offered the Jewish community a better piece of real estate elsewhere in the city upon which to build their Great Synagogue, the community decided instead to build their Great Synagogue right there in the corner of the former ghetto, on the same spot where their synagogue had stood for centuries.

 What a crazy stubborn people we are!

As we descended the shul stairs after Ma’ariv was over, I began to think about the degree to which we have - or have not – transposed this stubborn, principled, defiant streak from our difficult past into the rather different circumstances of our present.  I was thinking that it may actually have been easier to be this way in times and places when we were otherwise powerless, in which our national backbone was the only consequential earthly might we possessed, when our struggle was that of maintaining our dignity.  In such times, it may have been easier to routinely reject common terrestrial wisdom, and to adhere stubbornly to our celestial ideals and principles.

But our present circumstances are so very different. We enjoy freedom, prosperity, power, even, thank God, national sovereignty.  Even with the considerable challenges we still face, we’ve journeyed breathtakingly far from both Roman conquest and medieval ghettos. We are part of the world today, and as such have much more to lose.  And I was thinking that it’s not as easy, it doesn’t come as naturally, to be that people of stubborn commitment to its revolutionary Biblical principles, not only the commitment to one God, but to the directives that one God demands of us: the hot pursuit of tzedek, the rigorous protection  of society’s vulnerable,  the indefatigable quest for truth, even if that truth may sometimes come at our own expense.  As we began to walk along the cobblestone street, I was thinking that the great challenge of our present, is to balance our continuous state of Jewish existential anxiety, with a robust commitment to living each day with Jewish existential purpose. To balance our Jewish existential anxiety, with a robust commitment to living each day with Jewish existential purpose.

That night, we enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Jews from all over the world, in one of the several kosher restaurants that dot the very street which used to be the ghetto wall. We are indeed a unique and different people, and as long as we always remember that about ourselves, we shall continue to be so.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784