Pope Pius XII and the Chief Rabbi of Rome

Pope Pius XII cannot win with certain kinds of people. No matter how many people he saved, someone will always say, “So, nu, only 850,000 Jews? Why didn’t he save two million Jews?” Even if the Pope had saved two million, someone would say, “Nu, only two million? Why not four million?”

If the mighty European nations couldn’t stop Hitler, how could the Pope? Maybe, just maybe, given the limitations of his office, he ended up saving more Jews than he would have had he made a public protest against Hitler …

Who can presume to have God-like power and adjudicate this matter once and for all? I know that I sure can’t, but the many Jewish witnesses I mentioned above saw firsthand what the Pope did; I think many folks may not like the quiet way the Pope got things done, but it is quite possible that he did the best he could given the circumstances he had to deal with.

The study of Jewish history is anything but boring. Here’s a little known fact: The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Yisrael Zolli, converted to Catholicism because of the Pope’s efforts in saving Jewish lives.

In a statement of thanks, Zolli said, “What the Vatican did will be indelibly and eternally engraved in our hearts. . . . Priests and even high prelates did things that will forever be an honor to Catholicism.”[1] Although Zolli said he converted for “theological reasons,” it is generally believed that he did so out of gratitude for what the Pope did for his people. Rather than encouraging a massive conversion on the part of Jews to Catholicism, Zolli preferred to state that his conversion was a personal one based on his rethinking of Catholic theology and teachings and his personal friendship with Pope Pius XII, a man  whose personal integrity he deeply respected and admired.

Lapide writes: “When Zolli accepted baptism in 1945 and adopted Pius’s Christian name of Eugene, most Roman Jews were convinced that his conversion was an act of gratitude for wartime succor to Jewish refugees and, repeated denials not withstanding, many are still of his opinion. Thus, Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz wrote in the summer issue, 1964, of Conservative Judaism: ‘Many Jews were persuaded to convert after the war, as a sign of gratitude, to that institution which had saved their lives.’ “[2] Continue reading “Pope Pius XII and the Chief Rabbi of Rome”

More on Pope Benedict XVI’s Historical Visit to Israel

Earlier we saw how a Rabbi Wolpe conducted himself in a manner that desecrates God’s Name, here is a different kind of response that reflects the best values of our faith and people that appeared today in the JPost written by the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen:

“On the occasion of your visit to Israel I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you, our most honorable guest, Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives on the altar inside the International Stadium of Amman to celebrate a Holy Mass on Sunday.

I pray that you will continue the work begun by your predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, and express your friendship for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

I see in your visit to the Holy Land a declaration that you intend to continue a policy and doctrine that refers to my people as “Our Older Brothers” and “God’s Chosen People,” with whom He entered into an everlasting covenant. Continue reading “More on Pope Benedict XVI’s Historical Visit to Israel”

Chabad Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel

Rabbi Sholom DovBer Wolpe, leader of Chabad’s messianist faction in Israel, condemns the Church and Pope. As Israel prepares for Benedict XVI’s historic visit, head of SOS Israel believes ‘rabbis must not meet with the pope because the Catholic Church tortured and murdered Jews and helped the Nazis annihilate the Jewish people’ (Efrat Weiss, Ynet).

Question: What is your opinion about this reaction?

Answer: Rabbi Wolpe is an outspoken Habad rabbi who believes that the deceased Rebbe of Lubavitch is going to come back from the dead and redeem the Jewish people. His perspectives on a variety of Jewish and political issues are regarded by many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews as provocative–even fanatical.

Personally, I think you need to look back at the eulogies Jewish leaders gave in honor of Pope Pius XII shortly after his demise.

Numerous Jewish leaders, including Albert Einstein, Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog (who was a brilliant rabbinic scholar), expressed their public gratitude to Pius XII, praising him as a “righteous gentile,” who had saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

In his meticulously researched and comprehensive 1967 book, Three Popes and the Jews, the Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide, who had served as the Israeli Counsel General in Milan, and had spoken with many Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors who owed their life to Pius, provided the empirical basis for their gratitude, concluding that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” To this day, the Lapide volume remains the definitive work, by a Jewish scholar, on the subject.

“December of 1940, in an article published in Time magazine, the renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, paid tribute to the moral “courage” of Pope Pius and the Catholic Church in opposing “the Hitlerian onslaught” on liberty:

“Being a lover of freedom, when the Nazi revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom: but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.” Continue reading “Chabad Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel”

Marvin Wilson’s Foreword to the Birth and Rebirth through Genesis: The Timeless Theological Conversation

It is a personal delight to write this Foreword to Birth and Rebirth through Genesis. I have had the pleasure of knowing Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel for more than a decade. During this time we have spent dozens of hours discussing Torah together. In particular, I have greatly enjoyed my many conversations with Rabbi Samuel over his manuscript as he was finalizing his commentary and completing his edits. These interactions were always respectful as each would listen to the point being raised by the other. For me, a Christian professor of Hebrew Bible for more than four decades, each discussion with Rabbi Samuel proved stimulating, enlightening and very enriching. Personally, I became invigorated through these discussions as we would exchange exegetical comments, examine parallel passages, and compare and contrast classic and contemporary perspectives on the Torah.

One of the strengths of this commentary is the way it handles difficult and theologically diffuse passages. On most controversial passages, Rabbi Samuel presents alternative ways of understanding the text, thus allowing the reader to evaluate options and choose. In our personal discussions over the manuscript, our mutual respect for each other as well as our joint high regard for the text of Scripture always made these discussions very worthwhile and enjoyable learning experiences to me, as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

I believe that all who carefully read this book are in for a deeply rewarding experience. A study of the text and commentary of Birth and Rebirth through Genesis will contribute greatly to an understanding of the rich and diverse fabric of biblical narrative and provide an appreciation for its creative application to the problems of the modern world. In making the above observation, however, I am reminded there is yet a deeper point to be made, one powerfully illustrated by the following Hasidic story. Once, a relatively young talmid (disciple), with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, came up to his Rebbe. The disciple excitingly exclaimed, “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that I have gone through the Talmud three times!” Sitting back and stroking his white beard, the Rebbe replied, “My son, the question is not how many times you have gone through the Talmud, but how many times the Talmud has gone through you.” Continue reading “Marvin Wilson’s Foreword to the Birth and Rebirth through Genesis: The Timeless Theological Conversation”

Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?

Sometime in the last week of April, 230 cosignatories sent a petition to Yad Vashem, requesting that they give special recognition to two particular families, the Hollebrands and the Egginks, who hid three children from the Sanders family, which had converted to Christianity before World War II.

In this tragic WWII story, the father registered the family as Jewish and sent the children into hiding with the Hollebrands and Egginks. The Gestapo arrested the father in 1943 and tortured him into divulging their whereabouts. In the end, he, his wife and children—Eline, 10, Egbert, 8 and Marie Lena, 6—were murdered that year.

Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Recognition of the Righteous among the Nations decided that the Hollebrands and the Egginks were ineligible for the title since the honor is reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust; since the children were not Jewish, they could not receive the award.

How would Jewish tradition and ethics respond to this kind of case? Was the Yad Vashem acting properly?

When I came across this article, I decided to look up the Shulchan Aruch, which is the authoritative Code of Jewish Law that has governed Jewish life for many centuries. The law is clear: an Israelite who has embraced another religious identity still remains an Israelite; should he get married to a Jewish woman, the act of marriage still remains intact even though he has retracted his Jewish faith. [1] Moreover, this same principle also applies to any person who officially converted to Judaism from another faith, who later relinquishes his Judaic faith–that individual is still considered a Jew [2] — contrary to the views espoused by today’s Haredi rabbinical community in Israel.

Moreover, if  that wayward Israelite ritually slaughters an animal and someone attests that his knife was adequately sharpened, the meat from the animal may be eaten [3]. There are literally hundreds of other cases in rabbinic literature that stress this point: Jewish identity does not disappear just because that person rejects his heritage. The door is always open for the possibility that he might repent and return to his ancestral faith.

That being said, in the case of the Sander children, we do not know all the facts regarding this case. It is possible the father had the family converted in order to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Such conversions gave the Jewish person(s) extra protection from the Church, but not always. Conversions under duress are nothing new in Jewish tradition and the Halacha—especially as interpreted by Maimonides—tends to be fairly liberal and compassionate. Indeed, Maimonides ought to have known, because he himself was forcibly converted to Islam in his youth.

In short, the Sander children were truly and halachically תינוק שנשבה בין הנכרים — the tragic victims of circumstances that were beyond their conscious control and as a result certainly need to be viewed with the utmost of compassion. Even though they were converted to Christianity, they still died as Jews. The two families who risked their own lives and the lives of their families deserve recognition.

Saving a life of a person who is facing imminent danger is considered to be one of the greatest acts of human decency. Although most texts rabbinic texts speak about the saving of a “‘Jewish’ life is considered as if one saved the entire world,”[4] one must remember that the social context this rabbinic dictum referred merely to someone who was already a member of their community; it would be analogous to laws that we have in this country that are written for the general welfare of Americans, but do not necessarily exclude the rights of foreigners. In fact, with the recent wave of immigrants coming in from Mexico, American laws across the nation have been established to protect their rights as well. Continue reading “Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?”

Why did 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba die?

Why did 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba die [1]?

This is a question that has always fascinated me since the days I was a young rabbinical student in Israel. According to rabbinical tradition, it is because R. Akiba’s students failed to display proper respect to one another. Another tradition claims that R. Akiba’s students died because of a plague that took place during the the first day of the Omer [barley offering that began on the second  day of Passover], ca. 130 CE.

Of all the explanations that seems to make the most amount of sense, Rabbi Akiba not only offered moral support to Bar Kochba, a man he believed to be the Messiah, he also encouraged his vast number of students to join in the apocalyptic battle against the Evil Empire of his day—Rome, as was first suggested by Rav Hai Gaon back in the 9th century C.E. Continue reading “Why did 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba die?”

What was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice?

A reader may wonder: What was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice?

Professor Robert Alter writes that the biblical narrator used several techniques to convey meaning, e.g., statements by the anonymous narrator, by God, by heroes or heroines, by verbal clues, by juxtaposition of material, by characterization, and by effects of actions. Applying this technique, the verbal clues of the narrative can yield a number of interpretations that reveal the quality of Cain’s sacrifice. Some early rabbinic sources think Cain offered an inferior grade of sacrifice. Unlike his brother who offers the “firstlings of his flock,” Cain does not offer the “firstfruits” of his field. This could suggest that the rabbis may have indeed been correct in their scriptural observation.

This exposition would certainly be consistent with the prophetic message of sacrifices, e.g., the offering in sacrifice of a lame, sick, or blind animal is expressly forbidden in the Torah (Lev. 22:17-25; Deut. 17:1). However, it is  in the prophetic literature, this reason for this proscription becomes lucid and understandable.

“So says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise his name. But you ask,  ‘How have we despised your name?’  By offering polluted food on my altar! Then you ask,  ‘How have we polluted it?’ By saying the table of the LORD may be slighted!  When you offer a blind animal for sacrifice, is this not evil? When you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Present it to your governor; see if he will accept it, or welcome you, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachai 1:6-8).

However, what if Cain’s sacrifice failed because of an entirely different reason–namely, his attitude?

Here too, Philo’s exposition may shed some light.  According to him, a bad person’s offering will never be considered a “true sacrifice,” for “even if he were to bring the altar ten thousand oxen every day without intermission; for his most important and indispensable offering, namely his soul, is polluted. And it is impious for polluted things to come near to the altar.” In other words, the worshiper’s attitude is even more important than what the actual sacrifice, which may be physically fine. Philo of Alexandria seems to be suggesting that so long as the heart and soul of the worshiper remains tinged with selfishness and pride, these kinds of moral imperfections will mar the beauty of any offering that is brought to the altar of God.

Maimonides’s View on Sacrifices

Despite some ambivalence Maimonides felt about the institution of animal sacrifices,  the great Jewish philosopher argues that animal sacrifice can reflect a noble impulse that pushes one to give one’s very best in areas that go far beyond the cultic sector.

For example, Maimonides considers Abel’s sacrifice as a paradigm for all types of voluntary charitable giving. Every sacrifice must be given as an act of love and devotion; indeed, the absence of these qualities invalidates and cheapens the religious experience. Without the cultivation of the giving spirit, no virtue is possible. Although this is not a strict requirement in the legalistic sense, nevertheless the one who is truly concerned about becoming close to God must go beyond mere perfunctory worship. Maimonides writes:

Anyone wishing to become personally worthy of merit should overcome the urge toward selfishness and make it a point to always offer one’s best and finest, so that his offering will be most exemplary. The Torah says: “and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4). The same rule ought to apply to every kind of offering: whatever one gives should come from the finest and very best. The house of prayer that one builds must be nicer than one’s own personal dwelling; the same spiritual principle ought to be applied to other areas of one’s devotional life, e.g., with respect to the poor, one feeds the hungry with one’s very best and tasty foods on one’s table; the naked should be clothed with very finest of one’s wardrobe, and one should always dedicate the very best of all one’s possessions—even as the Torah states, “All fat belongs to the Lord” (Lev. 3:16). [1]

For Maimonides, God’s choice of Abel’s sacrifice was not based at all on what each person offered, but was instead predicated on the motive of the participants. In other words, the central issue that is raised in the story of Cain and Abel story was not so much about the quality of the sacrifice as it was about the personality of the one offering the sacrifice. Cain and Abel represent the distinction between selfless worship and selfish worship. From Cain’s sacrifice, the reader may discern how even spiritual worship can degenerate into an act that is perfunctory in purpose and in scope. Toward the end of Maimonides’s life, he focused considerable attention on this specific theme. Maimonides felt that Cain’s sacrifice failed because he was miserly in his giving; he withheld his best. He writes:

He has ordained that all the offerings be perfect in the most excellent condition, in order that the sacrifice should not come to be held in little esteem and that what was offered to His name, may He be exalted, be not despised, as it is written “‘When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty” (Mal. 1:8).[2]

[1] Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.

[2]Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.