Thursday, April 07, 2005

Rabbis of Rome

I came across the name of the rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Elio Toaff, twice in the past few minutes. First, as part of a thread on Mail Jewish about the accuracy of Orthodox popular histories, someone pointed out that R Berel Wein has confused R Toaff with the infamous R Israel Zolli, the rabbi of Rome during World War II. After the war, the Jewish community refused to take Zolli back as leader of the community. In response, he went and got himself baptized by the pope de'az, Pius. Definitely not a predecessor any rabbi would enjoy being conflated with.

Then I found the same Rabbi Toaff mentioned in the recently-deceased Pope's will. Which surely says a lot about the impression he has made on world leaders.

But all this reminded me of another controversial leader of Roman Jewry - Theudas. According to the Tosefta (Yom Tov 2, 15), Todus the physician instructed the community in Rome to eat roast lambs on Passover eve - a precise reenactment of the paschal lamb that was sacrificed and eaten when the Temple stood.

This was in stark contrast to rabbinic consensus, which permitted eating any kind of meat at the seder - except a spitted lamb. Which led the rabbis (according to the Talmud, BT Pesahim 53b and PT Pesahim VII 34a) to declare: "If you were not Todus, we would have thrown you out".

So, it seems that the rabbis of Rome tend to walk a precarious path

The underlying idea of the conflict between Todus and the rabbis is one that comes up in many places, and I think it is significant for traditional religious life today as well. The rabbis were saying that the Temple is gone. There's nothing we can do about that except mourn its absence and wait for its return. Until then, we will make do with what religious symbols we still have. Todus, on the other hand, was saying that we can try to simulate the presence of the Temple. We will reproduce its rituals as faithfully as we can, and thus keep its memory alive and vivid.

Elchanan Reiner wrote an article, first published in Hebrew in Cathedra and later in English, which develops these conflicting approaches. He seemed to be saying that the first approach, the one which scrupulously avoids reproducing Temple rituals, was typical of the Karaite Mourners of Zion. And the second approach, the one exemplified by Todus, was that of Rabbinic Judaism.

For example - the Karaites were scandalized by the idea of an aron kodesh. A physical presence in the synagogue at the focal point of the prayer ceremony. This is transparently based on the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Reproducing that pinnacle of sacred space in a profane, post-destruction edifice was sacrilege. [For a rabbinic affirmation of the idea that the synagogue is a reflection of the Temple, see Israel Ta-Shema, The Early Ashkenazic Prayer, Jerusalem 2003, chapter 15].

So, when do we say that reverence for the past requires keeping a distance, maintaining the uniqueness of things lost? To make sure that precious memories remain unsullied, that deep meanings are not corrupted?

And when is it better to try to gather up the broken pieces, and breathe new life into them? To take ceremonies that have collapsed under the load of history, dust them off and start again?


Anonymous Florentino Swarts said...

Are there other forums/blogs that are more specific for this topic? I have not found one.

9:17 PM  

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