The Jewish community around the world mourms the death of Rabbi Elio Toaff who died today (April 19) in Rome at the age of 99. He would have turned 100 on April 30 of this year. Born in Livorno on April 30, 1915, Toaff is universally regarded as one of the highest authorities of the spiritual and moral Jewish Italy after World War II. In 1947 he served as a rabbi in Venice and in 1951 he became the Chief Rabbi of Rome holding that position until 2002.
Rabbi Toaff was also loved by Christians and Catholics for the critical role he played in Jewish-Christian relations during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II. It was Rabbi Toaff, then chief of Rome’s great synagogue, who welcomed the Pope to his synagogue on April 14, 1986. This one-mile trip across the Tiber River to Great Synagogue of Rome was believed to be the first time since Peter that a pope had entered the Rome synagogue, and symbolically it marked a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. Christianity has an organic relationship to Judaism that it does not have to any other faith.
I remember the day vividly. As John Paul II arrived on the steps of the imposing Victorian synagogue overlooking the Tiber River, he was embraced by Chief Rabbi Toaff. The Pope returned the embrace and then entered the synagogue to a thundering ovation from a congregation of 1,000 people, many of them descendants of Jews who had been forced to live apart from other Romans.
”The Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling,” John Paul said, speaking in Italian and, briefly, in Hebrew. ”The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,” he said elsewhere in his address. ”With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
“The heart opens itself,” Rabbi Toaff declared in the gathered assembly, ”to the hope that the misfortunes of the past will be replaced by fruitful dialogue.”
For the Jewish people, a traditional Jewish expression of sympathy at the death of loved ones is “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). The lives of St. John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff are blessings for the Catholic and Jewish communities, and for the unique relationship between them. As the years pass, may their memories also be a blessing, a model, a point of embarkation and an inspiration, that another generation of Catholics and Jews will commit themselves to pursuing with energy, commitment, respect and faith the dialogue which was so close to the hearts of Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff.
Upon John Paul II’s death in April 2005, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, of Neve Shalom Synagogue in New Jersey, offered one of the most touching and hopeful evaluations of John Paul’s legacy in terms of Catholic-Jewish dialogue:
“When Michelangelo was on his deathbed, his students at his bedside wailed: ‘Michelangelo, how will Rome ever get along without you?’ To which, it is reported, Michelangelo faintly waved his hand to the window, with its vision of his sculptures and architecture, and whispered, ‘Rome will never be without me.’ Surely, John Paul would not be so boastful. But because he has reshaped the Catholic Church during his long tenure, we Jews, “the elder brother,” are hopeful in declaring, “We Jews shall never be without you.”
(“Respect for faith’s ‘elder brother’,” USA Today (April 5, 2005)
Tonight we say those words about Rabbi Toaff: “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). We Catholics shall never be without you, remembering with affection and gratitude your embrace and deep desire for reconciliation and understanding with us.