Review of Zolli’s Il Nazareno

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 treat 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.”

Full version of book review

Interview with the editor

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.

4 responses to “Review of Zolli’s Il Nazareno

  1. Some years ago I became interested in Zolli. There is an informative book about him by two Americans (Weisbord and Sillanpoa). To anyone who reads his early books on Jesus and his studies in NT, it is simply incomprehensible how he was appointed CR of Rome – or how he retained his post in Trieste. A bizarre story.

  2. I do not know to which extent the story was “bizarre”…there was so much suffering, on all parts. Israel Zoller knew well what Nazism was, his own brothers perished in Auschwitz…and I am still trying to know more about the whole situation, given the fact that he was my grandfather. I’d like to better try to understand together…shalom, Maura

  3. Maura, If there is anything I can do to help then please let me know.

    • Thank you, Alan. I do not know exactly… In the last years a number of studies have been published in Italy (and in Italian!), probably updated and perhaps more accurate (due to access to archives, including the one of the Jewish community in Rome) with respect to the Weisbord and Sillanpoa’s one. Namely: G.Rigano, Il caso Zolli; a number of articles by A.Foa and others, even one I wrote (quite obviously, more a testimony than a real study); A.Riccardi, L’inverno più lungo (which does not speak so much about my grandfather, but documents very well the whole situation in Rome at the time); my brother even made a documentary film collecting testimonies on my grandfather in Italy and in Israel. Maybe it should be useful to make these studies and materials known beyond our linguistic province, but I do not know how (if you understand Italian, I can send you some…). Beyond studies, my personal experience is that it is still very difficult to speak about my grandfather in Rome, where the community was so terribly stricken, and many old ones still feel betrayed by him, which is quite understandable. But, mainly with Israeli friends, and also with Italian Jews from other cities (I live in Forlì, near Bologna, and teach at Bologna University) and from younger generations, there is an ongoing sincere and often warm dialogue, which spans from sound reconstructions of historical facts to questions of religious freedom. This same sense of dialogue I’d like to share with all those who might be interested. Thank you again, kol tuv, Maura

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