Elio Toaff, who passed away on Sunday, served as chief rabbi of Rome for 51 years. He is perhaps best remembered for orchestrating Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986. George Weigel reflects on the warm relationship between the two religious leaders, and their shared legacy:
John Paul II and Elio Toaff shared a vision of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that went far beyond the necessary . . . clean-up of the detritus from a past riddled with prejudice and suffering—and worse. That was a necessary first step. But it was only a first step. Recognizing that Auschwitz was “the Golgotha of the modern world” (as John Paul II put it when he was there in 1979)—a singular monument to what happens when humanity forgets God—was absolutely essential. But it was not an end. It was only a beginning, for the next question was, and is: how shall we build barriers against such atrocities in the future? . . .
The new outbreak of virulent anti-Semitism in Europe and in parts of North America (think: Montreal) is, as Theodor Herzl understood more than a century ago, a sign that something is seriously awry in the moral culture of the West. When the fever chart of anti-Semitism spikes upward, it is always a sign that the patient—the West—is in mortal danger. And it is in danger in no small part because it has forgotten the biblical roots of the Western civilizational enterprise: for the foundational Western metaphor of freedom and human liberation is not the Enlightenment (and still less the French Revolution) but the Exodus, which both Jews and Christians recently remembered and celebrated at Passover and Easter. And the Exodus is a liberation completed by a moral code that is intended to help the newly free rid themselves of the habits of slaves—the bad habits that derive from willfulness and self-absorption.
So in rebuilding the spiritual and moral foundations of the West as an essential part of meeting the challenges posed by violent and irrational nationalism (read: Russia) and violent, irrational religious passion (read: jihadism)—challenges that will emphatically not be met by nihilism (read: Charlie Hebdo) and bullying in the name of a false notion of “tolerance” (read: recent events in Indiana)—what might the West in the 21st century learn from the encounter of John Paul II and Elio Toaff: two men who knew the agony of the 20th century in their bones and who rose above the temptations of retribution to sketch a different path into the future?