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The Jews and the Pope

Looking at the ambiguous, still-evolving Jewish relationship with the Vatican

Fredric Brandfon
Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni
September 28, 2022
Getty Images
Jewish procession going to the Council of Constance in 1417 to meet the newly elected Pope Martin V, reproduced from a miniature in the chronicle of Ulrich von Richental, the historian of the council. The Jews would convoke a synod in 1418, taking gifts to Martin V to persuade him to revoke anti-Jewish laws put in place by Antipope Benedict XIII.Getty Images
Getty Images
Jewish procession going to the Council of Constance in 1417 to meet the newly elected Pope Martin V, reproduced from a miniature in the chronicle of Ulrich von Richental, the historian of the council. The Jews would convoke a synod in 1418, taking gifts to Martin V to persuade him to revoke anti-Jewish laws put in place by Antipope Benedict XIII.Getty Images

In 2021, after reading an article in Tablet, “When Pope John Paul II Came to the Great Synagogue in Rome,” by Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, I asked the chief rabbi if he would agree to co-author an article concerning the ambiguous history of papal-Jewish relations. He agreed, and what follows is our collaboration. As a historian, I handled the first half of this article, which concerns medieval and early modern Jewish interaction with the Vatican. Rabbi Di Segni wrote the second half from his own personal experience with Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. -Frederic Brandfon

The History of Traditional Jewish Gift-Giving to the Popes

In 1275 CE, the Jews of Rome, who as a community had been present in the Eternal City since approximately 139 BCE, took note of the coronation of the new Pope Boniface VIII by giving him a Torah scroll as a gift. The coronation was marked by a procession through the streets of Rome where the pontiff was lauded by all civic elements of the city, including the Jews. The response was in no way spontaneous, and the Jewish delegation was required to participate, even as it was paid by the Vatican to do so. In Rome, Jews had first given a pope the gift of a Torah in 1145 during the coronation of Pope Eugenius III. They would continue to do so for 400 years, into the mid-16th century. That ritual gift giving provides an understanding of the peculiarly ambiguous relationship between the Catholic Church and the Roman Jewish community that has lasted up to the present day.

The ritual had three parts. First, the Jews would encounter the pope on his parade route between St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Lateran Church on the southern edge of the walled city. The encounter usually happened just after the pope crossed the Tiber River on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, a bridge linking Rome’s historical center with the Castel Sant’Angelo, an imposing fortress built on top of the mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. In 135 CE, Hadrian had put down a Jewish revolt in Judaea, leveling Jerusalem and banning all Jews from living in the city. As the pope and his procession crossed the bridge leaving the Castel behind, representatives of the Jewish community came to meet him. With Hadrian’s tomb as a backdrop, the memory of Jewish subjugation was surely evident.

The second element of the ritual commenced when the pope was presented with the Torah. What the Jewish delegations said upon the presentation of the Torah is not known, but one papal attendant at the side of Innocent VIII (1484-92) captured the spirit of what he heard.

Holy Father, in the name of our synagogue, we Hebrew men implore that your Holiness deign to confirm and approve the Mosaic Law, which almighty God gave to Moses, our shepherd on Mount Sinai, as the other supreme pontiffs, Your Holiness’s predecessors, have confirmed and approved it.

This was not a meaningless recitation. The law God gave Moses at Sinai was in the Hebrew language. The Catholic Bible, St. Jerome’s translation into Latin, is venerated by the Church, but it is admittedly a translation. As the French Jewish exegete and philosopher Joseph Ibn Caspi said in his Shulhan Kesef, the popes were aware that when they read their “Old Testament,” they were operating at a linguistic remove from God’s actual words. Consequently, with their gift, the Jews were presenting the pope with the Holy Scriptures, in the language and words spoken by God. The gift of the Torah may have been ceremonial, but it was immeasurably valuable.

The presentation of the Torah inspired a poem by Cardinal Gaetano Stefaneschi at the coronation of Boniface VIII in 1295:

See the Pope, mounted on a horse,
Crossing the Tiber on the Marble Bridge.
Leaving behind the Tower of the Field [Castel Sant’ Angelo],
He is met by the Jews, singing, but blind of heart.
To him, the Prince, right here in Parione [the Roman neighborhood where the presentation took place]
Moses Law is shown, pregnant with Christ.
Him he adored, in this Law prefigured, over the shoulder
He then returned the scroll with measured words.

Here we have the third part of the ritual: The pope rejects the Torah with “measured words.” The rejection occurred in 1295, in 1316 for John XXII, in 1405 for Gregory XII, in 1417 for Martin V, and in 1447 for Nicholas V. Pope Boniface VIII’s “measured words” which were, in fact, a denunciation of the Jews, are reported by Stefaneschi as well:

God who you once knew, today you ignore. You are his people and you have become his enemy. When he is revealed you block him from view. Although you know how to recognize him. Now when he is present you disdain him. The nations have recognized his coming; you avoid him. You have rejected He who came among his people and put to death He who shed his blood for you. This ignorance of the meaning of the Scripture will lead you to perdition. Repent if you wish on the day of judgment to share the fate of the just who the Lord welcomes in glory because of their merits.

A more prosaic statement by Innocent II, likely uttered when he accepted the Torah in Paris, some 100 years earlier, went as follows.

We praise and revere the holy Law, for that it was given to your fathers by almighty God through Moses. Your religious practices, however, and your worthless explanations of the Law we condemn. For the redeemer for whom you wait in vain has long since come …

A postscript to the ritual gift was noted by Cencius Camerarius, later, Pope Honorius III (1216-27) wrote that each of the scholae of Rome, 17 foreign clerical and lay associations, were obliged to pay the pope homage while he entered Rome. Of interest here is that the Jews, were listed last among the scholae, and their obligation included a further gift to the pope of 3 1/2 pounds of pepper and 2 1/2 pounds of cinnamon. But then, Cencius says that the Jews, like all the scholae, were remunerated by the pope. Indeed, although listed last, they received the largest presbyterium or payment of any of the scholae.

The entire transaction surrounding the Jewish gift to the pope may serve as a thumbnail sketch of the theological relationship between Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages. The scripted ritual that included the pope, the Torah, and payment in pepper and cinnamon was in unequal parts, honorific and degrading, inclusive and exclusive. The Jews were accepted as the authors and protagonists of the Holy Scriptures, but rejected as ignorant at the same time. However, apart from reading the theological script that had to be followed, how else are we to understand this ritual?

We may begin with a simple proposition: The Jews are giving the pope a gift. And a gift, more often than not, incurs an obligation. “The miser always fears presents,” wrote the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his famous 1925 essay “The Gift.” What Mauss understood was that gift-giving is almost always reciprocal. To give a gift is to expect a gift in return. Thomas of Chobham writing in the 12th century, stated the rule quite well: “Just as when I have given you something, I can expect a counter gift, that is to say a reply to the gift; and I can hope to receive since I gave to you first.”

How, then, does this apply to the pope, the Torah, and the Jews?

When the Jews approached the papal procession with the Torah in hand, they were offering the pope a very valuable gift. They were giving the pope God’s law, and the pope knew it. As the pope no doubt also understood, should he accept that gift, he would be voluntarily and publicly incurring an obligation to the Jews of Rome. Given that the gift was God’s word, its value and, therefore, his obligation was incommensurable. Even though the Church invited the gift at every papal coronation, the circumstance it created was intolerable. At the very beginning of his papacy, a pope could not become indebted to the Jews. Yet everyone watching understood that, on some level, that was what was taking place. For years, every churchman in the papal procession had been giving calculated gifts to the cardinal or noble who had now become pope in the hopes that their gifts would be paid back if the recipient eventually ascended to the papacy. That an obligation was incurred was undeniable. What was the pope to do?

The pope had to reject the gift, and that is exactly what the popes did for generations. As Stefaneschi said of Boniface VIII, “over the shoulder, He then returned the scroll with measured words. ”But the popes could not reject the gift outright. As Stefaneschi also said, “To him, the Prince [Pope Boniface VIII], right here in Parione, Moses Law is shown, pregnant with Christ.” The gift the Jews were giving the pope was nonetheless, “pregnant with Christ,” meaning that the Torah, God’s word, was a prophecy of, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is how Catholics saw, and still see, the “Old Testament.”

Therefore, the pope, who must reject the gift, was receiving an offer from the Jewish delegation that he could not refuse. Which is not to say that the Jews were slyly putting the popes in a corner by offering the Torah. It is just that the ambiguous, ever-fraught relationship between Christians and Jews created this conundrum. When two communities share a history, and the Deity (in a sense) for the newer community was simultaneously a member of the older community, they are inextricably bound across whatever differences they may also have. Against this background, what was the pope to do?

The pope both accepts and rejects the Torah at the same time. In a bit of sophistry, Catholic tradition devised a clever response to the Jews’ gift. The pope reveres the Torah as the law of Moses, but rejects the Jews’ understanding of it. By both accepting and rejecting the gift, the pope might think he has solved his problem. However, by partially accepting the gift a partial obligation remained. The popes still owed the Jewish community something, an obligation the Church discharged by paying the Jewish community for participating in the processo. The Jews then further reciprocated by giving the popes gifts of pepper and cinnamon.

In theory, this process of giving gifts, incurring obligations, and reciprocal gifts could go on forever, and, in a sense, it did, in that it was repeated at papal inaugurations for generations. As such, gifting the Torah to the popes was an enforced reminder to both Jews and Catholics of the ongoing unavoidable ambiguity they lived with together, an ambiguity that persists in admittedly different forms today.

Vatican-Jewish Relations in the Coronation of the New Pope in This Century

Now, after so many centuries the pope is still based in Rome, and a vibrant Jewish community exists next door. And the medieval ceremony of Jewish gift giving to the pope during his inaugural procession in the streets of Rome has relevance even today. The ceremony was a clear sign of submission, but it was also a recognition of a specific role played by the Jews in the social and religious tissue of the town, and more generally throughout Christendom. Many other episodes and documents may be analyzed as emblematic of the complex relations between Jews and Catholics, and specifically between the pope and the Jews of Rome, but what happens right after a pope is newly elected was always, and still is, a good index of the status of Jewish-Catholic relations.

In fact, at times during the last 200 years, there was a tendency to attenuate and humiliate the role of the Jews in the ceremony. No longer did a ceremony take place at the Sant’ Angelo Bridge. Instead, the Jewish community met the pope near the Arch of Titus, whose relief depicting the Temple Menorah captured by the Romans in 70 CE reminded all not only of the antiquity of the Jewish community, but also of the destruction of their sanctuary. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem was a catastrophe for Jews but was interpreted by Christians as a punishment for not having recognized Jesus as the Messiah. In the first half of the 19th century it was commonplace to embarrass Jews during the papal procession. For example, in 1829 when Pius VIII was elected, his enthronement was celebrated with a public baptism of a Jew.

Papal inaugural processions through the streets of Rome ceased after 1870 when Italian national forces captured Rome and reduced the Papal State to the dimensions of the present-day Vatican. Only in 1939, when Pius XII was elected, was the procession started again. But the pope no more rode a white mule, or traveled in a carriage; he proceeded by car. Presently the new popes travel through Rome to take possession of the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, but nothing special happens in the streets. The core of the ceremony is a long celebration within and outside the church of Saint Peter, in the Vatican.

And what about the Jews? I have no memory of Jewish participation in the ceremonies of papal election in the 20th century, although there were probably messages of good wishes to the new pontiff. The long tradition of inviting the Jewish community to participate in the inaugural ceremony ceased. But in the 21st century, I have personally witnessed a number of surprises.

Pope Benedict XVI was elected on April 19, 2005. I sent him a message of good wishes. The day after, I received a telegram from the new pope: He informed me, formally, as chief rabbi of Rome, of his election, and the official inauguration of his pontificate the next Sunday, April 24, at 10. His message ended with the words: “I trust in the help of the Most High to continue the dialogue and strengthen collaboration with the sons and daughters of the Jewish people.”

Notice of this message was spread by press agencies and inspired curiosity and interest all around the world. It was surely news; a new pope taking the time to inform a rabbi of his election. The telegram also sounded like an invitation to join the ceremony, and this was confirmed, but the morning of April 24 was the first day of Passover. I excused myself and informed the Vatican about my duties in the synagogue that made it impossible for me to join the papal inauguration. (There was also a curious follow-up to this story: Some days later after the news reached Florida, a rabbi from Boca Raton used the story to exhort his congregants to come to synagogue and not to miss services even if they had better or more important offers.) More importantly, after a long hiatus, Jews were once again invited to attend the pope’s inauguration, with the distinct improvement that the purpose was not to instruct or humiliate the Jewish community but to seek dialogue.

Nothing like this could have been possible without the revolutionary developments in Jewish-Christian relations since Nostra Aetate, the declaration from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) stating that Jews as a people are not responsible for the death of Jesus and that accusations of Jewish deicide were unwarranted. Similarly, the pontificate of John Paul II, his visit to the synagogue of Rome, and his special relation with Rabbi Elio Toaff, all made it possible for Benedict XVI to invite me to his inauguration.

The difference between the past and the present was unavoidable. In the early modern period up to 1870, the Jews of Rome were tolerated subjects, exposed to all kinds of humiliation by the pope. In the first half of the 20th century papal-Jewish relations were cold, and dramatically they came to a head in their confrontation with the fascist racial laws which the Vatican objected to only so much as those laws affected marriage between Catholics and Jews according to the Catholic rite, that were considered null and void. The Vatican protested also against racial laws in other countries in order to defend Jews who had recently converted to Catholicism. The Church encouraged such conversions, but the racial laws did not distinguish between Jews and Jewish converts to Catholicism. Even with the ouster of Mussolini and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Rome, the silence of Pius XII continued; although Catholic institutions in Rome such as convents and the Vatican itself gave refuge to about 3,000 Jews. Reading the telegram from Pope Benedict, and given the previous history, the breach with the past could not have been more striking.

A similar scenario developed in March 2013 when Pope Francis was elected. Immediately after his election, on March 13, I sent a message of good wishes. There was an official response two days after, announcing the date of the inauguration, Tuesday March 19, and similar words of hope for progress in the relations between Jews and Catholics, “in a spirit of renewed collaboration.” This time a Jewish delegation was able to go, composed of leaders of the Roman and Italian Jewish communities and also the heads of international Jewish organizations and delegates from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In my estimation, the place reserved for and occupied by the Jewish delegation, an honorable place in the open square of Saint Peter, was larger than that of the Muslim representatives, which comprised a relatively small group.

The ceremony was long and we were there with no role except as guests and spectators. An Israeli rabbi browsing through the ceremony’s program was impressed by the quotation from the Torah concerning Melchizedek the king of Shalem (Jerusalem) who blessed Abram (Abraham), Gen. 14:18-20. It meant, he said, that Catholics have biblical roots and respect them. I tried to explain to him that the quotation of the name of this old biblical priest was used by Christians to show that the priesthood existed before Israel and that the Jewish priesthood of the house of Aaron was abolished by the priesthood of Jesus. Put another way, Christianity had superseded Judaism. The Israeli rabbi had inadvertently discovered the ambiguous relationship between the Jews and the papacy so clearly on display in the Middle Ages that was now hidden in the program. After the Second Vatican Council, actual Catholic theology while rejecting the accusation of deicide against Jews, still struggles to reject “supersessionism” which has not been eradicated.

Furthermore, this short discussion showed two interesting sides of the matter: a worrying one, that a prominent rabbi from Israel (as many others of his colleagues) was totally unaware and naive about the subtleties of Christian theology concerning the Jews, and a comforting one, that there was no longer any urgent need for a rabbi in Israel to know this issue.

The day after, the Vatican organized a more direct meeting between the new pope and representatives of different faiths, so we were again in the Vatican, inside the palace, and each one of us had the opportunity to meet and shake the hand of the pope. When it was my turn, he greeted me saying that he searched for information about me, and knew that I was active on social media! His interest in me, and Roman Jews in particular, was a great surprise.

Obviously, this is not the end of the story, but it demonstrates an incredible evolution, and is evidence of a crucial climate change. In actual meteorology, global warming is a matter of concern. In religious relations, the perspective is different, warming is often a positive thing. But a comparison with the past is always necessary, not only because it shows progress, but it reminds us that the confrontation between two worlds is always difficult, regardless of the time.

Fredric Brandfon’s book Intimate Strangers, A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome, will be published in the spring of 2023

Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni is the Chief Rabbi of Rome. He completed his rabbinical studies in 1973 and was elected Chief Rabbi of Rome in 2001. He is also a specialist in diagnostic radiology.