The Wayward Son

The Jewish community in Italy is struggling to understand how the son of a legendary rabbi could give credence to the blood libels. The father of Prof. Ariel Toaff, Rabbi Elio Toaff, is equally bewildered.

"If this is so, then he, too, understood. That is, that the criticism that everyone has expressed about his book was justified. His arguments in the book were an insult to the intelligence, to the tradition, to history in general and to the meaning of the Jewish religion. It saddens me that such nonsense was put forward by my son of all people."

The speaker is Elio Toaff, the former chief rabbi of Rome and the father of Professor Ariel Toaff, who last week announced the withdrawal of his book "Pasque di Sangue" (literally, bloody Passovers) and the halting of its printing. The elder Toaff made these remarks to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which contacted him for his response to the report of the suspension of the book's publication. Toaff said that his son had not informed him of this, and when the newspaper asked him if there was anything he'd like to say to his son - as if there were no telephones in the world and these were strangers rather than father and son - the 92-year-old rabbi said that he would like him to know of "my pain and sorrow and disappointment. I never thought that he, who is such a serious scholar, would publish such a dangerous study."

And with that, the story ostensibly ended: Printing of the scandalous book was halted and Professor Toaff announced that all proceeds would be transferred to the Anti-Defamation League. But the question that has yet to be answered is how this thing happened in the first place. How did it happen that a distinguished Israeli professor nearing the end of his career and on the verge of retirement publish a book so inflammatory that it inspired a fury of criticism from the international academic community and from the Italian Jewish community and had to be withdrawn after just a week in stores?

The fallout from Toaff's book is far from over, and people in the Jewish community are saying that never has a single person been the object of such fierce resentment. At least some of this anger derives from Toaff's family background; this, after all, is no marginal or eccentric character but someone who is the flesh and blood of the Italian Jewish elite, the son of the man who for the past 50 years was considered the symbol of the community. What's so disturbing to many is that it was Toaff of all people who chose to raise the matter of the blood libels, and within Italy itself no less - as if the objective were to spit in the community's face by impugning it with the worst accusation of all, one that in the past has led to lives being lost.

Elio Toaff is to Italian Jewry as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. In the years following World War II, and particularly after he was appointed chief rabbi of Rome in 1951, Toaff earned a reputation in Italy as a wise and moderate leader who enjoyed extensive ties with representatives of other religions, and a moral voice in both the domestic and international arenas. The fact that in his will Pope John Paul II mentions only two people by name - Cardinal Dsiwisz, his personal secretary who was with him from the time he was in Krakow, and Rabbi Toaff, perhaps attests most poignantly to his stature.

Elio Toaff was born in 1915 in Livorno, the Tuscan port city located about 100 kilometers west of Florence. He was ordained as a rabbi in that city in 1939, on the eve of World War II, not long before the Italian race laws imposed numerous restrictions on the country's Jews. He also studied law and theology at the University of Pisa.

His son, Ariel, was born in the summer of 1942. In his autobiography, Perfidi Giudei, Fratelli Maggiori ("Wicked Jews, Elder Brothers"), published in 1987, Rabbi Toaff writes that since his eldest son was born close to Tisha B'Av, the date of the destruction of the Holy Temple, he chose to give him a name that is a synonym for Jerusalem. When he went to the Italian interior ministry to register his son's name, he was told by a clerk that it could not be done, because "foreign names" could not be registered. Disappointed, the father headed home, but on his way, he passed by a book shop. Displayed in the window was a book by the nationalist Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, considered a precursor of fascism. The book was entitled "Ariel Armato." Toaff went back to the clerk and told him happily that if d'Annunzio was allowed, then so was he.

During the war, Toaff demonstrated a great deal of courage. During his certifying exams to become an attorney, in 1939, a fascist professor taunted him saying that he must have simply memorized everything, since "a Jew cannot understand laws." In response, the law student commented that, to the best of his memory, at least one major legal text (the Torah) was written by a Jew, and therefore, he "does not accept such criticism concerning the Jews' ability to understand this material." Later, he joined the Italian underground, and ended up spending time in prison for it.

But the rabbi's fame came after the war. The elder Toaff gained recognition as a moral authority of the first rank, and effectively became the dean of Italian Jewry. In 1982, when a massive wave of criticism was directed at Israel in the wake of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, a journalist cornered him as he was leaving the synagogue and asked him, "Rabbi Toaff, how do you feel?" Toaff replied: "Just like you." The biggest moment of all came in 1986, with the historic first visit ever by a Pope to a synagogue. "I didn't know what would happen exactly," Rabbi Toaff said later. "But when I saw John Paul II approaching me inside the synagogue with arms open, and embracing me in front of everyone, all the tension dissipated and the whole thing became most friendly. This gesture overturned all the persecution that the Jews of Rome had suffered over the years."

This visit is still considered a formative event in the warming of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. It also prepared the ground for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican, and the Pope's visit to Israel in 2000. An honorary citizen of Rome since October 2001, the recipient of a Knighthood of the Great Cross of the Italian Republic as well as the title of Senator-for-Life, Toaff also received congratulations on his 90th birthday from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI. "Together with the Jewish community of Rome," Ratzinger wrote on April 30, 2005, "I thank God for the long and fruitful life that He has granted you."

Thus, it's not hard to understand the shock currently being felt by the Italian Jewish community over this human tragedy. In the epilogue to his autobiography, Toaff wrote, "Each one of my four children has chosen his own path, established a family, found an occupation, but above all, maintained absolute fealty to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people." The closing chord of the episode, at least for now, has a much harsher ring: In the past two weeks, at the Italian Synagogue on Hillel Street in Jerusalem, there has been some discussion as to whether to ban Professor Ariel Toaff, the son of the man known in Italy as "the Pope of the Jews," from setting foot in the place.