“Protagonist in Jewish history and Italian society in recent decades, he gained mutual respect and appreciation for his moral authority, in addition to his profound humanity”. Pope Francis remembered Rabbi Elio Toaff – who died on Sunday, 19 April Rome – in a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni. “I recall with gratitude his generous commitment and sincere willingness to promote dialogue and fraternal relations between Jews and Catholics, which witnessed a significant moment during his memorable meeting with St John Paul II at the Synagogue of Rome”.
A man of openness
The last time Elio Toaff met with a Pope was on 17 January 2010, when Benedict xvi visited the Jewish community of Rome. Toaff, who led the community with wisdom and serenity for half a century, died on Sunday, 19 April, just days before his 100th birthday. That day in 2010, after the Pope paid his respects at the stone commemorating the horrific raid of 16 October 1943, Rabbi Toaff — who was present despite his old age and the frigid weather — welcomed the Pontiff in near silence: their interaction consisted in shaking hands and an exchange of glances. There was no need for many words, in the midst of a small crowd of representatives of the oldest Jewish community of the diaspora, most of whom were elderly and visibly moved.
Toaff was a man of faith to whom many Jews and Catholics owe an invaluable personal debt. He played a vital role in overcoming the long history of rivalry and hostility, conflict and persecution. He was aware of a deep closeness, despite differences, and of a common future, which is on the one hand already present and possible and on the other, still distant and mysterious.
In his long and rich life, one of Elio Toaff's defining characteristics was his openness, which was apparent from the very beginning, thanks to the example of his father Alfredo Sabato Toaff, a Greek scholar and friend of ecclesiastical Catholics. In fact a Catholic woman Anna Pierazzi worked in the Toaff household as a domestic for 60 years. It was in that home that the future rabbi’s father taught her how to read and write, making sure she was able to go to Mass every Sunday. For her part, the nanny put the children to bed each night, making sure they recited the shemà. And it was in his childhood home that Toaff witnessed and learned a spirit of openness which stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Relations between Catholics and Jews in 20th-century Italy and Rome were difficult and painful. During this time, Toaff played such an extremely important role, and it is significant that his best known book is dedicated in large part to these relationships, and demonstrates a friendship to which many contributed, not the least of whom were the Popes. It was no accident that John Paul ii remembered “the Rabbi of Rome” in the final entry of his last will and testament, recognizing in Elio Toaff an open heart and mind which will remain connected to his venerable memory. (g.m.v.)
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