Rabbi Elio Toaff recently died at the age of 99 in Rome, on April 19th. We made a book together titled Essere Ebreo in which he explored with me what it means To be a Jew in the form of a long interview, and another called Il Messia e gli ebrei (The Messiah and the Jews). My book Camminare Insieme (Walking Together) with Elio Toaff, Carlo Maria Martini and El Hassan bin Talal has just been published, April 2015. This short Interview with Rabbi Toaff dates from December 24th, 2000 and we publish it here in his fond memory.
Rabbi Toaff is sitting at his desk in an office on the second floor of the synagogue of Rome. Behind him, there’s a Jewish candelabra and the Ten Commandments.
What is your state of mind as you leave for Jerusalem?
Worry and curiosity. You can only know the truth by going to see for yourself and not by reading the newspapers. When you are there, you understand how things really are. It’s important to experience places for yourself.
What are you going to do in Israel?
I will be in Jerusalem and will only go to the centre and the north of the country with my children.
Are you worried about your children and grandchildren who live there?
No. And to think that I have a granddaughter in the military! Men do three years of military service and women do two years.
Aren’t you fearful for your granddaughter?
No. Actually I go to Israel every two months, and my impression is that they are closer to peace down there than one would think.
Why is that?
Because people make assumptions. The current state of things isn’t good for anybody, and so I’m certain that they will find a way out.
Even if Sharon wins the elections?
Extremists won’t win. They can be part of a coalition, but it would be hard for them to produce a president.
What about Bush, the new President of the United States?
He will intervene when things calm down. He can’t risk a failure. Today the United States can’t allow itself to suffer any kind of setback.
What is Putin’s role in Russia?
I think he has an important role, considering the number of Russians who live in Israel. It’s a large number. I think if Putin intervenes, it could be very useful.
What about Europe?
Europe is another problem because it’s divided. Just look at France, England, Holland, Luxembourg, and other countries, each of which has its own position. But Europe needs to come to an agreement to be able to participate in the Middle East. It’s not possible to have so many disparate opinions.
Is anti-Semitism returning in the world?
It never left even if there was some hope it had, but anti-Semitism has different sides. There’s the widespread type, the type that comes from competition, and then the religious type.
What type of anti-Semitism is there today?
I would say there is a religious type of anti-Semitism. If we look to recent things Ratzinger and Biffi have said, one can’t say that they are the only bearers of the one truth. In any case, I am convinced that truth is supra-religious and supra-national. On issues of absolute truth or primogeniture, we need to go very slowly and be very careful.
Why after so much work by the pope, and after his trip to the Middle East, and the courageous attempts at friendship and peace, why has this happened?
I know the pope well enough to be able to say that his position is not as it has been portrayed today in certain contexts. Let’s put it that way.
Is it more difficult now than before to be a religious leader?
Most certainly yes, because the evolution of various societies hasn’t come about through religion but through politics and union struggles instead.
Where are religions going?
Judaism is the same as it was two-thousand years ago, with no change. If you ask me about Jews, that is certainly not the same thing. As in all religions, there are those who are religious, those who no longer are, and those who have completely distanced themselves from the religion.
You are celebrating Hanukkah now, which this year overlaps with Christmas for Christians?
Yes. We light candles for eight days. This has a very modern meaning. It is the celebration of justice winning out over injustice. The victory of a few just people against many unjust people, and the victory of the moderate religious over the anti-religious.
You are friends with the Italian president and Mrs. Ciampi. How do you see them?
Even if he’s not part of the government, he has great responsibilities that he knows how to take on with moderation, justice, and a great sense of duty in his role.
Will he be able to keep our country calm?
I believe so because his own way of living inspires serenity and allows us to appreciate the eternal values of the family, of good, and of doing the right thing.
The president really insists upon the concept of patriotism, which today seems to be in crisis. What do you think about that?
Yes. It’s true because the influence of party politics on concepts that didn’t exist until a short while ago brings about opposition from some.
During these holidays in Israel, will you be able to relax a bit?
I am going specifically for that.
But if you are going there to be a grandfather, won’t that require a lot of energy?
It won’t require a lot of energy, but it will certainly require a bit of patience perhaps.
How many grandchildren do you have?
Three grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.
When will you go to your hometown of Livorno?
I am going after my trip to Israel, to my sister’s house and to see other grandchildren.
Would you say there are three major cities in your life – Rome, Jerusalem, and Livorno?
No. Actually, there are five because we’d need to add Ancona and Venice to that list. Those are the cities where I served as a rabbi.
You aren’t very pessimistic as the year comes to a close, are you?
No. Perhaps I’m a bit rash, but I’m certainly not pessimistic.
24th December, 2000