Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Chief Rabbi's Conversion, The

by Arthur B. Klyber


This article, originally printed in Liguorian, August 1945, summarizes the conversion of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli. "When a devout Jew becomes a follower of Jesus he changes neither his nationality, which is Hebrew, nor his religion, which is Judaism. Well, then, what does he do? He merely brings his religion to completion . . . ."

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Catholic Answers, Inc., San Diego, CA, December 2002

On February 17, 1945, Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and his wife were baptized in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels by Msgr. Luigi Tralia. Zolli was the Chief Rabbi of Trieste for 35 years before coming to Rome. His deep learning in the scriptures and Semitic literature may be seen in the many books he published. Catholic scholars publicly recognized this learning years before his conversion when they invited him to assist in the work of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and in the compiling of the Italian Catholic Encyclopedia.

The former rabbi is now 65, but fairly vigorous. He was born in Poland. His mother was a German Jewess; and on her side of the family there were 130 years of rabbinical tradition.

It is no surprise to find newspaper comment on Zolli's action insolent, at least by implication. For instance, it was neither necessary, nor good sportsmanship, for certain newspapers to headline the story: "Voices, Rays Convert Rabbi to Catholicism." Moreover, it was disrespectful and offensive to millions to call the conversion a "religious switch," since it was the outcome of at least 12 years of serious thinking and study by a serious-minded ecclesiastic of the synagogue.

Only in the Associated Press dispatch by George Bria do we find any reference to the "voices and rays" supposed to have affected the rabbi. Nevertheless, even if Zolli did use such expressions, they did not mean what the casual reader of the news was led to think — namely, that the convert was a dreamer or crackpot and that this conversion was to be passed off with a pitying shake of the head. If Zolli did use the phrase, he was referring to interior inspirations he had received from the Light of the World. As Chief Rabbi of Rome, this sincere man had offered himself as hostage to the Nazi forces then occupying the city if they would release several hundred of his fellow Jews. Was that the conduct of a dreamer? Wasn't it rather the action of a practical-minded, self-sacrificing pastor?

Jews, and especially rabbis of the Orthodox group, do not become Christians lightmindedly, nor without powerful help from God. Experience has proved that a prospective convert from Judaism may nearly always look forward to severe boycotts from his family and friends and all former Jewish associates. If Orthodox, he may expect even father and mother to turn against him. They will put him out of their home and blot out his name from their will. All his Jewish business connections will be severed, even if they mean his bread and butter.

If the convert is a member of some milder branch of Judaism, such as the Conservative or Liberal, his penalty for conversion will be bad enough. Israel Zolli and his wife had to face most of those evils. In reply to a suggestion that he had become a Catholic for gain, the rabbi said, "No selfish motive led me to do this. When my wife and I embraced the Church we lost everything we had in the world. We shall now have to look for work, and God will help us to find some."

When a Jew is willing to take such a cross as this as the price of his conversion, he makes his momentous break with the past only from rock-like conviction that he is doing what God wishes him to do, and he is able to do it only by the power of God. This is clear in Zolli's case, from his defense of his decision.

When the good rabbi was asked why he had given up the synagogue for the Church, he gave an answer that showed he had a keen understanding of his present position: "But I have not given it up. Christianity is the integration of the synagogue. The synagogue was a promise, and Christianity is the fulfillment of that promise. The synagogue pointed to Christianity: Christianity presupposes the synagogue. So you see, one cannot exist without the other. What I converted to was the living Christianity."

"Then you believe that the Messiah has come?" the interviewer asked.

"Yes, positively," replied Zolli. "I have believed it for many years. And now I am so firmly convinced of the truth of it that I can face the whole world and defend my faith with the certainty and solidity of the mountains."

"But why didn't you join one of the Protestant denominations, which are also Christian?"

"Because protesting is not attesting. I do not intend to embarrass anyone by asking: 'Why wait 1,500 years to protest?' The Catholic Church was recognized by the whole Christian world as the true Church of God for 15 consecutive centuries. No man can halt at the end of those 1,500 years and say that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ without embarrassing himself seriously. I can accept only that Church which was preached to all creatures by my own forefathers, the Twelve who, like me, issued from the synagogue.

"I am convinced that after this war [World War II], the only means of withstanding the forces of destruction and of undertaking the reconstruction of Europe will be the acceptance of Catholicism — that is to say, the idea of God and of human brotherhood through Christ, and not a brotherhood based on race and supermen, for 'there is neither Jew nor Greek; neither bond nor free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

"I was a Catholic at heart before the war broke out, and I promised God in 1943 that I should become a Christian if I survived the war. No one in the world ever tried to convert me. My conversion was a slow evolution, altogether internal. Years ago, unknown to myself, I gave such an intimately Christian form and character to my writings that an archbishop in Rome said of my book, The Nazarene, 'Everyone is susceptible of errors, but so far as I can see, as a bishop, I could sign my name to this book.' I am beginning to understand that for many years I was a natural Christian. If I had noticed that fact 20 years ago, what has happened now would have happened then."

As was to be expected, the announcement caused a great stir in Jewish religious circles throughout the world. The Jewish community of Rome tasted gall. Overnight the once venerated, learned rabbi who had offered his life for his "sheep" became to some Jews an ignoramus and to all Jews a heretic and traitor. The synagogue of Rome proclaimed a several-days' fast in atonement for Zolli's defection and mourned him as dead, while at the same time they denounced him as a reschumad (apostate, one struck by God) and excommunicated him . . . Though to many it looks like frightful bigotry to condemn a man like Zolli, we must yet be wary against hastily condemning the Jews for this. The Catholic Church also excommunicates heretics with severe penalties.

Rabbi Zolli, like others who became Christians, was condemned by the Jewish elders because in their judgment he had violated God's Name by believing that the man Jesus was God. To be fair, we must give to the Jews of Rome credit for acting honestly in the rabbi convert's case.

Moreover, the Jews have long memories. Their souls are still smarting from countless past persecutions; today their poor bodies are suffering again in a most horrible mass murder of millions in Europe.

Christians most certainly should restrain the temptation to scold the Jews for their treatment of Zolli and other converts and instead should be compassionate and pray for them, as the former rabbi and his wife are doing.

Inconsistently enough (or consistently, would one say?), non-Orthodox Jews of today have called Baruch Spinoza the greatest Jew of modern times. (Spinoza [1632-1677], who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656 for his unorthodox theology, has since been recognized as one of the most important philosophical thinkers of his age.) Such an about-face by modern Jews is no reflection on Orthodox Jews of the past or present. "Reformed Jews," perhaps unknown to themselves, have surrendered the revealed faith of their fathers; they can teach almost anything and get by with it. Since many of them are very hazy about the Adonai Echod (One God) for whom their fathers surrendered their lives, it is no surprise to find them now praising someone their forefathers condemned.

Einstein, the scientist, committed the same spiritual crime as Spinoza; yet he too is praised and respected by Reform Jews. Now, the Orthodox have condemned Einstein too, at least silently, and they would like to condemn him publicly as they did Zolli. But they reasonably hesitate because they feel their people are suffering enough and, perhaps, because Einstein did not profess himself a Christian.

All the difference between the religious beliefs of devout Jews and Catholics hinges on one question: "Is this Jesus whom the whole world worships as God really the Messiah whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets of the Old Law?" Any Catholic who stubbornly denies Jesus is the Son of God will be excommunicated from the Church and be in danger of eternal punishment in hell unless he retracts. Conversely, a Jew who professes Jesus is the Messiah will be cast out of the synagogue as Zolli was. Orthodox Jews of today believe their own ancient doctrines as completely and firmly as Catholics hold to the teachings of the Church.

It is necessary to point out that, although Jews repudiate Jews who have become Christians, they teach plainly that non-Jews who believe in the one God of heaven and earth and do his will can enter eternal life, even though their understanding of the one God is somewhat spoiled by their notions concerning Jesus and his mission.

Zolli's daughter, not a convert, asserted in defense of her father, "I don't feel that my father's conversion was a betrayal of the Jews. The fact that he could spend 40 years teaching Judaism proves the profound connection between the two religions." Zolli himself said, "I continue to maintain unchanged all my love for the people of Israel; and in my sorrow for the lot that has befallen them, I shall never stop loving the Jews. I did not abandon the Jews by becoming a Catholic."

"Once a Jew always a Jew" is a shibboleth too often quoted by well-meaning Jews as a sort of proof that a Jew cannot in his heart of hearts ever become a Christian. When Israel Zolli was asked whether he still considered himself a Jew he answered with the same expression, but explained it in its deeply correct significance. "Did Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul, and hundreds of Hebrews like them cease to be Jews when they followed the Messiah and became Christians? Emphatically, no."

A Jew who accepts a Messiah today remains just as much a Jew as he would expect to remain if and when he were to accept a Messiah at some distant future coming. In other words, a Jew who accepts Jesus as his Messiah accepts a Jew and himself remains a Jew. This may sound strange and even heterodox to Catholics who have only a surface knowledge of Jewish prophetic history and Catholic teaching concerning it. A Jewish convert takes as his Messiah the Jew Jesus, who traces his ancestry back to King David without a break: Can anyone be more Jewish than that?

The convert accepts a Jewish Messiah who proved his mission was from God by doing the hundreds of things the prophet said he would do, chief among them his unquestionable and numerous miracles and his Resurrection from the dead. His miracles are continued and multiplied in his Church even up to the present moment. Has any Messiah ever done the like: Could any Jew do anything greater to put the seal of God on his teachings?

When a devout Jew becomes a follower of Jesus he changes neither his nationality, which is Hebrew, nor his religion, which is Judaism. Well, then, what does he do? He merely brings his religion to completion, as Zolli pointed out: He plucks the ripe fruit from the tree that was planted by God. This is why the former rabbi was able to say that he had not given up the synagogue for the Church, that the one could not exist without the other. This is also why he repeated correctly, "Once a Jew, always a Jew."

If there is any notion that must be stressed both for Christians and Jews it is that Jesus did not give to the world a new religion, but only a New Covenant or Testament concerning the Old Religion which he himself had given to the Jews. God's very nature forbids his giving to the world at any time at all more than one religion or one way of life and worship.

Fr. Arthur B. Klyber, C.SS.R, a convert from Judaism, was the director of Remnant of Israel. After he was ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1932 he called himself a "completed Jew." This article was originally printed in Liguorian, August 1945 and is reprinted with permission.

©2002 by Catholic Answers, Inc.

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