Losing two giants

Losing two giants

The world lost two rabbinic titans this week, one who strove to heal old wounds between Jews and Christians, and another who attempted to bind the fractures within Israeli society.

Rabbi Elio Toaff, who died Sunday at age 99, was the chief rabbi of Rome for 51 years. A former partisan fighter, he led an Italian-Jewish community greatly diminished by the Holocaust, but still hugely significant for its longevity and its proximity to the Vatican. When he invited Pope John Paul II on his historic April 1986 visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue — the first known visit by a pope to a synagogue in some 2,000 years — it provided a stirring, public climax to 20 years of historic Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. “The heart opens itself,” Toaff said at the time, “to the hope that the misfortunes of the past will be replaced by fruitful dialogue.” Despite periodic setbacks, those hearts remain open, and the dialogue has indeed been fruitful.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion bloc, died Monday morning at age 81. He was a PhD in literature who became the conscience of Israel’s Religious Zionists. He provided a firm intellectual and ethical underpinning to a movement that sought to navigate between the pieties of the fervently Orthodox and the secularism of Israel’s founding generation. Thousands of Modern Orthodox students were proud to call themselves his disciples.

Lichtenstein was also a powerful counterweight to the extremists within the Religious Zionist movement. He opposed those who urged soldiers to commit insubordination by refusing orders to evacuate settlements. And when a far-right Orthodox activist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, Lichtenstein condemned incitement and demanded that his colleagues and followers take responsibility for the educational system that made such an act even possible. His words, wrote Yehuda Kurtzer, a former student, echoed “what Torah can look like when it is deployed in the service of moral courage in a living society that needs it so much.”

There is still much to be done in fostering interfaith dialogue and reconciling clashing visions for Israel’s future. The legacies of Rabbis Toaff and Lichtenstein will be invoked whenever people try.

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