Rabbi Elio Toaff, the first rabbi to welcome a Pope to a Roman synagogue, died Sunday at the age of 99. Pope Francis remembered him with gratitude, praising him as “a man of peace and dialogue.” The Pope lauded Rome's former Chief Rabbi in his Monday remarks to a delegation from the Conference of European Rabbis. The papal audience was the first for the conference, which represents about 700 religious leaders of many Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe. Pope Francis, writing to Rome’s current Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, recalled the legacy of Rabbi Toaff. He especially remembered the rabbi’s historic encounter with Pope John Paul II in 1986. “I remember with gratitude his generous commitment and sincere availability in fostering dialogue and the fraternal relations between Jewish and Catholic people, whose meaningful outcome was Rabbi Toaff’s memorable meeting with St. John Paul II at the Roman Synagogue,” the Pope said. The rabbi's impact on Jewish-Catholic dialogue was immense. He was one of the few people St. John Paul II specifically mentioned in his will. Elio Toaff was born April 30, 1915 in Livorno, a town in Central-Northern Italy. He made interreligious dialogue a distinctive sign of his life. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said this particular approach, respectful toward every other religion and especially toward Catholicism, came from Rabbi Toaff's very life, which featured a “spirit of openness” since his childhood. L'Osservatore Romano credited the example of the rabbi’s father, Alfredo Sabato Toaff, who was a pupil of the famous Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli, a Hellenist who was a very good friend of Catholics. The Toaff family also had a Catholic woman, Anna Pierazzi, as their housekeeper and nanny for about 60 years. “The father of the future rabbi taught her how to read and write, taking care that she attended Mass every Sunday,” L’Osservate Romano said. For her part, the nanny took care that the children prayed the “Shema,” the prayer central to morning and evening Jewish prayers. Rabbi Toaff finished legal studies in 1938 and theological studies in 1939. That same year, he earned the title of Major Rabbi at the Livorno’s Rabbis College. In 1941, he was elected the chief rabbi of Ancona, in central northern Italy. During the year 1943-1945, he entered the Italian resistance and fought the Nazi troops that had occupied Italy. In 1946, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Venice. There, he taught Jewish language and literature at the local university. In 1951, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Rome, becoming head of the most important Jewish Community in Italy. He remained in this position until 2001. His openness to dialogue combined with St. John Paul II’s particular closeness to the Jewish people. St. John Paul II’s childhood best friend was a Polish Jew, Jerzy Kluger, through whom he became very acquainted with Jewish religion and tradition. St. John Paul II’s wish to foster dialogue with Jews found in Rabbi Toaff a wonderful partner. Their relationship led to the historical visit of a Pope to a synagogue, which took place April 13, 1986. On that day, St. John Paul II visited the Major Temple of Rome to pay homage to the most ancient Jewish community of the so-called diaspora. In several interviews after the event, Rabbi Toaff said that the papal visit was “an astonishing move, from many perspectives.” “It was the first time a Pope entered a synagogue, and I was very thoughtful, since I did not know how it was going to be, nor how the Pope was going to behave once he got into the temple,” the rabbi said. But — he added — when John Paul II “came to me open arms and embraced me in front of everyone, the stress came down and everything became simple, friendly.” In his address, John Paul II called the Jewish people “our elder brothers, our chosen brothers.” At the eve of St. John Paul II’s canonization, Rabbi Toaff described the late pontiff as “righteous among the nations.” He explained that Judaism doesn’t name people saints, but gives people the title “righteous.” “As Jewish people, we want to underscore that nothing better fits with John Paul II than to be called ‘righteous’,” he explained. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the synagogue of Rome on Jan. 17, 2010, Rabbi Toaff left his house to greet the Pope in a moving scene. It is no wonder that Pope Francis wanted to honor Rabbi Toaff. As the pope said in his letter to Rabbi Di Segni: “I wish to express my heartfelt participation in the mourning of the members of his family and of the whole Jewish community of Rome for the loss of the remarkable guide, who was a main character in Italian civil and Jewish history of the last decades.” Pope Francis said the rabbi was “able to garner shared esteem and appreciation for his moral authoritativeness, combined with a profound humanity.”
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