Home > Archives > 11 - 2011 > The risk of messianic movements  
from issue no. 11 - 2011

The risk of messianic movements

A meeting with Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of Rome

Interview with Riccardo Di Segni by Giovanni Cubeddu

Ahallmark of the small but important Italian Jewish community is its capacity for welcome. German, Spanish, and Portuguese Jews have benefited over the centuries from it, sometimes cyclically, and more recently those from Arab and Islamic countries. For Italian Jews it is normal to be orthodox and participate in the liturgy in Hebrew, and their collective identity has never been threatened by being a port of call. If anything, the issues on the table now are those related to assimilation and, most recently, the choice of some of the newcomers to engage in a reaction to secularization through militant “ultra-orthodoxy”. The head of the oldest Jewish diaspora, that of Rome, is now Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, with whom we are once again happy to talk about what is happening.


Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni [© Agenzia Contrasto]

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni [© Agenzia Contrasto]

Rabbi Di Segni, the presence of new identities in Judaism is now to be remarked in Rome too.

RICCARDO DI SEGNI: I’ve learnt that John Paul II once asked why the Roman Jews did not distinguish themselves by their clothing, as the Polish Jews did. The Pope, who in his youth had lived in a kind of Judaism completely different from the Italian one – Polish Judaism which was distinguished, first of all, by its numbers – was used to seeing ‘Jews who dressed as Jews’. There are many Jewish ways of dressing, and the Jews certainly were quite unlike the surrounding population. In Italy this outward separation does not exist and perhaps never existed, except for the marks imposed at the times of anti-Jewish laws. Italian Jews have always dressed like others, it is a cultural characteristic of no small account. In Western countries Jews dress like others, except for those belonging to various more Orthodox groups, who wear distinctive clothing.

But we have to add some brief background.

Indeed. The Orthodox Jewish world is varied. There is the so-called modern orthodox model, characteristic of people of Orthodox thinking and compliance, who wear no distinguishing clothing except for the fact that men cover their head, and women dress ‘modestly’ that is, avoiding exposing the body. Then there are the models improperly called ultra-Orthodox, people who dress in black (some wearing a white shirt with the black clothes and a Borsalino hat, others add various more specific items to the black clothes). This spectrum of dress codes is alien to the Italian tradition, and has been imported recently, because there is a movement of people – coming mainly from orthodox nuclei in the United States, Israel or France – who wear distinctive dress, and very often are not ordinary Jews but rabbis. And that leads us back to the discussion about how rabbis should dress, which varies in time and place: where particular solemnity, austerity and specific headgear was required, and where the simple austerity was enough: we have all the variations...

So if now we see a plurality in ways of dressing, also in Italy and in Rome, it is not a mutation in native Judaism, but because of these new presences.

A change with effects that might be profound?

First of all, the element of mobility appears. In its composition Italian Judaism is now radically different from that before the Second World War, when the resident Jews were largely indigenous. Italian Judaism came out of the conflict halved, depleted in its local component; it was later reinforced by an influx of Jews from North Africa – Libyan Jews in particular, but also Egyptian, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews in smaller numbers; Syrian and Lebanese Jews, who took home in northern Italy; and Ashkenazi Jews who came from Central Europe. Thus, Italian Judaism was strengthened but also fragmented. And speaking of outer clothing, there is a strong cultural influence from the Ashkenazi world, which has become, or is trying to become the cultural leader of the religious world.

This is a phenomenon that has been particularly felt in Israel...

... until the Sephardis rebelled against the hegemony – that is, occupation by a particular group of leadership roles, such as in the schools – going as far as the creation of a political party, the Shas. But in the attempt to regain power, there is in any case the copying of the outward signs, so that the Israeli Sephardi rabbi dresses like the Ashkenazi of Central Europe. And it is very strange, why ever should Sephardi rabbis from Africa or Iraq cover themselves in black, with heavy clothing even in summer...? Today it seems that there’s only one way for a rabbi to dress.

These new movements are present also in Italy.

They offer themselves as a novelty in the Jewish world, they have a mission to its members. Judaism does not engage in any religious mission towards the outside world, and the preservation of our traditions is by way of old and well-tried mechanisms, the schools, the synagogues, the family. A novelty in the last fifty years is that outreach movements have been encouraged, as they call them in America, that seek to bring the religious message to larger swathes of the Jewish world, fighting the trend, very present, of closing oneself in the shell of the small observant group and isolating oneself. The movements instead are trying to take the message outside as much as possible. They are an unprecedented formula.

Young Roman Jews in the synagogue during a ceremony <BR>[© Agenzia Contrasto]

Young Roman Jews in the synagogue during a ceremony
[© Agenzia Contrasto]

New movements, but rooted in certain expressions of the Judaism of past centuries.

A large source for these movements is the Hasidic tradition. Hasidism arose in the mid-eighteenth century, as a current in which there is a charismatic leader who rediscovers the emotional and spiritual dimension in Judaism, as opposed, or at least in addition to the intellectual component that had become dominant over the centuries. And this movement has a big popular impact and is organized around leaders, who become dynastic leaders, groups linked around their master, the rebbe. But even with the passage of time these groups, which nevertheless had a significant impact on people, always remained closed in on themselves, they promoted spirituality within the group. One of the recent inventions has been instead that of using the strong impetus that emanates from the charismatic authority to send people around the world to spread Judaism. It is a form of mission rare in the Judaism of the past centuries: perhaps there was no need, because the Jews had other ways of organizing themselves, but now some want to get organized to deal with the loss of the Jewish faith...

Is this mission really just for internal purposes?

I think so, these initiatives are not institutionally open to the outside world. The mission is internal to the Jewish people. The movements also tend to hold to the old Jewish attitude of not proselytizing. If an outsider is really interested, he can participate in some way. Or maybe searching around, one finds someone who was completely lost, who didn’t even know of his Jewish origins, and thus comes to rediscover his roots... In this sense it’s aimed at a wider audience.

The Chabad movement [better known as Chabad-Lubavitch, founded in the eighteenth century by the rabbi of Polish-Lithuanian origin Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a city of Imperial Russia, ed] is developing thinking on this particular issue of the ‘non-Jew’ on which the rest of Judaism remains fairly stuck. According to Jewish religious tradition, the Jews have their own particular priestly discipline to observe, which includes an abundant number of rules. In Jewish tradition, however, there are also basic standards that affect the whole of humanity, the Noahides, that is the descendants of Noah, as we call them. Now, no Jew hardly ever went on mission to the Noahides to remind them that there are such rules to be respected: these Hasidic groups on the other hand do something.

It can be a means of dialogue. On the other hand, however, these movements are governed by charismatic leaders, with the peculiar notions and practices of charisma.

There is a rigid approach to tradition in the sense that what the teacher says is not put in question. Where in other forms, while still belonging to the same Orthodox Judaism, there is always a plurality, a dynamic, a debate among possible solutions. Here instead a sort of doctrinal hardness is at work. And then the charisma is personal in the sense that it belongs to the leader.

There are also messianic movements. What is striking is that in some of these movements, the wait for the messiah is not the expectation of a person but of a principle.

There is great debate. Orthodox Judaism tends to set aside the expectation of the principle in favor of the expectation of the person. The debate is not over. But saying that messianism is a time and not a person is really something that is at the limit of orthodoxy. It was one of the forms of rationalization – messianism as a time and not as a person – in which Italian Judaism also wallowed a little.

How is the messianism of these new Jewish movements judged ultimately?

The most important messianism is that of Christianity. The Christian says that Christ is the Messiah, Christianity is messianism by definition. For Judaism the messianic idea is one out of many. It’s a tension, an expectation, and Judaism could theoretically exist – as in fact it does exist – without a fulfilled messianism. However among the ways in which Judaism is seen and lived, there are groups in which the messianic expectation becomes strong. And this can be translated into both an intense religiosity and also an intense politics.

Where is the danger in that? Messianism is an idea that vigorously impels mankind throughout its history, but where does it lead? Marxism, too, and later movements that came out of it, are political experiences with a religious charge of messianism.

If messianism gives a charge to religion, it has a positive impact, but if it becomes a key to interpretation and in some people there is even consciousness of a fulfilled messianism, we are in a situation of risk.

The Great Synagogue of Rome [© Romano Siciliani]

The Great Synagogue of Rome [© Romano Siciliani]

Some events in the history of Ashkenazi Jewry are emblematic, 30Days has already printed articles on Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank.

Judaism is full of episodes of false messiahs, that history has taken trouble to prove tricksters, but that continue even today to have underground followers.

Is it an implicit but real issue in today’s Judaism?

History continually faces the Jewish people with deadly challenges, which people puzzle to understand. It has happened several times, and the great questions have received great answers, or vice versa, great escapes from reality, delusions, reinterpretations or... movements. What happened to the Jewish people in the last century is perhaps one of the greatest things in its history, and posed us questions, to which it is difficult to answer. Here certainly the messianic key to interpretation displays its strength. But the Messianic interpretation arises not only as an interpretation of history in times of disaster but also when a world order is changing. And one of those moments when the world order changed occurred in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was so momentous that it shifted the course of history onto a different track, and in response there have been questions, rash answers, and also reflection.

Now, too, we are in a moment of change.

But maybe it will happen without the cost of millions of deaths... Today there is great uncertainty: weapons always pointed, huge masses of the poor, economic imbalances, Western societies plagued by problems that call their identity into question. From a certain point of view, one thinks anything can happen. So the idea that history is about to be fulfilled turns up again.

Finally, in everyday life, what happens to traditional Italian Jewry faced with these new/old currents?

There is a continuous exchange, not between great messianic ideas – absolutely not – but between models of Judaism lived intensely or marginally in one’s own life. There’s debate: some people see the good, the importance of a rapprochement with tradition, others experience it as problematic. And then there’s also a little clash between traditions, because those who come from outside do not necessarily resemble the local Orthodox...

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português