Cracking the Vatican walls

Some 800 ancient Hebrew texts which survived Church-ordered burnings have finally been made public.

Hebrew manuscripts 88 (photo credit: )
Hebrew manuscripts 88
(photo credit: )
Amid the news reports about the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks around the world last week, this headline stood out: "Vatican and Israeli libraries publish detailed catalogue of Vatican's Hebrew manuscripts." Readers may ask at this point, "What's the big deal?" While serving as deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington about 10 years ago, I was skimming the mound of daily cables that my diplomatic colleagues from around the world had dispatched to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. One caught my eye: A junior diplomat in Rome was reporting on his meeting with a junior librarian in the Vatican. He had been shown some old manuscripts and told, as my memory recalls, that these manuscripts had not been shown to anyone before. "Eureka!" was my reaction. I quickly cabled the Rome mission and the Foreign Ministry's Cultural Division. Were they aware of what was being offered? It was just possible that Israel and the Jewish people were being given a peek at manuscripts stolen from the Jewish people over a period of hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. It was just possible that these manuscripts were the tiny fraction of the Talmuds, commentaries and responsa that survived the papal-decreed Jewish book burnings across Europe. It was also possible that these manuscripts were from a special library set up by the Vatican centuries ago for use by Jewish apostates so that they could attack Jewish beliefs. A reminder: These were all handwritten manuscripts; the printing press would not be invented for centuries. THERE WAS a centuries-long history of popes and European kings burning Jewish manuscripts as part of their campaign to convert Jews to Catholicism. In 1244, King Louis IX of France ordered the burning of 20,000 copies of the Talmud. "In 1376 Pope Gregory XI ordered book burning but, as Judaism could not be eradicated by this means," wrote Jeannette Greenfield in The Return of Cultural Treasures, "expulsions of Jews took place in England, France, Spain and Germany... Under Pope Paul IV, all Hebrew books were ordered seized, and even ownership of a Hebrew book became a punishable offense... In 1553 a major book burning of the Talmud and other books was ordered in the Campo di Fiori... This papal bull, which called for the destruction of all Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, was repeated in subsequent years and issued in all papal lands, and it has not been formally revoked to this day." The Church-ordered book-burning became the fuel for the auto-de-fe and the burning of Jews at the stake during the Inquisition. Ultimately, the Nazis began their campaign against the Jews by burning their books. AFTER A FLURRY of diplomatic cables a decade ago, the Foreign Ministry made contact with experts at the Israel Museum, and negotiations and visits to Rome began. A few of the documents were known to Jewish scholars. In 1987, the Vatican and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement) arranged for the exhibition of 57 manuscripts in US cities. The Committee for the Recovery of Jewish Manuscripts, headed by Dr. Manfred Lehmann, a businessman, historical scholar and rabbi, demanded that the manuscripts be returned to the Jewish people. "The Catholic Church had an obsession to collect, confiscate and burn Jewish manuscripts," Lehmann stated. At the end of January 2009, the Catholic Church took a big step to atone for this cultural crime. The Vatican Library and the Israeli National Library announced at the Vatican, "After almost 10 years of intense work... [the libraries] published a detailed and descriptive catalogue of the more than 800 Hebrew manuscripts and books held in the Vatican Library." Some of the manuscripts were reported to date from the 9th century. The Catholic News Service reported details of the catalogue: "The collection includes about 100 Bibles and biblical commentaries; a similar number of works dealing with Jewish law, customs and liturgy; about 100 works of philosophy, including works by Jewish authors or translated into Hebrew; about 70 manuscripts dealing with astronomy, mathematics or medicine; 90 manuscripts dealing with Kabbala or Jewish mysticism; as well as works of literature and poetry." These historic manuscripts will keep Jewish scholars busy for years. The basic printed Hebrew texts used today will be compared and in some cases may actually be revised. Much of the credit goes to the intractable and determined Manfred Lehmann, who would never see the fruits of his labor. He died in May 1997. The writer served as deputy chief of mission in the embassy in Washington. An international consultant, he blogs at