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Why Did the Chief Rabbi of Rome Convert to Catholicism?


I understand that the chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Israel Zolli was a devout and serious Orthodox Jew as well as a learned scholar of the Talmud and of Semitic literature.  Rabbi Israel Zolli was the Chief Rabbi of Trieste for many years (35, I think) before coming to Rome.  I believe that there were several rabbis in his family.  Would it not be the case that he knew about the arguments you present here with reference to the evidence on whether or not J.C. was the Messiah?  Do you disagree with those who say that he converted to Roman Catholicism because he believed that Roman Catholicism is the fulfillment of Judaism and that J.C. was the Messiah?  Do you have an opinion on why he converted to Roman Catholicism, and if you have an opinion on it, are you willing to share it?

Thank you.


Although Pope Pius XII took great pride in baptizing the former chief rabbi of Rome, the Catholic Church could hardly consider “Zolli” a pious convert.  This is because Rabbi Israel Zoller’s apostasy to Catholicism had little to do with any spiritual conviction or theological satisfaction he found in the Roman church.  Rather, it was the result of his ostracism and banishment after the Holocaust by the survivors of the Italian Jewish community, whom he callously abandoned during the war when he hid in the Vatican while fleeing the Nazis.

I have reproduced an article, which appears in the Encyclopedia Judaica on the subject of Rabbi Zoller’s conversion to Catholicism.

Zoller (Zolli), Israel (1881-1956), rabbi and apostate.  Born in Brody, Galicia, Zoller spent a great part of his life in Italy.  He was chief rabbi of Trieste after World War I, professor of Hebrew at the University of Padua from 1927 to 1938, and, from 1939, chief rabbi of Rome.  At the beginning of September 1943, when the Germans entered Rome, he abandoned the community and took refuge in the Vatican.  At the end of the hostilities he reappeared to assume his position as rabbi, but was rejected by the community because of his unworthy behavior at the time of the greatest danger.  On February 14, 1945, he converted to Catholicism, taking the name of Eugenio Maria (in homage to Pope Pius XII) and returned to the Vatican.  In 1949 he was professor of Semitic epigraphy and Hebrew at the University of Rome.  He was the author of a large number of works, especially of biblical interpretation, Jewish history, liturgy, and talmudic literature.  Among his works are Israele (“Israel,” 1935), L’ebraismo (“Judaism,” 1953), and autobiographical reflections entitled Before the Dawn (1954).  His translation of the tractate Berakhot was published by a Catholic publishing house (1968).

Bibliography: L.I.  Newman, A “Chief Rabbi” of Rome Becomes a Catholic (1945).

Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol.  16, Page 1217.

Christians should not waste their time searching the annals of history for “Orthodox Jews” who abandoned their faith to find a showpiece for Christianity.  It will not take very long for them to find many Orthodox Jews who became Moslems and pagans; and it was not uncommon for these defectors to become leaders in their newfound religions.  The Bible is filled with such nefarious individuals who abandoned their faith in the one God of Israel.  In fact, there was a wicked king who was raised in an Orthodox home who sat on the throne of David for more than a half-century who also abandoned his Jewish faith.  His name was King Manasseh the son of King Hezekiah.  One could never hope to grow up in a more Orthodox home than Manasseh, whose father was a devout and righteous man.  Yet, in spite of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, this young man grew up to become the most evil king that had ever ruled the Jewish nation.

The Bible testifies that Manasseh worshiped Baal with great zeal, and encouraged the Jewish people to do likewise.  Moreover, Manasseh was a far more sincere apostate than Israel Zoller.  Manasseh certainly did not worship profane idols in order to escape persecution.  Does this mean that the Jewish people should follow suit?  Should the apostasy of one Jew, no matter how prestigious a position he holds among the nation of Israel, be a signal to others to turn their backs on their Creator as well?

The question that immediately comes to mind is how can an intelligent, well-informed Jew abandon his faith?  Shouldn’t we anticipate that clever and erudite Jews would consistently make the correct spiritual choices in life?  How is it that we find bright and knowledgeable people making disastrous decisions that have eternal consequences?

The answer is that emotions have no IQ.  The lusts of the heart have no intelligence.  The prophet Jeremiah therefore declared that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9); therefore, in Numbers 15:39-39 the Torah commands the nation of Israel to wear tzitsis (fringes) on the corners of our garments so that “you do not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes which lead you astray.”  The difference between the intelligent man and the simpleton is not the correctness of their decisions, but rather the cunning sinner can more skillfully defend and justify his iniquity.  Heaven is not reserved only for the intellectual.

The heart can only be a wonderful thing if is bound up with the Creator and His Torah.  King David therefore beseeched God for this in his uplifting prayer in Psalm 119:36, “Turn my heart to your commandments, and not to selfish gain.” 


Rabbi Tovia Singer

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