BEFORE THE DAWN
by Eugenio Zolli
(Ignatius Press, 1954, reprinted 2008, 204pp, $35.00.
Available from Freedom Publishing)
Perhaps one of the greatest fruits that has emerged in the decades following the Second Vatican Council has been the vastly improved relations between Jews and Catholics, demonstrated most recently by Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land.
However, the question of Jews converting to Catholic Christianity is still a sensitive subject. One of the most controversial Jewish figures to become a Christian was Eugenio Zolli (Israel Zoller), former Chief Rabbi of Rome, who together with his wife was baptised on 17 February 1945, following the liberation of Rome.
Before the Dawn is Zolli's apologia for his actions written primarily in response to the charge that he joined the Catholic Church largely to repay a debt of gratitude for his life being saved during the Holocaust.
Although dates and events are recorded, Before the Dawn is for the most part an attempt to trace the development of Zolli's spirituality that led to him embracing Christ-ianity.
Zolli argues that his baptism was the culmination of years of prayer and reflection that went back to his childhood in Eastern Europe. He argues that it began with him seeing a crucifix in a Catholic friend's house. Intrigued by the image of the suffering Christ, Zolli later went on to read the Gospels and was struck by how profoundly Jewish Jesus Christ was.
He gradually came to be convinced of Jesus' claims to be the Messiah in line with the Gospels' portrayal of Him as the fulfilment of the messianic hopes and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, Zolli came to realise that Jesus was the suffering servant figure prophesied by Isaiah.
Zolli completed his rabbinical education in Florence and would teach at the University of Padua and be Chief Rabbi of Trieste before becoming Rabbi of Rome. During these years his study of and reflections on the person of Jesus grew. Many of his students included Catholic seminarians and priests with whom he established a good rapport.
Zolli's account also covers his actions during the German occupation of Rome and its aftermath. Zolli had always been extremely wary of the Nazis and the dangers they posed to the Jewish community. He responded to their first strategy - attempting to rob the Jews of their assets by demanding an exorbitant amount of gold - by appealing for help from contacts in the Vatican, who forwarded the balance of the gold demanded that the Jewish community had not been able to assemble.
Zolli's critics allege that he focused on saving himself and his family. However, Zolli argues that he actively encouraged members of his community to flee and/or go into hiding. Interestingly, though, Zolli makes no mention of the fact that he hid for part of the period of German occupation in Vatican property, a detail which his critics chide him about.
The climax of Before the Dawn is his account is of the vision of Jesus Christ he received while conducting the Day of Atonement Service soon after the Allied liberation of Rome. In his heart, he believed Jesus said to him, "You are here for the last time" (p. 190).
It seems this vision was confirmed for him by his wife who, that evening, told him before he had made any reference to his mystical experience that she believed Jesus was covering his head with His hands during the service.
Before the Dawn is a moving account of the spiritual experience of a devout and learned rabbi. The very positive approach to Judaism in the pages of the book foreshadows directions the Church adopted at the time of Vatican II. In particular, it underscores the fact that anti-Semitism can have no place in the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, it is problematic to speak of a Jew converting to Catholicism; instead, as Zolli argues, his baptism was not so much a conversion, but rather a completion or fulfilment of his Judaism, since in joining the Church he recognised Jesus as the Messiah for whom the Jewish people longed.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.