On the occasion of the European Day of Jewish Culture, which this is year is dedicated to the topic of renewal, some statements have appeared that reiterated a call for attention not to confuse the concept of renewal with that of reform. We are talking about a recurring topic, in which the presence also in Italy of Jewish groups that define themselves as reformed is considered a danger, a threat to Jewish communities in Italy which, for statutory and traditional reasons, identify themselves in the orthodoxy sphere.
Personally, I have had the opportunity to address the issue in the context of historical research, studying the impact that the movement of reform born in the 19th century in Central Europe had on Italian Jewish communities between the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to my research, I have been able to detect that such movement lacked success among the communities of the Peninsula because of some very obvious factors. Firstly, the demographic scarceness.
It is difficult to think of establishing communities of any other kind in cities where Jews are few. They could not have held out. Then there is the matter of the degree of personal adherence of Jews in Italy to traditional norms. If we consider only the last two centuries – unfortunately, reliable research on the eras prior to emancipation is lacking – it is evident to everyone that there was a rapid process of secularization.
This is nothing extraordinary, since this was the same dynamic that involved the entire European population with a Christian majority. The loss of central position of religion and of the relationship with the divine in the middle-class society that had emerged from the French Revolution and starred in the Industrial Revolution, led to a rapid weakening of religious practices everywhere.
The result was a marked tendency for small Jewish communities in Italy to experience a new kind of “Israelitism” – as historians call it with an ugly term – that involved the adoption of some of the more flamboyant proposals of the reform movement in the face of maintaining an official adherence to orthodoxy.
Rabbis started to wear cassock robes similar to Christian priests, synagogues took on church-like forms and housed organs and choirs, religious major ceremonies became similar to Christian confirmations – someone still remembers the girls dressed in white that celebrated the Bat Mitzvah on Shavuot. Photographs appeared on graves at the cemetery, fewer and fewer people were observing Sabbath rest and Kashrut. However, from an institutional point of view communities remained Orthodox. These and other reasons meant that the reform movement did not take root in Italy.
However, in the globalization era, Italy too, as the rest of the world, has experienced in more recent years the emergence of groups that identify themselves in the framework of Jewish reform. Again, nothing new here, since a large percentage of those in the world nowadays who are considered Jews by statistics – and are perhaps affected by antisemitic acts – identify themselves or are registered in reformed communities of various kinds. This is a matter of fact in both the United States and Europe. We are talking about a fact, not an interpretation, and I think that reality should be read and interpreted on the basis of real data and not through lenses that somehow offer different visions. On the other hand, it does not seem to me that all of this has led to a weakening of the religiosity of Judaism in Italy. Although greatly reduced in numbers, the communities have maintained their own vitality, and in the two urban areas of Rome and Milan, synagogues and related services have multiplied. We have far more places of worship, kosher restaurants, ritual baths and commercial services in Italy today than in the past.
In the perspective of “renewal” proposed as the topic of Culture Day, these dynamics should be considered for what they are. Incidentally, these are not the only topics of renewal proposed by history in the Jewish sphere. To give just two examples having to do with the interpretation of religious norms, I would mention the emergence of two central rabbinates, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, in the State of Israel. They do not fail to carry out an important and never seen influence on diaspora communities, with a strong weakening of the concept of Mara de-Atra assigning the local rabbi the final word in matters of norms. I would also mention the recognition of part of the Chabad Chassidic movement members who referred to the last Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson as Mashiach, placing and venerating his crowned image next to the Torah scrolls. These are all innovations – and there are others – that affect the Jewish world in history and in contemporary times. I think that reflecting on the topic of renewal asks us to observe these dynamics, to evaluate them for what they are and represent, to know them, to interpret them.
* Director of CDEC Foundation
Translation by Martina Bandini, revised by Maria Cianciuolo, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.