‘Oceans of Tears’: Dogma, Compassion, and a Jewish Boy Kidnapped by the Vatican

The Truth between Us #11 — The wounds have yet to heal.

The 1858 seizure of a 6-year-old Jewish boy — Edgardo Mortara — by the Catholic Church still touches something deep in Jewish memory. This has become apparent once again as raw passions are stirred up by a recent article from a Catholic priest that seemed to justify the Church’s decision to take a Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized as an infant from his loving parents.

But institutions change, even as some might want to take them back to the past. In the wake of the First Things article, many conservative Catholics joined their Jewish counterparts spoke out loudly and clearly, calling the piece an “abomination” and “grotesque.”

The Truth between Us blog series aims to generate vigorous and honest discussion on issues that lie at the intersection of Jewish-Christian interaction, even when they are complex and painful. The Mortara episode is just that. Last week, Dr. Murray Watson and I recently shared our thoughts on the case and its effects on Catholic-Jewish relations moving forward.

Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (public domain)

Our discussion prompted our friend Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, the Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, to offer his response to the recent article and the Mortara case itself.

In his frank discussion with Murray, Dr. Korn examines the place of human compassion in a religious legal system, and wonders how modern Jewish courts would fare when judged by the standards we apply to the pre-Vatican Church.


Murray Watson: Rabbi Korn, I know you’ve been following the renewed debate about the Mortara kidnapping (and Father Romano Cessario’s recent “First Things” book review, in which he sought to rationalize or explain what happened, from the perspective of traditional Catholic theology). As someone with long experience in Jewish-Christian relations, what have been your own reactions to Cessario’s efforts in that article?

Eugene Korn: Cessario’s essay was not a book review at all, but an attempted apologia for Pius IX and the 19th century Catholic policies regarding baptism. I found the essay itself scurrilous. Among its sins were its portrayal of the Church as the aggrieved victim in the affair and its implicit attempt to justify the policy by garnering sympathy for the Church from the reader. It seems that all that matters in some quarters today to clinch a moral argument is to claim victimhood. Obviously for Cessario, doctrinal correctness also suffices, despite whatever the suffering it causes.

Yet neither the Church nor Pius IX were the victims. Even if we accept Cessario’s and Messori’s accounts that Edgardo himself felt that he ultimately benefitted from being ripped from the arms of his parents and his natural religion, the real victims were the parents of Edgardo Mortara. Note how little human concern there was both in the Church decision and in the review for the harm done to the parents, and no regard whatsoever for their parental rights. (First Things’ editor R.R. Reno called our attention to this moral need for compassion and empathy in his personal reflections on publishing the review.)

Rabbi Dr, Eugene Korn (Youtube/screenshot)

Such is what happens when dogma and theological/metaphysical claims supersede real empathy and honest concern for the empirical welfare of human beings. This is the inevitable outcome produced by all empowered orthodoxies insisting they know with certainty the will of God, as well as temporal powers that claim to have secret access to Truth. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, such omnipotent systems produce only “rivers of blood”—and I would add, “oceans of tears.”

Watson: Some commentators have seen Cessario’s article as a return to a much earlier theological approach (largely based on medieval theological categories), and very hard to reconcile with the dramatic turnaround that has been taking part in many Christian churches in their thinking about Jews and Judaism since the Second World War.

Are you surprised to see a Catholic priest-theologian taking this approach to such a delicate question in 2017? Do you think it could be intended as a critique of his own Church’s direction in its contemporary dialogue with Jews?

Korn: What Pius IX and the Church did was morally heinous. Of course I view it this way because I believe in conscience, the inherent rights of individuals and religious liberty. In this sense I am an unrepentant liberal who is committed to a moral universe that holds these values as sacred.

Pope Paul VI presiding over the introductory ingress of the Second Vatican Council, (Lothar Wolleh, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Since Vatican II – when the Church endorsed the value of conscience, human rights and religious liberty – the church is closer to this outlook, but in the 19th century it was still basically endorsing “Error has no rights” and the absoluteness of doctrine over conscience and liberty.

Evidently Cessario still believes this. Note his current endorsement of the idea of baptizing a child of non-Catholic parents who is in danger of death “even against the will of the parents.” Clearly, not all medievalists lived in the Middle Ages.

Watson: Obviously, there is much here for Catholics to reflect on, in the light of their Church’s official teachings today about Judaism, which would certainly not endorse the kinds of actions taken against young Edgardo in the mid-1800s. Are there areas in Jewish life where you think similar clashes between age-old religious teachings and modern sensitivities to the rights of individuals sometimes seem to arise?

Pope Pius IX (public domain)

Korn: We as Orthodox Jews should be able to understand the nub of the problem better than others and we should reflect on how our commitments and policies differ—if at all—from those of the old Church.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: A Christian couple in Israel decides to convert sincerely to Judaism. They do so in a completely valid conversion process overseen by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. They have a son, and then the father dies. When the boy is 6 the mother regrets her conversion to Judaism and announces she is taking her son back to the USA to live as pious and practicing Christians.

Now suppose also that the Rabbanut has state coercive powers—as did the Church in 1858. According to Jewish law (halakhah) the boy is unquestionably and “indelibly” Jewish, and the Rabbanut has the duty and the power to prevent his apostasy. Would they not ignore the wishes, rights and emotions of the mother, try prevent the son from being raised as a Christian, and block his (and her) emigration were they able to do so? Thank God they do not have this power.

A less hypothetical scenario: Do not the rabbinical courts in Israel today turn a deaf ear to the pleading, suffering and the emotional and financial travail of agunot who cannot obtain writs of divorce from their husbands? Rather than finding a creative solution, in the name of their perceived responsibility to God they claim “non-possumus” to giving these women permission to remarry and a chance at renewing their lives. The halakhah as the perceived will of God triumphs over the welfare and rights of the victimized women. None of this is to justify the above unjustifiable behavior, but to point out the evil that ensues when commitments and religious systems ignore the pleas of the innocent and the victimized on the grounds of religious truth, dogma or law. Once again, we should be thinking about where our ultimate allegiances lie, what our fundamental moral and theological values are, and how we can prevent religious evil.

Watson: Some have questioned whether the ongoing furor over the Mortara affair (and the recently-published English translation of Mortara’s own autobiography, which sparked these controversies) risks derailing decades of very positive relations between our two communities. From your point-of-view, is this a serious danger at this point—or is the dialogue strong enough today to withstand this kind of vigorous argument? What outcome do you foresee from these debates?

Korn: I may be wrong, but I doubt the book, the review or the upcoming (“prejudiced manipulative” in Cessario’s mind) Steven Spielberg movie will do significant damage to Jewish-Catholic relations. This is because, since Vatican II, the Church today has changed so much and is largely no longer the Church that existed under Pius IX.

There are newer, better models like John Paul II, who pursued the exact opposite policy as did Pius IX. The Church has reformed and sincerely apologized for its past sins against the Jewish people, and Jews need not fear normative Church policies today—Cessario notwithstanding. The Mortara case is a past tragedy, a present Christian embarrassment and a lesson for the future to Christians and Jews alike. Thank God that our future together seems destined to be better than the horrible past.

In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
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