It’s called repatriation. And it’s becoming a trend.
Returning stolen cultural artefacts has become more and more widespread over recent years. A renewed focus on racism and colonialism in the West has brought some serious issues to light. For example, according to an estimate by a 2018 French government report 90% of Africa’s material cultural heritage can be found in museum collections. And so the trend has become for public and private collectors alike to return these objects.
Notably, in August 2021 the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs received crates upon crates of about 17,000 archaeological artefacts from a prominent museum and Ivy- League university. But the country of the Cradle of Civilisation continues to petition Germany for the return of its perhaps most iconic artefact: the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The gate, some say constructed by Nebuchadnezzar II shortly after his conquest of Jerusalem, has grown in significance to the new Iraqi government which has a distinct policy of rebuilding Babylon as “a showcase of new Iraq.” The Obama Administration has even contributed $700,000 towards this ‘Future of Babylon Project’ through the State Department budget. In short, this is the story of a people reconnecting to their cultural and material past.
The Story to Our Point
A rather mysterious story is told surrounding a rabbinic figure. And there is a connection to the upcoming February 21st. The Jews of Tripoli tell us about Rabbi Yitzchak Chai Bokovaza, the chief rabbi of Tripoli in Libya in the early 20th century. He was a great scholar in both revealed and hidden Torah who composed Hebrew poetry, many outstanding books on a multitude of topics and more. At that point in history Libya was under Italian rule and in 1929 the Italian King Vittorio Emanuele III planned an official royal visit. As part of this visit he was invited into the great synagogue of Tripoli where the Torah ark was opened and the scrolls shone in all their glory. The king made his way to the bimah and Rabbi Bokovaza prayed the HaNoten T’Shua LaMlachim prayer for his success while a translator explained the prayer to the king. As the story goes, the king was so taken aback by the gesture that after returning to Italy he invited the esteemed rabbi to his son’s wedding.
Sadly, the 77-year old rabbi had to decline for his age. The king sent back a telegram stating that he sincerely wished the rabbi to bless the couple and sent a royal boat. Reluctantly, Rabbi Bokovaza acquiesced. Later, after the grand event came to a close, the king offered the rabbi the possibility of granting a personal request. Again, the rabbi did not want any involvement and remained quiet. After asking again the rabbi gave him an answer: he so wanted to see the holy vessels of the Jewish Temple locked in the Vatican.
At first the king argued saying that there was separation of Church and State and that his jurisdiction was non-existent over the Vatican. Despite this initial step back King Vittorio Emanuele III made it possible with the stipulation that the rabbi come alone.
After intense spiritual preparation, they say, and with much trepidation the rabbi made his way down the steps 4 stories under St. Peter’s Museum. The accompanying guard began opening the various curtains beyond which who knowns what to expect. Very quickly Rabbi Bokovaza requested to end the visit. He would later record in his Halachic treatise Shu”t Beit HaLachmi that he “saw enough” and could not see any more.
After exiting the catacombs the rabbi swore a Taanit Dibur – and vow to abstain from speaking. And as his grandson relates, he kept it until the day he died on February 21st 1930. His students reported that a light shone from his face like the High Priest of old upon exiting the Holy of Holies. We don’t know exactly what he saw.
Now what I wanted to say by bringing up this rather riveting story is to connect the yearning for the Avodah – the Temple Service – and our material cultural heritage to this time period and all the Parshiyot in the Book of Exodus detailing the Temple utensils and garments.
Much debate surrounds the historical whereabouts of the Temple utensils such as the Menorah that can be seen on Titus’ Arch of Triumph. That being said, other Jewish cultural materials are undoubtedly in the Vatican catacombs, whether they are uncensored books of Talmud or other artefacts. Whether these include the Menorah, Parochet, Shofarot or other Temple articles remains somewhat of a closed secret with stories abounding that they indeed are there.
Regardless, all these objects are cultural property of a Jewish nation that has a proper state and government representing it. The Vatican ‘property’ has been pillaged and plundered and stolen from us by a colonising nation. It is only right that in this spirit of repatriation to return them to us. After all, if Babylon is receiving their objects can it really be possible that Jerusalem is overlooked?
Just as an aside. I know some will say that the Israeli government cannot be fully entrusted with such cultural objects of such legendary status as the Menorah. They will point to the Temple Mount. They will point to Joshua’s Altar. They will point at many other big objects and places that form the material heart of Jewish spiritual religious identity and point out how the Israeli government has needlessly forsaken these mighty places and artefacts. And they have a point.
To this I will point to our Torah and Tradition. Precisely this form of religious mixing with government was foreseen and forbidden. The group designated as Cohanim Priests were picked to be responsible for the Jewish nation’s religious spiritual objects relating to the Temple and its treasury. For precisely this reason they have kept their identity as a Halachically and even genetically distinct group within the Jewish nation despite being separated by millennia and continents.
It is precisely this group that must be entrusted with these repatriated holy objects and places. This group identity goes beyond minute religious and political differences splintering Israeli identity today. They are the rightful custodians.