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Straus Scholars Explore Jewish and Western Heritage in Rome

Over winter break, students of the Straus Scholars Program visited Rome, Italy, to experience key places and monuments at the intersection of Jewish history and Western civilization. Their tour was led by Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought faculty and was attended by the president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, who inspired students with leadership lessons drawn from the pages of the Talmud and world history. 

The program began on January 8 in the crumbling stands of Rome’s most iconic edifice, the Colosseum. On a terrace overlooking the floor of the gladiatorial arena, Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik spoke to the students about the Colosseum’s prominent role in Jewish history.  Noting that the arena’s construction was financed with spoils plundered from the Temple of Jerusalem, Rabbi Soloveichik explained how the Colosseum was built as a monument celebrating the Flavian Dynasty’s triumph over Judaea in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). As such, the Colosseum and its sister monuments, the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Peace, served as vital pieces of propaganda for the newly installed Emperor Vespasian (9-79 CE).

Rabbi Soloveichik then characterized the dichotomy between the Colosseum, the embodiment of ancient Rome’s insatiable bloodlust, and the Temple of Jerusalem, a house of peace celebrating the covenantal union of Israel’s ancient tribes.  Following Rabbi Soloveichik’s remarks, Rabbi Berman led the students in Mincha (afternoon prayers) at the Colosseum. From there, the students journeyed on to the Circus Maximus, where Rabbi Soloveichik gave a general overview of Roman Jewish history, starting with Judah the Maccabee’s first envoy to the Roman senate in 161 BCE and culminating with the period just before the Holocaust.

The students then had a tour of the Jewish ghetto in the Rione Sant'Angelo, followed by dinner and remarks by Rabbi Berman. Drawing from Talmud’s account of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, President Berman noted how that ancient catastrophe was facilitated by the irresolute character of the ancient Jewish sages. He contrasted their indecisiveness with the bold leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai, the leader of Rabbinic Jewry in the immediate aftermath of the Temple's destruction. President Berman invited the scholars to emulate Yohanan ben Zakkai by standing up for their values in the face of uncertainty. The next morning, Straus Scholars and faculty prayed Shacharit (morning prayers) at the Great Synagogue of Rome. The service was conducted according to the unique tradition of the Roman Jewish community, with President Berman being called up for petiha (opening) of the synagogue’s ornate Torah ark. 

After breakfast, Rabbi Soloveichik introduced the Arch of Titus, focusing on its famous Spoils Panel, which depicts the Flavian dynasty’s triumphal parade of holy vessels looted from the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple Menorah and Shewbread Table feature prominently on the arch. However, Rabbi Soloveichik explained that these gilded vessels were not the main attraction at the actual Flavian triumph that took place in 71 CE.  According to Josephus' eyewitness account, the true star of the show was a modest Torah scroll taken from Jerusalem. This captured scroll proclaimed the Flavians’ presumed triumph over the Jewish religion. Despite his claims, the observance of Judaism endures to this day, long after the conclusion of his reign. The same can’t be said of the Flavian Dynasty’s monuments, many of which have been toppled by the ravages of time. In 2015, the remains of a second triumphal arch dedicated to Rome’s victory over Judea were discovered in the Circus Maximus. This second arch, believed to have been much more opulent than its extant counterpart, likely collapsed due to water erosion. Rabbi Soloveichik noted the irony in that fate, citing an anecdote by Rabbi Akiva likening Judaism’s continuity to the effect of water gradually wearing away at stone.

Following the seminar, students made their way up the Via Sacra Road to the Arch of Titus. Rabbi Soloveichik pointed out key features of the arch and referred to Yeshiva University Churgin Professor of History Steven Fine’s groundbreaking discovery of the monument’s original pigmentation. He concluded by recounting how in November 1947, Roman Jews triumphantly passed under the arch in celebration of the UN decision to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state. The students then broke out into song with Rabbi Berman under the shadow of the arch. Next, the group headed over to the Curia Julia, the ancient Roman senate building. Despite a sudden downpour that drenched their coats, the Straus Scholars listened attentively as Straus Center Resident Scholar and Recruitment Officer Dr. Shaina Trapedo spoke about the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599).

After soliciting lively Shakespearian readings from the audienceDr. Trapedo elaborated on the tension between fatalism and human agency at the heart of the play. In one scene, the conspirator Cassius posits that men are the authors of their own destiny, asserting, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Dr. Trapedo demonstrated how this line from Shakespeare resonates with a similar comment concerning astrology penned four centuries earlier by the biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra.


Seeking shelter from the rain in a nearby shop, the students then heard from Straus Center Clinical Assistant Professor Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner about the role of monuments in Jewish and Western thought. Rabbi Lerner first considered various possible functions that a burial monument might serve in Jewish law. He presented the approach of the Malbim, a 19th-century Bible commentator who asserted that burial monuments are erected to memorialize a person’s accomplishments in life and motivate others to live up to their legacy. Rabbi Lerner grounded this approach in a famous Talmudic statement in Tractate Shekalim 7a, which links monuments and memory: "One does not build monuments for the righteous; their words are their memorial.” Rabbi Lerner asserted that this Talmudic dictum resonates with a similar sentiment penned by the English poet John Milton (1608-1674). In his 1630 elegy of William Shakespeare, Milton wrote that Shakespeare's greatest memorial is his words which "dost make us marble with too much conceiving."

Adequately informed of the importance of monuments in Jewish memory, the Straus Scholars now descended into the ancient Jewish catacombs of Vigna Randanini. Local excavator Piero led the tour of the catacombs in Italian, with Straus Center Communications Officer Baruch-Lev Kelman translating. Piero pointed out some particularly interesting burial inscriptions in Greek and Latin, referring to Torah scribes, celebrated athletes, ancient converts to Judaism and synagogue artisans, while Baruch-Lev provided context for the inscriptions, drawing on classical Jewish history and the Talmud.

The next morning, on January 10, Rabbi Lerner spoke to the scholars at breakfast about the fourteenth-century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, most famous for his fictionalized depiction of hell, The Inferno (c. 1321). Rabbi Lerner illustrated how Dante’s imagined underworld is divided into concentric circles of hell, each reserved for a particular class of sinner. After noting that Dante interestingly depicts no Jewish sinners in his epic poem, Rabbi Lerner focused on the poem’s description of hell’s antechamber, a place reserved for cowardly leaders who profess neutrality in times of great conflict. Chief among these cowards is a figure who Dante scholars identify as Pope Celestine V (1215-1296), the first man to ever resign from the papacy. Rabbi Lerner then demonstrated how Dante’s characterization of cowardice gave rise to the popular saying "the darkest places of hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis," a quote often cited by President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Following breakfast, the students crossed over the Tiber into Vatican City and entered into St. Peter’s Square. Rabbi Soloveichik noted that the elliptical shape of the square’s mannerist colonnade was designed by architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini to literally enclose visitors within "the maternal arms of Mother Church." Rabbi Soloveichik gave an overview of the history of the Church’s relation to Judaism, concluding that recent decades have seen the rise of unprecedented opportunities for Jews and Catholics to work together toward shared goals, especially in America. 

Following this, President Berman and Rabbi Soloveichik peeled off to meet with Vatican officials, while the Straus Scholars continued onto the Fortress Sant'Angelo. In the shadow of this infamous fortress where the corrupt Popes of the Renaissance would imprison and torture their enemies, Straus Center Associate Director Dr. Neil Rogachevsky spoke about the Florentine Nicollo Machiavelli’s depiction of Rome. Machiavelli (1469-1527), most famously associated with a cutthroat, instrumentalist approach to political philosophy, was critical of ancient Rome’s republican political system, which quickly devolved into dysfunctional tyranny. Machiavelli’s solution would be to remove the aristocracy completely and form a society composed solely of the authoritarian prince and his subjects. Straus Scholars then contrasted this approach to Maimonides' idealized Jewish government composed of both a king and Sanhedrin, debating whether or not Machiavelli's philosophy was at all compatible with Judaism. 

Next, the students met up with Rabbi Soloveichik and President Berman at the Campo dei Fiori, where cartloads of the Talmud were tragically burned by papal decree on Rosh Hashana in 1553. Baruch-Lev briefly introduced the historical context of the location, noting the Campo dei Fiori was also used for public executions of notable heretics, such as the Copernican cosmologist Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). Rabbi Soloveichik then spoke about the significance of the Talmud’s burning in Jewish memory, pointing out a recently installed plaque near the site which cites the Talmud’s description of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who was burned alive along with a Torah scroll. The Talmud records that Rabbi Hananiah cried out to his disciples, "I see its parchment burning, but its letters are flying up to the heavens" (Tractate Avodah Zarah 18a). So to, in the Campo dei Fiori, Rabbi Soloveichik asserted, though the physical tractates were burned, their words endure. The Straus Scholars then joined President Berman in song and dance, celebrating the eternity of the Torah as locals and tourists looked on. Rabbi Soloveichik next led a tour of the Capitoline Museums of ancient Roman sculpture. Rabbi Soloveichik pointed out the enormous head of a colossal statue of Emperor Constantine, which originally stood in the Basilica of Maxentius on the Via Sacra road. Rabbi Soloveichik contrasted this destroyed colossus with what American Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) labeled the "New Colossus" of New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty. The students then moved on to examine the busts of ancient Roman dictators in the Hall of Emperors. Rabbi Soloveichik focused on the busts of the Emperors Vespasian, Titus (39-81 CE) and Hadrian (76-138 CE), who oversaw Rome’s campaigns against Judea in the First Jewish-Roman War and in the Bar Kochbah Revolt (132-135 CE). Rabbi Soloveichik illustrated how Hadrian, like the Seleucid nemesis of the Maccabees, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215-164 BCE), paganized Jerusalem. Bar Kochba and his supporter, the sage Rabbi Akiva, saw themselves as the successors to the underdog Maccabees, and thus believed that they would be equally successful in their rebellion. However, Bar Kochba’s revolt ultimately ended in disaster. After the bloody Siege of Betar (135 CE), Hadrian massacred many Jews and expelled all survivors from the vicinity of Jerusalem. Thus, of all Rome’s emperors mentioned in the Talmud, Hadrian is the most vilified.

That evening at dinner, Rabbi Soloveichik spoke about the history of Roman Jewry in modern times, beginning with their immediate emancipation at the formation of the Italian state in 1861. In 1904, with great optimism for the future, the Roman Jews inaugurated their opulent Great Synagogue with King Victor Emmanuel III in attendance. However, a mere 34 years later, that same king remained silent when the Italian dictator Mussolini enacted the Racial Laws as a precursor to the Holocaust in Italy. Starting in October of 1943, the Nazis rounded up and deported over 1,800 Roman Jews, decimating the community.


Rome was liberated in June 1944 by the allies. Thanks to the effort of American Jewish Chaplains Lt. Morris Kertzer and Aaron Paperman, Roman Jews returned to the synagogue on June 9, 1944. Services resumed during the Nine Days, Judaism’s annual mourning period for Jerusalem’s destruction by the ancient Babylonians and Romans. The inaugural service was broadcast live, with Paperman noting the significance of the rededication of the synagogue during the Nine Days.

Rabbi Soloveichik also spoke about more recent events that occurred in the synagogue, such as the 1982 attack on the Great Synagogue by Palestinian terrorists and the historic meeting of Pope John Paul II and Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff at the synagogue in 1986.  On the last day of the trip, the students accompanied Rabbi Berman to meet Italian Jewish students at the Renzo Levi High School of Rome. They were greeted by the principal of Renzo Levi, Rabbi Benedetto Carucci Viterbi, and Rabbi Ari Solomont, director of international admissions at Yeshiva University.  Rabbi Lerner spoke to the Renzo Levi students and Straus Scholars about the Christian scholar Johannes Reuchlin, whose heroic efforts saved countless Jewish books from the fire of 1510. President Berman also addressed the students of Renzo Levi, demonstrating how the Five Core Torah Values of Yeshiva University speak to young Jews around the world. Afterward, the Straus Scholars and Renzo Levi students chatted and exchanged contact information, building new overseas friendships.  

Finally, the program concluded with a tour of the Jewish Museum of Rome. Straus Scholars learned about the history of the Roman Jewish ghetto and its community, and examined exquisite Jewish ritual objects produced over the centuries by generations of Jewish artisans. The students were surprised to learn that all of the silver and cloth Torah accouterments in the museum are still used by the Jewish community on the High Holidays and festivals.

The Straus Scholars then departed Rome and went their separate ways. Some continued on to London, where they toured the Churchill War Rooms, the British Museum and the Wren Library at Cambridge University. In the British Museum, students saw significant artifacts related to Jewish history, such as the Cyrus Cylinder and Nicanor’s Ossuary. At Cambridge, students examined priceless treasures from the Cairo Genizah, such as letters penned by Judah Halevi, Sherira Gaon and Maimonides’ brother, David ben Maimon. 

“The chance to join with fellow students and faculty of the Straus Center to tackle big ideas in Torah and Western thought in Rome was an incredible opportunity,” said Straus Scholar Jacob Willner (YC ’25). “It was amazing to think about the context of the ancient sites we visited and their role in Jewish and Western history.” “Nearly every tour or archeological site that we visited was organized in a manner that emphasized the Jewish perspective on the history laying before us,” Straus Scholar Yinon Gurvich (YC ’25) reflected. “As we stood in the dilapidated stands of the massive coliseum, Rabbi Soloveichik contrasted the ideology that the Colosseum had stood for with the ideology that the Temple stands for: one symbolized a society that glorified violence for sport, while the other a society that yearned for world peace. At the Arch of Titus, decorated with the poignant image of Romans carrying the loot from the Beit HaMikdash, we broke out in dance to songs of redemption, much to any onlookers’ confusion. By the end of the trip, a very powerful sentiment settled into me: though Rome was perhaps the greatest empire to ever be, today they are nothing more than ruins, while today we are more alive than ever; and I guess the fact that I walked through those ruins as a member of YU’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought proves that.”

"The Straus Scholars Center trip to Rome was an immensely impactful experience," said Straus Scholar Ruchama Benhamou (SCW '24). "Throughout the different seminars and historical sites, we visited, I was continually humbled by the unfolding of Jewish triumph and resilience across the ages. To learn from the perspectives of the different Straus professors, coordinators and President Berman, I have gained lessons and memories that will last me a lifetime."

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