Thoughts on the Notre Dame Cathedral

On Monday April 18th, 2019, the world famous Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in France caught fire. Although most of the stone superstructure is still intact, all of the woodwork has burnt.

Notre_Dame_de_Paris_DSC_0846w.jpg

There was devastating damage, and the French people are mourning for their collective cultural loss. We in the Jewish community share their pain. We know all too well what it is like to see our own synagogues burn in flames. We stand with those in pain, with those who feel loss.

At the same time it becomes important to note that not all Europeans have the same relation to the cathedral. There is much history associated with it that many people do not know about, which tour guides do not mention. As such we are offering an essay to open a conversation about the experiences of other people with the Notre Dame Cathedral.

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By Rabbi Ysocher Katz

What to do when your heart pulls you in the opposite direction of your mind?

Your heart wants to cry with your Christian brethren who are witnessing the destruction of one their most sacred sanctuaries, but your mind refuses to forget what it was like to stand in front of that cathedral several years ago, while France was in the throes of violent nationalistic passion.

Several years ago we decided to visit Paris for a few days. Before we left, friends warned us about French antisemitism. It turned out that their fears were unfounded. In the ten days we were there, nothing happened. We didn’t encounter antisemitism once—even though I was walking around with a kippah.

While we didn’t experience antisemitism, we still encountered immense hatred—during the half hour we stood in front of the Note Dome cathedral. That was extremely difficult.

As we were standing there, contemplating the building’s majesty, the supersessionist ecclesia synagoga sculptures, which celebrate the fact that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity, were staring back at us.

Ecclesia and Synagoga at Notre Dame Cathedral
Ecclesia and Synagoga, or Ecclesia et Synagoga in Latin, meaning “Church and Synagogue”, are a pair of figures personifying the Church and the Jewish synagogues. More generally they represent Christians and Jews. Synagoga’s blindfold reflects the traditional Christian doctrine that Jews are blind to the truth of Jesus, and blind to God. In the Notre Dame version of this statue, the blindfold is depicted as a serpent, the Christian iconography for Satan. The New Testament explicitly refers to the synagogue as the house of Satan, and Jews as children of Satan. Photos from “List of sculptures in Notre-Dame de Paris.” Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t avert our eyes from the competing sculptures, contrasting beautiful ecclesia (Christianity) with wretched synogoga (Judaism).

The magnificence of the cathedral looked small relative to the pain-filled story told by these two sculptures. The hateful images made an indelible impression. Now they are coming to the fore.

The raging flames make you cry, your eyes fill with tears, but, at the same time, your minds eye sees itself once again being stared down by those cruel sculptures, and it too fills up with tears.

Rabbi Katz is chair of the department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox yeshivah and rabbinical school in New York City.
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For Jews, the burning of the Talmud is one of the painful memories in our collective history. What happened in France then was repeated continually thereafter, in Poland, German, Austria, even as recently as when Palestinians burned all the books in the Yeshivah, Od Yosef Chai, which was in Joseph’s Tomb, one of Judaism’s holy sites in Shechem (Nablus.)

Book burning. Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Book burning Talmud France and by Nazi in Lublin Poland

King Louis IX of France stole every volume of the Talmud, all handwritten, from the Jews of France. In 1242 had 24 cartloads worth of Jewish books burned in the square in Paris. For his efforts, the Church canonized him as a saint in 1297.

“King Louis’s actions were not lost on future generations. Wherever the Nazis came to power they burned Jewish books (and later Jewish people). For instance, the great library of the academy in Lublin, Poland, which had over 55,000 volumes and was one of the great Jewish libraries of the world, was burned by the Nazis immediately upon their arrival in Lublin.” – Berel Wein, The Burning of the Talmud, Jewish History Blog. ________________________________________________

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