Dr. Emily Michelson, senior lecturer in history at the University of St. Andrews, describes the over two and a half centuries when the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, Italy, forced Rome’s Jews to attend weekly hostile sermons. The Church’s aim was to convert the Jews to the Catholic faith. In the easy to read fascinating, eye-opening, well-documented book “Catholic Spectacle and Rome’s Jews,” she tells how the Jews were forced to march to the sermon and sit through it while being policed by men with sticks who poked Jews from time to time when they felt a Jew was not sufficiently attentive.
These forced sermons delivered to Jews were performed during the three centuries as a demeaning spectacle with local Christians, foreign visitors, and potential converts watching. They were delivered by religious leaders many of whom firmly believed they were doing the right, moral, and religious thing. The hostile sermons were delivered on Saturdays, making a mockery of the biblical mandate to delight in the Sabbath and rejoice in it. The Jews were divided into three groups. One third was required to attend each week. Thus each Jew had to hear about 17 sermons each year. The sermons lasted an hour.
It “was a staged, ritualized performance that also carried complex social implications throughout the city. It fostered street violence and pamphlet wars, drew tourists and spectators, and [the caricatures of the Jews and their practices] blurred the boundaries between real and imaginary Jews.”
Jews arrived in Rome long before Christianity began in the second century BCE. From then through most of the Middle Ages, there was “an extended tolerance, stability, and civil relations between Jews and others in Rome.” But by the mid sixteenth century, there was an enormous transformation probably because of the influx of Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily in 1492, Portugal, Navarre, and Provence in 1498, and Naples and Calabria in 1510. In was then that there was the first concerted effort to convert Roman Jews en masse. Rome’s Jewish population was roughly three thousand, about 3 percent of its population before the influx, and by 1733 it was 4,059, but their imaginary presence in the mind of the Catholic leadership loomed much larger.
Along with other brutal activities designed to force or persuade Jews to convert to the Catholic religion, the first act was Rome’s restrictive ghetto ordered by the Pope which was established in 1555 that was walled and locked. Others included Pope Urban VIII order that Jewish graves should be left unmarked.
A prominent thesis of the sermons was that rabbinic Judaism was a perversion of biblical Judaism. The lecturers claimed that the rabbis made changes in Judaism to conceal the fact that the Hebrew Bible and early Midrashic literature confirmed the truth of Christianity. They also used ideas in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, as proof that Christianity is correct. And they stressed that the messiah that Judaism hoped would soon arrive, had already come.
The demeaning forced sermons were abolished in 1847.