Even before I laid eyes on two particularly sorrowful yet mesmerizing photos of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral going up in smoke — AP’s Thibault Camus’ and Reuter’s Francois Guillot’s striking images, laden with emotion, of the iconic cathedral billowing plumes of smoke — my immediate reaction was one of mixed emotions.
In its initial stages, as the story broke, and knowing what a central Parisian tourist attraction Notre Dame is, all I could think was, “I hope no one is hurt . . . I hope everyone made it out in time . . . ’ But once the news of no loss of human life was confirmed, the complexity set in.
After all, Notre Dame is such a symbol of so much painful anti-Semitism. It is the place that has justified the launch of endless innocent bloodshed of My People in the form of crusades, pogroms, blood libels, the Inquisition, and a theology that on some level culminated in the horror of the Holocaust.
Thankfully, those times are in many ways behind us. For the most part, Christianity has had its reformation, and our faiths have reached a degree of friendship and conciliation that marks our current time.
Yet, for centuries, bloodshed committed in the name of European churches such as Notre Dame is what marked the torture of our exile. The Middle Ages were indeed dark for humankind as a whole, and particularly for the Jewish people.
To this day, every Tisha b’Av, as we sit on the ground in the dark, by candlelight, mourning the tragedies of Jewish history, we recite the kina, “Sha’ali S’rufa Ba’esh,” which recalls the terrible persecution the Jews of France in the 1200s at the hands of the Church. In emotional poetry this lamentation paints the scene of cartloads of painstakingly handwritten Talmuds (this was a couple hundred years before the invention of the printing press) burned by the cartloads, as public theatre, right there in central Paris, in the courtyards of Notre Dame itself. This mass arson of the corpus of Jewish law and tradition is part of the Jewish communal memory we shoulder year to year.
Although in this instance, it was not human life that was burned, the burning of the Talmud was a deeply symbolic persecution and destruction. The Church deemed the Jewish faith wrong, outdated, deserving of brutal rejection, even to be the devil itself. In other words, this public pyre was a definitive assault on Judaism, a religion whose persecution was justified, encouraged and praised by the Church.
But to hear of a cathedral burning, for a Jewish mind, is immediately to leap to the imagery of a shul burning — to multiple shuls burning. To Holocaust imagery. To Middle Ages persecution. And even to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem going up in smoke.
For Christians, the fire in the Notre Dame was like witnessing their temple going up in smoke. It was a building that was more than a building; it was spiritual home, a place that holds so much.
Watching thousands of people standing by, weeping bitterly, singing as this architectural masterpiece — to them a home of faith — was burning and falling before their eyes, was indeed powerful and deeply sad.
The moment the spire fell, the moment the spire was lost. Watching it go down. Seeing their pain. Live. It was unforgettable.
Yet, this illustrious place, whose destruction caused many hearts the world over to ache — hearts innocent the past hate that emanated from Notre Dame — cannot cover up the fact that it is still a place that held so much hate as part of its purpose and history.
Even more. Unlike our shuls, unlike our holy places, Notre Dame’s burning was not marked by hate the likes of which was promoted in cathedrals like Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s fire was not caused by arson. In contrast, there are the haunting memories of Jews burned alive, of sacred Jewish places and objects burned — of people seething with hate, violence and intentional persecution and destruction of Jews and of Judaism.
I am reminded of the time when, as a little girl, I visited The Museum of The Diaspora in Tel Aviv for the first time. We entered a silent, sterile room. On display were beautiful miniatures of architectural beauties encased in glass. As a little girl, I was struck by their beauty — it was almost like a collection of doll houses.
Something was amiss, though.
Even before I knew what was wrong, I had a sad sense about this place. I knew that part of the reason we came here, if not the primary reason, was because my grandparents, my Bubbie and Zadie, were visiting from Brooklyn. They made the trek from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to search yet again, to see whether they could find any surviving relatives from WW II. Back then, a computer was a luxury. This museum was the only place that held a computer with the possibility of names of survivors, or tragically, of the confirmation of dates of concentration camp deaths. Back then, although a couple of decades had already elapsed since the war, there was still a flicker of hope that a living relative would or could somehow turn up.
Anyway, I soon learned that these beautiful, encased, petite structures were like relics. Relics of burned synagogues. Mere memories of once thriving shuls in Europe. Italy. Hungary. Poland. So many countries from all over the world were represented. Now these miniatures were just symbols of past catastrophes.
So when you think of the original purpose of Notre Dame — immortalized by Victor Hugo whose work was in some ways critical of the church — and at the same time when you think of the current climate of Christianity, you realize how deep a transformation we have experienced since those dark Middle Ages. In a way, this cathedral, this Notre Dame, while it preserved the history of its hate, also stood as a testament to that hate belonging to a bygone time.
Nostre Ataete was passed in 1965. This transformational document highlights the value in Catholicism that “reveres the work of G-d in all the major faith traditions.” Yes, this has helped to heal some wounds and thankfully usher in a different era of relationships between Jews and Christians.
Yet Notre Dame was always there as a bitter, tangible reminder of just how destructive two of its artistically rendered statues can be. How the juxtaposition of the figures of Synagoga and Ecclesia at Notre Dame symbolized institutional hate at its core, and all the pain it led to.
While I sincerely marvel at the breathtaking beauty, craftsmanship, and architecture that is a signature of the Middle Ages, and while I feel the pain of so many innocents for whom this cathedral held much deep and personal symbolism, at the same time we Jews have a long memory. We live with a shared psyche of centuries of persecution.
And so, when Notre Dame was burning, some of these moments and images burned into Jewish memory forever also came alive, and found their way into the fire.