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Taube: The Jews of Notre-Dame

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Flames are seen spewing from the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15. (LeLaisserPasserA38/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The world was stunned by the horrific fire that ravaged Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15. While the spire, roof and oak frame were destroyed, the main facade, stained glass windows and stone towers miraculously survived. Many of its great artifacts – including the cross where Jesus was purported to have been crucified, King Louis IX’s tunic, the crown of thorns and the grand organ – are safe and sound.

All things considered, this terrible incident could have been much worse. So far, more than 1-billion euros ($1.5 billion) has been raised to rebuild this treasured building.

Jews have reacted to this tragedy, as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his “deep sorrow over the fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, a cultural and religious heritage site of France and of all humanity.”

The World Jewish Congress stated that, “Notre-Dame Cathedral is an icon of the Parisian skyline and a testament to human ingenuity. Let us all hope for a speedy resolution to this tragedy before more priceless history is lost.” And the American Jewish Committee (AJC) poignantly noted that, “We are heartbroken following the fire at the Notre-Dame. This is a tragedy for Catholics, the people of France and all who revere that majestic edifice. We are hopeful that it will be swiftly restored to its prior splendour.”

Surprisingly, Notre-Dame has a Jewish connection. As Yvette Alt Miller noted in an April 15 piece published on aish.com, “Some of the most prominent artwork on Notre-Dame concerned Jews.”

READ: PARIS – A LOOK THROUGH JEWISH EYES

The wedding of Christian saints Anne and Joachim, who are believed to be Jesus’ grandparents, are on a frieze on the church’s main doorway. “Since these individuals were Jewish,” Miller wrote, “the artist used actual local Jews as models.” The scene takes place in a French synagogue and depicts a rabbi, congregants and an ark with a Torah scroll.

You can’t miss these images due to one distinguishing feature: pointed hats. Jews were often depicted in Medieval art in said fashion, to differentiate them from Europe’s Christian majority.

There are also two female statues in the main facade that represent Christianity and Judaism. The former is Ecclesia, which Miller describes as “a finely dressed woman standing upright, carrying a chalice and a staff with a cross at its peak … representing the victorious Catholic Church.” The latter is Synagoga, who represents Judaism and stands “ragged defeated, her eyes are covered by a snake,” wrote Miller. “She holds a broken sceptre and tablets of Jewish law are slipping from her grasp. Under her feet lies a crown trodden into the dust.”

Above the statues is the Gallery of Kings. These are depictions of 28 ancient kings of Judah, all descendants of Abraham. The original statues were torn down during the French Revolution, as they were mistakenly believed to be linked to the royal family, and rebuilt in the 19th century.

I’m sure some CJN readers are gnashing their teeth at the description of these artistic images, which contain several anti-Jewish themes and images. Indeed, history, religion and art can be imperfect beasts.

Yet we should condemn the disgusting comments made by Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. He told the Israeli website Srugim that Christianity “is our Number 1 enemy throughout history,” and that feeling grief “isn’t our function at this time. There is no command to seek out Christian churches beyond Israel and burn them down. In our holy land, things are more complicated.”

We should condemn the disgusting comments made by Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Aviner.

It’s easy to get triggered by historical events and old prejudices. But it takes a certain degree of intelligence and foresight to recognize that the world has changed and modern Christians and Jews are, in fact, brethren.

The AJC has pledged to make a donation to help rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral and declared Rabbi Aviner’s comments to be “repulsive and un-Jewish.” It, like many Jewish people, is on the right side of history.

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Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, Washington Times contributor and TV/radio pundit, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.