If his friendship and close collaboration with the Cardinal of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, marked a high point in Christian-Jewish relations, Rabbi Laras still reserved the right to be awkward if he thought it necessary. As he was in 2010 when he boycotted Benedict XVI’s visit to Rome’s synagogue in protest against the Pope’s praise of his predecessor Pius XII, whose behaviour during the Second World War is still a subject of debate.
Rabbi Laras was, and remained till his last moment, a child of the Shoah. Born in Turin, the son of Guglielmo and Gina Sbrana, he would never forget what happened on 2 October 1944. Giuseppe, then nine, was hiding with his mother in his grandmother’s house. It was the first day of school and from the shuttered windows he could see children getting ready for class.
Then two fascist police knocked on the door: the caretaker had betrayed the family for the 5,000 lire reward offered for each Jew given away.
Recalling the event decades later, the horror of it was still vivid for him: “it’s as if I’d been there all the time. I choke, I want to cry.”
His mother gave the two fascists the 20,000 lire she had saved and 30 packs of cigarettes and asked them to spare the child. The men pocketed the lot and led little Giuseppe, his mother and grandmother away.
The understanding was that, at a busy intersection on the way to the Gestapo headquarters, the man holding Giuseppe’s hand would let go of it and he would run away. When the moment came, the boy and his mother exchanged one last look then Giuseppe wrenched his hand free and ran away. He would not see his mother or grandmother ever again.
He ran and ran and eventually found shelter among friends but was so traumatised he was unable to speak for six months. Slowly, he recovered and life started again.
After graduating from high school, he followed the advice of his father — who wasn’t terribly keen on him becoming a rabbi — and obtained a law degree. A second degree, in philosophy, would follow later. However, at the same time he continued his rabbinical studies at Turin’s Italian Rabbinical College, where his teachers included eminent scholars such as Rabbi Dario Disegni and Rabbi Elia Samuele Artom. Medieval and Renaissance Jewish philosophy would be his lifelong passion and he became a leading authority on Maimonides.
Rabbi Laras was Chief Rabbi of Ancona from 1959 to 1968, then of Livorno from 1968 to 1980, the year he took charge of the Milan congregation, a position he would hold for 25 eventful years, It was in Milan, where he also taught history of Jewish thought at the University, that Laras would step up the dialogue between Jews and Christians, helped also by the rapport, based on friendship and mutual respect, he established with the Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini.
It wasn’t all plain sailing and there were disagreements — about the conversion of the children of mixed marriages, for instance — but their collaboration marked a high point in the relationship between the two faiths and did much to promote the knowledge of Judaism in the country.
However, this “man of dialogue” who, nevertheless, had always refused to be politically correct, in recent years had not hesitated to speak up about the need to defend democratic society, warning against the dangers of fundamentalism.
He did it again, for the last time, in a heartfelt message that was his ‘spiritual will’ to the Italian Jewish community, made public after his death: it is a powerful J’accuse that pulls no punches. Calling himself, a “child of the Shoah”, Rabbi Laras reflects on the past but, even more so, looks to the future.
He remembers “the emotion and the elation” he felt at the birth of the state of Israel but also the fear for its survival. He shames the silence of other countries when hundreds of thousands of Jews were persecuted or expelled from Islamic countries where they had been living for centuries, often before the advent of Islam.
He bemoans the rising wave of antisemitism, often hidden under the cloak of anti-Zionism, the moral and intellectual decline of Western civilisation and the betrayal of the left. And he warns that Jewish-Christian dialogue can continue only if the ambiguity over Israel is finally cleared.
As a child of the Shoah, he is pained to see that the annual Remembrance Day is in danger of becoming stale. As a way to avoid that, he suggests “bringing the Shoah back to Italy,” to the local places where the Jews were imprisoned or exterminated.
Always outspoken, Rabbi Laras does not shy away from pointing out the problems facing Italian Jewry, which he sees as beset by a high level of discord and resentment and in a phase of stagnation. It needs, he suggests, “a new architecture” to be able to withstand the challenges ahead. But he also expresses his confidence that “with tenacity” Italian Jews will overcome these difficulties.
Rabbi Laras was President of the Rabbinical Tribunal of Centre-North Italy and, for decades, President of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly. He is survived by his wife Wally Rabello Bologna, one daughter, Yardena, two sons, Corrado e Raffaele, and three grandchildren, Manuela, Johnny and Yoel.
Rabbi Giuseppe Laras: born April 6, 1935. Died November 15, 2017