Myths and the menorah

Myths and the menorah

Some contend that the gold menorah from the Second Temple is hidden in the basement of the Vatican.

But according to Steven Fine, this is just an urban myth.

Fine — chair and professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva College in New York and director of the newly created YU Center for Israel Studies — tells the following story in the Biblical Archaeology Review:

"Reporting on his 1996 meeting with Pope John Paul II … Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Shetreet reported, according to the Jerusalem Post, that ‘he had asked for Vatican cooperation in locating the gold menorah from the Second Temple that was brought to Rome by Titus in 70 C.E…. I don’t say it’s there for sure,’ he said, ‘but I asked the Pope to help in the search as a goodwill gesture in recognition of the improved relations between Catholics and Jews.’" According to Fine, "witnesses to this conversation ‘tell that a tense silence hovered over the room after Shetreet’s request was heard.’"

Steven Fine

Similar requests made to the Vatican by other noted Israelis, including one of the country’s chief rabbis as well as former president Moshe Katzav, elicited similar responses, said Fine.

While no one knows how the myth actually arose, Fine says that it "is not a part of traditional Jewish folklore." Rather, it is a "distinctly American phenomenon." He will speak about this myth tomorrow night, Dec. 15, at Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.

Calling the menorah the very "symbol of Jewish identity," Fine pointed out that "everyone has a stake in it — from the Lubavitch, who display it on every street corner," to the State of Israel, which has adopted the symbol as its emblem.

Despite the fact that the Second Temple menorah most definitely is not in the Vatican, said Fine, the very existence (and persistence) of the myth caused him to question whether there’s any legitimacy to the story. At the very least, he said, "urban myths tell something about the present. They say something about our own self-image."

"If the Vatican did have the actual Menorah and other vessels," he wrote in the Biblical Archaeology Review, "there is no reason to think that in our more ecumenical age they would not display them, just as they do so many fine Jewish manuscripts and artifacts." Nevertheless, he added, "as long as Jews believe that the Menorah will someday be returned to Jerusalem … the eternal Jewish hope of messianic restoration is not yet lost."

Fine said that when the article appeared in ‘005, "some students and non-academics were taken aback," though, he added, "most Jews realize when they hear the story that it’s not correct."

As for the menorah myth, he’s heard at least 10 to 15 variations of the story, which, he said, have been extremely popular since the 1970s. "I’m fascinated by these stories," he said, so he started following them in an effort to examine the historical material "through the lens of myth. I wanted to see where the path would lead," he said, calling his efforts "an interaction between the culture we live in now and people who died some 1,500 years ago."

A cultural historian specializing in Jewish history in the Greco-Roman world, Fine focuses on relationships between the literature of ancient Judaism, art, and archeology. With a doctorate in Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s degree in art history from the University of Southern California, and a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the professor said he approaches the study of Israel from "Abraham to Zionism, or, as some say, from Tanach to Palmach."

Fine said the menorah myth, which apparently started in the United States some 30 to 40 years ago, "is not an easy story to refute. You can’t refute something when you don’t know who started it." Citing other common myths — the idea, for example, that Jews have horns (a charge he heard as recently as three years ago) or that Jesus had a wife and children — he suggested that Dan Brown, author of such books as "The Da Vinci Code," "has made the line blurry for regular people."

"They’re not academics," he said, suggesting that "historical quackery" — and even some of the material found on the History Channel — "is no help."

Fine said he agreed with numerous commentators that there is a definite "anti-Catholic bias" to Brown’s works. That — plus the fact that the Vatican does have many Jewish artifacts — has fueled suspicion that it is keeping the menorah under wraps. Even after the Second Vatican Council, he said, "some people don’t believe that Christians can change. American culture, at its heart, is anti-Catholic."

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