The display, which has been touring the United States for the last two years and which will return to Rome after its New England stay, suggests the scope and depth of the Vatican's holdings. In its vaults, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, or Vatican Library, shelters more than 75,000 manuscripts; 801 of these come under the heading of Judaica. At Harvard are Bibles and biblical commentaries; prayer books; Kabbalah mystical texts; medical and legal treatises, and works by Greek philosophers. Also represented are the writings of great Jewish scholars such as the 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides, and translations into Hebrew of classical Christian and Muslim texts including the works of Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas. The manuscripts range from the eighth to the 18th century. The oldest is a Babylonian Sifra, or commentary on the Book of Leviticus, the earliest example of an extant manuscript of rabbinical literature; the latest manuscript is a richly-ornamented 18th-century volume of the sermons of Clement XI, which, with its swags and curlicues resembling typographical ornament, carries out one of the graphic themes of the show -- the influence of the early printed book on the hand-written manuscript.
The manuscripts -- long known, yet available within the Vatican only to scholar-specialists -- present the reality of an often-tense cultural panorama. Polemic is a part of it. Relations between Jews and the the church over the last two thousand years have been, of course, tortuous. But since the Second Vatican Council's declaration on non-Catholic religions, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), the church has sought to establish fresh avenues of communication with the Jewish people and has urged scholars to engage in "mutual dialogue." It is in this spirit that the current show was conceived by Rabbi Philip Hiat of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Rev. Joseph Fenton of the United States Catholic Conference, and why it has been endorsed here by Cardinal Bernard Law. The flashpoint of contact between Christian and Jew has often produced conflict, but has also inspired, paradoxically, the beauty and wisdom of these texts."It's clear," says Bernard Dov Cooperman, Harvard historian and Hebrew scholar, "the Vatican is making a gesture."