The conference was absorbing on many levels, not the least of which was that, in addition to inviting lecturers including rabbis, attorneys and academics from various institutions in Israel and abroad, the organizers chose to include, for comparison, two lecturers on Intellectual Property in Islamic and Christian Law.
The lecturer on IP in Islamic Law, Dr. Amir H. Khoury, a senior lecturer on the law faculty of Tel Aviv University, who described himself as a Catholic, said that according to Islamic law, everyone has the right to private property, even non-Muslims, which may come as a surprise to those Muslims who claim that the Jews can have no right to any land in Israel, and who murder "collaborators" who sell land to Jews.
But even more intriguing was a statement by Dr. Roman Cholij, a trademark attorney by profession, with academic credentials in theology and canon law. In the course of his presentation, Dr. Cholij claimed that one of the Christian law principles is "legitimacy of property ownership" and that Christian law "recognizes the right of private property ownership".
I asked Dr. Cholij why, if Christian law recognizes the property ownership of others, there are Hebrew manuscripts, and perhaps some other artifacts, in the Vatican which do not belong to her.
His reply was, "The fact that this is Christian law does not mean that everyone abides by it."
"But the Vatican?" I asked.
Dr. Cholij: "I don't have an answer."
More than 20 years ago I spoke to a very senior manuscript restorator, who told me that on a visit to the Vatican, the restorator was treated to a viewing of some Hebrew manuscripts, many floors beneath the earth, but the hosts pointed to another hallway and said, "That's where we can't take you."
Much has been written about the alleged theft of treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem, reportedly in the possession of the Church. I asked the opinion of Dr. Binyamin Richler, author of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library: Catalogue, published in 2008.
According to Dr. Richler, "A large part of the manuscripts in the Vatican were actually purchased by a Christian from a Jewish rabbi in Crete and as for the others -- I don't recall coming across any that were confiscated from the Jews." Dr. Richler said that during the Inquisition there were manuscripts that were burned, and there were others that were given to the church for censorship, which was usually carried out by Jews who had converted to Christianity. There were also Jews who converted who left manuscripts in the Vatican "as they had no use for them anymore" and there were other collections that were bought later. "Jews were selling manuscripts to non-Jews," he said, in Parma and elsewhere.
"Maybe you could find a few that were taken forcibly from a Jew, but some came from private collectors; the vast majority were bought." He also pointed out that there would be no way of verifying their theft, unless someone literally wrote in it that it had been confiscated.
He continued, "What we don’t know exactly is this: There are a lot of fragments of Hebrew manuscripts from the middle ages which they used in a lot of places in Italy as wrappers for archival records. They sewed them up so it became like a cover for them, but left the fragments on the inside. The question is, where did they get these fragments? So there are several possibilities. Perhaps some were confiscated by the Inquisition, or when they were taken to be burned, someone thought, 'Why waste the parchment?' or someone pulled them out of the fire to use the parchment. I even found a rabbinical response on that matter. Someone asked a rabbi in the middle of the 17th century what to do if he found a book with a page of Hebrew in the binding; would he have to buy the book just to save the Hebrew page? Or it could be that the Jews also sold [hand-written] books, as printed books were coming out, just like you'd sell or give away an old computer."
Interestingly, a recent Israeli film by Joseph Cedar, Footnote, winner of the Cannes prize for best screenplay, features a scene in which a professor discovers an ancient Hebrew manuscript in the binding of a book -- life and art intertwined in modern Israeli cinema.
According to Dr. Richler, there are other libraries of Hebrew manuscripts that we know of for sure, that Israel has tried to obtain in the past, like the Ginzburg collection that is held today by Russia. But at least those have all been microfiched.That’s a story for another day.
Meanwhile, we still don't know what lay down that long hallway more than twenty years ago, whether the legends could be debunked, or whether there are indeed ancient stolen manuscripts or treasures from the Temple, hidden in the bowels of the Vatican.
Until there is definitive proof one way or another, or until full access is given to all the Vatican grottoes, these are mysteries still waiting to be solved.
The author is an educator and journalist.