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Notes from the LJCC

The Church Discovers the Talmud

Harry Freedman

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[Quarter of an hour before this talk started, I discovered I couldn't find the power supply for coronium, without which it was useless, as its battery no longer holds any charge. I spent five minutes frantically turning my place upside-down for it, then gave up, and grabbed paper and pen (arriving at the talk to discover it had already started), which explains the slightly poorer quality of these notes than usual (not to mention taking weeks to tidy them up from my usual semi-legible mixture of longhand and shorthand, the latter of which I'm much better at writing than reading).]


Augustine of Hippo (354-430) offered a policy of protective tolerance towards Jews, even though that had, as he put it, remained "stationary in useless antiquity," because the Jewish Bible afforded proof of Christianity.

A thousand years would pass, until the eleventh or twelfth century, before the Christians started to learn more about Judaism. They learned that the Jews had their own tradition of Biblical interpretation—literal interpretation, not figurative as the Christians went for—which stopped them from accepting Christianity, and from seeing the Christian point of view. Therefore it became important to the Church to do something about the Talmud.

From the Church's perspective, once they had rejected it, it was a short step to denouncing it as Satanic. Peter of Cluny (1092-1156):

It seems to me, Jew, that I dare not declare that you are human lest perchance I lie, because I recognise that reason, that which distinguishes human beings from beasts, is extinct in you or in any case buried. Truly, why are you not called brute animals? Why not beasts? Why not beasts of burden? The ass hears but does not understand; the Jew hears but does not understand.

That contrasts with Sicut Judaeis (Constitution of the Jews ~1120), a papal bull from the same era:

[The Jews] ought to suffer no prejudice. We, out of the meekness of Christian piety, and in keeping in the footprints of Our predecessors of happy memory, admit their petition, and We grant them the buckler of Our protection. We make the law that no Christian compel them, unwilling or refusing, by violence to come to baptism. But, if any one of them should spontaneously, and for the sake of the faith, fly to the Christians, once his choice has become evident, let him be made a Christian without any calumny.

The interesting change at this time was the formation of the Dominicans, charged with fighting heresy. The Albigensian heresy, conducted by the Church against its own people, was where the Dominicans start rooting out heresy. At the same time Pope Innocent III (elected 1198) started reforms to distinguish Jews and Orthodox Christians from Catholics. His successor, Gregory IX, elected 1227, took these further.

The first Disputation, in Paris

In 1236, Nicholas Donin, a Dominican friar and convert from Judaism appeared before Gregory IX with a list of thirty-five accusations against the Talmud. Why does he do this, go all the way to Rome to denounce the Talmud? There's a theory he was trying to get revenge against his teacher, R. Yeḥiel of Paris. After three years the Pope sent him to the Bishop of Paris with instructions that all books of the Talmud in France, England, Spain and ? were to be confiscated and if demonstrated to be problematic to be burned. The kings of these countries, however, ignored him, all except the king of France, who ordered a Disputation, to be held on the 25-26 June.

In the past all such debates had been Christians trying to convert the Jews, and were on such subjects as whether the Jewish Bible foretold the coming of Jesus. The Jews in these had the upper hand. This debate was different: The Jews were on the back foot. It was about the validity and integrity of the Talmud to which until recently the Christians had paid no attention.

The Disputation was attended by all the leading French clergy, and Queen Blanche was also present. The disputants were R. Yeḥiel, who was alone there as a Jew, and Nicholas Donin. Both men wrote accounts of the Disputation. It was tense—everyone knew the stakes. [A quotation from the account of R. Yeḥiel followed.]

It has been suggested that Yeḥiel was not interested in reporting the debate, but helping others in future who had to defend themselves in such circumstances. He tried to explain that the Talmud was divinely given; without it the Bible cannot be understood. Many of Nicholas Donin's criticisms were against aggadic material in the Talmud—but these are not matters one has to believe in. Donin mocked the Talmud: In a dispute between Hillel and Shammai, a heavenly voice ends up proclaiming אֵלוּ וְאֵלוּ דִבְרֵי אֱלֹהִים חַיִים "Both opinions are the words of the living God." How can both be true? Yeḥiel answered: this refers to legal documents reached by a majority vote: Different communities may have different majority votes. Much of what Donin complained against inveighed not against Christians but pagans and idolaters—there were no Christians in Babylonia, or at least not enough for them to have been considered a threat to Judaism. The Talmud knows little about Christianity and does not inveigh against it.

Donin's charges were tortuous; Yeḥiel's defences [lacuna]. It was no surprise that Yeḥiel did not win. But two years later, a Papal communication condemned the Talmud as a result and ordered Louis IX to confiscate all copies. The people sent to carry out the confiscation couldn't read Hebrew, so they took any book. This was hugely traumatic for the Jews, for whom learning has always been so important. And every confiscated copy was a manuscript, which had taken months to write.

In all, twenty-four wagonloads were brought to Paris, piled up in the square and burned. We have no complete manuscripts of the Talmud from before this time today as a result.

By now, Pope Gregory had died. His successor, Celestine, lasted fifteen days. The new Pope Innocent IV (elected 1241) seemed [likely] to continue the policies. But three years after he wrote to Louis, a delegation of French rabbis appeared before him pleading that without the Talmud they could not interpret the Bible. The Church had guaranteed the Jews religious freedom so long as it was not anti-Christian. So the Pope changed to a policy of Talmud censorship—which has had an effect on the Talmud to today: only in the last twenty years have people been publishing the unexpurgated text of the Talmud; and people have written books trying to reconstruct what the original text had been.

Examples of expurgated content include the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt [which may not even have referred to Jesus of Nazareth, as it takes place 150 years before him]. Also, when discussing Balaam being put to death by Phinehas, the Talmud says, "People like Balaam will not live half their days," meaning they will die by thirty-five. Jesus could be regarded, like Balaam, as a prophet against the Jews, and he died at thirty-two.

Louis IX's son Philip came under continuing pressure from the Pope to [restrict the Jews' rights]: they were not allowed to live in villages, to chanting loudly, etc.

The next king expelled the Jews. He let them back nine years later later but started again burning the Talmud.

The Disputation in Barcelona

By now there were no copies of the Talmud left in France at all and the story moves to Spain. When in 1236 Ferdinand of Castile conquered Cordoba. The Dominicans pursued an active missionary policy in Spain. Jews were easier for the Dominicans to have to go at than Christian heretics or Muslims because they were on their own and could not hide in the surrounding population.

Also several Jewish converts were active in campaigning against the Talmud, of which the most notorious was Pablo Christiani. Here in Spain the Jews had long been forced to attend [Christian] sermons; Christiani only needed to take advantage of the popular mood. When he asked for a Disputation, James I acceded. The Disputation took place in Barcelona, in July 1263. Defending the Jews was Moses Nachmanides. A doctor by profession, he wrote of fifty works, including commentaries on the Talmud and Torah. He was in his late sixties at the time, and only agreed to take part if he could speak freely and the King did not speak. Friar Ramón, the head of the Dominicans, agreed. Nachmanides was the only spokesman for the Talmud, but at least here there were other Jews present.

Christiani quoted Talmudic homilies in favour of his view. Nachmanides argued Jews did not have to take aggada literally. It was, he said, to be treated like a sermon. The debate proved inconclusive—neither persuaded the other. The king was won over to some degree by Nachmanides: he presented him with 300 dineros and said he had never seen so powerful arguments from someone who was wrong. But the king said he would come to synagogue that week and preach the gospel.

[Following the Disputation, the Jews of Spain came] under further pressure from the Dominicans. Two years later the Bishop of Girona got hold of Nachmanides' account. It clearly did not accord with his own—he accused him of blasphemy. Nachmanides appealed to the king. The king put the trial off indefinitely. The [bishop] appealed to the Pope who ordered the Talmud to be seized. Nachmanides decided living conditions were going downhill and went to Israel; he settled in Acre—where his predecessor there was Yeḥiel of Paris!

There were many [lacuna]

Raymondo Martini, a member of the committee set up following the Disputation to investigate the Talmud, in 1278 produced his Pugio Fidei adversos Mauros et Judaeos (Dagger of Faith against the Moors and Jews). He sought to justify the mission against the Jews theologically: Jews before Jesus agreed with Christianity; Jews since, willfully did not. The book might have been a manual for Christians in the Disputations. It was widely disseminated for over four hundred years.

The Christian Hebraists of the Reformation

Two hundred years later, the situation had changed: The Reformation had happened. One of the chief principles of the Reformation was solā Scripturā (by Scripture alone): only the Bible is needed—like Karaism to the Jews! Catholicism also had a tradition of interpretation... but the Protestants decided they needed a much deeper understanding of the Bible. Catholics had always read the Bible in Latin—but that is a translation, hence cannot represent the original perfectly. The Protestants needed to learn Hebrew; hence the advent of Christian Hebraists—or possibly the process worked in the opposite direction: the advent of Christian Hebraists led to sola Scriptura?

Konrad Pellikan, a Franciscan monk, born 1478, was the first Christian scholar to study the Talmud systematically, he did so in order to [??convert [lacuna]]

Johannes Reuchlin, a humanist scholar, a self-taught Hebrew scholar, became interested in Cabbala. He tried to reconcile it with Greek philosophy. While he was doing so, Josef Pfefferkorn, an apostate Jew, was moving in the opposite direction. In 1504 he declared war on the Talmud, and managed to get the Emperor Maximilian on his side. But the Archbishop of Mainz said "this is my turf!" The Emperor backed off and appointed a commission to investigate the Talmud, all of whom agreed with Pfefferkorn except Reuchlin (even though he was no friend of the Jews). After a lot of argument, the Emperor decided not to proceed with the confiscation. Pfefferkorn then attacked Reuchlin, who had called him an ignorant [lacuna]. Reuchlin was charged with promoting Judaism. It became a cause célèbre. The scholastics

[My notes on this are fragmentary; I include here instead the text from Wikipedia instead:]

[A] formal process had begun at Mainz before the grand inquisitor. But Reuchlin managed to have the jurisdiction changed to the episcopal court of Speyer. The Reuchlin affair caused a wide rift in the church and eventually the case came before the papal court in Rome. Judgment was not finally given till July 1516; and then, though the decision was really for Reuchlin, the trial was simply quashed.

Reuchlin was, however, ordered to pay all costs.

The result had cost Reuchlin years of trouble and no small part of his modest fortune, but it was worth the sacrifice. For far above the direct importance of the issue was the great stirring of public opinion which had gone forward.

1518 Gershon Soncino published a virulently anti-Jewish text [which I haven't written down, but must be De Arcanis Catholicae Veritatis]. The book's subtitle was ["Against the most stubborn perfidy of the Jews of our times, recently excerpted from the Talmud and other Hebrew books"]. The author believed the Second Coming was coming. As far as Gershon Soncino was concerned, this book [lacuna] but if the Talmud predicted the Second Coming, destroying it would have been counterproductive. This was a big risk Soncino took.

Reuchlin had saved the Talmud from the flames, and had an admirer in the next Pope. When Daniel Bomberg approached for a licence to print the Talmud, the Pope agreed—if not for this [sc. (presumably) the Talmud might not have survived intact to today]. (This was not actually the first printing of the Talmud; the first printing we know about was Soncino's, but Bomberg's was the authoritative one until the Vilna edition was published in the nineteenth century.)

The Divorce of Henry VIII

During Henry VIII's attempt to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his agent in Rome was Richard Croke. Henry's sister Queen Margaret of Scotland had managed to persuade the Pope to grant her a divorce, but by 1529, Rome had been be sacked, and the Pope taken prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, who was the uncle of Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had previously been married to Henry's brother Arthur [who had died at the age of fifteen]; the marriage had possibly not been consummated (though it may have been: Arthur once said, "last night, my lord, I was in Spain"). Henry had only been able to marry her because of Catherine's claim that the marriage had not been consummated.

Leviticus 20:21 said a man should not marry his brother's wife... but Deuteronomy said he had to when there were no children. Stokesley told Henry to consult the Jews on the subject. Giorgi, a leading Christian Cabbalist, introduced him to [lacuna], who said levirate marriage only applied to Jews. The Vatican hired [lacuna], who took the opposite view. Their antagonism of Solomon Molcho confirmed the matter.

?Raphael (who invented invisible ink) was brought to England but couldn't help as he was not a Talmudist. Henry VIII then ordered a copy of the Talmud, which ended up in the British Library (they are now looking to see if it can be located). In the end Henry's love Anne Boleyn became pregnant, and Henry took matters into his own hands. But if he was going to Jewish law, why did he not give her a get? The speaker's idea: because he could only go to Jewish law where it did not directly contradict Jesus.

Jewish learning notes index


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