By April 14, 2008 Read More →

Prohibition of Blasphemy

Medieval W. Christendom
According to the basic doctrine of the medieval Roman Catholic Church,
Jews had a fundamental right to secure existence in Christian society, balanced by
the need for Jewish life to be constrained in ways that would preclude Jewish harm
to Christianity or Christians. Harm to Christianity involved, above all else, Jewish
blasphemy of the sancta of the Christian faith. Christians were well aware of the
tensions and animosities that existed between their own majority and the Jewish
minority and assumed hostility on the part of Jews toward Christianity. Such
animosity could by no means, however, be expressed. Jewish expressions of
contempt for Christianity constituted a capital crime in medieval western
Christendom. Individual Jews accused and convicted of such contempt were
severely punished. Normal inter-faith dialogue was precluded by these concerns.
Jews could not engage in religious give-and-take that might in any way include
Jewish aspersions on the ruling faith.

A major crisis for Europe’s Jews was precipitated in the 1230’s and 1240’s,
when an apostate from Judaism named Nicholas Donin appeared at the papal
court and claimed that the Talmud, the cornerstone of Jewish religious life in
medieval Europe, was replete with blasphemies, including attacks on Jesus and
Mary. Pope Gregory IX and his court were deeply distressed over this allegation
and empowered Donin to undertake fuller investigation and to initiate requisite
actions if the allegations were proven true. The scene of Donin’s follow-up
activities was Paris, the site of the court of the pious King Louis IX of France-
eventually Saint Louis-and of the famed University of Paris. Donin and a team of
apostates knowledgeable in Hebrew translated important sections of the Talmud
and organized their translations into a set of accusations. Armed with these
accusations, Donin engineered-with royal backing-a trial of the Talmud, in which
Donin himself served as prosecutor and four leading French rabbis appeared as
witnesses for the defense. The Talmud was found guilty of blasphemy, and large
quantities of rabbinic texts were burned in Paris in 1242, in a public display that
sullied the Parisian populace’s perceptions of Judaism and the Jews and that sent
the Jews of northern France into deep mourning.

The condemnation and burning of the Talmud had extensive aftermath. The
Jews themselves argued that destruction and prohibition of the Talmud in effect
contradicted the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society, for without
the guidance of the Talmud Jewish life was impossible. Pope Gregory IX’s
successor, Pope Innocent IV, was moved by the Jewish argument and sought a
compromise whereby blasphemy would be eliminated, without robbing the Jews
of their Talmud and thus of their basic religious rights. He urged the authorities in
Paris, ecclesiastical and lay, to have the Talmud re-examined and to return to the
Jews those portions that were free of blasphemy. In effect, this meant a policy of
censoring the Talmud, which became the dominant stance for the rest of the
Middle Ages in most areas of western Christendom. In the French kingdom,
however, the conclusion of the re-trial of the Talmud was that its blasphemies were
so pervasive and horrific as to preclude return of the books to the Jews. The
Talmud remained outlawed throughout the rest of the stay of the Jews in the
French kingdom.

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