By April 14, 2008 Read More →

R. Chazan, “The Condemnation of the Talmud Reconsidered,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, LV (1988):11-30.

Medieval W. Christendom
Since the onset of modern study of the Jewish past much attention has been focused on the Roman Catholic Church and its role in determining Jewish fate. For the great early synthe¬sizers of Jewish history, Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow, the Church played a role that was decisive and unchanging, a role that was distinctly negative and harmful.1 For the major late-twentieth-century synthesizer of Jewish history, Salo Baron, the role of the Church was more modest and less harmful, but still essentially unchanging. For Baron, the Church was bound, all through the Middle Ages, to a complex and somewhat flexible course that was rooted in toleration of Judaism and the Jews, with Jewish behaviors always subject to scrutiny and limitation by majority Christian society.2 Of late a striking new thesis has been proposed by a number of researchers, who suggest that the heretofore assumed continuity in ecclesiastical doctrine was in fact not the case. They claim rather that the thirteenth century saw the development of a radical new Church stance on Judaism and the Jews, a stance that in effect proscribed rabbinic Judaism.3 Let us note the fullest formulation of this new view, that of Jeremy Cohen in The Friars and the Jews- The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism.

The prime concern of this book is with the hitherto unappreciated substance of the friars’ attack upon the Jews, the basic ideas and theological considerations that underlay their anti-Jewish activities and polemics. I shall argue that the Dominicans and Franciscans developed, refined, and sought to implement a new Christian ideology with regard to the Jews, one that allotted the Jews no legitimate right to exist in European society.4

This strikingly new thesis is highly significant and deserves fuller consideration than it has thus far received. For the purposes of this paper I should like to examine one of the central foundations upon which the thesis is erected, the condemnation of the Talmud in the 1240’s.5 For Jeremy Cohen and others, this event serves as firm evidence of the deleterious new ecclesiastical doctrine destined to bring so much harm to the Jewish cause. Again, let us note Cohen’s formulation, in his closing observations to an extended analysis of the mid-thirteenth-century assault on the Talmud.

Capitalizing upon the vastness and strangeness of post-biblical Jewish literature, which they now for the first time gained the ability to scrutinize, the friars of the Inquisition attacked the general authority of the halakhah as well as many of its specific provisions. The Church now depicted the “living” Judaism of its own day as a heresy and perversion, a pernicious oral tradition of religious law and doctrine, a gross deviation from the religion of the Old Testament.6

This is a most significant statement. The conclusion which Cohen draws from his analysis of the proceedings against the Talmud represents an important reading of the events of the 1230’s and 1240’s and, at the same time, constitutes a critical element in his general case for a new ecclesiastical stance vis-à-vis the Jews. The task of this paper is to examine more closely the assault on the Talmud in an effort to test the new reading of these events.

Fortunately, substantial source materials are available for reconstructing the attack on the Talmud of the 1230’s and 1240’s. These include- (1) a set of thirty-five accusations against the Talmud, drawn up by the apostate Nicholas Donin;7 (2) the letters of Pope Gregory IX, dispatched in 1239 to the archbishops, bishops, and kings of western Europe, calling for an investigation of the Talmud, to be followed by appropriate action;8 (3) purported confessions of two of the rabbis called as witnesses in the trial of the Talmud held in Paris;9 (4) a Hebrew account of the proceedings in Paris;10 (5) a 1244 letter of Pope Innocent IV to King Louis IX of France, commending the monarch for his support of the anti-Talmud campaign and urging further efforts along the same lines;11 (6) a 1247 letter of the same pope to the same king of France, retreating from the stance taken in 1244 and calling for a reexamination of the Talmud and a return to the Jews of material deemed innoc¬uous;12 (7) a reply to a parallel letter addressed to the papal legate in France, in which the legate reviews the earlier anti-Talmud actions and argues the error of the more moderate course now proposed by the pope;13 (8) a renewed condemnation of the Talmud, decided upon by the same papal legate and a distinguished set of associates;14 (9) a gloss on the Decretales by Pope Innocent IV, in which he reveals his own thinking on the condemnation of the Talmud.15

What must be emphasized at the outset is the diversity of these materials. They stem from a multiplicity of sources and reflect a variety of stages in the progression of the anti-Talmud campaign. In attempting to assess carefully the considerations involved in the investigation and condemnation of the Talmud, full allowance must be made for the diverse points of view held by the various dramatis personnae and for the distinct stages in the unfolding of the events.

A reconstruction of the anti-Talmud campaign of the 1230’s and 1240’s must inevitably begin with the enigmatic Nicholas Donin and his circle, for it is through these ex-Jews that the events were set in motion. Donin, unlike such later converts as Friar Paul Christian and Maestre Alfonso of Valladolid, is a remote and shadowy figure.16 The extensive materials that seem to flow from his pen in no way illumine his personality.17 The brief reference to Donin in one of the papal letters of 1239 is utterly uninformative as to the nature and background of the man.18 The only two sources that shed any significant light on Nicholas Donin are the somewhat later letter of Jacob ben Eli of Vienne or Venice and the Hebrew account of the trial of 1240. In his letter to the later convert, Friar Paul Christian, Jacob ben Eli says the following-

Surely you know and have heard what befell Donin the apostate, who deserted the laws of the Lord and his statutes, while also not believing in the religion of Rome. Indeed, the holy R. Yehiel, for the honor of the God of heaven, rejected him thoroughly and excommunicated him with the blast of the ram’s horn, for there was error in his mouth and faith had left him.19 He then became “a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood.”20 That apostate then went before the king renowned above all others and spoke lies, alleging slanderously that on Passover eve we slaughter youngsters still nursing in the bosom of their mothers….21

While not referring to Donin’s assault on the Talmud, this problematic passage does advance three interesting allegations concerning Nicholas Donin—that he rejected “the laws of the Lord and his statutes,” that he likewise did not believe in the tenets of Christianity, and that he was formally excommunicated by the Jewish community. The testimony provided in the account of the investigation of the Talmud seems more trustworthy, although allowance must surely be made for the tendentious purposes of the Jewish author. In this narrative, Rabbi Yehiel, in opening his defense of the Talmud, describes Donin as-

this sinner who has denied the teachings of our sages for the past fifteen years, believing only in that which is written in the Torah of Moses, without explication—but you know that everything requires explication. Because of this, we excommunicated him, and from then on he has schemed evilly against us.22

There is, to be sure, a double effort here to disqualify Donin, first as a rejecter of tradition and secondly as personally biased against the Jews. Nonetheless, combining these two sources, I believe that we are justified in seeing Donin as a denier of rabbinic authority, rejected as a result by his Jewish contemporaries. The specific nature and the sources of his denial of rabbinic authority must remain an open question, but the reality of such denial seems firmly established.

The first of the nine sources enumerated above clearly stems from Nicholas Donin and his circle.23 The overall impression is a broadly-based assault on rabbinic tradition, which falls conveniently into five major categories- (1) the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis; (2) hostility toward Christians; (3) blasphemies against God; (4) blasphemies against Jesus, Mary, and Christianity; (5) the stupidity and inanity of talmudic laws and stories.24 There is no question that, in the broadly-based attack levelled by Nicholas Donin and his associates, first place is accorded to the allegation that the Jews have abandoned the Bible in favor of the teachings of the rabbis. This notion is reflected in the first nine of the thirty-five accusations gathered by Donin and his circle-

(1) The Jews claim that God gave the law which is called Talmud.

(2) They say that it was transmitted by the word of God.

(3) [They say] that it was implanted in their minds.

(4) They further say that it was preserved unwritten until those whom they call sages and scribes came, who, lest it be lost from men’s minds through forgetfulness, put it in writing, the volume of which exceeds greatly the text of the Bible.

(5) In it is contained, among other inanities, the notion that the aforesaid sages and scribes are superior to the prophets.

(6) They may abrogate the words of the written law.

(7) They must be believed even if they declare the left right or, to the contrary, they make the right left.

(8) Anyone who does not observe that which they say deserves to be put to death.

(9) They prohibit their children from utilizing the Bible, since, they say, it is not proper to study it. Rather they prefer talmudic doctrines, those laws which they arbitrarily teach.25

What is immediately striking about these allegations is their internal Jewish origins and character. The formulations are drawn directly from rabbinic literature itself. There is no real effort to revise the material in terms of ecclesiastical law or doctrine. This is a collection of raw data, rather than a finished legal brief. There is no attempt here to define a Christian doctrine of heresy and to prove that rabbinic Judaism is such a heresy. This set of allegations reflects internal Jewish dissatisfaction with rabbinic law and is proffered to a Christian audience as evidence of Jewish malfeasance, without defining carefully in terms of Christian theory the precise nature of this malfeasance. It must be remembered of course that these allegations represent only the first step in projected legal proceedings.

We must next see how this broadly-based assault of Donin and his circle was assimilated by official representatives of the Church. Our first evidence is provided by the papal letters of 1239. The essential formulation is similar in letters addressed to both ecclesiastical and secular leadership. Here too there is very little reformulation of original data—in this case the allegations provided directly from the Jewish sources by Donin. Pope Gregory IX largely reiterates the claims advanced by Donin and his confreres. This will be perfectly clear if we present the papal letter in the following schematic manner-

A. Allegations concerning the authority of the Talmud-

(1) They, so we have heard, are not content with the old law, which God gave them in writing; they even ignore it completely and affirm that God gave another law which is called Talmud, that is teaching,

(2) transmitted to Moses orally.

(3) Falsely they allege that it was implanted within their minds

(4) and, unwritten, was there preserved, until those whom they call sages and scribes came, who, lest it be lost from men’s minds through forgetfulness, put it in writing, the volume of which exceeds greatly the text of the Bible.

B. Vague reference to the remaining allegations-

(1) In it are contained such abuses and evils that they bring shame to those who mention them and horror to those who hear them.26

Two major points deserve emphasis- (1) The papal letter is directly dependent upon the essentially primitive formulation of Donin and his group. (2) This papal missive does not represent by any means a reasoned conclusion; it represents rather a set of charges which those addressed are asked to investigate. From these letters no implications can be drawn as to a new ecclesiastical doctrine vis-à-vis the Jews; these are simply the broad lines of investigation which are to be pursued.27

As is well known, the investigation which the papal letters of 1239 enjoined was in fact carried out in Paris. The suggestion of the late Yitzhak Baer that an essentially inquisitorial proceeding took place in Paris in 1240 has been widely accepted. The evidence that he mustered is unassailable.28 The result of this inquisitorial proceeding was a condemnation of the Talmud. The crucial question which we must now pose is—On what grounds was the Talmud condemned in Paris? More specifically, were the primary grounds—or at least one of the major grounds—of condemnation the notion of heretical deviation from biblical law? Our sources for this phase of the events of 1239-47 are two—the purported confessions of Rabbi Yehiel and Rabbi Judah and the Hebrew report of the “disputation” of Rabbi Yehiel. The former—the so-called confessions of Rabbi Yehiel and Rabbi Judah—are of unknown provenance and of dubious value. These “confessions” are clearly not from the pen of either rabbi nor are they statements which would have been signed by either. They seem to represent merely a tendentious depiction of the examination of the two Jewish scholars—and a none-too-well informed or organized depiction at that. They certainly contribute nothing of substance to our understanding of the proceedings in Paris.

The second of our sources—the Hebrew report—is known to be somewhat later than the events and clearly shows some literary embellishment. It has the virtue, however, of being rather full and well-organized. While it can certainly not be taken as a literal rendition of the events in Paris in early 1240, it reflects accurately the key issues in the Paris proceedings and is our most valuable source for these proceedings. Because of the importance of this text, it must be analyzed in some detail.
The Hebrew text divides the proceedings in Paris—or at least those that involved Rabbi Yehiel—into two segments- the first concerned with preliminaries and the second with the actual prosecution of the Talmud. Let us begin with the latter. The heart of the proceedings in Paris was quite simple. Nicholas Donin cited damaging sections from rabbinic literature and Rabbi Yehiel was then required to respond. To give a flavor of all of this, let us note Donin’s first thrust-

Then the ass began and said- “It is written in your Torah- ‘He who allows all of his seed to be offered up to Molech is innocent, for it is said- “any of his seed”29 and not all of his seed.”’ 30 With regard to this and similar passages, all souls must be astounded. Who can believe such a thing? If one offers up part [of his seed], he is guilty; but if he sins more greatly and offers up all of it, then he is innocent.” The bishops rose up in laughter, and the queen was astounded.31

As the report progresses, the rhythm of this assault intensifies. In the last section of the Hebrew account, Donin is depicted as presenting strings of text in staccato fashion to the rabbi.32 Over thirty rabbinic texts are cited by Donin, ranging broadly over four of the five categories noted in the thirty-five accusations, viz. hostility toward Christians; blasphemies against God; blasphemies against Jesus, Mary, and Christianity; and stupidities and inanities. What is strikingly absent is the first category—the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis. Not a single text illustrative of the nine allegations noted above is cited in the Hebrew report of the interrogation of Rabbi Yehiel. The conclusion that must be drawn is that, while the authority of the Talmud was projected as a charge to be levelled against the Jews, once the actual proceedings were initiated, this issue was dropped in favor of the others. Again, as noted, the thirty-five accusations and the papal letters of 1239 were intended as bases for an investigation. When the formal proceedings began, one of the potential issues for condemnation was abandoned.

As already indicated, the Hebrew report contains a description of some preliminary discussions as well. Since this material has sometimes been adduced to show an attack on the authority of the Talmud, it must be scrutinized with some care.33 This description of the pre-interrogative phase of the proceedings involves three elements- (l)an opening statement by Rabbi Yehiel, asserting that the proceedings were totally out of order since the Talmud had long been known and tolerated; (2) a question from Donin as to whether Rabbi Yehiel believed in the Talmud and the rabbi’s response; (3) parrying over requirement of an oath. All these three elements are clearly preliminary in nature. In particular, the second—Donin’s question as to Rabbi Yehiel’s belief in the Talmud—is surely intended not as a charge against the Talmud, but rather as a backdrop to the ensuing allegations. If Rabbi Yehiel were to deny belief in the Talmud, then what point would there be in marshalling problematic talmudic statements? If, on the other hand, as antici¬pated, Rabbi Yehiel were to answer that he believed in the Talmud, then passages deemed offensive could be properly advanced. It was clearly in this way that the author of the Hebrew report understood the question. For Rabbi Yehiel’s answer assumes that the opening query was meant to lay the groundwork for the ensuing specific allegations.

I believe in all the laws and statutes written therein. … There are in addition aggadic teachings, intended to attract the human heart to understand the enigmatic, as is written- “For understanding proverb and epigram.”34 Further, there are therein wondrous things, to test the faith of the unbeliever and the apostate. In regard to the latter, I need not respond to you. If one wishes, he may believe; if he does not, he need not believe.35

Were the opening question perceived as an attack on the Talmud as per se heretical, then Rabbi Yehiel’s response would be incomprehensible. The response attributed to him clearly supposes that belief in the Talmud was not advanced as an accusation; it was rather advanced as the foundation for a specifically-grounded assault, which Rabbi Yehiel hoped to blunt by denying the necessity of belief in non-halachic talmudic teachings.

Thus, a close look at the Hebrew account of the proceedings in Paris suggests that they revolved not about allegations of deviation from biblical faith, but rather about specific abuses and errors allegedly contained in the Talmud text. The heart of the proceedings lay in Donin’s citation of allegedly offensive texts and in Rabbi Yehiel’s counter-explications. None of the texts so cited relate to the charges of deviation from biblical faith.

An additional source—the 1244 letter of Pope Innocent IV—might have provided excellent evidence of the grounds for condemnation of the Talmud, but it unfortunately does not. It fails to provide clear-cut evidence because it is a loose and broadly-stated letter of accusations against the Jews and a general letter of exhortation to the pious king of France.36 Thus, on the one hand, this papal letter repeats the tri-partite allegations of the 1239 letter of Pope Gregory IX- (1) that the Jews prefer the Talmud to the Bible; (2) that the Talmud contains “blasphemies against God and his Christ and the Blessed Virgin, obviously entangled fables, abusive errors, and unheard of follies;” (3) that the Talmud is the source of Jewish pertinacity. On the other hand, when mention is made of the proceedings against the Talmud and the resultant condemnation, the focus is completely upon the abuses contained in the Talmud. Thus, I would suggest that the letter points to blasphemy and abuse as the core of the anti-Talmud proceedings, but there is a generality and looseness that tend to obscure.

Proceeding forward from the condemnation of 1240, the next substantive development was the papal volte-face of 1247. The letter of Pope Innocent IV to Saint Louis calls for a reexamination of the Talmud and a return to the Jews of those portions deemed non-offensive.

Indeed, the rabbis of your kingdom recently claimed before us and our brothers that, without the book which is called in Hebrew Talmud, they cannot understand the Bible and other statutes of their law according to their faith. We, who are obliged by divine mandate to tolerate them in that law, considered it proper to respond to them that we do not wish to deprive them unjustly of their books, if we would thereby deprive them of their law. Therefore we directed our letters to our venerable brother the bishop of Tusculum, legate of the apostolic throne, ordering that, when he had caused that Talmud and other books to be shown to him and inspected carefully, he tolerate them insofar as he viewed them tolerable, according to God without injury to the Christian faith, and return them to the aforesaid rabbis.37

This turn of events has been noted as problematic by a number of observers.38 For the purposes of this inquiry, it must be indicated that, on the assumption of condemnation of the Talmud as intrinsically heretical, the papal letter of 1247 is most difficult to comprehend. The Jewish claims would in fact seem to substantiate the allegation of a new and alien doctrine, for the rabbis of France are said to refer to an understanding “of the Bible and other statutes of their law in accordance with their faith.”39 Had the Talmud been condemned as extra-biblical, it is difficult to imagine that the rabbis would mount such an argument and impossible to imagine that the pope would accept it. If, on the other hand, the actual condemnation of the Talmud had been on grounds of blasphemy and error, then the Jewish argument becomes perfectly plausible- The Talmud had been condemned on the grounds of blasphemy and error; as a result it had been burned; the Jews request a more moderate approach, urging that offensive materials be expurgated and the rest of the vast talmudic corpus be returned to them. It was this argument that Pope Innocent IV now found acceptable.
Noted in the letter to King Louis IX is a message dispatched by the pope to the papal legate in Paris, Odo of Chateauroux. While this second letter has been lost, Odo’s response has been preserved. Odo responds directly to the new papal initiative, arguing vigorously against it.

Saint Jerome, speaking of the lepers whom the Lord cured, says that there is no perverse doctrine which does not contain some truth. Likewise there are no heretics who do not think well of some article of faith. Thus, since these books contain errors—even though they might contain much good and truth —, they were condemned by the authority of that council. Likewise various heretics have been condemned although they do not err in everything. Thus, although the aforesaid books contain some good teachings—although few—nonetheless they deserve to be condemned. This doctrine is that “deuterosis” of which Saint Jerome made mention in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [saying that] it made the decree of God null, as the Lord himself attests.40

Two observations must be made on this important passage- (1) The technical grounds cited for condemnation of the Talmud is the fact that it “contains errors,” not that it is intrinsically heretical by deviating from biblical teaching. (2) The issue of heresy is introduced for purposes of comparison. While it might be argued that this comparison reflects the notion of talmudical law as heretical, I would suggest the opposite. Had the central accusation been heresy, Odo would not have compared the books of the Jews to the books of the heretics—he would simply have labelled those books heretical. The comparison, I believe, strengthens the contention that the legal charges upon which the Talmud was condemned were in fact abuse and error, not the generalized allegation of a displacement of the Bible.

One further piece of evidence survives from the reexamination of the Talmud in 1248. While Odo had objected to the new tack taken by the pope, there was clearly little that he could do about it. His letter of objection did not convince the pontiff, and so reexamination of the Talmud did take place. To be sure, the results were not those envisioned by Innocent IV. Rather than finding sections of the Talmud tolerable and returning them to the Jews, the council formally condemned the Talmud once again. The papal requirement had been met, but without achieving the anticipated goals. This edict of condemnation is a significant item, in that it is formal and technical. Unlike the broad and sketchy papal epistles of 1239 and 1244, this is a precise and legally-correct document, which reads as follows-

By apostolic authority, certain books which are called Talmud were exhibited to us by the rabbis of the kingdom of France. We inspected them and had them inspected carefully by men discerning and expert in these matters, godfearing and zealous for the Christian faith. We found that they contain innumerable errors, abuses, blasphemies, and wickednesses, which bring shame to those who mention them and horror to those who hear them,41 so much so that the aforesaid books may not be tolerated according to God without injury to the Christian faith.42 With the counsel of good men whom we had specially convoked for this purpose, we announce that the aforesaid books are not to be tolerated and should not be returned to the rabbis. We decisively condemn them.43

The statement is clear and unambiguous. There is here no notion of the inherent heresy of Jewish oral law; it is the specific content of the Talmud that establishes the grounds for condemnation, its alleged “errors, abuses, blasphemies, and wickednesses.” This final piece of evidence seems to me to clinch the argument. While the charges against the Talmud made by Donin were broadly based and were couched in terms drawn from the Talmud itself, the formal Church inquiries which Donin’s allegations set in motion were based on the specific content of rabbinic literature. Those documents which reflect directly the ecclesiastical condemnations of 1240 and 1248 exhibit concern with the specific contents of the Talmud, rather than with any broad notion of this literature as per se heretical. There is in all this no foundation for inferring a new ideological perspective on post-biblical Judaism. At most one might suggest that Nicholas Donin, out of his own internally Jewish concerns, attempted to project such a notion and that such a notion was loosely picked up by Gregory IX and Innocent IV. In no sense, however, did such a notion reach the stage of serious acceptance.
Finally, let us attend briefly to Innocent IV’s own gloss on the Decretales, a passage recently reconstructed from manuscripts by B.Z. Kedar. Innocent, who had himself been intimately involved in the anti-Talmud campaign, says the following-

Likewise the pope has the right to judge the Jews if they contravene the law in moral matters, if their leaders do not punish them, and, in the same manner, if they initiate heretical teachings against their law. Moved by such a consideration, Pope Gregory and Pope Innocent ordered the burning of the books of the Talmud, in which much heretical teaching is contained and ordered the punishment of those who follow and instruct the aforesaid heretical teachings.44

Once more the papal stance specifies that the Talmud contains heretical teachings, which is a central theme in the sources that focus on the condemnation of the Talmud; it does not, however, suggest that the Talmud is eo ipso heretical.

Let us look briefly at the aftermath of the initial anti-Talmud campaign during the remaining decades of the thirteenth century. The condemnations of 1240 and 1248 were certainly precedent-setting. They heralded a long history of ecclesiastical concern with the Talmud, often entailing secularly-supported action against the Jews and their literature. Consideration of these anti-Talmud activities proves instructive. Three of the popes of the second half of the thirteenth century—Alexander IV, Clement IV, and Honorious IV—urged renewed secular awareness of the Talmud and appropriate action. In all these cases, the focus of concern is the issue of blasphemy and abuse.

The letter of Pope Alexander IV makes the following demand-

You must have those books which are called “Talmud,” in which are contained errors against the Catholic faith and horrible and intolerable blasphemies against our Lord Jesus Christ and the blessed virgin Mary his mother, taken from all the Jews of the aforesaid land.45

The lengthier epistle of Clement IV, while reiterating the broader charges of Gregory IX and Innocent IV, focuses quite clearly on abuses and blasphemy-

We have heard with sorrow and now relate that the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon, having neglected the Old Testament which the majesty of the creator of all conferred through his servant Moses, falsely pretend that the Lord handed down a certain other law or tradition which they call the Talmud. In its huge volume which is said to exceed the Old and New Testaments, are contained innumerable abuses and detestable blasphemies against the Lord Jesus Christ and his most blessed mother, the telling or hearing of which can scarcely be undertaken by anyone without the occurrence of the gravest shame and horror. The worst curses and horrible oaths, which are uttered daily by these ungrateful and perfidious Jews against Christians, are recorded in this law or damnable tradition. What more need be said? These and other detestable things, which are damnably written down in the said law or profane tradition, are considered to be the chief reasons why this foolish and faithless people has for a long time remained obstinate in its perfidy.46

The essential concern with abuse and blasphemy, rather than any general notion of heresy is, I believe, patent. Indeed, the papal order to return to the Jews those books free of blasphemy again indicates clearly that a blanket condemnation of the Talmud as per se heretical is nowhere in evidence. Once more serious ecclesiastical concern focuses on the specific contents of rabbinic literature and the alleged blasphemies, abuses and errors contained therein.47

A number of major secular authorities responded to these ecclesiastical pressures. Not surprisingly, the lead was taken by the kings of France, descendants of the pious Saint Louis. Louis himself, Philip III, Philip IV, and Louis X all prohibited the Talmud, although in none of their edicts is there specification of the grounds for this prohibition.48 James I of Aragon, in ordering that Jewish books be submitted to Friar Paul Christian and his associates for inspection, highlights clearly alleged Jewish blasphemy as the occasion for the inspection and the evil to be rooted out.49 Thus the examination of post-1248 materials, both ecclesiastical and secular, serves to substantiate our earlier conclusion—the actual grounds upon which the Talmud was condemned were blasphemy and abuses. The notion of the Talmud as per se heretical, while it might well have been proposed by Nicholas Donin, was never accepted in a carefully legal sense by the authorities of church and state.

Having completed this close look at every stage of the anti-Talmud efforts of the 1230’s and 1240’s and their aftermath, it is time now to formulate conclusions- (l) The campaign was initiated by ex-Jews who attempted to mount an assault as broadly-based as possible. This assault included, inter alia, the notion of the Talmud as heretical deviation from the original truth of the Bible, a position explicitly attributed by two Jewish sources to the key ex-Jew, Nicholas Donin. This position was not developed out of Christian theology, but rather reflected a strand in internal Jewish criticism. (2) The loose set of allegations levelled by Donin and his associates was repeated by Gregory IX and Innocent IV, not however as carefully considered conclusions but rather as guidelines for broad investigation. (3) When the broad investigation began, the focus narrowed to specific abuses and errors within talmudic literature, and, when the Talmud was condemned, the condemnation was in terms only of specific abuses and errors contained therein. (4) In subsequent anti-Talmud efforts, the same specific allegations always formed the foundation for renewed condemnation.

There is in all of this no effort to minimize the impact of the anti-Talmud campaign, both immediate and long-range, both direct and indirect. The direct results were serious interference with internal Jewish affairs and with Jewish intellectual activity. The indirect results were a further deterioration of an already negative Jewish image. What did not emerged however, was a new ecclesiastical theory as to the place of Jews and Judaism in Christian society.50


1 Graetz’s assessment of the role of the Roman Catholic Church appears throughout his massive study, beginning with volume IV and his depiction of the rise of Christianity to power in the Roman Empire. Graetz was particularly harsh in his indictment of the thirteenth-century papacy. Dubnow, while differing markedly from Graetz in many ways, shared his predecessor’s sense of the deleterious role played by the Roman Catholic Church. For a particularly telling summary statement, see the ninth chapter of his broad essay on Jewish history. This is conveniently available in the English translation—Jewish History- An Essay in the Philosophy of History (Philadelphia, 1903), pp. 114-133.

2 See the careful statements in the opening chapters to the fourth and ninth volumes of Baron’s magisterial Social and Religious History of the Jews (2nd ed.; 18 vols.; New York, 1952-83).

3 Amos Funkenstein, “Changes in the Pattern of Christian Anti-Jewish Polemics” (Hebrew), Zion, XXXIII (1968), 137-141; Joel Rembaum, “The Talmud and the Popes- Reflections on the Talmud Trials of the 1240s,” Viator, XIII (1982) 203-223; Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews- The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca, 1982). Of all these Cohen’s case is by far the most fully articulated and it will henceforth be cited. Rembaum subscribes only in part to this thesis. He argues for adoption of the new position by Pope Gregory IX and its subsequent rejection by Pope Innocent IV. In many ways Rembaum’s position is quite close to my own, although with some differences in detail.

4 Cohen, The Friars and the Jews, p. 76.

5 Cohen’s arguments for a new theoretical view of Judaism and the Jews draw upon further events and developments of the thirteenth century as well. Only the anti-Talmud campaign will be discussed in this paper.

6 Cohen, The Friars and the Jews, p. 76.

7 This material, found in Bib. Nat. Paris, ms. lat. 16558, folios 211b-230d, was published by Isidore Loeb, “La Controvèrse de 1240 sur le Talmud,” Revue des études juives, II (1881), 252-270, and III (1881), 39-55.

8 These letters, found in the same manuscript, are conveniently available in Solomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century (rev. ed.; New York, 1966), pp. 240-242, #96 and 97.
9 Published by Loeb, “La Controvèrse de 1240,” REJ, III, pp. 55-57.

10 This Hebrew text is available in two editions. I shall use that of Reuven Margolies (ed.), Vikuah R. Yehiel mi-Pariz (Lwow, 1928).

11 Published in Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, pp. 250-252, #104.

12 Published in idem, pp. 274-280, #119.

13 Published in idem, pp. 275-277.

14 Published in idem, pp. 278-279.

15 Benjamin Z. Kedar, “Canon Law and the Burning of the Talmud,” Bulletin of Medieval Canon Law, IX (1979), 79.

16 For a good review of the various views concerning Donin, see Cohen, The Friars and the Jews, p. 61, n. 19.

17 This is the material published by Loeb, as indicated above in note 7.

18 See Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, pp. 238-240, #95.

19 This is clearly a reference to actions which preceded Donin’s conversion.

20 Deut. 29-17.

21 This letter was edited by Joseph Kobak in Jeschurun VI (1868), Heb. sec, pp. 1-34. For this citation see p. 29. Throughout this article, the translations will be my own. For recent discussions of Donin and the ritual-murder allegation, see Joseph Shatzmiller, “Did Nicholas Donin Promulgate the Blood Libel” (Hebrew), Studies in the History of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, IV (1978), 175-182, and Ch. Merhavia, “Did Nicholas Donin Promulgate the Blood Libel” (Hebrew), Tarbiz, XLIX (1979-80), 111-121. On the author of this letter, see Kenneth R. Stow, “Jacob of Venice and the Jewish Settlement in Venice in the Thirteenth Century,” Community and Culture, ed. Nahum M. Waldman (Philadelphia, 1987), pp. 221-232.

22 Vikuah R. Yehiel, p. 13.

23 Donin’s role is made clear in the introductory statement to the thirty-five articles of accusation, a passage found in Loeb, “La Controvèrse de 1240,” REJ, II, p. 252.

24 For a valuable analysis of this material, see Judah Rosenthal, “The Talmud on Trial,” Jewish Quarterly Review, XLVII (1956-57), 58-76 and 145-169.

25 Loeb, “La Controvèrse de 1240,” REJ, II, pp. 253-263.

26 Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, p. 240, #96.

27 Joel Rembaum has analyzed with care this papal letter and has suggested a number of issues broadly reflected in Pope Gregory’s career that explain the papal concern. He may be correct. Alternatively I would suggest that there is nothing more here than a superficial repetition of the allegations made by Donin.

28 Yitzhak Baer, “The Disputations of R. Yehiel of Paris and of Nahmanides” (Hebrew), Tarbiz, II (1931), 172-187.

29 Lev. 18-21.

30 T.B. San., 64b.

31 Vikuah R. Yehiel, p. 14.

32 See, e.g., the barrage of texts cited by Donin on p. 24 of the Vikuah.

33 Jeremy Cohen’s reading of these opening passages in the Vikuah, with which I disagree, can be found in The Friars and the Jews, pp. 69-70.

34 Prov. 1-6.

35 Vikuah R. Yehiel, p. 13.

36 The strong disagreement between Joel Rembaum and Jeremy Cohen concerning this 1244 letter reflects its underlying ambiguity.

37 Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, pp. 276-280.

38 See especially the Rembaum study.

39 Italics mine. This Jewish emphasis on the right to explicate biblical law according to the Jewish understanding of Scriptures is prominent in the mid-thirteenth-century Milhemet Mizvah. See Robert Chazan, “Anti-Usury Efforts in Narbonne and the Jewish Response,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, XLI-XLII (1973-74), 59-63.

40 Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, p. 276.

41 Quoted from the 1239 papal letter.

42 The response to the papal order.

43 Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, pp. 278-279.

44 Kedar, “Canon Law and the Burning of the Talmud,” 79. Papal arrogation of the right to police Jewish moral and theological teachings certainly constitutes a significant augmentation of papal control over the Jews; it is not, however, the same thing as declaring the Talmud in and of itself heretical.

45 Isidore Loeb, “Bulles inédites des papes,” REJ, I (1880), 117.

46 Thomas Ripoll (ed.), Bullarium Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum (8 vols.; Rome, 1729-40), vol. I, p. 487.

47 Cf. the letter of Honorius IV, which describes the talmud as “abominationes, falsitates, infidelitates, et abusiones continentem.” See Joannes Sbaralea et al. (eds.), Bullarium franciscanum romanorum pontificum (7 vols.; Rome, 1759-1904), vol. III, p. 590.

48 Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in Northern France (Baltimore, 1973), pp. 124-133, 156, 178 and 202.

49 Heinrich Denifle, “Quellen zur Disputation Pablos Christiani mit Mose Nachmani zu Barcelona 1263,” Historisches Jahrbuch, VIII (1887), 236-237.

50 Again I note that Jeremy Cohen’s case for a new view of Judaism and the Jews is based on more than the assault on the Talmud. I have contested only the argument based on the condemnation of the Talmud. Whether the other sources for Cohen’s contention of a new ecclesiastical view stand up to careful examination must be decided as a separate matter.

Posted in: Uncategorized

Comments are closed.