Church policy of protection and limitation was complicated by yet one more
element, and that involved the commitment to preaching Christian truth to the
Jews. During the early part of our period, the eleventh and early twelfth centuries,
the commitment to proselytizing was limited, and Christian anti-Jewish
argumentation was intended largely to bolster internal Christian convictions.

By the middle of the twelfth century, as western Christendom became increasingly
strong and aggressive, genuine missionizing ardor developed. During the middle
decades of the thirteenth century, the new commitment eventuated in a concerted
and well-orchestrated campaign. The objective was no longer to reassure
Christians; it was to win over Jews.

In this more aggressive setting, the key issues for
the Church involved finding appropriate venues for delivering the Christian

Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom set the stage for
effective delivery of Christian claims to Jewish audiences. Because of Jewish
dependency upon the lay authorities of western Christendom, the political
establishment could force Jews to present themselves to hear Christian claims.
What was required was simply the willingness of the political leadership to enact
such decrees, and many were quite willing to do so. Jews protested strenuously,
arguing that forced exposure to Christian preaching and teaching contravened the
basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society. To this Jewish claim, Church
and lay leadership responded that the only force exerted involved confrontation of
Jews with Christian arguments. Such forced confrontation in no way diminished
Jewish freedom of choice. Jews were free to hear Christian claims and reject them.

The most common format for forced confrontation with Christian claims was
the compulsory sermon. Jews were ordered by the lay authorities to hear the
sermons of preachers, often of the Dominican Order, which had been organized to
combat heresy through rigorous argumentation and—subsequently—to utilize
knowledge of religious truth and mechanisms of intellectual combat to preach the
faith to non-Christians as well. To the extent that Jews could influence the venue of
these forced sermons, they much preferred to have them take place in synagogues,
where at least the Jewish audience felt a measure of familiarity and comfort. In the
wake of such forced sermons, rabbis often gave counter-addresses, intended to
rebut the Christian claims and to reinforce the audience’s sense of Jewish truth.
The so-called forced disputations were an offshoot of the forced sermon.

The one liability, from the Christian perspective, of the forced sermon was the lack
of overt Jewish response. Christian preachers had no way of assessing audience
reaction—were their Jewish listeners reacting positively, negatively, or with total
indifference? The forced disputation was intended to bring Christian preachers
into contact with Jewish leaders, to engage the Jewish leaders with Christian
arguments, and to force these Jewish leaders to respond publicly. These public
disputations have often been misunderstood by moderns as open-ended
discussions of religious truth, which they certainly were not. Again, under no
circumstances were Jews to be allowed to criticize the ruling faith. These public
disputations were carefully orchestrated engagements, in which the Christian side
was empowered to advance its claims and the Jewish side was limited to parrying
these claims. In some instances, such as the famed Barcelona disputation of 1263,
there is no evidence of Christian success; in other cases, such as the equally well-
known Tortosa disputation of 1412-1415, the protracted public disputation
resulted in considerable Jewish conversion.