The Roman Catholic Church—Policies—Prohibition of Blasphemy


Pope Innocent IV

Pope Innocent IV

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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