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The Talmud on Trial by Samuel N. Hoenig
The Talmud on Trial by Samuel N. Hoenig

Volume 4 , Issue 3

Throughout history, the Talmud, one of the greatest creative accomplishments of the Jewish people, was banned, burned and censored. Both from within and from without, and even before the Talmud was fully completed, numerous attempts were made to extinguish this spirit of Jewish creativity.

The rabbis of the Midrash state:

When the Holy One came to give the Torah, He told Moses in succession the Bible, Mishnah, Agadah, and Talmud. Moses said unto Him: ?Master of the World, write it for your children.? He replied: ?My wish is to give it to them in writing, but it is foreseen by Me that the nations of the world are destined to rule over them and to take it (the Oral law) from them, and My children will be as the nations of the world. Therefore, the Bible give unto, them in writing, and the Mishnah, Agadah and Talmud orally.'

Thus, it is the Oral Law as embodied in the Talmud, which renders the Jewish people unique. The definition of true Judaism, the real spirit of the Bible and its meaning, are all to be found in the Oral Law - the Talmud. Furthermore, from a socio-historical standpoint, no Jewish community could survive for long without the ability to study the Talmud. The study of the Talmud has, throughout the ages, given meaning and vitality to Jewish existence. In times of dire catastrophe and harsh persecution, the sing-song niggun, the melody in which the Talmud was studied, the intricacies of Talmudic dialectics and the glowing warmth of the agadah have all kept the Jewish spirit alive. It is this uniqueness and spirit which the enemies of the Jewish people tried to destroy in their attacks upon the Talmud.

The earliest attack on the Talmud goes back to the sixth century, when Emperor Justinian attempted to strip Judaism of its legal rights. Among other things, the Justinian Code states: ?But the Mishnah, or, as they call it, the second tradition, we prohibit entirely. For it is not part of the sacred books, nor is it handed down by divine inspiration through the prophets, but the handiwork of man, speaking only of earthly things and having nothing of the divine in it.? Justinian banned the study of the Mishnah for, according to him, it distorted the Bible and thereby hindered Christian missionary activities.

In the year 638 CE, the Jews of Visigothic Spain were severely restricted in their observance of Jewish law, and a ?declaration of faith,? was extracted from the Jews of Toledo. Jews were to be sincere to the Christian faith, renounce all Jewish rites, eat everything which is eaten by Christians, marry only baptized Jews and ?hand over all Jewish books in their possession, including the Talmud ...?3

Talmud Burned in Paris

The most infamous trial and burning of the Talmud took place in France during the thirteenth century. A great dispute over the Talmud took place in Paris in 1240, and it was finally condemned to fire in the year 1242. This triggered off a series of such incidents throughout Europe which, as will be shown, influenced all subsequent antisemitic acts for centuries to come. As Allan Temko, writing of the events of 1242 points out:

The destruction of the Talmud was the beginning of a whole chain of disasters. A new law increased Jewish misery every two or three years until, in 1269, Saint Louis introduced the rouelle, ?the little wheel,? which the Jew would, wear for five hundred years as a mark of his humiliation ... Thus, while Western Europe was moving toward what we are pleased to call the Renaissance, the Jew was being dragged into a Dark Age. He would have little but tragedy until the French Revolution.4

The litany is a long and sorrowful one: In Barcelona, the Talmud was ordered to be burned in the year 1263. In 1264, Pope Clement IV decreed that any person caught with a copy of the Talmud in his possession be put to death. Once again, in 1299 and 1309, the Talmud was publicly burned in Paris. In 1322, by order of Pope John XXII, the Talmud was again publicly burned. So, too, in 1415, Pope Martin V ordered that all copies of the Talmud be destroyed. During the Spanish Inquisition in 1490, the infamous Torqucmada ordered large scale burnings of the Talmud. In Germany, during the first half of the sixteenth century, the Dominican Order, instigated by the apostate Johannes Pfefferkorn, tried to have the Talmud destroyed. When the High Inquisitional Court established itself in Rome in 1542, there followed a series of public burnings of the Talmud. In 1544, Martin Luther, writing in his book Concerning the Jews and their Lies, described the Talmud as nothing but god- lessness, lies, cursing, and swearing,' In 1533, Pope Julius III, in a papal bull, decreed that all books of the Talmud be burned, As a result, public burnings of the Talmud took place in Rome, Bologna, Venice, Ferrara, Ancona and Montoba. Similar incidents occurred in Holland in 1559, and in Poland in 1757.

This anti-Talmud sentiment continued into modern times. At the end of the seventeenth century, Johann Andresa Eisenmenger (i654-1704), a German Protestant professor, published the infamous Jewry Unmasked. It was subtitled ?An Original and True Account of the Way in which the Stubborn Jews Frightfully Blaspheme and Dishonor the Holy Trinity, Revile the Holy Mother of Christ, Mockingly Criticize the New Testaments, the Evangelists, the Apostles and the Christian Religion, and Despise and Curse to the Uttermost Extreme the Whole of Christianity.? Eisenmenger's work was to serve as a fountainhead for a vast network of anti- Talmud and anti-semitic literature.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, August Rohling (1839-1931), professor of Hebrew Antiquities at Prague, published the Talmud Jew. This volume, mostly a rehashing of Eisenmenger's Jewry Unmasked, went through seventeen editions with a circulation of two hundred thousand copies in Austria alone.

In 1892, Justin Pranaitis, in St. Petersburg, published his book The Christian in the Jewish Talmud. It was in 1912, during the trial of Mendel Beilis, accused of ritual murder, that Pranaitis volunteered his services and Talmudic ?expertise? to the Czarist government and tried to show that Beilis was guilty of ritual murder ?by reason of Talmudic teachings.?

In Nazi Germany, anti-Talmudic propaganda was written by Walter Forstat under the title The Basic Principles of the Talmud, and by Alfred Rosenberg, friend and associate of Hitler, in his book Immorality in the Talmud.

Great Disputation of 1240

From an historical perspective, the various incidents resulting in the burning of the Talmud, and the vast anti-Talmud propaganda, are all rooted in the great disputation of 1240 in France, of which we spoke earlier. The arguments presented in this debate were to be reiterated and rehashed time and again. Therefore, to better understand this anti-Talmud attitude, it is necessary to study the arguments, both pro and con, of that historic disputation.

Nicholas Donin, a rabbinic student, was excommunicated by his teacher for his heretical views. Upon turning apostate and seeking revenge against his former coreligionists, in 1240 Donin presented to Pope Gregory IX a formal accusation against the Talmud. Donin made extracts from the Talmud and formulated thirty-five articles upon which he based his charges. The essence of these allegations were that: 1. The Talmud is the source of the Jewish ?stiff-neckness? and it alone is the cause why Jews stubbornly refuse to accept Christianity; 2. The great importance attached to the Talmud by the Jews is an affront to the Bible and Prophets; and 3. The Talmud contains blasphemies against God, Jesus and the Christian religion.

Upon receipt of Donin's accusations, transcripts of the apostate's articles were dispatched by Gregory to the heads of church in France, England, Spain and Portugal. Orders to confiscate all copies of the Talmud and begin an investigation of its contents were zealously carried out in France. A public disputation was scheduled. Nicholas Donin and Eudes de Chateauroux, chancellor of the Sorbonne, represented the Christian side. Four leading rabbis who defended the Talmud and Judaism were: Yehiel of Paris, the leading rabbi of France, Moshe of Coucy, Yehuda ben David of Main, and Shmuel ben Shlomo of Chateau-Thiery ? all of the famed Tosafist school, the school that flourished in France and Germany in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, and that contributed valuable tosafot (additions) to Talmud commentaries. Queen Blanche, mother of King Louis IX, named herself as chief judge. After three days of debate it was decided that the Royal Court was not best qualified to judge such theological matters. The disputation was then transferred to a church tribunal. The clerics did not reach an immediate decision, and only after further deliberations did they issue their verdict. The Talmud was condemned as a ?tissue of lies? and sentenced to be destroyed by fire.

Friendly Archbishop Intercedes

The sentence of condemnation remained unexecuted for a couple of years. The Archbishop of Sens, a member of the church tribunal, interceded on behalf of the Jews and prevented the sentence from being carried out. However, the friendly Archbishop suddenly died. This was viewed by the fanatical elements in the church as a heaven-sent punishment for his having befriended the Jews. Shortly thereafter, on the first Sabbath of Lent in the year 1242, while the Jews were assembled in their synagogues, twenty-four cart loads, containing thousands of Talmud manuscripts, were carried-off and publicly put to the torch.

There exist two accounts of the disputation about the Talmud that took place in Paris in the year 1240. There is a Hebrew version entitled Vikuah Rabbenu Yehiel mi-Paris ? The Disputation of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris,6 which was probably compiled by the rabbi's students. And them is a Latin source entitled Extractiones de Talmut.7 Careful examination of these two sources reveals that there were basically two charges brought against the Talmud. First, it was charged, the Talmud was the source of all those errors which the church charged against the Jews and Judaism. Secondly, the Talmud, it was alleged, contains blasphemies against Christianity.

Concerning the first point, the church and Donin acted in a subtle manner. They accused the Talmud of being an insult to the Bible inasmuch as the Jews attach far too much importance to the Talmud. In Donin's ?Thirty-five Articles,? the first nine articles concentrate on this issue and severely attack the Oral Law. In reaction to Donin's accusations, Pope Gregory, writing in an official communication stated:

For they (the Jews), so we have heard, are not content with theold law which God gave Moses in writing, they even ignore it completely, and affirm that God gave another law which is called ?Talmud,? that is ?teaching,? handed down to Moses orally. Falsely they allege that it was implanted within their minds and unwritten, was there preserved until certain men came, whom they call Sages and Scribes, who fearing that this law may be lost ...reduced it to writing, and the volume of this by far exceeds the text of the Bible.

The exact motives behind the apostate Donin's severe criticisms of the Oral Law are unclear. Some historians maintain that Donin was a Karaite,9 a member of the medieval Jewish splinter-sect which strongly denied the authenticity of the Oral Law, and for this reason, was so bitter and antagonistic toward the Talmud ? a reason that had little to do with its allegedly being anti-Christian. Others see in Donin's attack pure revenge against the rabbis who previously had rejected and excommunicated him in the year 1225.I?

Attack Rooted in Effort to Convert

No doubt, the Catholic Church's vehement attack on the Oral Law was rooted in its efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. The Church felt that, if not for the Talmud, the way to mass Jewish conversion would be wide open. By accusing the Jews of giving more attention and attaching more importance to the Talmud than to the Bible and Prophets, the Church attempted to bring down from around the Jews the very source of their traditional separatism. Such thinking is strongly hinted at in a papal letter of Pope Innocent IV to the King of France which read in part, ?But of the laws and doctrines of the Prophets they make their sons altogether ignorant. They fear that if the forbidden truth, which is found in the Law and the Prophets, be understood ... their children would be converted to the faith and humbly return to their redeemer.? 11

It must be borne in mind that according to Christian doctrine, the Hebrew Bible is a pre-figuration of their New Testament that contains the Christ-story. Many passages of the Hebrew Bible are given as proof-texts of various aspects of the story. Hence, the Pope's reference to the ?forbidden truth? in the Bible which the Jews allegedly feared.

Concerning Donin's second charge that the Talmud contains blasphemies against Christianity, the Church compiled a list of Talmudic statements regarding Jesus and gentiles (goyim) which they considered to be offensive. The Jewish rejoinder to these accusations, as recorded in the Vikuah Rabbenu Yehiel mi-Paris, is that there exists a distinction between contemporary gentiles and those living in Talmudic times. ?Take this as a rule,? says Rabbi Yehiel, ?wherever the word goy is mentioned in the Talmud, it refers to a member of one of the seven nations who made peace by accepting the condition of paying tribute.?12 The logic of this defense is interesting. By falling back from the Talmud to the Bible, the Jew gained common ground with his Christian opponent. As Jacob Katz, in his book Exclusiveness and Tolerance, writes: ?If the disqualification of Gentiles mentioned in the Talmud applied to the `Seven Nations' of Palestine, the blame for it, if blame is due, attached not only to those who adhered to the Talmud, but also to all who shared the belief in the divine origin of the Bible.13

Similarly, any derogatory statement in the Talmud about Jesus does not refer to Jesus, the Christian Savior, but to someone else by that name ? a name not uncommon during the Second Temple period. Whether these arguments of defense were genuine views or simply a polemic device used in the course of debate, is not at all clear.

Talmud Makes Little Reference to Christianity

Though Donin's expose of the Talmud leaves one with the impression that the Talmud is full of anti-Christian hatred and venom, actually there is very little, if any, reference to Christianity in the Talmud. As Edward Flannery points out: ?Its 'conspiracy of silence' regarding Christianity has been noted. Theologian of Orthodoxy F. Lovsky is quite right when he writes that, ?on the whole, the Talmud sins much more by an evidently well guarded silence with respect to Christianity than by tendentious insults or accusations.?14

Another important trial of the Talmud took place in the sixteenth century in Germany. With the advent of printing, copies of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud circulated throughout Europe. Johannes Pfefferkorn, a butcher by profession, converted to Christianity at the age of thirty-six, together with his wife and children. Living in Cologne under the protection of the Dominican Order, Pfefferkorn wrote numerous anti-Semitic books. Alarmed by the wide circulation given the Talmud, Pfefferkorn called for its suppression. With the support of the Dominicans and the help of Kunigunde, the Emperor Maximilian's sister, Pfefferkorn obtained permission to confiscate any offensive Jewish books. The Talmud was high on his list. When Pfefferkorn encountered strong opposition from the Archbishop of Mainz, the Frankfort City Council and members of the German nobility, the Emperor ordered that the confiscated tomes be returned. Six weeks later, under pressure from his sister and due to an alleged blood libel and host desecration at Bradenberg, the Emperor appointed a commission to investigate Pfefferkorn's charges against the Talmud.

Serving on this committee, which was chaired by the Archbishop of Mainz, was the noted scholar and leading humanist, Johannes Rcuchlin. Reuchlin, a Christian scholar and Hebraist, was visited by Pfefferkom in 1510, who asked him to assist in the confiscation of the Talmud. Reuchlin refused to have any part in this, and only by imperial order did he consent to serve on the commission.

The Christian humanist and admirer of Jewish scholarship defended the Talmud against Pfefferkorn's accusations. Regarding Pfefferkorn, Reuchlin wrote: ?The Talmud was not composed for every blackguard to trample with unwashed feet and then to say he knew all of it.?I5 Fellow German humanists supported Reuchlin, including Erasmus, who termed Pfefferkom ?a criminal Jew who had become a most criminal Christian.?16 What followed was a bitter battle between the Rcuchlinists and the anti-Reuchlinists. Rcuchlin was accused of heresy and was cited before the Inquisition. Only after standing trial before an ecclesiastical tribunal in the city of Speyer was Reuchlin acquitted of all charges.

Decline in Prestige of Church

These sordid events not only witnessed the sparing of the Talmud, but they also resulted in a decline of the prestige of the Church. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that Martin Luther launched the Reforma?tion in 1517 - at the very height of the Pfefferkorn-Reuchlin controversy.

Even when the Talmud was not condemned to fire, it was still mutilated at the hands of the censors. When Pope Pius IV announced in 1564 that the Talmud could be circulated, it was on condition that those parts which offended Christians be deleted. Consequently, when the Talmud, with such deletions, was printed in Basel between 1578 and 1581, it bore the imprimatur, or official sanction, of the Catholic Church. The censored Basel edition of the Babylonian Talmud served as a model for subsequent editions. Father Marco Marino, the Basel censor, even deleted the word ?Talmud,? replacing it with Gemara or Shas (an abbreviation of the Hebrew Shishah Sedorim ? the Six Orders of the Mishnah). References to Rome were changed to read Aram (Mesopotamia) or Paras (Persia). The Hebrew word min, which means heretic, was changed by Marino to read Sadducee or Epicurean. Words such as mumar (apostate), goy (gentile) were eliminated or changed. In the Basel edition, the censor replaced the term goy with the word kushi, meaning African! Of course, all references to the name Jesus were deleted, and the whole tractate of Avodah Zara, which deals with paganism and Jewish relations with non-Jews, was not printed at all. The Basel censor went so far as to even change sections which he personally regarded as offensive. Thus, the Talmudic saying that ?a man who has no wife cannot be called a man,?17 which obviously insulted Father Marino's sensibilities as a celibate, was changed to read ?a Jew who has no wife cannot be called a man.?18

Why was the Talmud singled out and made the constant target of anti-semites throughout the ages? Perhaps the ?mystique? of the Talmud and its overpowering dialectical style gave rise to suspicion in the minds of the unknowing. Or, as we have shown, perhaps it was because the Talmudic way of life was regarded as an obstacle in the way of the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. The Talmud, its study, and the observance of its laws, set the Jews apart from their Christian neighbors. As Edward Flannery aptly puts it: ?The Talmud served the cause of anti-semitism indirectly insofar as it reinforced Israel's traditional separatism.?19

Whatever the case may be, the Talmud, like the Jewish People, has survived the trials and tribulations of the ages.


1.                   Shemot Rabbah 47:1.

2.                   Sec James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, p.392.

3.                   Ibid.

4.                   Allen Temkow ?The Burning of the Talmud,? Un?derstanding the Talmud, ed. Allan Corre, p.140.

5.                   Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, A Source Rook, p.167.

6.                   Ozar Vikhuhim (A Collection of Polemics and Disputations), ed. I. Eisenstein, pp. 81-86.

7.                   See I. Loeb, ?La Controverse de 1240 sur le Tal?mud,? Revue Des Etudes J u ve, v.1, pp. 247-261; v.2, pp.248-270; v. 3, pp. 39-57.

8.                   Solomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century, pp.238-243.

9.                   Marcus, p. 146. Cf. Leon Poliakov, The History of A n ti-Sem itism, p.69.

10.                See Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in North?ern France, p.124, note 79; Dudley Wright, The Talmud, p.111.

11.                Grayzel, pp.250-253.

12.                l2 Ozar Vikhuhim, p.85.

13.                Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, p.110.

14.                Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, p.105.

15.                Quoted in Encyclopedia Judaica, v. 14, p.109.

16.                Ibid., v. 13, p.357. Concerning Erasmus' view of the Jews, see Heiko A. Oberman, ?Three Sixteenth Century Attitudes to Judaism: Reuchlin, Erasmus and Luther,? Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman, pp. 339-342..

17.                Yevamot 63a.

18.                See Raphael Rabbinovicz, History of the Print?ing of the Talmud, pp. 76-78.

19.                Flannery, p.105.

? Samuel N. Hoenig is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at Touro College, and Chairman of the Department of Judaic Studies. Professor Hoenig received a PhD. in Talmudic studies from Yeshiva University and rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.



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