The Talmud on Trial by Samuel N. Hoenig
Volume 4 , Issue 3 (March, 1991 | Adar, 5751)
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
The most infamous trial and burning of the
Talmud took place in
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
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
In 1892, Justin Pranaitis, in
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fellow German humanists supported Reuchlin, including Erasmus, who termed Pfefferkom ?a criminal Jew who had become a most criminal
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
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
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.
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.
Vikhuhim (A Collection of Polemics and Disputations),
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.