Putting the Talmud on Trial in Medieval France

Oct. 31 2017

In 1239, Pope Gregory IX informed the church hierarchy in France of the alleged threat posed by the Talmud, the contents of which had recently begun to be discovered by clerical scholars. The next year a public trial was held for the holy book in Paris. A newly published volume, The Trial of the Talmud, contains translations of contemporary documents related to the event along with historical essays and commentary. Sarah Ifft Decker writes in her review:

Nicholas Donin, a convert to Christianity who had received an extensive Jewish education, claimed that the Talmud was a human creation that the Jews valued over the Torah, and that it moreover contained blasphemous and anti-Christian teachings. If proved true, such accusations would justify banning the Talmud—a major blow to Jewish religious practice. Despite the efforts of Rabbi Yeḥiel of Paris, a scholar who acted as the chief Jewish representative, Donin proved his charges to the satisfaction of a hostile Christian jury, and copies of the Talmud were burned [publicly] in 1241 or 1242. . . .

Undoubtedly, the event had a significant emotional impact on those Jews living in Paris in the 1240s who witnessed the trial and subsequent burning of copies of the Talmud. A lament by Meir of Rothenburg, [a leading rabbinic authority of the era], highlights the trauma experienced by these Jewish witnesses, whom he describes as “mourners” of a personified Talmud. He refers repeatedly to the fire that consumed the Talmud before their eyes, transforming into text the persistent memory of that fire in the minds of mourners. . . .

However, the condemnation and burning of the Talmud resulted in little real change in Jewish religious practice. . . . [R]abbinic Judaism centered on the Talmud continued, as did Jewish intellectual activity linked to talmudic exegesis. Given that Pope Innocent IV referred to the continued Jewish use of the Talmud as late as 1244, Jews outside of Paris, and certainly outside France, still had copies of the Talmud. Enterprising or lucky Parisian Jewish scholars may even have preserved a few copies despite repeated searches and burnings.

The most important practical change wrought directly by the trial, [as one of the volume’s editors, Robert] Chazan argues, was a new impetus toward Jewish self-censorship. Previously, Jews had felt confident that use of the Hebrew language would keep their texts safe from prying Christian eyes. The trial of the Talmud made it very clear that the use of Hebrew would no longer protect them.

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Read more at Marginalia

More about: Anti-Semitism, French Jewry, History & Ideas, Jewish-Catholic relations, Middle Ages, Talmud

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat