An exhibit on historical Jewish manuscripts opened yesterday at the British Museum, and is also accessible online. Among the many treasures on display are what is thought to be the earliest dated copy of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and a 17th-century Torah scroll from the Chinese city of Kaifeng. Reviewing the exhibit, Robert Philpot describe what might be its most interesting item, found in the archives of King Henry VIII:
Desperate for biblical grounds on which his marriage to Catherine of Aragon—who had failed to bear him a male heir—might be annulled, the king canvassed the opinion of religious scholars.
Having previously obtained a special dispensation from the pope to marry Catherine [of Aragon], who was the widow of Henry’s brother, the validity of the levirate marriage was a focus of attention and a rabbi’s opinion was among those sought. But, given the expulsion of the Jews, the king’s advisers had to cast a wider net and obtained the view of Italian rabbi Jacob Rafael.
The rabbi’s response—shown in a letter contained in a ledger of correspondence in the exhibition—didn’t provide the answer Henry wanted. The rabbi stated that the justification for the levirate marriage in Deuteronomy overrode the prohibition in Leviticus (which bars sexual relations with a brother’s wife), which Henry’s advisers were attempting to use as a loophole to annul the marriage.
More often, though, Jewish opinion was stifled rather than sought. . . . A 17th-century edition of the 1596 Book of Expurgation, which is also on display, lists in alphabetical order some 450 Hebrew texts which the Catholic Church viewed as theologically dangerous or blasphemous. Censors then set to work deleting suspect passages.