Monday, June 12, 2017

The Disputation of Paris

The month of June in the year 1240 C.E. was not a good time for the Jews of Europe. The trouble began with a Jewish apostate named Nicholas Donin. Wanting, perhaps, to prove his loyalty and faith to the church, he sent a letter listing 35 charges against the Talmud, many of them details of texts reputedly belittling Jesus or Mary, telling seemingly lewd stories or relaying other “offensive” messages. The letter went to Pope Gregory IX and a debate was arranged at which Donin would argue his charges against four prominent French rabbis: Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, Rabbi Moses of Coucy, Rabbi Judah of Melum and Rabbi Samuel the son of Solomon of Chateau-Thierry.

The “Disputation of Paris,” as the debate came to be known, was a dispute with a foregone outcome. Although the rabbis were guaranteed their safety by the queen so that they would be free to respond, there were strict limitations on what they were allowed to say about Christianity and the Church.

The Chief Jewish spokesman, Rabbi Yechiel, responded well during the Disputation and was able to reply to and reframe the derogatory accusation of Donin. For instance, he argued that in the points brought up referring to Jesus, it was simply a matter of two men with the same name, and that these passages that they found derogatory were discussing a different man named Jesus.

Not surprisingly, the Disputation ended with a condemnation of the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. It was determined that these holy Jewish texts should be confiscated and destroyed. Two years later, 24 cartload of Hebrew books, including many volumes of the Talmud, were brought to Paris and burnt, this at a time before the printing press, when every volume was copied by hand! So great was the loss that the date of the burning of the Talmud was subsequently marked as a fast day that was observed by many European Jewish communities in the Hebrew month of Sivan.

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