Sunday 18 June 2017



In the early 1200’s, Nicholas Donin - a disenfranchised Jew who had been excommunicated by his former teacher R. Yechiel of Paris - became baptised and joined the Franciscan Order.
Originally a Karaite Jew who only kept the written Torah and rejected the Oral Tradition, he was determined and well-positioned to attempt to uproot the authority of the rabbinical tradition from within Judaism.
He was quite successful in his mission and his prominent role in the infamous Disputation of Paris, on Friday 6 Tammuz 1240 – the first formal Jewish-Christian Disputation - resulted in the burning of every obtainable French manuscript of the Talmud. This amounted to twenty-four carriage loads containing about twelve thousand manuscripts which were destroyed on the streets of Paris. This became known as the Disputation of Paris, or The Trial of the Talmud.
In 1238, Nicholas Donin presented Pope Gregory IX with thirty-five accusations against the Jews who studied the Talmud which, according to him, contained negative references to Jesus and Mary. Donin knew his Talmud well, having translated it into French. He claimed that Jews were permitted to kill non-Jews and were allowed to break their promises to them as well. He said that Jews believed Mary to have been a common woman of ill repute. Furthermore, according to him, the Talmud contained ‘odd and obscene folklore’ such as Adam’s attraction to animals before he met Eve. He also claimed that rabbinical Judaism was no longer recognisable from the original biblical Judaism and that Jews spent more time studying Talmud than Bible. Donin’s translations of the Talmud changed the way Christians viewed the Jews.
Nicholas Donin’s actions were historically very significant because, apparently, until that time the church had a rather outdated perception of Jews as still being theological fossils of the biblical Israelites, who honoured the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The church seemed somewhat unaware of the dramatic way rabbinic Judaism had, in a sense, interpreted the religion more along the lines of the Talmud than the literal biblical texts.
This, of course, had always been the gripe of the Karaite Jews, but now Donin had brought the issue to the forefront of the church, which seemed and horrified by this ‘new development’ within Judaism. This was compounded by the allegations of anti-Christian blasphemy said to be found in the Talmud.[1]
In the opening statement in the Disputation, one of the defending rabbis[2] said: “Please do not make me respond to (Donin’s) words, since the Talmud is an ancient text and no one has spoken about it before. St. Jerome, after all, knew all of the Torah and the Talmud, just as other priests have, and if there is any problem to be found in it, we would have heard of it by now.”
Copies of the accusations were sent to all the Franciscans and Dominicans and they were informed that upon official investigation, if these allegations were to be found to be true, then all the available manuscripts of Talmud would be destroyed. In the meanwhile, both these Orders had the right to seize all the copies of the Talmud they could find. This marked the beginning of the Dominican Order being given inquisitorial tribunals under papal authority. They were already charged with the authority to police cases of suspected Christian heresy.
While this decree was issued throughout much of Europe, it was largely not acted upon, except in France where the Jews were threatened with their lives if they did not surrender their copies of Talmud.

While the Trial took place in 1240, the manuscripts were only burned around 1242. This was because of the efforts of the bishop of Sens who was a supporter of the Jews, who managed to delay the edict for some time. According to some accounts, this bishop suddenly died while in the presence of Louis IX, and this was taken as a sign that he was a heretical bishop – and they immediately began the burning proceedings.
Even before Nicholas Donin’s allegation had been presented to the Pope, he already managed to arrange a Crusader attack on the Jews, as an act of revenge against his people who had dared to publically humiliate and excommunicate him. During this attack, three thousand Jews were killed and five hundred others chose the option of conversion.
To better understand some of the nuances surrounding the era of the Disputation of Paris, one must remember that during this period which was known as the 13th century Church Ascendant, the church wanted to win over the hearts and minds of the Jews. It was not just interested in the crude persecution of Jews - although history shows that many incidences of crude persecution did indeed take place - it regarded it as a greater victory to persuade the Jews to accept Christianity by ‘logical reason of debate’.
This was the time when the church began to infuse principles of philosophy in their own faith. The church was, particularly through the efforts of Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), influenced by Aristotle (whom he referred to as ‘the Philosopher’.)[3] He argued that reason, not just faith, has a place within religion. Pope Benedict XV declared: "This (Dominican) Order ... acquired new lustre when the Church declared the teaching of Thomas to be her own”. (In modern times, under papal suggestion, priests are encouraged to study the writings of Thomas as part of their ordination programme.)
This was one of the reasons why Christianity felt so under attack. Their dogma and philosophy had been recently carefully laid out in minute detail and was therefore exposed and became vulnerable to anything that appeared to oppose it.
On the other hand, the Jews of the 1200’s generally had not developed a detailed dogmatic theology. Judaism certainly had many laws and strict commandments but its philosophy and dogma were far more open and unrestricted.
This created a tension between the Jews and the church, with the church expecting to debate on dogmatic issues which were absent from Judaism.
King Louis IX appointed four leading rabbis to defend Judaism in the public debate:
R. YECHIEL OF PARIS (d. 1268):
R. Yechiel, also known as Sire (Sir) Vives, was a Tosafist from northern France who headed the Yeshiva of Paris which had three hundred students, one of whom was the famed R. Meir of Rothenburg. In 1258, R. Yechiel settled in Acre and established there the Midrash haGadol deParis. He is buried on Mt. Carmel near Haifa.[4]
The line of R. Yechiel’s argument was that the three references to Jesus in the Talmud refer to different individuals, with only one referring to the Christian Jesus[5], who was executed for sorcery. (This, in itself, was an astounding admission that he was prepared to have made during the debate.)
R. Yechiel went on to explain that while some of the texts in question were accurate, they referred to idolaters and not to Christians who were in a category of sophisticated religions.
R. Moshe was a student of R. Yehudah haChassid. He was also known as Moshe miKotsi and was an expert on Halacha who authored one of the first codifications of Law in his Sefer Mitzvot haGadol (or SeMaG).[6]
It has been suggested that the reason for this work was a direct result of the thousands of Talmudic manuscripts being burned after the Disputation of Paris. Because these texts were no longer available, he needed to present a Halachic summation of their contents.
The historical irony, of course, is that Nicholas Donin’s attempt to destroy rabbinical Judaism resulted in even more attention being focused in the codification of that very same law.
Another great irony was that ten years earlier, Jews had denounced the writings of Rambam to the Dominicans in France which resulted in Jews burning manuscripts of Maimonides on the same streets the Talmud was later burned by the Christians. This incident was sparked by Rambam's work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which was also translated into French! 
A third irony was that Nicholas Donin was himself accused of heresy by the Christians for his excessive rationalistic approach to Christianity, and may have even been put to death by the church.
R. Yehudah was from the town of Melun, in north-central France forty miles from the centre of Paris, where he headed his academy.
R. Shmuel is known by his French name, Sir Morel, by which is he sometimes referred to in rabbinical literature. He is also the Tosafot on certain Tractates of Talmud, particularly Avodah Zarah.

These rabbis were some of the greatest of the time, yet they were unable to exert pressure upon the church to change its negative views on the Talmud, as they now had translations they could read and interpret themselves.
As Seidman writes: “...translations and baptisms were parallel campaigns, performed in the same public space, demonstrating that the Jewish world had been blown open wide.”[7]

From what we have seen, the catalyst for so many debates between the Christians and Jews in medieval times - which usually ended badly for the Jews – often was the translation of a Hebrew text into the native language or lingua franca:
The movement of translation from Jewish to non-Jewish languages stripped Jewish discourse of its protective covering, forcing Jewish texts out into an unfriendly Christian world”.[8]
Amazingly, to this day, some Jews still look suspiciously upon any texts translated from the original Hebrew or Aramaic. This is true particularly within elements of the sheltered yeshiva world, where no one will want to be seen using a Gemora with an English translation - even by Artscroll!
Never mind an English translation, but no one would even want to be seen with a Modern Hebrew paraphrase of the Aramaic.
Jastrow’s Aramaic dictionaries are not openly consulted in some places, and if they reluctantly are, they are occasionally used as book props or even foot rests!
But the fact is that more and more texts are becoming available in ‘foreign languages’. This presents a great challenge today - not just to Judaism but to every religion - where so much literature is openly available on the internet. Scholars and laymen alike can now peruse the once secret and indecipherable texts of the other’s faith.
We can no longer hide behind excuses of difficult concepts being explained away as ‘lost in translation’ because now all religion is laid bare. Today, except for those within closed communities, we can no longer hide behind erudite religious ‘spin’.
It’s not so easy to hide texts away anymore. This presents a great challenge for us.
Even sects within Judaism, who had no idea what teachings their sister sects were espousing (although they understood the language, the texts were not readily available) – they now have insight not readily accessible before.
Hopefully, it will result in stronger, more honest and meaningful encounters with faith.
Perhaps there is more open honesty to be ‘found’ than ‘lost in translation’!


Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translationby Naomi Seidman.

Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages, by Haym Maccoby.

Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France, by Susan L. Einbinder.

[1] See Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France, by Susan L. Einbinder. See alsoKOTZK BLOG 84 for an alternate explanation.

[2] This was R. Yechiel of Paris, who recorded the proceedings in his work known as Vikuach or Debate. [3] See Haym Maccoby: Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages.
[4] Some say he never lived in the Land of Israel and remained in France, where he died. There may be evidence of fragments of his tombstone which reads: Moreinu Yechiel... leGan Ed...
[5] Sota 47a.  Sanhedrin 107b refers to another ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. The third reference from Gittin 47a was to another who ‘gets boiled in a boiling pot’.
[6] Although he seems to have followed a similar format to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, he - unlike Rambam – offers lengthy discussion and explanation of the laws. He also borrows much from Rashi and the Tosafists and usually favours the customs of Ashkenaz over Rambam.

[7] See Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation, by Naomi Seidman, p. 138.

[8] Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. I heard that the greater the sage the more they would learn only from earlier original sources and extract all from first principles. Therefore a translation is a dilution containing only some of the essence.