What were the actual talmudic texts that Christians found so irksome? What do we actually learn about Talmud from its most caustic critics, the elite Christian accusers from the High Medieval Age?
The Trial of the Talmud Paris 1240 is a remarkable little volume published by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies with translations by John Friedman and Jean Connell Hoff and a historical introduction by Robert Chazan. It pulls together the documents relating to the public trial of the Talmud in Paris in 1240. Included are letters from Pope Gregory IX to William of Auvergne and others, including the archbishops of France and Sancho II (king of Portugal). There is also the letter from Pope Innocent IV to King Louis IX, and a very angry letter from Odo of Chateauroux, bishop of Tusculum, written to Pope Innocent IV (after the latter rescinded a prior ban against the Talmud). Also the disputation of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and a dirge by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg that laments the burning of the Talmud. Arguably, the central and most interesting protagonist is Nicholas Donin, the Jewish apostate to Christianity who brought the 35 articles of the “Latin Accusations” (Bilbliothèque nationale in Paris MS Lat, 16558, fols.211b—217d).
The texts mentioned by Donin that are most easily parried by Rabbi Yehiel are those that are presumed to convey a total anti-gentile animus and those that suggest that Jews cannot be trusted to not violate oaths. Yehiel’s argument is very simple. Texts that convey anti-gentile animus refer to gentiles who are hostile to Jews, not to Christians who protect Jews. The only vows that a Jew can annul are ones expressed unwittingly which do not affect another person. Vows between a person and their fellow can only be annulled with the consent of the fellow. Much less persuasive are those moments when Yehiel flatly rejects the notion that the Jesus and Mary pilloried in the Talmud refer to the Christian Jesus and Mary. Yehiel’s basic point is that Jews put more stock in law (halakhah), not lore (aggadah), and that there is simply no way to interpret the Written Law without Talmud. Innocent recognized this point when he rescinded the ban.
Most interesting are the actual corpus of Talmudic passages cited by Donin, most of which concern Aggadah. How strange they must have looked, texts that are not. theocentric, not centered on Bible. Truth be told, these texts continue to take my students by surprise when I teach these and their like in my introduction to Judaism. They are not what they expect from “religion.” What we learn from the Christian critics at the height of their chagrin concerns the free-form of Talmud and the Judaism it reflects.
In their rough order of appearance in the Latin Accusation by Donin. “These are the articles about which Pope Gregory ordered that the books containing them be burned (p.121):
Talmud affirms the existence of two laws, not one; that the Oral Torah goes back to Moses at Sinai; the superiority of Oral Torah, the excessiveness of the Oral Torah. Talmud is full of so-called silly notions like the superiority of sages over prophets. Talmud overturns the Written Law, affirms the power of the sage over the Law itself, and warns not to stray from the words of the sages; children study Talmud, not Bible. So-called blasphemies against God include passages that tell of God regretting or atoning for God’s acts. There are oaths made by in anger by God, who says “woe is Me,” and roars like a lion because God destroyed God’s temple and enslaved his children, who lied to Abraham so as not to embarrass him, who lies for the sake of peace, who is left with nothing by the 4 cubits of Halakha after the destruction of the Temple. God engages in study, asks himself to have mercy on the Jews, prays that God’s mercies prevail over God’s anger with the Jews, who is defeated by the Jews in the legal disputations, cries three times a day. About Jews, the Talmud says that Jews who sin the sins of the body don’t suffer more than 12 months in hell, are rewarded in the world to come for the study of Talmud. Also, Adam had sex with animals and Ham castrated Noah.
The very things faulted by the Christian critics are precisely those “things” that modern Jews have come to love: the way Oral Torah exceeds “the Law,” the fables and fancies, the free and audacious authority of the rabbis assume before the law and before God. The famous story concerning the Oven of Aknai gets special notice. About the earlier form of oral teaching, the Jews hold that the teachings of Mishnah and Talmud are better than Bible “since they are learned only by heart and pass into oblivion” (p.104).
Included as an appendix is the dirge by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg lamenting the burning of the Talmud in Paris. The poem gives a strong sense of the animating spirit of medieval Ashkenaz, suggesting that devotion to Talmud makes for a great freedom of words. The dirge reflects a kind of anti-theodicy that builds on the love of Talmud. With more questions than answers, there is no justification of God and the ways of God with Israel. The Talmud that comes across is earthy and direct, familiar, not formal.
Most of the dirge is addressed to the Talmud in the second person. O you consumed by the flame. How could it be and how do your mourners fare? There is a quick and cutting address to the nations, also addressed in the second person: how long will you dwell in tranquility while the children of God suffer? Addressed to God: Is this why You gave the Law in flame and fire to let it come to this, that flame and fire would edge these scrolls? Addressed to Sinai, Why give the law if this is its end? Mount Sinai should cover itself in sackcloth. Addressed again to Talmud in second person, I do not understand your ways. The loneliness of the poet is like that of an abandoned parent, like one who is stunned by the light of day that leaves him in darkness. Addressed again to Talmud, wail bitterly to God over your annihilation. And finally, the remarkable concluding image to the dirge. Speaking directly to the Talmud, the poet waits for God to renew your days; this is a lovely image of the Talmud donned in crimson with timbrel, dancing once again in the circles of a round dance.