The Talmud on Trial

Medieval Jewish-Christian Disputations

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The disputation was carefully recorded in two dif­ferent contemporary Latin versions; the Hebrew texts purportedly were by Nahmanides himself, and may be seen either as a verbatim report of the debate or as a later polemical rewriting of what was said and what should have been said […]

 Accusations of Blasphemy

The disputation itself centered mainly on the question of the messiah, rabbinical statements concerning him, whether he has come, and so on. According to the Latin texts, Nahmanides (the leader of the Jewish community of all Catalonia, although he was never a rabbi) lost the debate, whereas accord­ing to the Hebrew text, improbably, he won. It is known that he wrote, or was accused of writing, a polemical work that contained alleged "blasphemy," for which he was banished from the kingdom imme­diately after the disputation. He went to the Land of Israel, where he lived until his death.

These disputations could have resulted in a disas­trous change in the favored status of Jews in the king­dom of Aragon‑Catalonia were it not for the fact that the Jews successfully refuted the charges about "blas­phemies" in the Talmud and other books, and per­suaded the king that these books were necessary for the proper conduct of their lives and community af­fairs.

Angered at having been deceived by the com­mission of Dominicans who raised these fraudulent charges, in 1242, the year after the last disputation, the king rescinded his decree against the Talmud and promised the Jews that they would never again have to defend themselves against such charges.

Tortosa, 1413

The most important disputation in Spain, however, and indeed the major Christian-Jewish disputation of the medieval period, was that convened at Tortosa by order of Benedict XIII in 1413. The pope sent letters to Jewish communities throughout Aragon-Catalonia ordering them to send representatives, noting that he had called the assembly “for the salvation of your souls” and so that “the shadows of Jewish superstition be dissipated.”

Jeranimo de Santa Fe, a converted Jew who had been a learned talmudic scholar, a rabid anti-Jewish polemicist who was a physician to the pope, was the Christian spokesman in the disputation. Among the numerous Jewish representatives was Jonah de Maestre, a grandson of Nahmanides and father-in-law of Simon b. Semah Duran. Other prominent Jewish scholars included Joseph Albo, Matityahu Yishariy, and Zerahyah ha-Levy.

Had the Messiah Already Come?

There exist both Hebrew and Latin texts of the extended debates, which lasted more than a year, with a short break. There is little that is new in any of the topics disputed; as usual, the focus was on the messiah and whether he has come or is yet to come. The Jewish rabbis were virtually compelled to admit that the messiah had already “come,” based on aggadic statements that he was in fact born and waiting to appear. [Aggadah is the body of passages and works of a narrative nature in the Talmud and works of rabbinic midrash, as opposed to halakha, legal  material.] Later they tried in vain to backtrack on this and argue that aggadic statements have no binding force. Various other issues were also debated […]

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.