The Talmud on Trial

Medieval Jewish-Christian Disputations

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In fact, the responses of the rabbis at the disputation were far from effective, with one or two exceptions. This, and the protracted duration of the debates, which exhausted the delegates and threatened to impoverish them, motivated many of them to convert in March of 1413, a month after the disputation had begun.

Among the official delegates who converted then or later were members of the prominent Alluf family, including Alfonso de Santangel of Calatayud (as he became known upon his conversion), who became a powerful government official. The Jews of his city refused to pay his expenses for attending the disputation because of his conversion.

Nevertheless, so many Jews in Calatayud converted that in 1415 permission was obtained by the pope to convert a synagogue there into a church. Some Jews of Zaragoza and Daroca converted, as well as in Gerona and other cities. By the end of 1414, when the disputation was moved from Tortosa to San Mateo, hundreds of Jews had converted, as recorded also in contemporary chronicles.

The lack of leadership by the rabbis, and in fact the conversion of most of them, further demoralized the Jewish communities and contributed to the massive conversions that followed. Years later two feeble “responses” to the Tortosa disputation were written, Joseph Albo’s Sefer ha-iyqqariym (Book of Principles), in which he tried anew to enumerate basic principles of “faith,” but failed to say anything new or to provide solace to the demoralized Jews of his time, and Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov’s Sefer ha-emunot, which saw kabbalah as the only hope for salvation of the people and blamed philosophy for distortion of “faith” The fact remain, however, that although numerous rabbis converted to Christianity, not one philosopher did so.

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