Talmud on Trial: Interfaith Dialogue in the 13th Century

In 1240, King Louis IX of France took the unusual step of holding a trial for the Talmud. Books rarely receive judicial proceedings, but Pope Gregory IX was urging European leaders to take action against the big book of law and lore that is both central to rabbinic Judaism and, according to Gregory, potentially offensive to all of Christendom.

A group of French rabbis appeared in the book’s defense. The prosecutor, Nicholas Donin, who’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, had traveled to Rome in order to convince the Pope of the Talmud’s danger, with motives that remain unclear. Christian university scholars made up the jury, and many Parisian luminaries attended the proceedings—the king’s mother and an archbishop among them.

You already know the outcome: the Jews lost. French officials collected and burned 20 cartloads of Jewish books, each volume of which had been copied by hand in a precise, painstaking process. In a moderating twist, a group of Jewish leaders appealed their case to a new pope, who decided that, in the future, seized Talmuds should be censored, not burned. With time, the episode was relegated to an obscure corner of the long, tangled history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Two recent developments, though, give the trial of 1240 some contemporary relevance. The first of these is the election of a new pope, and the accompanying swirl of questions about how, exactly, Francis will deal with all those non-Catholics who express hurt, wariness, or outright contempt for the Holy See. Although he stopped short of indicting the Talmud, Benedict was not known for the success of his interfaith dialogue. As the Church gears up for another round of relations with a big, pluralistic world, it’s useful to revisit some past episodes of Church-and-outsider interactions.

Fortunately, in a second development, the key documents of the 13th century trial are available in English for the first time—some translated from the Latin by Jean Connell Hoff, others translated from Hebrew by Rabbi John Friedman, and all published as The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240, including a lengthy essay from Robert Chazan introducing the documents and offering background about medieval Jews and Christians. Partly because courtroom dramas have universal appeal, and partly because the pitfalls of pluralism in the 13th century, weirdly, sound a lot like the pitfalls of pluralism today, the books makes for unexpectedly fascinating reading, and not just for medieval historians.

The Trial of the Talmud tells a story of cultures in contact. But what stands out about these documents is how little the Church actually knew, prior to the 12th and 13th centuries, about the Jewish population that lived within its borders and relied on its protection. As Chazan explains in his introduction, virtually no medieval clerics knew Hebrew, and while Jews did occasionally convert to Christianity, those who did so tended to be marginal members of the community, poorly educated in Jewish scripture. When a few well-educated Jews did convert, beginning in the 12th century, the knowledge they brought—especially of sections of the Talmud that appeared to denigrate Jesus and Mary—was new to the Church authorities, even though the Talmud, which reached its final form around 500 CE, had existed alongside Christian culture for centuries.

Once Church authorities learned about the Talmud, though, their information was pretty accurate. By all accounts of the Talmud’s trial, prosecutor Donin knew his stuff. As a result, the 35 charges that the Church leveled against the Talmud are carefully grounded in the text. Translated by Hoff, these charges will, at times, make an uncomfortable amount of sense to the modern reader. Among other points, the Church claims that the Talmud incites Jewish violence against Christians, contains blasphemous teachings about God, and says terrible things about Christian holy figures. The language is terse and outraged: Jews claim “that this same Jesus suffers in hot excrement in hell because he mocked the words of the abovementioned sages,” begins charge 27; “They also claim that the Lord sinned” reads an incredulous charge 5.

The Talmud really does say some nasty things about certain non-Jews, and about a fellow named Jesus, although the 13th century rabbis could dispute whether or not this was the same Jesus of New Testament fame. And the Talmud really does contain statements about God arguing, changing his mind, weeping, and even praying to Himself—statements that might be surprising to many of today’s Jews, and that certainly seemed blasphemous to 13th century Christians.

What’s missing from the trial, of course, is context. The Talmud is a complicated, internally disputative set of tracts, parts of which are generally understood in figurative terms, and parts of which are often ignored. Cherry-picked for juicy bits, it really can sound horrible. “The misleading fool set out to read aloud one percent of the Talmud, for he intended to harm us” says the Hebrew account of the trial, in reference to Donin. That sentiment—if only they had read the other 99%—might be all-too-familiar to American Muslims and Mormons, both of whom have seen their scriptures publicly picked over in recent years, on the assumption that a few quotes can damn an entire text.

Texts can’t be understood in little chunks. And religions, for that matter, can’t always be understood in terms of their texts. At times, Rabbi Yehiel seems to argue that, in a trial focused so exclusively on the texts of his religion, it might not hurt to take a look at the conditions of actual life. In one of the more poignant sections of the Hebrew narrative, while fending off a charge that the Talmud is unfriendly to Christians, Yehiel pleads,

“We are taught, ‘Do not board cattle in the barns of gentiles,’ yet every day we sell cattle to gentiles and make partnerships with them and are alone with them and entrust our infants to their households for nursing and teach Torah to gentiles, for see, there are [Christian] clerics who know how to read a Jewish book.”

Donin’s charges, though, focus entirely on the text, and Yehiel’s arguments must return again and again to the particularities of Talmudic interpretation.

In a twisted way, the trial of the Talmud represents an early, concerted effort by the Church to understand its Jewish neighbors. Power imbalance aside, the trial has all the hallmarks of a nice interfaith conversation, or a good session of scriptural reasoning: members of one religious group, many of them depicted as genuinely curious and sympathetic, get the chance to quiz a representative of another faith. They learn more about his holy books, and take some time to critically examine the relationship between the two religions. The result, of course, is an expansion of interfaith knowledge, even as it deepens interfaith misunderstanding. It culminates in the destruction of property and the further deterioration of a relationship that, at least in the preceding decades, hadn’t actually been all that dysfunctional.

We tend to assume, here in the 21st century, that formalized interfaith dialogue is automatically a good thing. And we tend to assume, in our interfaith educations, that the best way to learn about another religion is to study its texts and its official positions. The Paris trial challenges both. Perhaps it’s best to encounter religions in the real world, informally, with a focus on actual actions, not official words.

Pope Benedict XVI worked hard to improve the Church’s interfaith profile, with limited success. While his largely positive attitude toward other religions could not have been more different from that of the 13th century church, Benedict’s basic approach was the same: an intellectual, text-driven response, delivered from a position of power. Naturally, there were missteps; an academic speech that many Muslims found offensive; the resumption of official contact between the Vatican and a controversial splinter group, including a Holocaust-denying priest; and steps taken toward bestowing sainthood on Pope Pius XII, who led the Vatican during WWII, and whose tepid response to the Nazis remains a sticking point with many Jews. In that last case, the Vatican assured onlookers that its actions were not intended to offend Jews. Unsurprisingly, the kind words did not mitigate the action’s effects.

As an ambassador, Francis seems more promising. While still a cardinal, he co-authored a book with a rabbi, and he has spent most of his career in multiethnic Argentina. Still, as he embarks on his papacy, Francis would do well to remember that learning more about a religion is not always the key to getting along with those who practice it.

As the Parisians of 1240 remind us, intellectual examination can actually interfere with the daily realities of religious coexistence. Above all, religious groups need to be respected, and to see that someone is making an active effort to coexist with them. Listening is important, for sure. But some of the details of religious traditions don’t make for easy hearing. To repurpose an old saying about marriage: in interfaith relationships, it’s wise to be a little deaf.