When they burned the Talmud in Paris

Halacha empowers the Jew to live a life of meaning and striving for the greater good.

THE EXTREMELY rare 16th-century Babylonian Talmud. (photo credit: COURTESY SOTHEBY’S)
THE EXTREMELY rare 16th-century Babylonian Talmud.
(photo credit: COURTESY SOTHEBY’S)
To understand Rabbinic Judaism, we must understand the concept of Oral Law. That Moses received not only a Written Law, embodied in the Torah, has legitimized rabbinic interpretation of Jewish law (Halacha) and has maintained the vitality of Jewish communities in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. The flexibility of Halacha is its strength and has given rabbis great latitude in interpretation. The Oral Law roots rabbinic interpretation in the Revelation at Sinai.
I don’t believe that Oral Law is enshrined in the idea that God told Moses to have a separate pair of dishes for meat and milk. But in an ancient Israel where there was diversity in understanding of the Torah’s interpretation, the Oral Law provided the rabbis with a legacy and legitimacy that endured beyond the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.
The foundation of the Oral Law is the Talmud. The Talmud consists of the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna is the original code of Jewish law. It was edited by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch – the Roman-appointed leader of the Jews in the Land of Israel – around the year 200. It is written in a unique Hebrew that departs from the Hebrew of the Bible, and the focus of the editor’s work was to provide a code based on the decisions of the Pharisees and their heirs the rabbis.
Rav, student of Rabbi Judah, brought the Mishna to Babylonia and in the great academies of that land the original text was thoroughly interpreted and debated in the Semitic and spoken language of Aramaic. While in the Land of Israel, in a different dialect of Aramaic, the Mishna was the subject of debate, it was the more thorough and comprehensive Babylonian Talmud, embodied in the Gemara, that became the foundation of the Oral Law, especially in the Ashkenazi world.
Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud in the 11th century was a landmark in opening up a dense text to larger number of students. Ironically, it was in his birthplace, France, that Christians would burn the Talmud as an anti-Church work of heresy.
What is remarkable about the burning of the Talmud, spurred on by a Jewish apostate and the mendicant order of the Dominicans, is the late discovery of the Church that Halacha was the foundation of Jewish life and law. The trouble began when Nicholas Donin, a Jew who converted to Christianity, condemned the Talmud as blasphemy and brought the charge to Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241). In 1239 the pope ordered the rulers of France, England, the Spanish lands and Portugal to seize all Jewish texts and examine them for hostility to the Church. The only king to follow papal orders was Louis IX of France (1226-1270). On March 3, 1240, the Jewish holy books were seized in the domain of this pious and young king.
In the following June, the Talmud was put on trial in a disputation. Four leading rabbis in France, led by Jehiel of Paris, debated the apostate Donin. But the rabbis were bound to lose the disputation and wagon- loads of handwritten volumes of the Talmud were burned in Paris, likely in 1242 and 1244. French Talmudic scholarship never fully recovered.
The conviction of the Talmud for blasphemy was likely brought on by the acts of the Jews themselves. In his Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts forth the intriguing thesis that the interest of the Church in Jewish books may have begun when three French rabbis approached the Church’s Dominican order and called for Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed to be burned for heresy. This was a launching point for the Church to investigate the entire corpus of Jewish books. Did the burning of the Talmud have its genesis in the burning of Maimonides’ work? Telushkin’s thesis is disturbing but he is on to something: the controversy over Maimonides’ philosophical work could provide a key to the later Talmud burning.
Rabbi Telushkin provides another reason for the attack on the Talmud in Paris. As long as Jews adhered only to the Hebrew Bible – the Christian Old Testament – the Church believed they would be more persuaded to convert to Christianity. Perhaps this is so. In Christian dogma, the Jews were supposed to live as the people of a Revelation that had been shattered, with Grace replacing Law. They were supposed to reject that Law at the end of time and acknowledge Jesus as the messiah, highlighting the fact that the first who rejected Jesus would be the last to embrace him. The Talmud is the foundation of that Law and that Law liberates its followers rather than providing an obstacle to redemption.
Halacha empowers the Jew to live a life of meaning and striving for the greater good. That the Law was so dominant in Jewish life – although there are great works of ethics, philosophy and mysticism – challenged the supremacy of the Church. While my first love is Jewish history and I have never been a master of Talmudic debate and logic, I certainly recognize that the Jews survived and thrived as a people who believed in living a life of Divine Law. The subsequent burning of the Talmud did nothing to abolish the great intellectual edifice of Babylonian Jewry and as the text that embodies Oral Law it is still a force for liberation, not an obstacle to redemption.
The author is rabbi of Anshei Sholom Congregation in West Palm Beach, Florida.