The Troubled History of Christians and Jewish Book Burning in Europe
In 1242, King Louis IX of France — subsequently made a saint for his “good deed” — ordered the burning of 24 cartloads of copies of the Talmud and other Hebrew manuscripts amounting to 2,000 volumes. This was a predecessor to the Nazis’ burning of Jewish texts. The Nazis entered Lublin in 1939, where they planned to established a forced relocation camp for Polish Jews. Among the Nazis’ first acts was to burn Lublin’s Great Library with 55,000 volumes.
Recently, when Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame was ravaged by flames, one crazy, apocalyptic rabbi pronounced that the disaster was belated divine retribution for Saint Louis’ long-ago sacrilege against Judaism.
It should be understood that, almost always, medieval burnings of Jewish holy books were preceded by disputations, ordered by the Church authorities, to prove that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Talmud was heretical and a blasphemy against Christianity. With one exception discussed below, the rabbis compelled by church prelates to defend the Talmud were forbidden to argue anything contrary to Christian doctrine.
Typically, prominent Jewish converts to Christianity played a role in promoting such perverse disputations. The beginning was in France in 1236, when the apostate Nicholas Donin journeyed to Rome to convince Pope Gregory IX that among the Talmud’s many outrages was abandoning the Hebrew Scriptures and discouraging Jews from converting to Christianity. In 1239 (exactly 700 years before the Nazis torched Lublin’s Great Library), Pope Gregory sent a circular letter to France ordering the Dominicans and Franciscans to burn at the stake “those books in which you find errors,” as was done in 1242. In 1306, the Jews were expelled from France.
The most famous disputation (made into a 1968 television drama) occurred in Barcelona in 1263. There, another Jewish convert, Pablo Christiani (called Friar Paul), told King James I of Aragon that he could prove Christianity was true and the Talmud false using the Hebrew Bible. The king got the the famed rabbi Moses ben Nachman (“Ramban”) to participate after agreeing that the rabbi would have unconstrained freedom of speech.
Ramban demolished Friar Paul and his arguments (Hyam Maccoby and David Berger have edited accounts of this debate), causing the king to award him 300 gold coins. Nevertheless, James I later ordered that pages of the Talmud found sacrilegious be consigned to the flames. Perhaps fearing the same fate, Ramban at 72 years of age made aliyah to Jerusalem, where he established his own synagogue, which endured until the Arabs bombed it in 1948.
Isaac ben Moses ha-Levi, forced during the Seville Riots of 1391 to convert to Christianity and adopt the name Profiat Duran, subsequently wrote a letter, Al Tehi Ka-Aboteka (“Be Not Like Thy Fathers”) whose satire of Christianity is “hidden between the lines.” He employed the techniques of insinuation and irony (analyzed by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing) so well that Christians at first thought this work was truly a defense of their religion. When they discovered otherwise, they burned it.
Disputations followed by condemnations of the Talmud continued into the 15th century. Pope Eugenius IV even prohibited Jews from studying the Talmud after 1449’s Council of Basel. This decree, however, was unevenly enforced.
Jewish tears of devotion doused the medieval flames, prevailing to save the Talmud at least until the Nazis tried to complete the work of the medieval book burners.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).