Why Were Copies of the Talmud Burned in Medieval Europe?


For those of you who are not aware of medieval theology and its imperial struggles, Talmudic books were burned in the public square from the early to the late middle Ages by Christian Papal authorities all over Europe. The Talmud was first condemned by Pope Gregory IX and burning Talmudic books were first burned at the stake in 1240 AD.

I quote from the Jewish Virtual Library: Christian Jewish Relations: Burning of the Talmud

  1. In 1236 a Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin, submitted a memorandum to Pope Gregory IX listing 35 charges against the Talmud. These included allegations that it contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales. They asserted that the Jews had elevated the Oral Law to the level of divinely inspired Scripture, and that this impeded the possibility of their conversion to Christianity. Gregory thereupon ordered a preliminary investigation, and in 1239 sent a circular letter to ecclesiastics in France summarizing the accusations and ordering the confiscation of Jewish books on the first Saturday of Lent (i.e., March 3, 1240), while the Jews were gathered in synagogue. Any other persons having Hebrew books in their possession who refused to give them up were to be excommunicated. He further ordered the heads of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Paris to ensure that “those books in which you find errors of this sort you shall cause to be burned at the stake.”…The last auto-da-fé of the Talmud took place in Poland, in Kamenets-Podolski in the fall of 1757. 

What do you make of the above quote Any other persons having Hebrew books in their possession who refused to give them up were to be excommunicated.“. Yes, non-Jews were reading and owning Hebrew texts in Hebrew at the time.

The question comes up “Why”. Why burn Talmudic books?

Christian dogma asserted that since Jews were the original Christians, their continuing practice of the Jewish religion negated Christianity as the superior religion. Moreover, it was posited that the Second coming of the Messiah could not arrive until the whole world, but especially the Jews were converted to Christianity. For as as long as Jews continued to practice their Jewish religion, this negated Paul’s idea that the Jewish religious law was no longer necessary and was superseded by the Christian faith which no longer required the performance of Jewish Torah Law known to Jews as “mitzvot”. “Mitzvot”  are what Jews think of as G-d’s direct behavioral demands first stated in the Torah, often translated as “laws”. These “mitzvot” were first written down in the “Torah” which is known to Christians as the Five books of Moses. These Torah laws were interpreted and elaborated on and discussed over the centuries by the rabbis and these discussions are known as the “oral law”.  “Jewish Law” that is referred to in the Christian New Testament is this oral law debated in rabbinic seminaries and Jewish courts of the 1- 3rd century AD. This Rabbinic Oral Law, was first compiled in written form 300 AD as six tractates of Talmud. It was written down because following the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Rabbis feared that this lore would be lost. Jews believe that both the Torah and the Oral Law were handed down at Sinai. i.e. The written Torah and the Oral Law are not separable, but together comprise the understanding of the normative Jewish tradition that has survived over the last two thousand years since the destruction of the Temple. The first written Talmud was put together and written down in the land of Israel and is known as the Jerusalem Talmud. The second version of the Talmud was compiled in ancient Babylonia (currently know as Iraq) and is designated as the Babylonian Talmud. It was compiled in the 6th century AD. Both of these texts continue to form the groundwork of normative Jewish religious tradition.

Are Jews Funny?

On my way to Chicago to screen my documentary, “Yiddish;  a tale of survival” in Chicago,  I caught the documentary “When Jews were Funny.”
My impression after watching the first hour of the film (the plane arrived and I was interrupted)  is that this documentary is more about Allan Zweig, the filmmaker struggling with his own Jewish identity than about the comedians he interviews. It is midway through the film before the interviewer/filmmaker shares anything about himself. What does he share? That he married outside the faith and when it came time to name his daughter, he objected to a name that his wife suggested by saying instinctively – No! too goyish! And his wife accuses him of playing the Jewish card retroactively.

In an article, titled “The Death of Jewish Culture,” reviewing the Jewish American cultural scene of the last 50 years, James Leoffler asks:  “Are American Jews alienated from Jewish feelings? Do they lack Jewish identities?” He answers, “Not at all: they freely and openly profess such feelings, and appear quite comfortable with their Jewish identity. Rather, the content of that identity has itself shrunk to a solely internal realm of subjective experience and emotion, fortified by clichés and bits and pieces of an elementary cultural literacy.”  This is exactly how I would characterize the filmmaker in this work.

The interviewer appears to be obsessed with an external expression of what it means to be Jewish as he gleans it from the public persona of  comedians, born Jewish, and universally popular in the America of the fifties and sixties – comedians such as Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Shecky Green and David Steinberg. He sees this as a golden age of “Jewishness” which he both loved and hated, and which is no longer with us.

As a child of survivors, born in Hungary, after the war, and growing up in Canada, I too have struggled with my Jewish identity all my life. I am deeply aware of the desire to assimilate, to be part of one’s surroundings, the pervasive culture, and to distance oneself from identifying with Jewish culture that has been denigrated through history. Yet I am also deeply aware of the roots of Jewish identity as passed on through religious identification and participation that has also been part of my growing up experience.

I have to admit that doing this documentary about Yiddish, has also been a part of encountering and struggling with my  own Jewish identity. During most of my life I was mostly disparaging of anything “Yiddish” and did not know very much about it. This attitude towards Yiddish,  has been part of the Jewish culture ever since the possibility of acceptance by mainstream secular culture became an option open to Jews  in the 1800’s with the emancipation born of secular nation states. But then we encountered the fiendish national religion of Hitler and his cohorts.

Recently Jews all over the world celebrated the annual biblical holiday called Shavuot, a Jewish holiday very few non-Jews can identify or even know anything about. And yet it is the holiday of the receiving of the sacred covenant at Sinai, receiving the ten commandments and the attendant lore and commandments as set down in what we know today as “The Torah”, the Teachings of the Jews that form the very basis of Jewish cohesion throughout the centuries.

Everything that Jews understand today, and are today as a people, emanates from this basic event. We separate Jewishness and Jewish culture from this basic source to our peril.

This was again brought home to me by the recent performance of “Soul Doctor,” the story of Shlomo Carlebach performed as a Yiddish play at the Segal Centre in Montreal. Shlomo Carlebach is known for his unorthodox ways of connecting with Jewish tradition and bringing the non-affiliated in contact with those sources via the example of his life and his work as a musician and composer. He birthed new life into prayer via ecstatic music and dance first popularized at the House of Love and Prayer in Berkley in the sixties.

Carlebach was born into a well known Hassidic family from Austria that relocated to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1939. He and his twin brother can both be called Hassidic Rabbis. But his brother was the congregational Rabbi at the synagogue on West 79th Street which still bears the family name, while Shlomo, “took his ministry to the streets” of Berkely and New York. Shlomo Carlebach composed and introduced revivalist melodies that stirred the hearts of those who heard them and have become mainstream in Jewish synagogues of all denominations. Shlomo Carlebach was not accepted in his lifetime by mainstream Judaism.

Two important ideas are shared over the Shavuot Holiday.  One – “not by might or by force but by my Spirit, sayeth the Lord”. The other one that the Jewish people have struggled with over the centuries is the famous phrase “Naaseh venishma”- “we will do and we will listen” as regards acceptance of the laws of G-d.  There are many competing interpretations of this idea “we shall do and we shall listen” that are chewed over every year.

Does “naaseh venishma” mean we will follow your commandments blindly even though they make no sense to us? Does it mean that we will follow the commandments first and then struggle to make sense of them? Do we even have a choice re accepting the law? There is one interpretation (midrash) that says that the Jews only accepted the law because G-d threatened to destroy them if they did not. The specific legend is that G-d picked up the mountain of Sinai and said “accept my law or I bear this mountain down on you right now.” As the Jewish mother confronted with conflicting versions of the truth by her children would say “Darlings, you are both right!”.

There is an element of fate in being Jewish. Most of us do not choose to be born into this tradition, but being born into it we are forced, willy nilly, to confront its meaning and to struggle with making our own choices vis a vis this heritage.

Filmmakers, such as Allan Zweig and myself,  are only one part of this longstanding tradition of struggle and contemplation that starts with actions and dilemmas that we do not choose and needs to lead to actions that we do choose which entails struggling to accept anew the covenant of Sinai every year, and indeed every day with ever newer understandings.


Yiddish: A Tale of Survival on Mountain Lakes PBS


I am delighted to share that Yiddish: a tale of survival will be screened On Mountain Lakes PBS, Thursday May 22, at 9pm. Yesterday I was interviewed by Thom Hallock, news anchor and producer for Mountain Lakes Journal. It was a thoughtful interview about the history of Yiddish in Montreal and worldwide since the Holocaust and about the documentary, Yiddish: a tale of survival. The interview segment will be aired this Friday, May 9th, 2014 at 8pm and several times during the weekend.