This year I attended and filmed three lectures by three visiting lecturers at McGill University: I believe that all three can be included in David Nirenberg’s elegant phrase, of “Interrogating the past to understand the present”. All three talks have now been posted to the internet and the links are below. David Nirenberg’s subject was “Sibling Rivalries, Scriptural Communities: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”. Christine Hayes spoke on “What is Divine about Divine Law?“. And Dr.Mordechai Kedar developed the theme “Antisemitism in Modern Islamic and Arab Discourse”.
Christine Hayes, a Yale University biblical scholar, shared her appreciation and comparison of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish theology and law. It was quite marvelous to hear her discuss the mingling and also the differences between Greek, Roman, and Jewish ideas and laws of theology and of society. Yes she spoke about each society’s conceptions of “G-D” and “Gods” and also their conceptions of “Law”. I was amazed by her erudition, her familiarity with ancient Greek, Roman and Hebrew texts and scholarship, theology and law. Especially profound and amazing is her familiarity with the Jewish Talmud and Mishna from which she quoted liberally. 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.
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.
David Nirenberg is the author of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013) and Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (2014). He too is a contemporary scholar fully conversant with Muslim, Jewish and Christian texts. What is clear from his talk is the intertextual borrowing of Jewish sources by both Muslim and Christian writers. The various traditions were conversant with each others texts, and yet used them to bolster their imaginative agendas of how they conceived of the other: Christians disparaged Jews and Muslims disparaged both Jews and Christians. And as David Nirenberg points out this disparagement continued through the enlightenment. As he cited Voltaire, and many other enlightenment philosophers were anti-Jewish in their writings and doctrines. Karl Marx also being one of them.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, was invited to speak at McGill by ISGAP. He spoke on Antisemitism in Modern Islamic and Arab Discourse. He explains the Arab discourse and conceptualization very well. He is an academic expert on the contemporary Arab world has served in Israeli intelligence for twenty five years as a Lt. Colonel and since he reads and speaks Arabic fluently, he also appears on Arabic television.
Professor Kedar started his talk by explaining that the Arab view of History is different from that of the West: i.e. Islamic scholars don’t think of ancient history, middle ages and modern times. They think of history as starting with their Prophet Mohammed, (Peace be Upon Him), and continuing to present time. All history for Muslims is Islamic history that continues to the present and all narrative is Islamic narrative. He points out that the split between Sunni and Shia goes back to the succession wars following the death of Mohammed and continues unabated to this day. Sunni refer to the Shia as “Jews” and we see the internecine warfare that has erupted in our time.
Yes, Mohammed the Muslim Prophet and originator of what we now know as Islam, was very aware of Jewish practice and Jewish texts, and also of Christian practice and Christian texts. Mordechai Kedar explains exactly how Muslims think of “the ancient ones” Jews and Christians. Along with a very clear exposition of Islamic doctrine he points out how this slander continues today as the Middle East publishes and accepts in the present as truth the forged antisemitic tract. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion is an antisemitic hoax purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It was first published in Russia in 1903, translated into multiple languages, and disseminated internationally in the early part of the 20th century. The Protocols purports to document the minutes of a late 19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles, and by controlling the press and the world’s economies.
In his talk, he shares the covers of several current Middle East publications of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
And even an interesting story about the opening of an intercultural library in Egypt where two books were chosen to represent each faith and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was one of the two books chosen by the administrators to be displayed as representative of Jewish literature.
He also explains why people who follow Islam will never accept Jerusalem or Israel as having any Jewish roots. “Once a country has become Islamic, it can never revert to its original status” according to Islamic doctrine.
Nevertheless, Israel has forged bonds of peace with several neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. Is it a “cold peace”? Yes, but as an Israel author, Eshkol Nevo, recently responded to this question, “any peace is better than war”.