«Introduction In the spring of 1240, Rabbi Yeḥiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin confronted each other in formal religious debate in Paris. The ...»
In the spring of 1240, Rabbi Yeḥiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin confronted
each other in formal religious debate in Paris. The debate concerned the legitimacy of the
Talmud, and was occasioned by a list of accusations Nicholas Donin presented to Pope
Gregory IX four years earlier. This was the first debate of its kind in medieval northern
Europe, and was attended by religious and political notables of the Christian world.
Despite this, both protagonists in the disputation remain shadowy figures to history. Nicholas Donin seems to have originated in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle and converted to Christianity from Judaism some fifteen years before he met Yeḥiel in Paris.
Jewish sources tell of his ultimate humiliation as he was killed by his coreligionists in ―his house of idol-worship,‖ that is, a Christian church. Beyond this tendentious bit of biographical information little else is known of him. 1 Our knowledge of Yeḥiel is similarly limited. His scattered remarks, quoted throughout rabbinic literature and the Talmudic commentaries of his students, shed little light on his personality. After the Debate, Yeḥiel left Paris for the Land of Israel in 1259;
1 Indeed, this is how the Paris manuscript introduces the the 1240 Debate: [...אשר לסוף היה נהרג ב]בית עבודה.... זרה שלו 1 subsequently he may have returned to France. His date of death, important for ritual and ordinarily commemorated by the Jewish world, is unclear as well. 2 Although we know little about the lives of the two protagonists, it is clear that the 1240 Debate played a pivotal role for each. For the obscure Friar Nicholas Donin, it was a major achievement and a high moment. For Rabbi Yeḥiel, it was an important episode in the life of a venerable rabbi serving his community. The import of the 1240 Debate inspired both Donin and Yeḥiel to document the event, a distinctive occurrence for each, but one that did not foster a future career for either of them.
Beyond its significance for the two protagonists, the 1240 Debate represented a turning point in the history of the relations between Ashkenazi Jewry and Latin Christendom. An impressive event attended by an imposing array of dignitaries, this debate offered an opportunity for broad public display of new argumentation. While Donin‘s specific argumentation does not seem to have served as a model for other formal debates – Pablo Christiani, the Christian protagonist in the disputations in Barcelona in July 1263 and in Paris 1270, did not follow Donin‘s line of argumentation – the very assertion that the Church had the right to confiscate, examine, and destroy Jewish literature – specifically the Talmud – set a new tone for Christian-Jewish relationships in centuries to come. This dissertation explores the documentation of this pivotal event in new contexts.
2 See Thérèse and Mendel Metzger, ―A propos de la date de Yehiel de Paris et de la copie du Ms. Add.
11639 de la British Library,‖ Weiner Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 39 (1986): 221. Yeḥiel died in either 1260 or 1264. The most recent study of Yeḥiel‘s life and works is contained in the book by Simcha Emanuel, Shivrei luḥot: sefarim avudim shel baalei ha-Tosafot (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 2007), 185especially 185-198. Emanuel notes that Yeḥiel is the only tosafist to earn a lasting reputation based on historical events rather than for his scholarship.
disputation literature has been analyzed, with a particular focus on the 1240 Debate. In general, debate literature has served as a barometer of the Jewish-Christian relationship and its evolution. Our knowledge of the medieval Jewish experience in a Christiandominated landscape can be enriched by describing the contours of a religious debate and understanding medieval disputation. To this end, scholars have used Donin and Yeḥiel's documents in an attempt to recreate what happened on that day (or days) in 1240. The two records written from opposing perspectives deceptively suggest that a critical comparative reading of both these accounts will provide a complete picture of the 1240 Debate.
However, an attempt to reconstruct a delicate event such as an inter-religious debate is not realistic. We cannot know the texts what passages were delivered in thunderous cadences or hushed, understated tones, whether in biting sarcasm or in painful anguish – or whether they were said at all. Indeed, using the written record of a highly oral procedure is fraught with problems. Once set to writing – by both Nicholas and Yeḥiel – the Debate was substantially recast.
For the purpose of broadening our understanding of the Middle Ages, rather than studying the disputation literature in order to recreate what happened, historians would be better served analyzing the sources for their respective agendas. To this end, the multiple protocols documenting a disputation need to be examined individually and exclusively, taking into account the particular audience and historical contexts surrounding each document. After all, only a select audience of Christians would read Donin‘s Latin report, and Yeḥiel's Hebrew account could only be understood by learned Jews. Yeḥiel's
Donin‘s report provides a Christian context to the Paris Debate.
Chapter Three analyzes the Hebrew record, written at the behest of Yeḥiel. I study the Jewish record of events in its own context, with an eye toward its inherent messages for its contemporary Jewish audience. Approaching his record as a literary narrative,3 I find that Yeḥiel is less concerned with accurately reporting what happened between him and Donin than he is with addressing concerns of future debaters or those whose commitment to Judaism is tenuous. Yeḥiel's deliberately convoluted writing style indicates that he was addressing young intellectual men of a leadership cohort, which research tells us were most at risk for conversion.
Reading Yeḥiel's narrative as an instruction manual for a future Jewish debater participating in an inter-religious debate provides an accessible framework for an otherwise abstruse text. Yeḥiel helps the future debater in search of guidance by providing multiple responses to possible incriminations raised against him. In fact, we should not even look at this example of Hebrew debate literature within a framework of disputation studies; rather, we should see it as part of the panoply of Jewish literature. If we examine the disputation protocols in light of their intended audience, we can move beyond the paradigm of ―Jewish-Christian analysis‖ in the study of medieval polemic.
Chapter Four examines the dominant interpretation of the 1240 Debate, namely, that it was an inquisitorial proceeding seeking to eradicate Jewish heresy. This position is problematic in light of a close examination of the state of anti-heresy activities of the Church and the available evidence which documents the Paris Disputation.
3 On this terminology see the erudite work by Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A
Foundation for Literary Study, trans. Matthew T. Bliss, Annemiek Jansen, and David E. Thornton (Leiden:
Brill, 1998), 136-140.
its own right. The difficulties inherent in understanding the nature of inquiries into heresy in the early thirteenth century aside, most often religious polemic is studied from a Jewish perspective in an effort to understand why the Church turned against the Jews at some point in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Indeed, the initial proponent of the view that the 1240 Disputation was a heresy inquisition, Yitzhak Baer, saw Christianity as a longstanding oppressor of Judaism. An assumption that the 1240 Debate had the full power of the inquisition behind it fit Baer's historical framework.
However, anti-Judaism represents only one piece of the Christian medieval experience that may be gleaned from studying debate literature. Christian records of debates can reveal a great deal more when studied within the broader currents that concerned Christian readers.
Chapter Five studies the Paris Disputation from a wider Christian perspective. By examining currents in medieval Christian society I have rejected the more facile view of the Debate as an inquisitorial procedure which substitutes Jews for heretics. Rather, Church officials were responding to a fear more pervasive than that of heresy itself – the development of variant textual communities. The proliferation of textual communities, particularly among heretical groups, troubled the ecclesiastical elite. When texts began to organize and shape religious practice, replacing authorized ecclesiastical figures, threatened Christian policymakers felt the need to ensure that the texts, and their interpreters, were monitored or deemed acceptable. From the Church's perspective, the Jews constituted just such a textual community. To a significant degree, Chapter Five sets the stage for Chapter Six.
recollection of the Debate. Nicholas Donin zeroed in on the Papal See‘s apprehension over texts as factors contributing to the rapid increase of heresy. Concerns about unmonitored literature had led the papal bureaucracy to establish the means to contend with such literature. By casting the Talmud as unmonitored literature at the center of a Jewish textual community, Donin provided the Papal See with a procedure to follow in dealing with these texts. The perception of the Jews as a textual community gave Pope Gregory IX the authority to investigate the contents of the Talmud.
In addition, for the Christian policymakers, the Jewish mission as originally formulated by Saint Augustine was to counter heresy by demonstrating the veracity of the biblical text; this was particularly significant in a period when the potency of the written word had begun to attain recognition. It is my contention that Donin‘s goal was to make Pope Gregory IX aware that Jews were forsaking their Augustinian role at this critical juncture.
Chapter Seven, my conclusion, is integrative in nature. Over the course of the dissertation I discuss a number of developments in the Christian world. These include the rise and gradual replacement of an oral society with a textual society, as well as how and why religious elites controlled the dissemination and interpretation of texts. Given a current dominant historiography that argues that the medieval Jewish experience was cut from the same cloth as the general society, I compare Jewish and Christian institutions and the social bonds of the learned class. I discuss whether the Jewish world also had a textual awakening moving toward replacing an oral society, how Jews dealt with texts
Manuscripts Documenting the 1240 Debate The Latin report of the 1240 Debate, the Articuli litterarum pape, was published, translated, and edited by Isadore Loeb in ―La Controverse de 1240 sur le Talmud,‖ Révue des études juives, vols. I, II, and III. The original manuscript is held in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Par. Lat. no. 16558, fo. 231-249), and is appended to a much larger and contemporaneous work entitled Extractiones de Talmut, composed by a team of Jewish converts to Christianity and headed by Thibaut de Sézanne.4 There are three extant complete Hebrew manuscripts of the Paris Debate. 5 The first of the manuscripts, dating to the seventeenth century, is held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.6 This manuscript is partially edited. Copied by hand, it is not simply a reproduction of a prior manuscript documenting the Debate. Interspersed throughout are comments made by the copyist/editor: clarifications, explanations, or how he would have answered Donin. At times these interjections can last half a page or more. There is hardly a lectio difficilior in the entire manuscript. The second of the two manuscripts, 4 Thibaut was a Dominican friar who was likely the author of the polemical work, Dialogus pro ecclesia contra synagogam. For more on Thibaut's anti-Jewish work see Cardelle de Hartmann, "El Dialogus pro ecclesia contra synagogam impreso por Pablo Hurus: autoría, fecha y transmisión manuscrita," Sefarad 62, no.1 (2002): 3-19. On the Extractiones see the dissertation of Chenmelech Merchavia, "Ketav-hayad Ekstractziones de Talmud – meqor pulmus neged torat ha-yahadut bimei ha-beinayim" (PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1965).
5 I thank Benyamin Richler of the Manuscript Department of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem for his assistance in identifying and evaluating the various manuscripts.
6 Oxford – Bodleian Library Ms. Mich. 121.
this seventeenth century manuscript that Gruenbaum published the printed edition of the Debate in 1873, and from which Reuven Margolis edited and annotated the Debate. 8 Of the three Hebrew manuscripts, historical scholarship deems the Moscow manuscript most true to the original text. 9 Written on paper, Ms. Guenzburg 1390 ff. 84has been housed in the Russian State Library in Moscow. Tamar Leiter of the Hebrew Paleography Project at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem dates this manuscript to the mid-fifteenth century. Little is known of the copyist beyond his name, Benjamin ben Shemaryahu of Salonica.
Bibliographers have catalogued Yeḥiel's report together with other polemical works of the Middle Ages. The texts which fall into this category are, like Yeḥiel's, dialectic in structure. But the Hebrew protocol documenting the 1240 Debate complicates the genre of Jewish polemic. Remarkably, Yeḥiel's record was not an aggressive attack on or refutation of Christianity. In fact, Yeḥiel had little to say about Christian beliefs. Rather, it is my contention that Yeḥiel invested his efforts into defending Jewish beliefs so that his record might serve as a manual for future Jewish debaters. Indeed, not every polemical document had the same goals.
7 Paris – Bibliotèque Nationale heb. 712.
8 Margolis, Vikuaḥ Rabenu Yeḥiel Mi-Pariz (Lwow: Beit Mishar ha-Sefarim, nd).