The statuary on the outside of many a Gothic cathedral includes two female figures representing respectively the “Church Triumphant” and the “Synagogue,” with blindfolded eyes, “Defeated.” A tremendous, if inadvertent, piece of irony is contained in this tableau, for if ever an institution preserved itself by the exercise of clear vision, and by seeking the light, it was the medieval synagogue. Allan Temko turns to a little-known page of her past to show us the synagogue valiantly defending herself against a world of foes, and suffering defeat only in the face of sheer secular force, not at all at the hands of a superior intellectual adversary. 



To the Middle Age no subject of conversation was more fascinating than the Lord. Wherever men gathered—in the castle hall, the wine shop, the market place—they would forget all else, and talk vividly of God. If they disagreed, they argued; and since the times were violent, disagreements sometimes ended in blows and sword thrusts. Religion was a lively matter. Amateur theologians were as numerous as amateur politicians today, and took their ideas at least as seriously. For the world, in the 12th and 13th centuries, was a giant cathedral. The supernatural entered every part of human life, every day of the year, and from the ribald comedy of the Fête des Fous to the intense drama of Easter, served every human emotion. Daily activity was suffused by the moods of Heaven to an extent that we now find quite impossible to grasp. All we can do is stand in the portal of a medieval church, while the stone population of Paradise mounts overhead, and try to imagine that these Prophets and Martyrs, these celestial Queens and Kings, were once as real as any earthly creature, and indeed did sometimes walk upon the earth and speak.

And so men debated about the Lord wherever paths met. The Church, for very good reasons, did not find this enthusiasm altogether commendable. Public discussion has a tendency to break down dogma, and while the Gothic moment was an age of extreme faith, it was not an age of strict orthodoxy. The whole of Languedoc—almost one-fourth of France—lay in the passionate error of Catharism. The Rhône Valley, Champagne, and Flanders swarmed with itinerant preachers whose wild outcries compelled no less a figure than Saint Bernard to answer them in the name of the Church Universal. In the Schools of Paris, soon to become a University, independent thinkers like Abélard battered down conventional thought in disputationes that shook Christendom.

In this atmosphere of sharp theological disagreement, of popular error and heresy, the Jew had a special place. He was the most dangerous deviant of all. As Christianity rose to its most triumphant instant, hurling armies against the East, and conquering the sky with cathedrals, the Jew stubbornly refused to capitulate. This took courage. The Church had begun to abandon its age-old policy of gentle persuasion, and was now resorting to severe political pressure against him. Moreover, the Crusades had loosed anti-Semitic lynch mobs throughout Western Europe. When men adore their Lord as fervently as did the medieval Christians, they are inclined to make him absolute.



To the Christian intellectual of the Middle Age, the Jew needed only a firm push toward the light, and his conversion would be assured. This conviction was not as far-fetched as it might seem. Today, when differences between faiths receive more attention than their similarities, we occasionally forget that Christianity and Judaism share an enormous common ground. During the Middle Age, the one regarded itself as the child of the other, a natural growth that had sprung from Jewish monotheism like Jesse’s Tree. The relationship was dramatized in thousands of works of art, but nowhere does it emerge more brilliantly than in the great transept rose windows of Notre-Dame of Paris. Through the northern rose flows the austere blue light of the Old Law; through the southern pours the sun-filled reds of the New. The two streams of color blend at the exact center of the cathedral, in the most mystical alliance that Western civilization has devised.

Coaxing, this wonderful light—and yet the Jew did not surrender to it. In his tiny synagogues he prepared his replies to Paris, Chartres, and Rheims; and when he ventured on the talkative streets, walking the tightrope of medieval tolerance, he would courageously answer Christian challengers. He argued as Jews have since Abraham (according to the Midrash) debated theology with Nimrod. In the face of continual proselytism, he responded with a proselytism of his own.

In general, these religious discussions were friendly. They occurred far too often to be otherwise. We know, too, that they had their share of good humor. Once a monk asked Joseph Kara why synagogues did not have bells. “Go to a fish market,” replied the Jew, “and you will see that the high-quality stalls are silent. Only the sellers of herring shout their merchandise.”

Jewish wit and learning grew famous, and the debates soon became a form of entertainment, as diverting as the songs of minstrels, before aristocratic audiences. Sometimes keenly intelligent women, like the Lady of Vitry, in Champagne, took part. But if the nobility found clever argument amusing, the Church did not. By the end of the 12th century France was hot with heresy, and Jewish criticism, for all its charm, was becoming too effective. About the year 1200 the Bishop of Paris threatened with excommunication anyone but qualified clerks who entered into theological argument. A Church writer, Peter of Blois, declared with some heat in his Contra Perfidiam Judaeorum (and ferfidiam should here be translated simply as “disbelief”) that it is “absurd to discuss the Trinity at street intersections.” Finally, in a Bull of 1233, Gregory IX condemned all public controversy.

The Pope’s edict was not obeyed. The debates went on, as passionately as before. Men could not keep silent. The Jews continued to give a good account of themselves, and provoked Saint Louis’s celebrated remark to Joinville: “I tell you that no one, unless he be a very learned clerk, should dispute with them; that the layman, when he hears the Christian Law mis-said, should not defend it, unless it be with his sword, with which he should pierce the mis-sayer in the midriff, as far as the sword will enter.”



If the foremost Christian spokesmen were trained in the young University of Paris, their leading adversaries were educated on the opposite bank of the Seine in the Talmudic School of the Paris Synagogue. There, with modest resources, the Jews had set up a center of learning that was renowned throughout the West. Its students, like the scholars in the Christian schools on the Left Bank, came from as far away as England and Italy. Occasionally even, Christian philologists would cross the river to receive special instruction from the rabbis in Hebrew.

Exactly where on the Right Bank the Talmudic School was located in the 13th century is a matter of doubt. It was situated in a newly acquired building, for the Jews had lost all of their ancient holdings in Paris when they were sent into a sixteen-year exile in 1182. The Crown had then seized not only their homes and lands, but also their seat of religious and intellectual life: the temple on the Ile-de-la-Cité, which was transformed into a church. After their return in 1198, the Jews did not come back to the Island and the Left Bank, where they had lived since Merovingian and even Roman times, but settled in the expanding commercial quarter near the Halles. There they consecrated a new synagogue, which almost certainly housed the School. One might note that they have never since left the vicinity of these great markets, except under periodic compulsion. They live by choice in the neighborhood today, in the twisting streets behind the Rue de Rivoli, as merchants and artisans and scholars.

With the exiled community had returned its leader and champion, Rabbi Judah ben Isaac—Judah Sir Leon1 of Paris, one of the most accomplished Jews of the Middle Age. Sir Leon may have been a descendant of the superb teacher Rashi of Troyes (1040-1105), the father of Jewish medieval Scholasticism; at any rate, he carried on Rashi’s cultivated principles of Tosafist education. A corps of brilliant rabbis developed under Sir Leon’s supervision. Like their master, they had a perfect familiarity with the Talmud and the Old Testament, were widely read in other religious and philosophical literature, had a precocious knowledge of science, and above all loved theology for its own sake. They were also gifted poets, convincing preachers, and skilled controversialists. The most famous of Sir Leon’s pupils were Moses of Coucy, Sir Morel of Falaise, and Yechiel of Paris, all three of whom would later defend their beloved Talmud at the risk of their lives, and see it condemned and publicly burned in Paris.



When Sir Leon died in 1224 at the age of fifty-eight, young Yechiel succeeded him as Chief Rabbi of Paris and head of the School. Young, and alive! Yechiel’s name was translated literally into French as Sir Vives—or Vivo, as he is called in Latin documents. He was also called Yechiel the Holy, Yechiel the Pious, and when he in turn grew venerable, Yechiel the Elder. At the time he took charge of the School, however, he could scarcely have been more than twenty-five. He was born at Meaux, near Paris, sometime after the return of the Jews to France in 1198.

Under Yechiel the School flourished as it had under Sir Leon. More than three hundred students listened to his lectures; and when he was called upon to defend Jewish doctrine in open debates as official spokesman for his community, all Paris thronged to hear. He won admiration from Jews and Gentiles alike when he refuted charges that Jews are compelled by ritualistic demand to use Christian blood. Another time he successfully denied the allegation that Jews cannot, consistently, with their belief, bear witness in courts of law.

But Yechiel’s oratory alone did not move the imaginative 13th century. It was his reputation as a Cabalist that gripped medieval Paris. A story circulated that he possessed a magical lamp which, after being lit Friday evening, burned an entire week without oil. Saint Louis was intrigued by the rumor, and according to one version of the episode, asked Yechiel if it were true. The Rabbi’s reply was vague (it would have been fatal to confess to sorcery), and the King decided to surprise him in person late one Wednesday night, to see if the lamp were still burning.

An apocryphal bit of comedy resulted which is worth telling one more time—it has been repeated for ages in European ghettos.

In those days, says the legend, beggars and ruffians often chose the dead of night to beat on Jewish doors and disturb the sleeping households. Yechiel, of course, was never in bed at that hour, but wide awake in his study, poring over Cabalistic symbols. In order not to be interrupted, he had a sort of projecting peg or nail on his desk, which he pressed downward whenever he heard a knock. As far as the peg entered the wood, the intruder sank into the earth outside.

When the King knocked, Yechiel pressed the peg immediately, and Louis sank to his waist. The King, a tall man, managed to reach up and strike the door again. Yechiel pushed the peg a second time. The device hopped backward beneath his finger! With a terrified cry he rushed to the door and prostrated himself before his monarch.

He found that Louis had been as frightened as himself. The King and his barons, as they felt the earth swallow them, had in one voice cried out: “Save us!”

Yechiel led them into his home, placed them near the fire, and entertained them with cakes and jam—the authentic medieval touch that is as impossible to duplicate as the pure blue glass at Chartres.

Louis then asked the Rabbi if he was really a sorcerer and if it was true that he possessed the marvelous lamp. Yechiel lifted his eyes towards the omnipotent 13th-century Heaven, and answered: “Let the Lord be pleased, I am not a sorcerer! But I am versed in physics, and know several properties of Nature.”

Then he showed the King his lamp, which was burning brightly, and revealed that it was neither a miracle nor a work of enchantment, but that he had filled it with another combustible material rather than oil. This part of the tale rings true. Phosphorous had recently been brought to Paris from the East, and was a tremendous source of local excitement at the time. With reservations certain other details of the story may also be accepted, such as the proud Jewish claim that Louis afterwards made Yechiel a trusted counselor at Court. It is altogether possible that in the first years of Louis’s reign, Yechiel was received at the palace on a friendly, if not official, basis. Only one fact is sure: in the year 1254 the King for some reason categorically prohibited the practice of magic to the Jews of his realm.



By night, in his study, Yechiel may have enjoyed tranquility; as head of the School by day he led the stormiest of intellectual careers. Jewish theologians could disagree as violently among themselves as the Christian doctors, and Saint Bernard and Peter Abélard contended with no more bitterness than Yechiel and one of his students, Donin of La Rochelle. Donin, who in spite of his name seems to have spent most of his life in Paris, expressed sharp disapproval of the oral tradition of Talmudic teaching—the very foundation of Jewish Scholasticism. This was heresy. Yechiel of course denounced it as such, and for a full year after he assumed direction of the School, his conflict with Donin raged within its walls. Finally, when Donin’s criticisms became irreconcilable with orthodoxy, Yechiel excommunicated him in the presence of the entire Congregation, with the usual humiliating ceremonies, in 1225.

The severity of this sentence cannot be overemphasized. The medieval man bereft of his Lord, Jew or Christian, was driven—quite literally—out of his community. After his scourging in the temple, he wandered as an outcast: shunned, feared, hated; denied any solace of religion, including burial in sacred ground. No man would dine with him, or receive him in his house, or—if the excommunication were observed to the letter—associate with him in any way, unless it be to urge him to repent. For ten years Donin endured this impossible existence. His only sympathizers seem to have been certain members of the clergy who saw his potential value as a provocateur. With their encouragement, Donin dramatically announced his conversion to Christianity in 1236. He was baptized under the name of Nicholas, and joined the Franciscan order.

There have been few more despicable renegades. Donin’s first Christian action was to circulate through France during the summer of 1236, haranguing troops that were forming for the Sixth Crusade. The volunteers were in an ugly mood, and needed little pretext to renew the pogroms that had accompanied every Crusade for more than a century. Donin gave them their opportunity. He traveled through Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine, preaching to mobs in his friar’s habit, and the atrocities followed. Homes and synagogues were burned. Torahs were torn to pieces. Then came a demand for mass conversion. Some five hundred Jews submitted and were baptized. Three thousand others perished, some in indescribable pain. The Crusaders had hit upon the idea of trampling men, women, and children with their war horses.

In desperation the Jews appealed to the Pope, and Gregory ordered Saint Louis and the prelates of France to protect them from further outrages. But as was usual in the Middle Age, the lynching mood had almost spent itself before the responsible officials acted. Through a wide band of central France, Jewish communities lay decimated. Donin, however, had not yet had his full revenge. Two years after the massacres, in 1238, he went to Rome and formally presented the Pope with thirty-five accusations against the Talmud, and recommended its destruction as a mass of blasphemies. He added that the Talmud alone kept the Jews in error, that the rabbis valued it more highly than the Bible, and that without it the Jews would have been converted long in the past.

This last point in itself was enough to convince Gregory that an investigation, at least, was necessary. Nevertheless, the Pope was taken totally by surprise. In countless previous attacks on the Jews the Talmud had never before been called into question. Until Donin’s denunciation they had been considered only as defenders of the Old Testament, not as blasphemers of the New. What then, after centuries of Christian indifference to the Talmud, had given Donin’s charges their special effectiveness



At the center of the situation lay the classic source of bigotry: ignorance. Not one Gentile in ten thousand had the faintest idea of the contents of the Talmud; not one in a million had an understanding of its ambiguities. An unprincipled apostate like Donin could easily take passages from context, and twist their meanings. But beyond ignorance of the Talmud, Christians had a distorted conception of the Jews themselves. Rabble-rousers everywhere, like Foulque de Neuilly, the organizer of the Fourth Crusade, had created a popular image of a monster. The Jew was vilified ingeniously. He was charged with ritual murder, with subterranean orgies of blood-drinking, with desecration of sacred objects that the clergy had left in his pawn. He was simultaneously reproached for poverty and for the practice of usury, both of which Christians had forced upon him. He was accused of being ugly, of being small in stature. Politically, feudalism adopted a notable decision of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and declared him a serf. Above all, the miracle plays that were staged before the cathedrals depicted him as a magician and agent of Satan.

To some extent, although it should not be exaggerated, the secrecies of Tosafism made these slanders more credible to the uninformed. This was the age of the Cabalists, strange creatures in peaked hats who were shrouded in mystery even to their own congregations. It is easy to see how their primitive science, like Yechiel’s experiment with phosphorous, could instil fear and hate as well as wonder.

Underlying all these emotional sources of Christian resentment was a hard new code of Church law. The Lateran Council of 1215 had gone further than the oppressive Council of 1179, and formulated a complete pariah status for the Jew. It initiated the marked costume and other crude indignities which were to torment the Jew until the French Revolution. It also established the Inquisition, and the Talmud became one of its first victims.



If the investigation of the Talmud held no lesson for the 13th century, it might for the 20th. The methods of inquisitors have seldom been more striking. Pope Gregory considered Donin’s accusations for a full year, and then decided that they were serious enough to invoke the entire judicial apparatus of Church and State. For this he would need the help of the secular arm, particularly the “strong right arm” of the Church’s “eldest son,” King Louis of France. But more than France alone, Gregory hoped for a joint civil and ecclesiastic action throughout the Occident. In an encyclical dated June 9, 1239, he requested the sovereigns of seven western kingdoms—France, England, Aragon, Navarre, Castille, Leon, and Portugal—to act in concert with their prelates, and simultaneously seize every copy of the Talmud in their realms. The date fixed for the coup was the first Saturday in Lent the following year—nine months off.

Strange, this delay. More strange, Gregory did not circulate the encyclical by papal courier. Instead he ordered Donin personally to deliver the text to the Bishop of Paris, William of Auvergne, who—at a time that seemed propitious—would send out the necessary letters to the various kings and bishops concerned. Hence the entire maneuver, as William of Auvergne’s biographer has pointed out, was directed not from Rome, but from the Episcopal Palace of Paris.

The Pope’s plan was more lucid than it seems at first. In William of Auvergne—the Bishop who was rushing Notre-Dame to completion—he had a hard-headed prelate from the tough southern hills near Aurillac, whose people are still among the most orthodox Catholics in France. William could be counted upon to conduct the investigation energetically; if it ended in fiasco, he would absorb any embarrassment rather than the Pope, who was publicly committed to protect Jewish freedom of religion. The Bishop was also in an excellent position to influence King Louis, whose palace stood a few hundred yards from the cathedral, at the opposite end of the Ile-de-la-Cité Many historians have tried to prove that Saint Louis was not the “priest-ridden mystic” whom other scholars have described. In this case we can say only that he alone among the seven monarchs obeyed the Pope’s instructions; all the other kings refused.

The Jewish Sabbath was a favorite medieval moment for a raid. On Saturday morning, March 3, 1240, while the congregations were praying in their synagogues, the officers of Church and Crown struck “a great blow.” Every copy of the Talmud that could be found in France was seized and transported to Paris, where the book was to be judged for blasphemy before the Royal Court.



Whether or not Saint Louis was dominated by priests, we have it on the impeccable authority of Joinville that he was tyrannized by his mother, Blanche of Castille. This remarkable woman, whose courage and imagination had saved the throne for her young son when his barons rebelled, was a Spanish beauty who had been trained in the sophisticated courts of the south. Like her son, she possessed the ecstatic temperament in strong degree. Her artistic taste was faultless, and the northern rose of Chartres, which she endowed, is perhaps its most splendid example. She also gave license to poets and troubadors, and yielded utterly to that curious medieval emotion known as “courtly love.” She adored chivalry and its tournaments of jousting. And now she conceived the trials of the Talmud as a tournament of eloquence in which champions would match dialectical lances for the delight of her courtiers. She named herself chief judge. For reasons never explained, Saint Louis did not attend the debate, and his devout and gifted mother took complete charge of the proceedings.

By June 1240, three months after the mass seizure of the Talmud, the Colloquy was ready to begin. In the great hall of the palace, before a brilliant assemblage of clergy and nobles, Queen Blanche took her place on the dais. A team of clerks and monks, led by Donin, entered as prosecutors, attired for pageantry. Then came the four representatives of French Jewry. According to a contemporary account, their bearing was “royal”; and, indeed, they could not have looked much different from the stately, bearded patriarchs whose images were carved about this time for the western façade of Notre-Dame.

Of the four rabbis, Yechiel was perhaps the most famous, but each had a great reputation in his own right. There was Moses of Coucy, an Italian-born intellectual and author who spoke not only French but Spanish and Arabic fluently; in 1235 and 1236 he had made a speaking tour through southern France and Spain, upbraiding congregations which had neglected the Law, and delivering sermons of such power that he became known as ha-darshan—the Preacher. Judah ben David of Melun, who was head of the School at that thriving city a few miles above Paris on the Seine, was a Tosafist scholar of the same stature as Yechiel and Moses. The fourth spokesman seems to have been Sir Morel of Falaise, whose Hebrew name was Samuel ben Solomon, but it is equally possible that he was Samuel ben Solomon of Château Thierry.

The pageant now took its first step toward tragedy. A burst of excitement swept over the spectators as the evidence was brought in. It was gorgeous. The illuminated parchments, with their bold Hebrew characters, were the treasure of the synagogues of France. Since few of the audience had seen the Talmud before, Nicholas Donin stepped forward and described the book briefly.



That day Yechiel alone remained in court, selected expressly by Donim. The three other rabbis were isolated, so that they could not consult with one another.

When Yechiel saw that Donin had been entrusted with the prosecution, he disdainfully asked what points of Jewish doctrine the apostate wished to question. Donin’s reply was unexpected. Although the thirty-five accusations he had made before the Pope were supposedly the basis of the inquiry, he now declared that the discussion would be limited to the Talmud’s treatment of Jesus. He added that he would prove the divinity of Jesus Christ in spite of the heresies of the Talmud, which he said had been composed some four hundred years previously.

“Fifteen hundred years!” thundered Yechiel who, like every pious medieval Jew, was certain that the Lord had dictated the book’s oldest portions to Moses. And the Rabbi turned to Queen Blanche with this appeal: “Lady, I beg of you, do not oblige me to reply. The Talmud is a holy book of venerable antiquity in which no one until the present has been able to discover a fault. Jerome, one of your Saints, was familiar with all of our Law; if he had found the least blemish in it, he scarcely would have allowed it to remain. No prelate, no apostate even, has ever reproached us our belief. Your Doctors, and you have had many more learned than Nicholas these last fifteen hundred years, have never attacked the Talmud. They have recognized it as fitting that we should have a COMMENTARY on the Scriptures. . . .”

Yechiel then faced the entire court with defiance: “Know further that we are prepared to die for the Talmud. . . . our bodies are in your power, but not our souls.”

One of the King’s officers broke in: “Yechiel, who thinks of harming the Jews”

Yechiel, recalling the recent Crusader slaughters, and aware of a rising pogrom sentiment in Paris, must have smiled bitterly: “Surely it isn’t you who will protect us from the enraged people.”

With the meticulous courtesy that she displayed throughout the hearing, Queen Blanche reassured the Rabbi. She declared that she would defend the Jews and their possessions, and would punish as a capital crime any violence against them.

Reassured that the forms of justice were to be observed, Yechiel requested an immediate appeal to the Holy See. This was a frequent and honorable legal technique in the Middle Age, since the papal tribunal—the Supreme Court of medieval Europe—often reversed the decisions of prejudiced or incompetent lower courts. Ordinarily the request would have been granted. This day it was shouted down by the clerks who told Yechiel to answer Donin, if he could.

The Rabbi had to submit. He protested angrily, however, when Donin demanded that he swear an oath before testifying. “Never in my life have I sworn upon the name of the Lord,” he told Queen Blanche, “and I shall not begin today. If, after giving oath, I said merely one word which displeased Donin, he would cite me for perjury.”

This time the clerks gave way, and Yechiel was not forced to swear, although Jews on occasion did take oath voluntarily during the Middle Age, with the right hand resting upon a Torah.



At last the two champions came to grips. To the delighted astonishment of the assembly, Donin began with a tour de force. He demonstrated, texts in hand, that the Talmud was filled with absurdities. It condemns to death, he pointed out, the man who sacrifices part of his progeny to Moloch, but provides no penalty for him who sacrifices all of it. This stroke put the clergymen in wild laughter.

Yechiel replied coldly. “One day,” he told them, “you shall laugh no longer at these words. You wish to intimidate me, but ought you not at least hear me before vilifying our Law” Then he explained that a total sacrifice was a sin so monstrous that it passed human punishment, and deserved only the wrath of God.

After this exchange, the discussion centered on the various passages in which the name Jesus appears in the Talmud, some twenty in all. Many of these references are without question uncomplimentary or openly insulting. They speak of an illegitimate son of a harlot, who was condemned as a false prophet, and later executed like a common criminal. Donin claimed that they applied to Jesus of Nazareth and his mother the Virgin Mary. The audience was shocked and horrified, and their indignation was skillfully exploited by Donin. As he translated each of the alleged blasphemies from Hebrew into the official court language, Latin, he added in French, the popular tongue which could later be quoted to illiterate mobs: “See how this people insults your God. How do you allow them to live in your midst”

At this unhappy moment, when the Jewish cause must have appeared lost to everyone except the solitary Rabbi, Yechiel defended the Talmud proudly, and with success. He asserted that none of these insults concerned Jesus Christ, but other personages of the same name who had no connection with the Christian Savior. In particular he mentioned Jesus Gereda, the bastard son of Sotada, a soldier, and of Panthera, a whore. This Jesus, the Rabbi maintained, was a villain who fully merited the cruel punishment he received for false prophecy. Yechiel here had an irrefutable point, and he made it convincingly. Although the Talmud is not altogether definite on the method or exact place of execution, it makes it clear that Jesus ben Sotada was not crucified, but either hanged or stoned, and that his condemnation and death took place not at Jerusalem, but in or near Lydda.

This confident denial made a deep impression. It was further supported by Yechiel’s counter-charge that Donin had known all of these facts, but had sedulously distorted them for motives of revenge.

The debate continued bitterly, until at last Donin and the clerks resorted to invective. At this point, according to a contemporary Jewish account of the episode, Queen Blanche brought them up sharply. “Why do you spoil your good odor” she asked. “The Jew, out of respect for you, has succeeded in proving that his ancestors did not insult your God, and yet you persist in trying to make him confess to blasphemies. Aren’t you shamed by such maneuvers”

Yechiel was dismissed, and Judah ben David of Melun, who had been held incommunicado while Yechiel’s testimony was given, was now called before the court. Donin went over the same ground, and saw his accusations exploded utterly. Judah’s refutation was identical with Yechiel’s, al-. though the two Rabbis could not have possibly planned this specific defense together. The details coincided perfectly, and for the moment the Talmud was saved.

At the suggestion of the clerks, however, it was decided that the Royal Court was not the best qualified to judge theological quarrels, and that the dispute should be transferred to a Church tribunal. This would be a very different court of law indeed. Saint Louis personally appointed the new judges: the Archbishop of Sens, the Bishops of Paris and Senlis, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, and a preaching friar named Geoffroy de Blèves. They were joined by an Inquisitor, Henry of Cologne, and a new hearing was held in Paris shortly after the first.



Any reconstruction of these events is necessarily vague. Neither their dates, nor even the order in which they occurred, have been fixed beyond doubt. It would seem that the encounter between Yechiel and Donin began on June 24 or 25, 1240, and continued for three days while the Jewish community fasted and prayed for deliverance of the Talmud. Judah ben David of Melun apparently testified on the third day. As far as is known, the two other rabbis were not summoned to appear at all. The Church Court, with the same spokesmen participating before a new set of judges, would have convened sometime later during the summer of 1240.

Arsène Darmesteter, in a careful study, disputed these dates. He thought that the early meeting before Queen Blanche lasted a single day, June 12, and that the Church Court met June 25-27.

In any event, two trials were held, and we may be sure that the second was more severe than the first. Only one of the Church judges was impartial in the modern sense. The Archbishop of Sens, Gauthier Cornut, who on previous occasions had displayed sympathy for the Jews, was scrupulously fair. This earned him the slander that he had been purchased: the one explanation the Middle Age could offer when a high personage refused to be biased. The other prelates on the panel were openly hostile, especially Bishop William of Paris and the Chancellor of the University, Eudes of Châteauroux. The Jews feared and hated Eudes, with reason. It was he who had earlier challenged Yechiel on the use of Christian blood in secret Jewish rites. Eudes had lost then; this time he would win. He will stand forever as one of the most notorious anti-Semites the Middle Age produced.

During the second hearing, too, Donin had the assistance of Henry of Cologne, the Inquisitor. Between them they were able to make certain that the Talmud would not escape again.

It was now, before the Church tribunal, that Donin’s thirty-five accusations were finally considered at length. In Isidore Loeb’s masterly analysis of the arguments, the charges fall into five large classifications:

  1. The exaggerated importance the Talmud had taken among the Jews; that it was more highly regarded than the Bible.
  2. Blasphemies against Jesus Christ.
  3. Blasphemies against God the Father and against morality.
  4. Blasphemies against Christians. The Talmud allegedly prescribes that the “best of the goyim” should be put to death.
  5. Errors, Stupidities, Absurdities contained in the Talmud.

None of these charges, Loeb demonstrated, can be sustained. That the Talmud had received an exceptional importance is a question of pure theology into which no court of law should enter. The charge of blasphemy against Jesus we have already seen proven false. The charge of blasphemy against God and morality is equally groundless: the Talmud is a deeply religious work of piety. Any arguments that may be brought against it in this connection—and Yechiel pointed this out—may also be brought against the Bible. As for the “Errors, Stupidities, and Absurdities,” the charm and humor of the Talmud completely escaped its medieval judges. They were infuriated, for example, by the happy anecdote of an argument among rabbis which grew so heated that God intervened. Without hesitation one of the rabbis silenced the Lord with a brilliant mot, and God remarked—with one of the loveliest smiles that Jewish literature has given him: “My children have vanquished me!”

Only one of the five main charges, then, remains to be considered: the blasphemies against Christians. Here a problem of semantics arises. Donin claimed that the word goyim applies exclusively to Christians; the Jews retorted that it is not synonymous with Christians, but with pagans and Gentiles—in short, all non-Jews, Christians included. This distinction, in view of the abbreviated quotations Donin presented as evidence, had great significance. The Talmud is an enormous compilation which belongs to many epochs. It is punctuated repeatedly by outcries in the midst of suffering and disaster. The extravagant language of pain has a narrow meaning. It should never be lifted from context and given a wider sense than intended. This Donin did, crudely. Loeb cites the passionate curse uttered by Simon ben Yohai: “Kill the best of the goyim!” Simon did not intend his words to be taken literally. He had simply observed the Romans of the times of Hadrian, witnessed their cruel persecutions, and cried out specifically against them.

Were these ancient maledictions, the court demanded, still employed against 13th-century Christians The question was not altogether fair, but Yechiel answered eloquently: “It is written that the poor of the goyim must be fed like the poor of Israel . . . that their sick must be tended like the Jewish sick, that their dead must be buried like the Jewish dead.”



The judges did not reach an immediate decision. Instead, they deliberated in private for some time after the hearings. During these closed sessions, the disputed texts were read at least in part. Two clerks who had learned Hebrew in Yechiel’s School aided the justices in this task, and presumably Donin helped too.

Finally the Talmud was condemned as a “tissue of lies,” and sentenced, like Mai-monides’ Guide nearly a decade earlier in Montpellier, to be destroyed by fire.

The decision had been delayed because it was not unanimous. Gauthier Cornut, the aged Archbishop of Sens, made a strong dissent. He was the highest-ranking churchman present, and as primate of the Ile de France his word carried weight. The Bishop of Paris was his suffragan (Notre-Dame would not become a metropolitan church with an archbishop of its own until four centuries later). The Chancellor of the University of Paris was at a different level of the hierarchy altogether. Only the Inquisitor Henry of Cologne had a status approaching Gauthier’s, and it was ambiguous locally in France.

For two years, from 1240 to 1242, the Archbishop prevented any violent action against the Talmud. The parchments remained under lock and key, while the Jews struggled frantically to save them. In spite of his obvious responsibility in the matter, Pope Gregory refused to assume it, and did not review the case. Nor did Saint Louis interfere. Then, in 1242, Gauthier died, the last great protector of medieval Jewry; and Bishop William and Chancellor Eudes were free to prepare their auto-da-fé

In June 1242—the date has been contested, it may have been as late as 1244—wagon after wagon left the convents of the Preaching Friars, where the Talmud had been impounded, and were driven through Paris with a precious cargo. Manuscripts which would embellish any library in the world today were being carried to destruction. An immense throng had gathered, drawn by the novelty of the spectacle, for books had never before been publicly burned in Paris. The Jews remained hidden, in deepest mourning, terrified to venture on the streets. Slowly the tumbrils made their way through the multitude to the Place de la Grève, approximately where the Hôtel de Ville stands now. There the parchments were piled high, as the carts went back and forth to the convents for two days, until twenty-four heavy loads had been deposited. Then torches were brought, and the fire did its work.



The Jewish sense of loss was enormous. The blow to Talmudic learning was irreparable. The only outlet for Jewish anger and sorrow, as it has been so often, was literature. Elegies and bitter polemics were composed to commemorate the catastrophe. Both Jews and Christians also prepared their own versions of the trial, in Hebrew and in Latin. A copy of each manuscript is conserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and it is very much worth asking the special authorization required to examine them.

The Hebrew account of the trial begins with a sweeping, black Miltonic rhythm: “O dreadful and terrible day, filled with calamity! Anger and cruelty are spread upon the earth . . . and the clouds of horror and destruction have filled the sky. The sun and the moon are darkened, the heavens shattered, the stars driven away. Enormous lions roar. The giants of the past are called to life. The Universe mourns.”

Yet this was not the nadir. The destruction of the Talmud was the beginning of a whole chain of disasters. A new law increased Jewish misery every two or three years until, in 1269, Saint Louis introduced the rouella, “the little wheel,” which the Jew would wear for five hundred years as a mark of humiliation. The Jews of Paris, once so prosperous, found themselves in such poverty that money had to be borrowed from other communities to support the School. Yechiel lived to see his son Joseph unjustly imprisoned; and after his release was secured, the two of them traveled into exile, first to Greece, and then Palestine, where the great Doctor died a broken man of eighty, and was buried in a village near Acre. Thus, while Western Europe was moving toward what we are pleased to call the Renaissance, the Jew was being dragged into a Dark Age. He would have little but tragedy until the French Revolution.

The France that was responsible for these barbarities was passing its medieval prime. Jewish Scholasticism was violently put to death; Christian Scholasticism would gradually consume itself in subtilities. The Gothic, too, was losing scale and vigor. Before the 13th century would end, architecture would dissolve in a thousand forms of cleverness and show.

The smoke of the burning Talmud, however, rose in 1242 against a Gothic in full possession of its grand manner: the western façade of Notre-Dame of Paris. This tremendous sculpted wall—the most famous of postcard images—dates from 1200 to 1250, the classic instant of triumph. Flanking the central door stand two Queens, rivals across the centuries. The radiant figure on the left is the Church Victorious, crowned and imperial, and holding a chalice which is nothing less than the Holy Grail. The Queen on the right is posed in defeat, her staff broken in several places, her eyes covered by a coiling serpent, her signs of royalty removed or shattered. A reversed Tablet of the Law, falling from her hand, shows that she is the Synagogue. The statues at Paris are modern, the work of the 19th-century restorer. But at Strasbourg are two Queens in all their original beauty. The Church is magnificent. The Synagogue is amazing. We may stand before them for many hours, trying to decide which is the more lovely; and the decision will be purely a subjective matter of taste, as it should be; but as we look at the bandaged eyes of the captive Queen, and study the exquisite proportions of her broken staff, we shall not fail to realize the utter grace and majesty of her defeat.



1 Properly, Sire Leon: the respectful title given a rabbi in medieval French.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link