WHAT IS THE TALMUD?
The Talmud is a central text of rabbinic Judaism. In essence, it is a collection of rabbinic commentary over the centuries on Jewish law and theology. As My Jewish Learning describes it, “The Talmud is an intergenerational rabbinic conversation that is studied, not read.” In the Diaspora, following the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud formed a central part of Jewish cultural and spiritual life.
The Talmud expands upon the Mishna, the first text on rabbinic law, published in the Land of Israel around 200 CE. There exist two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud (also known as the Palestinian Talmud or the Land of Israel Talmud, as Jews were legally barred from living in Jerusalem during the time of its writing).
The Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the Galilee around the fourth century. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in Babylon and was completed around the year 500. The Jerusalem Talmud is highly fragmentary and difficult to read, as Jews in Palestine were highly persecuted during this time period. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud scholars were aware of each other, as they mention each other in the texts; however, historians conclude that the two Talmuds were written independently of each other.
When we refer to the “Talmud” without any prior qualifier, we are usually speaking of the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud has been more influential than the Jerusalem Talmud, likely because, in that time period, the Jewish community in Babylon flourished, whereas the Jewish community in Palestine was in a steady decline following the disastrous Jewish revolts against the Romans.
THE APPROPRIATION OF THE TANAKH & ITS CONSEQUENCES
A disclaimer: you are, of course, entitled to your religious beliefs. But if you want to understand the history of the Jewish People, it’s important to recognize that the earliest Christians (particularly during the Christianization of the Roman Empire) and the earliest Muslims appropriated a sacred Jewish and Samaritan spiritual text and then exploited such texts to oppress Jews both in Europe and in the Middle East.
Christianity, for example, used — and changed — the Israelite concept of the Messiah. When the majority of Jews did not accept this new concept, they were persecuted. The Islamic Caliphates (empires), on the other hand, turned Jews into “People of the Book,” or dhimmis, meaning second-class citizens subject to extra taxation. Because we were “People of the Book,” but not Muslim, we had limited rights (as opposed to those who were not People of the Book, and thus had no such rights).
The Torah only makes sense as the mythologized history and laws of a people of we look at it in its proper and intended context. The concept among Indigenous Peoples that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/God is quite universal, though of course Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous, and as such, different tribes across the world have different beliefs and different ways through with which they exercise their stewardship over their lands. Similarly, the Hebrew God states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that God had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation.”
Taken out of its tribal context, however, this sounds a lot like…well, colonialism.
I personally believe that much of the resistance of the world to understand Jews as Indigenous Peoples is that in doing so, they’d have to understand that the Tanakh (or “Old Testament,” as non-Jews call it), the very foundation of so many societies, was appropriated from a confederation of Indigenous tribes.
THE DEMONIZATION OF THE TALMUD
In the centuries following the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity in 313 CE, the persecution of Jews became more and more institutionalized. The continued existence of Jews, and of Judaism by extension, challenged Christian supersessionism — the idea that Christianity “replaced” the Hebrew God’s special covenant with the Jewish people.
Because Christians believed in the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible, which, again, was a Jewish tribal charter that was taken without consent — they, of course, couldn’t disparage it. But the Talmud was written after Jesus, and as such, it became their punching bag.
The systemic demonization of the Talmud began with the Christian claim that the Talmud makes disparaging comments about Jesus; from then on, the narrative evolved: not only did the Talmud disparage Jesus, but it was also satanic.
In reality the Talmud never makes direct reference to Jesus Christ. There are a number of “Yeshus” in the Talmud, but none match the time period of Jesus’ life. A couple, for example, lived over half a century before Jesus was born. Another lived around a century after Jesus died. None of their descriptions match what we know about the life of Jesus.
Additionally, while “Yeshu” is the Aramaic translation of “Yeshua,” meaning “Jesus,” the “Yeshus” in the Talmud aren’t spelled in the direct Hebrew Yeshua to Aramaic Yeshu translation; in other words, it’s a different spelling.
As a number of rabbis stated during the Disputation of Paris (more on that in the following slide: “not every Louis born in France is king."
THE TALMUD ON TRIAL
Nicholas Donin was a thirteenth century Jew from Paris who eventually converted to Catholicism. In 1225, he was excommunicated from the Paris ghetto by his own rabbi, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, for unknown reasons (for reference: according to Halacha, or Jewish law, a Jew can never stop being a Jew; however, there exist methods of communal accountability, such as “herem,” meaning censure, which is the closest equivalent to what we know as excommunication).
Donin, like all Jewish converts to Christianity, faced discrimination and distrust from the Christian world at large. As such, he likely felt the need to prove himself to the Catholic Church. In 1238, Donin traveled to Rome and charged the Talmud with blasphemy. He went before Pope Gregory IX and convinced him that the Talmud was the reason that most Jews resisted conversion to Christianity. The Pope drew up orders for Jews to give up their Talmuds.
In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church believed that Jews could be persuaded to convert to Christianity through intellectual logic. In 1240, King Louis IX of France ordered the four most distinguished rabbis in France to debate the Talmud against Donin’s accusations. In other words, the Talmud was put on trial.
The Disputation of Paris began on June 12, 1240. The four rabbis were charged with defending the Talmud against 35 charges, which Donin had drawn up, alleging that they were blasphemous against Christianity. The charges ranged from attacks on the Christian religion, attacks on Christians, blasphemies against God, and obscene folklore.
Though the circumstances were stacked against the rabbis, the rabbis had one small advantage: the absence of dogmatic theology in Judaism. According to Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, the purpose of the trial was to rid Jews of their belief in the Talmud. The Church hoped that Jews would return to the “Old Testament,” which would eventually lead them to Christianity.
Of course, this was essentially a show trial. Though the rabbis were able to defend the Talmud well, so much so that Louis IX warned regular people not to engage in debates with Jews over the Talmud, in the end, that didn’t matter.
On June 17, 1242, two years after the trial, both the king of France and the pope ordered “all known existing copies of the Talmud” to be burnt.
It’s estimated that 24 “wagonloads [including] up to 10,000 Hebrew manuscripts” were burnt. This was especially devastating back in the days before the printing press, as each copy of the Talmud and other Hebrew texts was copied by hand (to this day, all Torah scrolls are written by hand!).
Meir of Rothenburg, also known as Meir ben Baruch or Maharam of Rothenburg, a rabbi from what is now Germany, witnessed the book burning. He wrote: “My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe [Moses] and Aharon [Aaron]. Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?” He also reportedly despaired, worried that the Torah would be forgotten since so many of them had been destroyed.
It’s worth noting that the burning of sacred texts is forbidden according to Jewish law, making this trial all the more painful and tragic. Yet, after the Disputation of Paris, Talmud burnings happened periodically, and at other times, the Talmud was banned, censored, or altered due to Christian demands.
White supremacy, particularly in the United States and in Europe, often overlaps with Christian nationalism. As such, it’s no wonder that white supremacists have long adopted Medieval Christian rhetoric about the Talmud. This is especially prevalent because antisemitism forms a building block of white supremacy.
Today, “Talmudic Jews” has become a white supremacist antisemitic whistle and features prominently in Palestinian propaganda (after all, Palestinians are Muslim and Christian, two groups which took from the Tanakh). A dogwhistle refers to coded or suggestive language that appears “normal” to the majority of people but is in reality communicating something specific to its intended audience.
For example, infamous American white supremacist Nick Fuentes has made claims such as “Talmudic Jews should leave the country.” Another white supremacist responded with, “Talmudic Judaism has entrenched itself in the highest echelons of power all over the world...Replacing what was once beautiful with something disgusting."
If you need a translation: the parts of Judaism that Christians appropriated are “beautiful,” while the parts of Judaism that they did not appropriate are “something disgusting.”
To justify their demonization of Jews, white supremacists and Christian nationalists continue alleging that the Talmud speaks of Jesus being sent to hell to be boiled in excrement for eternity. Not only does this take a story in the Talmud completely out of context, it also has nothing to do with the Jesus we all know.
IN PALESTINIAN PROPAGANDA
It’s not unheard of for Palestinian “anti-Zionist” (read: blatantly antisemitic) propaganda to adopt white supremacist antisemitic dogwhistles. Every time Jews pray at the Western Wall or visit Temple Mount, in complete accordance with the Status Quo as agreed upon by Israel and the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem, particularly around the Jewish holidays, we are accused of “invading” holy Muslim spaces to perform “blasphemous” “Talmudic” rituals.
Never mind that the Al Aqsa Mosque is built atop the ruins of our Temple because Arab conquerors built it there as a sign of conquest; obviously if the ruins are at the bottom it means that our Temple was there first.
The “trumpet” (shofar) predates Islam by 1600 years. It’s not a “Talmudic” ritual — it dates back to the Torah — and it’s not done to provoke Muslims because Islam didn’t exist yet.
What’s very interesting to me, however, is that even while we are today accused of colonialism, the language used to describe Jewish traditions and culture still carries “backwards native” connotations. For example, describing Judaism, an ancient Indigenous practice, as “special Talmudic rituals to provoke Muslims” implies that our sacred practices (which, for what it’s worth, predate Islam by thousands of years) are retrograde and uncivilized.
It also reeks of ignorance. Many of these practices don’t originate with the Talmud, but are actually attested to in the Tanakh, a book that they claim to believe in.
Finally, they claim to oppose Zionism, not Jews…but this is how disparagingly they talk about Judaism.
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