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.
In 313 CE, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official state religion. Almost immediately thereafter, Jews were persecuted under the charge of deicide; that is, the false claim that the Jews murdered Jesus. Jews were persecuted, expelled, and disenfranchised in a number of ways. Amidst other forms of oppression, many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, particularly from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages.
In 614, Emperor Heraclius outlawed the practice of all non-Christian religions in the Byzantine Empire. This sparked a wave of forced conversions. Oftentimes, enormous crowds would quite literally physically force baptisms upon Jews. In 820, in France, the Archbishop of Lyons assembled Jewish children and baptized them.
Things only worsened during the Crusades, when Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity both in Europe and Palestine. Most Jews during the Crusades chose death over conversion, sparking a wave of Jewish martyrdom. Sometimes — though this seems to have happened in a tiny minority of cases — Jews, though not literally physically forced into baptism, were coerced in other ways to convert, such as with the prospect of a better quality of life.
That said, while much of Christian antisemitism targeted Jews primarily on a religious basis, there existed an element of racialized antisemitism as well. As such, even Jews who converted were distrusted and at times even persecuted and murdered. Enter: Nicholas Donin.
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).
Some claim that Donin was excommunicated because he had become a Karaite, rejecting the authority of the Talmud. Others claim that he had already converted to Christianity by the time he was excommunicated.
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 debate, or trial, also known as the “Disputation of Paris,” was held at King Louis IX’s court.
On the “side” of the Talmud were Rabbi Yechiel of Paris (Donin’s former rabbi), Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, Rabbi Judah of Melun, and Rabbi Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. While the rabbis were guaranteed “safety” so that they would feel free to respond, they were under strict instructions not to disparage Christianity or the Church in any way.
On the other side of the trial was none other than Nicholas Donin, who had by then become a member of the Franciscan order.
Up until Donin went to the Catholic Church with his accusations, the Catholic Church was actually rather ignorant about Jewish texts. In fact, the pope himself expressed surprise that Jews relied on texts other than the Torah.
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. As such, they were able to defend themselves from charges such as the charge that the Talmud spoke of Jesus being sent to hell to be boiled in excrement for eternity. The rabbis responded that this was not Jesus Christ, but rather, someone else named Jesus. The rabbis stated: “not every Louis born in France is king."
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.
The Disputation of Paris was above all, a show trial. 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.
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