Burning the Talmud

Christians had long believed that the Talmud was the main obstacle to Jews believing in Christianity. A Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin, told the Pope that the Talmud contained insults to the Christian religion. In France, on the order of the Pope, many volumes of the Talmud were seized. In 1240, King Louis IX ( later St. Louis) ordered the Talmud put on trial. Jewish representatives were permitted only to defend themselves, not to advance positive proofs for their position. Not surprisingly, the Talmud was declared guilty, and in 1242 24 wagonloads of Talmudic volumes were publicly burned in Paris. As each book was painstakingly handwritten and could not be easily replaced, it was a disaster of massive proportions for French Jewry. Indeed, Torah scholarship rapidly declined, and France never again regained its prominent position as a Torah center.

In line with the Jewish principle that spiritual destruction is the greatest tragedy, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg composed an elegy for the burned Talmud that became part of the Tisha B'Av Kinnos. Sadly, Jewish infighting regarding Rambam's works also played a major role in this tragic event. Some overzealous Jews denounced the Rambam's writings to the Church, and once the Church determined that his books should be burned, it was only a small step until all Jewish books were consigned to the flames. Pious individuals observe the day on which the Talmud was burned, Friday of Parshas Chukas, as a fast day.

The Disputation of Ramban

Religious disputations between Jews and followers of other religions first appear in Biblical times. Abraham debated belief in one G‑d with King Nimrod and his followers. Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal had elements of a religious debate. Numerous sages of the Mishnah and Talmud were forced to participate in religious discussions with pagans or Jewish Christians. Josephus recorded a debate with the anti-Jewish Greek Apion, calling it Contra Apion. With the rise of Christianity, such debates became more frequent, especially from the 12th Century. Rishonim such as Radak, Meiri, Rabbeinu Tam, and Rashba were compelled to take part in such discussions. The most famous such debate was the Ramban's disputation. It is unique in that it was the fairest and best recorded of all such incidents.

In 1263, in the Spanish city of Barcelona, Ramban was ordered by King James I of Spain to debate publicly the Jewish religion with Church officials. The king agreed to Ramban's request that he be allowed to speak his mind freely, as long as he did not denigrate Christianity. There were four sessions held over a week, and were well attended by both Jews and Christians, including the king. Ramban kept a record of the debate, which has survived. There were four main issues:

First, the Christians tried to prove from Tanach that Yeshu is the messiah, and that he had already come, and then asked why the Jews did not believe so. Ramban refuted their seeming proofs from the Scriptures and argued cogently that if the Jews of Yeshu's time, who had heard and saw him personally, did not believe in Yeshu and had remained faithful Jews, how could any different course of action be expected from Jews 1,200 years later?

Second, in response to Christian belief that Yeshu is the messiah, Ramban referred to numerous Biblical passages that state that the Messiah will bring peace to the world and unite humanity to follow the true faith. However, Ramban argued, since the time of Yeshu Christianity had not ruled the world, for the Muslims were more powerful than the Christians. In addition, rather than there being peace, much blood had been spilled in warfare, especially in the Christian nations.

Third, Ramban demonstrated how the Christian belief in the Trinity and Yeshu's birth could not be believed by any thinking Jew. The Trinity is outright idol worship, for it is belief in three gods, while the Virgin Birth is wholly foreign to Jewish tradition and logic. Interestingly, Christian missionaries still attempt to convince Jews of the truth of their religion, and the refutation of their so-called proofs is exactly the same as the Ramban used more than 700 years ago.

Fourth, the Christians argued that mankind is condemned to hell because of the sin of Adam and Eve, and that only belief in Yeshu can save it from that fate. Ramban argued that such an assertion could not be proven, for anyone can say what he likes regarding the next world. Belief in Yeshu does not change suffering and the death decreed on humanity in this world, which indeed would have been a powerful proof for Christianity’s veracity. Ramban further argued logically that G‑d would not cause one person's soul to suffer because of another's sins.

At the conclusion of the debate, the king presented Ramban with 300 gold coins and stated that he had never heard anyone so wrong defend his case so well. However, that is hardly the end of the story. A week after the debate, the king came to the Barcelona synagogue to lecture on Christianity – a lecture at which Jewish attendance was mandatory. Having more or less defeated the Church, Ramban, to escape Catholic wrath, had to flee Spain. He immigrated to Eretz Israel,where he died in 1270.