Herbert Belkin
Hert Belkin is a historian who lectures and writes on modern Jewish history.

The danger in defending Judaism

Wikimedia Commons

Granger Historical Archive

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Dominican Order of Preachers held “disputations” to convince Jews that Jesus was the true Messiah. These disputations, or forced debates between Christians and Jews, were far from even-handed since the outcome was predetermined with Christianity always judged the true religion. The purpose of these disputations was to convert Jews by degrading Judaism and extolling the virtues of Christianity. To do this, the advocate for the Christian doctrine was a priest who had training in Talmud or a converted Jew who had studied Talmud in his youth. The Christian advocate would make use of his Talmudic knowledge and take Old Testament passages out of context to make the case for Christianity.

The advocate of Judaism, often a rabbi, was always in jeopardy. How could a Jew defend Judaism without arguing against the dogma of the Christian church, a position approaching blasphemy and heresy? This was the medieval version of Catch 22: Defend Judaism, but do not blaspheme against the Church. To offset the danger, the Jewish advocate was sometime given immunity against heresy in order to make his case. But regardless of how persuasive the Jew was, the outcome was always predetermined with Judaism condemned and Christianity held to be the true religion. This was always the foregone conclusion.

One of the most famous of these disputations took place in 1263 in the court of King James I of Spain. Advocating for Jesus as the Messiah was a converted Jew, now a Dominican Friar, named Pablo Christiani. Representing Judaism was Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Ramban. To enable Ramban to make a credible defense, King James gave him immunity regardless of how offensive the Rabbi’s comments might be to Christian ears. The issue to be decided was whether Jesus was either human or divine and therefore the true Messiah. Christiani quoted a number of texts from the Talmud to prove his case for the divinity of Jesus.Rabbi Nachman’s approach was to use reason to defend Judaism.He called into question how and why Jesus had to be cast in human form before he achieved divine status. The Rabbi, as well as the Dominican Friar,  used prophecy from the Talmud to make his case. Ramban drew upon the Talmud for the prophecy that when the Messiah came, his arrival would usher in the Messianic Age, an era of global peace. Ramban was quick to point out that, with the advent of Christianity, the world was covered by blood and torn by war and violence. Hardly the prophesied Age of Peace.. Regardless of how strong or rational his arguments were, the biased judges of the Dominican Order reached their predetermined decision that Christianity was the true religion and Jesus the Messiah.  Brave or foolhardy, the Rabbi had the courage to forcefully defend Judaism; he also put his immunity to the test.

However, King James was good to this word and kept to his promise of immunity to Ramban. Indeed, he went further after the disputation with his comment about the Rabbi’s defense, “an unjust cause so nobly defended.” and rewarded the Rabbi with three hundred gold coins. The Dominicans, however, would not accept King James even-handedness and, with help from Pope Clement IV, convinced the King to banish Ramban into permanent exile. He left Spain never to return and settled in Palestine for the rest of his life.

 

About the Author
Historian Herb Belkin writes and lectures on the epic events of the last two hundred years of Jewish history. His field of study covers Zionism, the Jewish Diaspora and the critical struggle for a Jewish homeland. Herb has taught courses on modern Jewish history at Brandeis, Tufts and Salem State University. He is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate and was a speaker for the Israeli Consulate of New England.
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