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

The Danger in Defending Judaism

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Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Dominican Order of Priests 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 studied Talmud or a converted Jew who had training in 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 sacrilege? 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 foregone conclusion was Judaism condemned and Christianity held to be the true religion.

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 Nachmanides. To enable Nachmanides 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 defense of Judaism was reason. Here is his testimony taken from a transcript of the disputation,” .. it seems most strange that… the Creator of Heaven and Earth resorted to the womb of a certain Jewish lady, grew there for nine months and was born as an infant, and afterwards grew up and was betrayed into the hands of his enemies who sentenced him to death and executed him, and that afterwards… he came to life and returned to his original place.” Nachmanides pressed his stand with this confrontational statement, “The mind of a Jew, or any other person, simply cannot tolerate these assertions. If you have listened all your life to the priests who have filled your brain and the marrow of your bones with this doctrine, it has settled into you because of that accustomed habit …”. Brave or foolhardy, the Rabbi had the courage to forcefully defend Judaism; he also put his immunity to the test.

Nachmanides, as well as the Dominican Friar, used prophecy from the Talmud to make his case. The rabbi 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. Nachmanides 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 prophesized Age of Peace. Regardless of how strong or rational Nachmanides’ arguments were, the biased judges of the Dominican Order reached their predetermined decision that Christianity was the true religion and Jesus the Messiah.

King James was good to this word, however, and kept to his promise of immunity to Nachmanides. Indeed, he went further after the disputation with his comment about the Rabbi’s defense, “an unjust cause so nobly defended.” and rewarded Nachmanides with three hundred gold coins. The Dominicans, however, would not accept King James evenhandedness and, with help from Pope Clement IV, convinced the King to banish Nachmanides into permanent exile. Nachmanides 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.