Freedom Of Thought, Religious Texts, And Censorship


We have elsewhere in these pages mentioned that the struggle for freedom of speech and thought in Europe was first connected with the struggle for religious tolerance.  The road to religious tolerance in Europe was a long and hard one, and one that required many centuries of travel.

With our previous discussion of the fable of the Three Rings, we have also noted here the futility of theological disputes where the goal is to prove the “superiority” of one faith over another.  Religions spring from different cultural contexts and circumstances.  They serve the communities that adhere to them; and religious texts are so rich in allegory and rule that one can prove nearly anything by reference to a religious text.  Anyone can quote scriptures to their purposes.

Consider, for example, the experience of the Talmud in the Middle Ages.  The Hebrew academies founded in Mainz by Rabbi Gershom (c. 960–1040?) and in France by Shelomoh ben Yitzhak (1040-1105) did much to organize and collate the medieval Talmud.  Ben Yitzhak, who was also called “Rashi” (an acronym based on the first letters of his title and his name), was a wine-merchant who devoted his free time to religious scholarship.

But he was a scholar at heart and, even though not a rabbi, founded an academy and taught there for forty years.  He composed commentaries that were so clear and authoritative that they are still read, we are told, with the Talmud today.

In the East, the emperor Justinian had banned the Talmud as subversive; we do not know how effective this edict was.  For most of the Middle Ages, the Church ignored the work.  Jews in Spain were largely within the fold of Islam and were generally unmolested.  In France and Germany, the fact that the book was written in Hebrew and Aramaic placed it safely out of harm’s way; few theologians of the Latin Church knew these languages, and the book’s vast size discouraged translations.  For a long period of time no one outside of Jewish communities bothered about the book.

This changed, however, in 1239.  A French Jew who had converted to Catholicism, Nicholas Donin, revealed to Pope Gregory IX that the Talmud supposedly contained some passages that insulted Christianity.  Some of these charges were true:  there were parts of the Gemara (the part of the Talmud containing analysis and commentary) that contained irate references to Christian doctrines.

The offending passages were no worse than the standard sorts of insults that religions throw at each other, then and now.  But in those days, uniformity of religious faith was seen as part of what we might today call “national security”:  and the outsider could quickly find himself the magnet of resentment or bigotry, or worse.


Some of the allegations that Donin presented against the Talmud, however, could not be justified.  In fact, some of his allegations were pure slanders.  But Gregory’s imagination was now afire, and he ordered all copies of the Talmud in France, Germany, and Christian Spain to be turned over to the Dominicans or Franciscans for examination.  The pious king Louis IX in France at least made an effort to debate the issue.  In 1240 he asked four rabbis to participate in a public debate in his presence.  He also had the philosophers William of Auvergne and Albertus Magnus attend the inquest.

For the rabbis, of course, it was a losing proposition; after four days of debate, the king called the hearing to and end, and ordered all copies of the Talmud to be burned.  We are told that William Cornutus, the Archbishop of Sens, intervened on behalf of the Jews, and caused many precious manuscripts to be saved.  But once William died, Louis renewed his call to seize all copies of the Talmud that could be located.  In 1242, twenty-four carts filled with Talmuds were brought to Paris and burned.  Further papal decrees (1248) made possession of the book a criminal offense, although in Provence the rule was not enforced.

In Spain the Talmud fared a bit better (at least in the thirteenth century).  An inquest was held before James I of Aragon where Paul the Christian, a converted Jew, debated rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona.  At least in Spain the Inquisition arranged for the teaching of Hebrew at Christian seminaries, something that never would have happened in France or Germany; presumably this was part of an attempt to convert Spanish Jews to the Church.  The Talmud was not burned in Spain as in France; but certain passages deemed offensive were ordered to be expunged.

So we note the travails of the Talmud at this period in history.  We may draw our own conclusions from all this, and ponder the relevance it has in the story of the struggle for freedom of speech, religion, and thought.


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