A Dark Reminder of the Dark Ages

Yair Sheleg
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yair Sheleg

Russia's examination of the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh - the abbreviated codex of Jewish law - to ascertain whether it constitutes racist incitement gave Prof. Yisrael Yaakov Yuval, who researches Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, the feeling of a "return to the 13th century."

Like Yuval, others who know Jewish history could only be astounded by the sensation that the Dark Ages are making a comeback. The probe of a Jewish umbrella organization in Russia for distributing a Russian translation of the book, reported in yesterday's Haaretz, is only the latest incident in a history rife with investigations of Jewish religious books containing phrases thought to be "against non-Jews." These have generally ended with mass book burnings, pogroms and anti-Semitic decrees.

The best-known such incident took place in Paris, in 1240, when Jewish apostate Nicolas Donin complained of anti-gentile comments in the Talmud. Apostates often figured in the troubles afflicting the Jews, as they were able to tell the Christians all about the Talmud. The Roman Catholic Church ordered a religious "disputation," a type of public trial in which the Jews had to defend their texts against the Christians. A short time later, the pope ordered copies of the Talmud to be captured and handed over to Dominican monks for examination.

In the decade following this edict, many copies of the Talmud were publicly burned across Europe. In 1241 the tempest led to Jewish riots in Frankfurt.

But in 1247 the Jews managed to extract an agreement from Pope Innocent IV that the Talmud, which was agreed to be essential to the Jewish faith, would no longer be burned.

In 1413 another Jewish apostate, Joshua Halorki from Spain, brought charges that the Talmud contained anti-gentile texts. Once again the Jews were summoned to a public trial in the city of Tortosa. The trial, which lasted for two years, dealt with the Talmud's purported "mistakes and heresy and insults to the Christian religion." The trial ended with decrees discriminating against Jews.

In 1509 Johanne Pfefferkorn, who had also converted from Judaism, came out against the Talmud in Germany. But this time the Jews were defended by a Christian scholar, Johannes Reuchlin, who argued that the Talmud was full of evidence that validated the truth of Christian beliefs, and this time the Talmud was not burned.

There is no doubt that Jewish law (halakha), especially that which is expressed in the Talmud, relates to Jews differently from non-Jews. This contrast is particularly evident in the Mishne Torah written by Maimonides, in which he organized all the halakhic rulings of the Talmud. For instance, it's forbidden for non-Jews to study Torah or keep the Sabbath, since these are sacred elements created for the Jews; the sentence for non-Jews who violate these injunctions is death. According to other rulings, Jews must not return lost objects belonging to non-Jews, or at most should return them only to maintain good relations.

Kabbalistic works and the writings of those influenced by the kabbala contain even more essential distinctions between Jews and gentiles. In the 20th century Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote that "the difference between the Israelite soul... and the souls of all non-Jews, no matter what their level, is bigger and deeper than the difference between the human soul and the animal soul."

The Shulhan Arukh, a code of halakha compiled in the 16th century, is actually considered fairly free of these kinds of comments and rulings. Here and there some remnants exist, like the ruling (on which the Russians are apparently basing their claim) that the baby of "a non-Jewish woman should not be delivered on the Sabbath," since doing so would entail the violation of the Sabbath, and it must not be violated for the sake of a non-Jew.

Yuval, the professor of Jewish-Christian relations, said the Shulhan Arukh has been edited by Jews and by Christian censors, which was made possible by the printing press, which allowed for greater supervision of content before books were published.

The internal and external censorship has increased since the publication of the code of Jewish law, said Yuval, with the 19th-century Kitzur ["Abridged"] Shulhan Arukh, the subject of the Russian probe, even freer of anti-gentile comments than its predecessor.

"This is the first time I have come across polemic against the Shulhan Arukh," he said.

Jewish commentators have tried to remove the sting from rulings against non-Jews. In the 13th century, Rabbi Menachem Hame'iri wrote that such rulings don't apply to monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, only to idol worshipers.

In any case, the discussion of Jewish law should be left to Jews, without the involvement of Russia's state prosecutor. The issue that requires reaction is the return of the darkest kind of anti-Semitism.