The Jews of that golden age in Spain were too prosperous to be as deeply religious as their poets became in declining years; they produced verses joyous and sensuous and graceful, and expressed a philosophy that confidently reconciled the Holy Scriptures with Greek thought. Even when Almohad fanaticism drove the Jews from Moslem into Christian Spain they continued to prosper; and Jewish academies flourished under Christian tolerance in Toledo, Gerona, and Barcelona in the thirteenth century. But in France and Germany the Jews were not so fortunate. They crowded their narrow quarters timidly, and gave their best minds to the study of the Talmud. They did not bother to justify their faith to the secular world; they never questioned its premises; they consumed themselves in the Law.
The academy founded by Rabbi Gershom at Mainz became one of the most influential schools of its time; hundreds of students gathered there, and shared with Gershom in editing and clarifying, through two generations of labor, the Talmudic text. A similar role was played in France by Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yitzhak (1040-1105), fondly called Rashi from the first letters of his title and his name. Born at Troyes in Champagne, he studied in the Jewish academies of Worms, Mainz, and Speyer; returning to Troyes, he supported his family by selling wine, but gave every leisure hour to the Bible and the Talmud. Though not officially a rabbi, he founded an academy at Troyes, taught there for forty years, and gradually composed commentaries on the Old Testament, the Mishna, and the Gemara. He did not try, as some Spanish scholars had done, to read philosophical ideas into the religious texts; he merely explained these with such lucid learning that his Talmudic commentaries are now printed with the Talmud. The modest purity of his character and his life won him reverence among his people as a saint. Jewish communities everywhere in Europe sent him questions in theology and law, and gave legal authority to his replies. His old age was saddened by the pogroms of the First Crusade. After his death his grandsons Samuel, Jacob, and Isaac ben Meir continued his work. Jacob was the first of the “tosaphists”: for five generations after Rashi the French and German Talmudists revised and amended his commentaries with tosafoth or “supplements.”
The Talmud had hardly been completed when Justinian outlawed the book (553) as “a tissue of puerilities, fables, iniquities, insults, imprecations, heresies, and blasphemies.”17 Thereafter the Church seems to have forgotten the existence of the Talmud; few theologians of the Latin Church could read the Hebrew or Aramaic in which it was written; and for 700 years the Jews were free to study the cherished volumes—so sedulously that they in turn seem almost to have forgotten the Bible. But in 1239 Nicholas Donin, a French Jew converted to Christianity, laid before Pope Gregory IX an indictment of the Talmud as containing shameful insults of Christ and the Virgin, and incitations to dishonesty in dealing with Christians. Some of the charges were true, for the assiduous compilers had so reverenced the tannaim and amoraim as to include in the haggadic or popular portion of the Gemara occasional remarks in which irate rabbis had struck back at Christian critiques of Judaism.18 But Donin, now more Christian than the Pope, added several charges that could not be substantiated: that the Talmud considered it permissible to deceive, and meritorious to kill, a Christian, no matter how good; that the Jews were allowed by their rabbis to break promises made under oath; and that any Christian who studied the Jewish Law was to be put to death. Gregory ordered all discoverable copies of the Talmud in France, England, and Spain to be turned over to the Dominicans or the Franciscans; bade the monks examine the books carefully; and commanded that the books be burned if the charges proved true. No record has been found of the aftermath of this order. In France Louis IX directed all Jews to surrender their copies of the Talmud on pain of death, and summoned four rabbis to Paris to defend the book in public debate before the King, Queen Blanche, Donin, and two leading Scholastic philosophers—William of Auvergne and Albertus Magnus.19 After three days’ inquiry the King ordered all copies of the Talmud to be burned (1240). Walter Cornutus, Archbishop of Sens, interceded for the Jews, and the King allowed many copies to be restored to their owners. But the Archbishop died soon afterward, and some monks were of opinion that this was the judgment of God on the royal lenience. Convinced by them, Louis ordered the confiscation of all copies of the Talmud; twenty-four cartloads were brought to Paris, and were committed to the flames (1242). The possession of the Talmud was prohibited in France by a papal legate in 1248; and thereafter rabbinical studies and Hebrew literature declined in all of France except Provence.
A similar debate took place in Barcelona in 1263. Raymond of Peñafort, a Dominican monk in charge of the Inquisition in Aragon and Castile, undertook to convert the Jews of these states to Christianity. To equip his preachers he arranged for the teaching of Hebrew in the seminaries of Christian Spain. A converted Jew, Paul the Christian, assisted him, and so impressed Raymond with his knowledge of both Christian and Jewish theology that the monk arranged a disputation between Paul and Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona before King James I of Aragon. Nachmanides came reluctantly, fearing victory as much as defeat. The debate continued for four days, to the delight of the King; apparently the amenities were reasonably observed. In 1264 an ecclesiastical commission commandeered all copies of the Talmud in Aragon, obliterated the anti-Christian passages, and returned the books to their owners.20 In an account that Nachmanides wrote of his debate for the Jewish synagogues of Aragon he spoke of Christianity in terms that seemed to Raymond grossly blasphemous.21 The monk protested to the King, but it was not till 1266 that James, yielding to papal insistence, banished Nachmanides from Spain. A year later the rabbi died in Palestine.