From the Church Fathers to Talmud Burnings
by Olivier Melnick
France seems to have a love-hate relationship with the Jewish people going back at least 1,500 years. The first 5 centuries following the closing of the biblical canon saw the succession of a myriad of theologians who greatly helped to codify and structure Christianity. They were known as the Church Fathers, and were also instrumental in fighting heresy. Unfortunately, many of them such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom and Augustine adopted a very allegorical view of the Bible. It led them to see passages about Israel and the Jewish people as pertaining to Christians and no longer to ethnic Israel. In a sense, they were the originators of replacement theology before it was know as such.
St. Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) referred to Jews as “a perverse people whom God has cursed forever”.
Their erroneous theological premise led them to teach that God was finished with Israel since the Jewish people had apparently rejected and crucified Yeshua (Jesus). Christianity having merged with the state under Constantine, many people joined its ranks and the result was a mix of less than ethical and very loosely biblical “Christians”. The uneducated masses bought the Fathers fallacies and were often very willing to hit on the Jews who were rapidly becoming the “scapegoats of humanity”.
Ideological and intellectual opposition had turned to pure hatred and stereotype. The Jews were no longer just wrong; they had become evil and cursed by God to remain a “witness-people” for all eternity. Later, an ethnic component would be added to anti-Judaism and help its morphing into anti-Semitism. Being Jewish in a Christian world went from bad to worse, but unfortunately for the Jewish people, anti-Semitism was still growing and hadn’t reached its apex yet. The world was entering into the “Dark Ages” and they would turn out to be quite a bit darker for the Jewish people in general and the French Jews in particular.
Much of the Christian/Jewish relations were based on both the Theodisian Code (312) and the Justinian Code (529-534). Laws and/or restrictions set the stage for centuries to come in Europe. After a relatively trouble-free period at the beginning of the Middle Ages, French Jews started to experience trouble such as forced baptisms and forced conversions. One of the worst cases of forced conversion took place under the leadership of French King, Dagobert (629-639), who ordered all Jews of the Frankish kingdom to be baptized or leave France.
Under the Carolingian dynasty (descendants of Charles Martel), Jewish people experienced some respite. Pepin le Bref (714-768), Charlemagne (742-814) and Louis the Pious (814-840), were all somewhat favorable to Jews and Judaism. Many leaders even chose Jewish doctors; yet, there was a certain risk for a Jewish person to be a doctor. When a patient would lose his life, the Jewish doctor would still be accused of sorcery and/or poisoning as was the case under Charles the Bald (823-877) or Hugh Capet (939-996).
It was not long before the First Crusade of 1096, led by French knight Godefroy de Bouillon (1060-1100) took place. Both Christian knights and peasants joined forces, under the Christian banner and with the new motto: “God wills it”. They departed from France and Germany, on their way to the Holy Land to fight the Muslims. Soon, the Crusaders realized that they could start by fighting the “infidels” in their own backyards. As the Crusaders marched through France and Germany on their way to Jerusalem, a motto was born: “Kill a Jew, save your soul!” Some Crusaders in Rouen, Normandy, were quoted saying:
“We desire to combat the enemies of God in the East; but we have under our eyes the Jews, a race more inimical to God than all the others. We are doing this all thing backwards.”
In 1099, the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, packed the synagogue with about 1,000 Jews, set it on fire and marched around it on their horses singing Christian hymns. Seven additional Crusades would follow until the last one in 1270.
The First Crusade had opened many routes to the Orient, and money was quickly becoming the primary commodity for trading. By now the Jewish community has become deeply involved in money lending – a practice forbidden to Christians by the Church.
Christians were allowed to borrow money ONLY from Jews, who in turn would collect the money back with interest. Kings of France and other European kingdoms started taxing the Jewish moneylenders on their profit. Taxes kept increasing, so the Jewish moneylenders had no choice but to increase their interest rates. The process went on for a while and gave birth to the myth of the “greedy Jew”, still alive in modern anti-Semitic circles.
As money lending increased, anti-Semitism amongst the masses became more of a reality. Poor peasants, being always in need of money and borrowing often from Jewish moneylenders, ended up building resentment that almost always led to physical abuse and killings.
Then came the “Blood Libel” or “Ritual Murder Libel”. It originated in Norwich, England but quickly moved across the Channel to France and Germany. A broad definition of the Blood Libel is: The murder of a Christian child during Holy Week for the purpose of using their blood in making unleavened bread. More than 150 cases of blood libel were recorded throughout history, resulting in the death of Jewish people (mostly during the Middle Ages). But more was still coming!
The Fourth Lateran Council, convoked in 1215 by Pope Innocent III, introduced a new measure that would change the status and the safety of Jews for the next 700 years. Jewish people of Europe were now required to wear a badge on their garments (and later a pointed hat known as the jundenhut) to facilitate their identification on the by-ways of Europe. The badge known as “the badge of shame” was first introduced in France as la rouelle, a yellow sphere to be sown on the chest and the back of all garments worn by Jews. It was of course taken to a whole new level during World War Two.
It was not long after that the first occurrence of Talmud burning took place, in France in 1240. A French Jewish convert to Christianity, Nicolas Donin, went to Rome to prove to the current pope (Gregory IX) that the Talmud was virulently anti-Christian and the main reason why Jews hated Christianity. The pope was convinced of the veracity of Donin’s statement and ordered all Talmud confiscated and then burned. In 1242, in Paris, fire was set accordingly to twenty-four carriage loads (ten to twelve thousand volumes) of written works.
(to be continued)