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The Talmud

What happened when Moishe met the Pope? 

The Jewish Talmud, when it was written from the 4th century onwards, was full of less than complementary references to Jesus. It was just about the only way the Jewish scholars and sages could fight back against the ominous rise of a Christianity that seemed hell-bent in wiping out the Jewish nation from the face of the Earth. If they couldn’t fight back in the traditional sense, then at least they could do their utmost in ensuring that current and future generations of Jews would be persuaded against joining the enemy. By making Jesus seem such an unsavoury character, they probably largely succeeded.

But even this weapon was eventually taken away from them. The Christians caught on and, in Paris in 1244, the first copies of the Talmud were burnt, after a public disputation between Jews and Christians.

This may, or may not, have been what went on in that disputation …

The Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave. The Jews realized that they had no choice. So they picked a middle aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate. To make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said: "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?"

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. "What happened?" they asked. "Well," said Moishe, "First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here." "And then?" asked a woman. "I don't know," said Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."

On the other hand, perhaps it didn’t happen quite in that way (in fact it’s a joke, in case you are wondering!)

There were further attacks against the Talmud in a Papal Bull in 1264, with the first attempt at censoring those passages that spoke against Jesus and Christianity. This came further to a head in 1413, in Tortosa, which resulted in another Papal Bull by Pope Martin V, who went as far as forbidding Jews from reading it, though this was largely ignored. The Talmud that was printed in Venice in 1520 was actually produced under the protection of the Vatican.

Yet, the Catholic Church was still not happy and thirty years later commenced a new campaign of Talmud burning. It was the time of the inquisition, when burning of their holy books was the least of the Jews’ problems. More burnings and censorships ensued, culminating in Pope Pius IV’s command in 1565 that the Talmud should even be deprived of its name. From then on it was allegedly to be referred to as “that book formerly known as the Talmud”.

The brand new expurgated, censored and spring-cleaned edition of the Talmud appeared in Basel from 1578. All passages deemed disrespectful of Jesus and Christianity were removed or altered by the thought police. This didn’t satisfy Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII, who ordered a fresh wave of attacks on it and prohibitions from reading it. And from then on, wherever Jews and the Talmud could be found, controversy and persecutions followed.

GOING DEEPER

The Son of Man

Son of God

The whole episode reeks of desperation. The learned sages had compiled the Talmud, from thousands of years of Jewish oral tradition. That they were reduced to such pettiness and falsehood in order to discredit the founder of the religion that persecuted them mercilessly has a particular sadness. The behaviour of the Catholics, who burned the Talmud, prohibited Jews from reading it, or doctored it when that failed to work, were just as vindictive and no different to those extreme Muslims of today who are provoked into the same passions by any perceived attacks on their founder.

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