Gathering the Waters Mikveh Conference Roundup
This week's portion: on going forth

Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

"From its earliest history, Christianity had sought to define its relationship to Judaism or, more specifically, to buttress its claim that it had supplanted the older faith," Chazan writes. Christianity viewed itself as a corrective to Judaism; it couldn't have come into existence without Judaism, but its truths were understood to have superceded Judaism's truths. The Church considered itself to be the "True Israel, the genuine heir to the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob... In the Christian view, Judaism had lost its vitality and viability and had degenerated into the fossilized remnant of a once eloquent vision." (As a side note: it's hard for me to read this kind of material without feeling defensive! If other readers are having a similar experience, I invite you to join with me in taking a few deep cleansing breaths before moving on.)

Another factor in the Jewish-Christian relationship was the role Jews played in Church teachings about the life and death of Jesus. The Church cast the Jews in the role of Jesus' deniers, and also blamed the Jews for Jesus' death. (As a side note: the Catholic Church didn't formally change that piece of doctrine until the 1965 proclamation Nostra Aetate.) Jews were permitted to practice Judaism and to worship according to Jewish traditions, but the reasons given for that relative tolerance varied. Some saw the Jews' generalized suffering at the hands of Christians and others as proof of the Christians' exalted status. Others perceived that Jews must be preserved, because not until Jews accepted Jesus' sovereignty could the ultimate redemption begin. In other words: it was important to keep Jews alive so that those Jews could ultimately choose Christianity and in so doing bring about the return of Jesus. (That view persists today in some corners of the Christian world.)

Chazan also notes that while the medieval Church permitted the existence of Judaism, it "viewed with horror the possible spread of the Jewish rite." Jews were not permitted to occupy any positions of power; Jews could not serve as public officials; and in time, the Church came to regard Judaism as a kind of potential contagion, mandating therefore that Jews live in relative isolation from Christians. In the thirteenth century came the introduction of special garb for Jews; Jews were required to wear an identifying badge or cap at all times.

Money, of course, also becomes a part of this story. The medieval Christian church prohibited usury (making a profit on the lending of funds.) The Jewish establishment had no prohibitions against lending money with interest to non-Jews (in the Hebrew Bible we read that it is prohibited to lend money at interest to one's fellows, but that so doing to an outsider is permissible.) As a result, Jews became associated with moneylending. But the Church became concerned at the prospect that Jews might become rich at Christian expense, and by the late 12th century, there was powerful ecclesiastical opposition to Jewish moneylending. It was also believed that Jews' second-class status should at all times be manifest in the Jewish way of life, so if a Jew were to become well-off, that in itself was regarded as an insult to Christian superiority.

The medieval church was also deeply concerned about the possibility that Jews might blaspheme against Christianity. There were trials and condemnations of the Talmud, followed by efforts to suppress Talmudic literature or to expurgate "harmful passages" from Jewish texts. Jacob Marcus writes (in The Jew in the Medieval World) that in June of 1240, four rabbis were forced to debate the merits of Jewish theology with Christian clergy in France; naturally, the Jews lost the debate, and the Talmud was condemned and burnt both in 1242 and in 1244. (This is one of the historical tragedies remembered even now on Tisha b'Av.)

And "finally," Chazan writes, "while the right of Jews to practice Judaism was recognized by the Church and while there was even a notion that Judaism must continue to exist down to the time of redemption, there nonetheless remained the strong desire to attract individual Jews into the Christian fold." In other words: Jews were permitted to practice Judaism, but were often strongly encouraged to choose Christianity.

Official Christian texts of the period use language which makes clear that Christianity was regarded as the one true faith, and Judaism as mere superstition. Christians of that era were forbidden to entertain the friendship of infidels (Jews). One period text refers to Jews as those who "prefer to remain hardened in their obstinacy" rather than acknowledge the true faith, though it also allows that "no Christian should use violence to force them to be baptized as long as they are unwilling and refuse." Christians were categorically forbidden from beating Jews with sticks during Jewish festivals, or from desecrating Jewish graves, but Jews were understood as being naturally relegated to poverty and servitude because of the Jewish complicity in Jesus' death. While it was forbidden to coerce a Jew into becoming Christian, if a Jew were so coerced (by threats, confiscation of property, flogging, etc) and were baptized, then that Jew had to remain a Christian even if he later wishes to return to his original faith.

The First Crusade was devastating to Jewish communities. (See Wikipedia's entry on Persecution of Jews in the First Crusade.) Chazan notes that this seems to have taken the Church by surprise. So when the Second Crusade was instigated, church authorities were clear that they did not wish to see a repetition of the assaults on the Jews. Bernard of Clairvaux issued a call to the Second Crusade which demanded physical safety for the Jews, and his call was generally heeded. But his words also contained substantial animus against Jews. He writes that "the Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us of what our Lord suffered," and he suggests that the fact of the Jewish Diaspora is proof of God's punishment of the Jews' crime of killing Jesus.

Some documentation of Jewish suffering at Christian hands can be found in Church documents and correspondence. In a letter from Pope Gregory to the archbishops of Western France, we read:

These Crusaders try to wipe the Jews almost completey off the face of the earth. In an unheard-of and unprecedented outburst of cruelty, they have slaughtered in this mad hostility two thousand and five hundred of them -- old and young, as well as pregnant women. Some were mortally wounded and others trampled like mud under the feet of horses. They burned their books and, for greater shame and disgrace, they exposed the bodies of those thus killed as food for the birds of heaven and flesh to the beasts of the earth...and they claim to have done the above and threaten to do worse, on the ground that the Jews refuse to be baptized... But those to whom God wants to be perciful are not to be compelled to the grace of baptism, rather they must want it voluntarily. Just as man fell of his own free will when he succumbed to the serpent's guile, even so, when called by the grace of God, he ought to bring about his own rise in complete freedom of will.

The Pope further wrote to the archbishops that if they should hear of anyone in their dioceses treating Jews in this fashion, they should punish those people without appeal. Reading this document now, I can't help feeling on the one hand grateful that the Pope took it upon himself to defend Jews in this way, and appalled that such a defense was necessary.

At the end of the sixth century of the Common Era, Pope Gregory I had argued that Christianity must protect itself against the "evil" of Judaism, but also argued the church was obligated to preserve Jewry from the "attacks and encroachments" of Christians. Later popes wrote papal bulls of defense based on Gregory I's assertions. For instance, "in 1247 and 1253 Innocent IV strongly discredited the ritual murder accusation: that Jews killed Christian children and partook of their blood on the Passover holiday." The need for such papal bulls was, Marcus writes, "most urgent, for all through the thirteenth century there was virtually an epidemic of ritual murder accusations as a result of which dozens of Jewish men and women were put to death."

It was around this time -- the thirteenth century of the Common Era -- that official church teachings on Jews began to shift. In his book The Friars and the Jews, Jeremy Cohen notes that the friars of the orders of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic were regarded by the Jews as dreadful enemies. These friars "directed and oversaw nearly all the anti-Jewish activities of the Christian clergy in the West." He writes that:

As inquisitors, missionaries, disputants, polemicists, scholars, and itinerant preachers, mendicants engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the religious freedom and physical security of the medieval Jewish community. It was they who developed and manned the papal Inquisition, who intervened in the Maimonidean controversy, who directed the burnings of the Talmud, who compelled the Jews to listen and respond to their inflammatory sermons, and who actively promoted anti-Jewish hatred among the laity of Western Christendom.

Cohen argues that these friars were essentially promulgating a new theology which did not permit Jews to coexist with Christians at all. By the fourteenth century, these friars were arguing that Christendom should rid itself entirely of Jews, either through converting Jews to Christianity or through so harassing Jews that they would leave Christendom altogether for greener pastures. The friars, writes Cohen, had extensive contact with Jews, which was marked by an aggressive missionary spirit and an often violent animosity. The Inquisition gave these friars an ideal opportunity to put their animosity to work.

I'm curious to know how immersing briefly in this history impacts you who are reading this. How do these stories make you feel? Did you know any of this history already?

I'm interested in how we relate to these stories, but I want to be clear that this is history, not current reality. I don't blame today's Christians for this, nor would I expect my relationship with Christians in the world today to match what's described here. It's important to understand this difficult chapter in our mutual history, and I look forward to the conversations which will arise in the comments section of this post, but please, as you comment, bear in mind the distinctions between then and now. (The same goes for any discussion of medieval Islam.) Thanks, y'all.