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Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations (Judaism and Jewish Life)

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

This work is packed with much interesting information. For instance, the term MINIM probably referred mainly to Jewish Christians. (p. 95).

I focus on a few salient and thought-provoking issues:


Nowadays, Christians (notably Polish Catholics) are often faulted for once having thought of Jews as responsible for the Crucifixion of Christ. Ironically, for most of history, Jews not only did not deny, but actually took credit for, their role in the death of Christ. David Berger comments, (quote) To most medieval Jews, Jesus was a sorcerer justly executed for enticing his compatriots away from the purity of their ancestral faith, while the religion he founded was idolatry pure and simple. (unquote). (p. 292). More on this later.

Now consider the reference to Jesus being punished in hot excrement in hell (Gittin 57a). Some Jewish disputants had argued that this could not refer to Jesus of Nazareth, as the passage had (allegedly) been written at a time inconsistent with the life of Jesus. (pp. 173-174). However, the reader should know that Jews had long been applying the passage to Jesus Christ, even if it had been originally written with someone else in mind. Please click on, and read my detailed review, of Jesus in the Talmud. For ongoing usage of this passage, in normative Jewish interpretation, in reference to Jesus Christ, click on the links in the first comment under my review of this item.

It is sometimes argued that Judaism has nothing against Christianity, and that any hostility that Jews acquired towards Christianity was merely superficial in character, and solely a reaction to Christian persecutions of Jews. In contrast, the author shows that Jewish enmity towards Christianity had been quite premeditated and sophisticated, and not just an outburst in the pain and anger of persecution. Berger writes [with definitions provided by him (personal communication), in brackets], (quote) Festive religious processions wended their way through the streets, and routine, everyday activities brought Jews in contact with Christian discourse. Popular, hostile euphemisms for Christian sancta—chalice (KELEV--[dog]), priest (GALLAH--[shaved one]), sermon (NIBBU’AH--[barking]), church (TO’EVAH--[abomination]), saints (KEDESHIM--[sacred male prostitutes]), the host (LEHEM MEGO’AL--[abominable bread]), baptismal water (MAYIM ZEDONIM--[insolent waters: Psalm 124:5]), the holy sepulcher (SHUHA--[pit]), not to speak of Peter (PETER HAMOR--[Peter the donkey]), Jesus (HA-TALUY--[the hanged one]), and Mary (HARIA--[excrement. A play on Maria])—testify to the ubiquitous presence of these symbols in the daily life of Ashkenazic Jews. (unquote). (p. 44).


David Berger summarizes some of the offensive content in rabbinical literature, (quote) While Christians actually pay a higher fine for assaulting a Jew than for striking a fellow Christian, the Talmud says that a gentile who hits a Jew is guilty of a capital offense (B. Sanhedrin 58b) while a Jew who strikes a fellow Jew would clearly be treated less harshly. Such discrimination also extends to liability for damage to property (M. Bava Qamma 4:3) and to the ruling that the obligation to return a lost item is applicable only if the owner is a Jew (M. Makhshirin 2:8; cf. B. Bava Mezi’a 24a–b). The Rabbis maintain that the best of the gentiles deserves to be killed (Yer. Qiddushin 66c). Jews dare to call Christian holidays “days of catastrophe” (e. g., M. ‘Avodah Zarah 1:1) while living in Christian lands; they curse Christians, their Churches, their governments, even their cemeteries (B. Berakhot 58b). The blessing upon seeing a Jewish king is “Blessed is He who has granted a portion of His glory to those who fear Him”; for Gentile kings the final phrase becomes merely “to flesh and blood” (B. Berakhot 58a). Jews are told not to rent homes to gentiles (M. ‘Avodah Zarah 1:8) and not to sell arms to the very people who protect them (Tos. ‘Avodah Zarah 2:4). They compare Gentiles to dogs (Mekhilta Mishpatim 20) and assert that the contamination that the primeval serpent inserted into Eve was eliminated from the Jews at Sinai but not from other nations (B. ‘Avodah Zarah 22b and B. Yevamot 103b). (unquote). (pp. 163-164).


It is sometimes argued that the offensive verses in the Talmud are mistranslations, misunderstandings, or the imaginations of anti-Semites. They are not. The best proof of this is the fact that rabbis eventually wrestled with them. One does not wrestle with something that is not there!

David Berger introduces Menahem Ha-Meiri (1249-1316) and his struggles with the onerous Talmudic teachings against gentiles, (quote) While ha-Meiri did not extend the practical halakhic consequences of his distinction much beyond established precedent, he spoke with a passionate conviction which is absent from his sources and creates a powerful impression of sincerity. Moreover, ha-Meiri appears concerned with more than the unpleasant economic consequences that would result from applying certain Talmudic regulations to medieval Christians; he was also motivated by a sensitivity to the moral problem inherent in a legal code that forbids the returning of a lost item to a gentile and permits the retention of funds that came into one’s possession because of miscalculation by a non-Jew. Such regulations, he argued, were never intended to apply to civilized monotheists and are hence irrelevant in contemporary practice. (unquote). (p. 160). Using other words, Berger writes, (quote) Concerned about Talmudic passages that discriminated against gentiles, he argued that they referred only to the barbaric heathens of ancient times… (unquote). (p. 293).


Author David Berger comments, (quote) Rabbi Mehahem ha-Meiri of late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Perpignan had taken the position that Christianity is not to be seen as idolatry at all and that its adherents are entitled to full equality with Jews in matter of civil law because they are among the “nations bound by the ways of religions.” Though elements of this position were shared by other medieval and early modern authorities, it is profoundly misleading to describe it as typical. Nonetheless, distinguished Jewish authors, for reasons that are not difficult to discern, often described it as such—sometimes, I suspect, in full sincerity. (unquote). (pp. 316-317). As an example of this, the author brings up the much-quoted works of Jacob Katz.

Berger also acknowledges that only a fraction of Jews agreed that Talmudic anti-gentilism was applicable exclusively to the polytheistic peoples of Talmudic times. He quips, (quote) Sometimes Jewish perceptions of Christianity have become more favorable because relations improved, sometimes even because they became more tense. The latter point is counterintuitive, but medieval Christian attacks on anti-Gentile discrimination in the Talmud led Jews to insist on a legally significant distinction between Christians and the pagans of old, a distinction SOME came to believe in full sincerity—and one which I believe to be correct in the eyes of God. (unquote). (p. 394.)(Emphasis added).

For further details on the foregoing themes, please click on, and read my detailed review of The Pride of Jacob: Essays on Jacob Katz and His Work (Harvard Center for Jewish Studies). Then click on, and read my reviews of the works of Jacob Katz that are linked in my review, as well as my comments under the reviews of the linked items.


Let us focus on the previously-quoted fact that, while living in Christian lands, Jews curse Christians, their Churches, their governments, even their cemeteries. (Bavli Berakhot 58b). I invite the reader to look this up in the online Babylonian Talmud, Soncino edition, as I did. The relevant passages, after they praise the Jews, state that, “On seeing the houses of heathens, when inhabited, one says: The Lord will pluck up the house of the proud; when uninhabited he says: O Lord, thou God, to whom vengeance belongeth, thou God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth…On seeing the graves of heathens one says: Your mother shall be sore ashamed, etc.”

Normative Jewish practice tells a very different story from that of Ha-Meiri, and his dichotomizing of pagans and Christians. Talmud-inspired practices of cursing, in front of pagan temples and cemeteries, have definitely been applied to Christians. In fact, the cursing (and even spitting), in front of Christian churches and cemeteries, not only have freely continued for the six centuries since Ha-Meiri, but also persist to this very day--in Israel. Many examples of these long-term practices are catalogued in the following detailed online work: TRADITIONAL JEWISH ATTITUDES TOWARD POLES, by Mark Paul. [The reader should locate, and read, the May 1, 2016, or more recent version.]


The marginality of Ha-Meiri’s opinions extended to basic theological issues, (quote) One medieval authority, Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri, may even have believed that a Jew engaging in Christian worship is not guilty of AVODAH ZARAH, though no other rabbi of any standing endorsed this position. (unquote). (p. 395).

In recent times, some commentators have tried to soften the term AVODAH ZARAH by suggesting that EL ZAR is what means idolatry (worship of a “strange god”), while AVODAH ZARAH (“strange service”) means the wrong worship of God. Berger rejects this re-definition of terms. He points out that the term EL ZAR is hardly ever used, while “AVODAH ZARAH almost always refers to the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God.” (p. 395). In Jewish thinking, worship of Jesus of Nazareth, as God, definitely qualifies. Moreover, the worship of Jesus as God prima facie violates one of the seven Noahide commandments, thus dashing the reasoning of those Jews who might tolerate Christianity under the rubric of its obedience to the Noahide Laws. (p. 369).

Finally, this fundamental stumbling block persists in today’s age of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. David Berger concludes that, (quote) Though many Jews are prepared to say that classical Christian theology does not constitute idolatry for Gentiles, there is a consensus that it is idolatry for Jews. Efforts to make the combined doctrines of Trinity (sic: trinity) and Incarnation (sic: incarnation) more acceptable to Jews by citing the SEFIROT of the kabbalists or the SHEKKINAH of the rabbis are not likely to bear more fruit today than they did in the late Middle Ages. (unquote). (p. 338).
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