Who Won the Disputation of Paris?

[the third of my promised posts about the problems in St. Louis]

Peter Schwarz Disputation between Jewish and Christian theologians
Disputation between Jewish and Christian Theologians, by Peter Schwarz

The late Yves Congar wrote a book about Sacred Tradition. When I get a moment, I will summarize the book for you, in full. For now, these ideas:

By sending His Son into the world, Almighty God revealed the truth about Himself. The Scriptures bear witness to this truth, but the written pages are not the Truth itself. We don’t “believe in the Bible,” as if the Bible were God. We believe in the triune God, to Whom the Bible bears witness.

The New Testament contains information about the Truth Himself, namely Jesus Christ. But the New Testament does not contain all the information available. For example, the New Testament does not contain a “Table of Contents” to the New Testament.

At some point, Christians made a judgment about which gospels, letters, and other accounts belonged in the Bible. They made that judgment based on solid criteria. Namely, the Sacred Tradition they had received.

The early Christians had received… what? Christianity. The divine mystery. Communion with Christ through the means He gave us. The life of the Church.

The thing itself has many names and facets. It is: Christian Tradition, with a capital T.

The Scriptures bear witness to it, as do the Fathers of the Church. That is, the holy bishops and theologians of the first Christian centuries. Of course, the Fathers do not bear witness to the divine mystery in the same way that that Scripture does; the Fathers did, at times, make mistakes.

Michelangelo’s Moses

Popes and Ecumenical Councils of bishops have borne witness to particular aspects of Sacred Tradition at various times in Church history. Never contradicting the New Testament, always living out of it.

Now: Imagine that the Messiah had not yet come. Imagine if the greatest teacher of God’s mystery yet to walk the earth was Moses.

We Christians would say: that’s a pure hypothetical. Our brothers and sisters known as Jews would say: That’s why we have our Talmud.

The written Torah–the first five books of the Bible–bears witness to the revelation Almighty God gave to Moses. But those books do not contain everything that God gave the world through Moses.

Moses taught. Moses cultivated a kind of rabbinical school. Moses bequeathed supernatural insight about Torah, about God’s law, God’s wisdom–insight that did not get written down at first. Later on, they wrote it down. Those writings are the Talmud.

Hopefully we can see a certain parallel here, with all due respect to the profound difference of faith, and due respect to both sides of the matter. That is, we can see a certain parallel between 1. our venerated Sacred Tradition–to which not just the New Testament, but also the Church Fathers, holy theologians, popes, and Councils bear witness–and 2. the Torah, to which (our Jewish brethren say) both the written Torah and the Talmud bear witness.
[Please anyone more knowledgeable about this: correct me as needed, charitably, with a comment.]

We Christians say that the Old Testament, taken as a whole, prophesies Jesus Christ’s coming. We say that the Old Testament only fully makes sense by the light of Christ. And that we need to read the Old Testament to understand Christ fully.

Orthodox Jews say: God’s Torah has come to us, through Moses’ teaching, which we find in the written Torah, and in the Talmud. If you want to understand the “Old Testament,” don’t read the New Testament, which is all wrong. Read the Talmud.

A serious divergence in point-of-view. When King St. Louis IX grasped the depths of this divergence, it disturbed him. And it disturbed many of his contemporary, pious 13th-century Christians of France.

closeup of King Louis statue
The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Louis and Co. thought: We Catholics perceive how the Old Testament prophesies Christ and renders Him more understandable. What’s with this Talmud getting in the way of that? Is this why Jews won’t recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ? Because the Talmud ‘gets in the way?’

The Talmud does, in fact, get in the way. It connects the Jewish reader with Moses and his written Torah, bypassing Jesus of Nazareth altogether.

A 13th-century apostate from Judaism had urged Pope Gregory IX to have all copies of the Talmud in Christendom confiscated and destroyed. This would finally open the door to the long-awaited wholesale conversion of the Jews.

Now, the pope might have said to himself, Hold on a minute! and begun asking questions like: What does this man have against his former associates? Why would I let him drag me into his enmity towards the rabbis who tried to teach him?

But instead of pondering such things, Pope Gregory naively accepted this man Nicolas Donin’s ideas. The pope agreed to the absurd concept of a “trial” of the Talmud.

This led to an enormously interesting debate. Two debates, in fact. First, Donin debated the chief rabbis of Paris in front of a secular jury, including the Queen Mother of France and other courtiers of King Louis. After the rabbis bested Donin in that debate, the Christian side decided that a jury of churchmen should actually pass judgment.

In other words, King St. Louis IX may have invented the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings. But he blithely subjected the Jews’ treasured compendium of teaching to unconstitutional ‘double jeopardy.’

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

The preeminent judge of the second ‘trial,’ the sitting Archbishop of Sens (who at that time outranked the Bishop of Paris) refused to condemn the Talmud. So two years elapsed, between the time of the disputation and the June 1242 public burning of every Talmud in France. Archbishop Cornut of Sens, the powerful dissenter to such violence, had, in the meantime, died.

The point I want to make here is this. No one should condemn a canonized saint for specious, ‘politically correct’ reasons. King Louis IX of France did not hate Jews like Hitler hated Jews. St. Louis was not an anti-Semite, since that term connotes ethnic, racist hatred.

But we can and must clearly condemn King St. Louis IX for the irrational fervor of his piety. The rabbis had made clear and convincing arguments. They had decisively won the Disputation of Paris. But King Louis closed his ears. He failed to recognize the disputation’s clear winner.
Summary of the arguments:

Charge: The Talmud desecrates the names of Jesus and Mary.

Answer: The cited passages do not refer to the Yeshua crucified under Pontius Pilate, nor to the Miryam who gave birth to him. Yeshua and Miryam were common names in Israel for many centuries. Like the name Louis appeared frequently in the annals of France.

Charge: The Talmud denigrates Christians.

Answer: When the Talmud refers to goyim, it means: godless pagans, like the ancient Canaanites. It does not mean Christians.

Jews respect the kindred monotheism of Christians. Just like Christians have respected the kindred monotheism of Jews for centuries.

Charge: The Talmud anthropomorphizes God blasphemously.

Answer: The Talmud does not anthropomorphize God any more than the Old Testament does.

Charge: Jews incorrectly claim that the Talmud contains divine revelation. Such false pretense offends God, Who has in fact revealed Himself truly through the two Testaments.

Christ Himself explicitly condemned the Talmud with this criticism of the Pharisees: “Why do you transgress God’s commandment and make it void for the sake of your traditions, teaching the doctrines and precepts of men?” (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:8)

Answer: St. Jerome (one of the Fathers of the Church) read the Talmud many centuries ago. He raised no objections to it.

We Jews, studying our Talmud, have co-existed peacefully with you Christians for centuries. The Church has always held that we Jews have a right to practice our religion. What changed?

Further: We distinguish between two categories of writing in the Talmud. The sections we call halakhah contain binding affirmations. The speculative, imaginative sections we call aggadah, and the reader may accept or reject those parts, as the reader sees fit.

Further: How will you succeed in expunging the Talmud from the face of the earth? You have confiscated every copy in France. But copies exist in other countries of Christendom, as yet not confiscated. And even if you confiscated those, more copies remain in Babylonia, Media, Greece, Arabia, and Ethiopia. You will never rid the world of this book, so why try?

We Catholics respect the role of the Church’s magisterium–the living apostolic teaching authority–because we recognize that the books of Scripture do not address every theological or moral problem.

The rabbis in Paris defended the Talmud on the same grounds. The written Torah does not itself resolve every problem, so God established the rabbinate. And the rabbis gave us the Talmud.

Pope Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, ultimately conceded that the rabbis had won the Paris argument, at least with respect to the final, most-decisive charges.

But, to our shame as Catholics: the French, at King Louis’ order, had already burned every copy of the Talmud in France by then.

We had betrayed our principles. Force cannot compel belief in the Christian mystery. Acts of violence do not foster the spread of the Gospel.

Of course a Christian does not read the Talmud as divine revelation. We respect the wisdom it contains. And we acknowledge that we have no right to burn copies of it.

We owe the one true God, and our Jewish brethren, contrition and penance for what St. Louis ordered in June 1242, after he obtusely misjudged the results of the Disputation of Paris.

St. Louis MO and Springfield MA

(with promises of three future posts)

Old StL postcard with King Louis statue

Louis IX reigned as king of France from age 12, in 1226, until he died at age 56, from dysentery during one of the Crusades, in 1270.

King Louis, illustrious in his own right, had an even-more illustrious contemporary. St. Thomas Aquinas walked the earth for just about the same span of years (1225-1274). The two saints’ paths crossed in Paris, including at Notre Dame cathedral, then under construction.

King Louis did many magnanimous things. He invented the presumption of innocence in criminal courts. He forgave rebels. He lived such a humble and prayerful life that they clamored for the canonization of the “monk-king” immediately upon his death.

Centuries later, they named St. Louis, Missouri, after him. An equestrian statue stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, in Forest Park: The Apotheosis of St. Louis. The statue represented the city, as its emblem. That is, until they built the now-more-famous Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River.

Apotheosis literally means, ‘making a god out of.’ Figuratively it means: an artistic depiction of a human subject as a heavenly citizen. Another example: the U.S. Capitol dome has the painting Apotheosis of George Washington, by Constantino Brumidi. (That artist lies buried just a few yards from the grave of my dear dad.)

Last month some citizens of St. Louis started a petition, urging the removal of the statue of the king-saint. The petition insists that King St. Louis IX “was a rabid anti-Semite” and “vehemently Islamophobic.”

Owing to this controversy, groups of people have gathered at the statue frequently in recent weeks. At one point, young Father Stephen Shumacher tried to defend the honor of the saint. He had a hard time getting through to anyone. But we have to admire him for his bravery.

Now, did King Louis do evil in north Africa during the Crusades? Only if waiting too long to retreat, and getting himself captured, counts as ‘doing evil.’

Unpacking the Crusades morally would overwhelm our efforts at this moment. But I think we can safely say that King St. Louis IX bears no particular stain there. No one can number him among those who abused the mission the Crusaders had.

But: As a young king, Louis did order the wholesale burning of Jewish holy books.

From what I can tell, Father Shumacher never had the opportunity to defend King St. Louis on that point. Perhaps the young priest could have offered a defense. He could rightly have pointed out that the term “anti-Semitic” does not fit. King Louis did not despise the Jews because of their ethnic origins. He simply despised their Talmud.

In 1240, the king heard a public debate between a former Jew, who had converted to Catholicism, and Rabbis Judah and Yehiel of Paris. It was not a fair fight. The former Jew claimed that the Talmud says evil things–evil things which it manifestly does not say. (Reminds me a little of a situation I have found myself in recently.)

The Dispute by Trebacz
“The Dispute” by Maurycy Trebacz

After the debate, in the square in front of the Louvre, they burned thousands upon thousands of carefully transcribed pages of ancient text, in an open bonfire. King Louis, acting under the orders of the Pope Gregory IX, had ordered the confiscation of every Talmud in the kingdom. They burned over twenty cartloads of hand-printed Hebrew books.

To this day, faithful Jews lament this event with an annual fast in June.

I find myself lamenting it as well. It hits very close to home, since a Catholic authority has ordered the “burning” of the very words you are reading right now. (Not that I’m comparing this goofy weblog to the ageless wisdom of the Talmud.)

My hero St. Thomas Aquinas hadn’t finished his teenage years when the 1242 Talmud burning took place. He was still growing up, in what is now Italy.

But the Angelic Doctor cannot altogether escape association with the evil of that day. His teacher, St. Albert the Great, participated in the Talmud disputation in Paris. And St. Thomas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, quotes from a spurious text in order to accuse Jewish theology of an error it doesn’t actually have. Aquinas quotes from the “extractions” from the Talmud written up by the ex-Jew who argued dishonestly for the holy book’s destruction.

We will come back to this. The debate that preceded the Talmud burning has some illuminating aspects. The arguments made by Rabbi Yehiel, in defense of the Talmud, deserve our careful consideration. A scholar at New York University wrote an informative paper about this, which I will summarize for you, dear reader, soon.

King St. Louis
St. Louis brought the Crown of Thorns to Notre Dame in Paris (statue in St. Louis MO cathedral)

…The city of St. Louis will have a new Archbishop on the anniversary of the king-saint’s death, August 25. The new archbishop will come to St. Louis from the diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, over which he has presided for six years.

Years ago, Archbishop-elect Mitch Rozanski served as the pastor of a cluster of inner-city Baltimore parishes. I taught middle-school in a neighboring ‘hood at that time. I used to say a little prayer to the Lord in the tabernacle when I ran past then-Father Rozanski’s parishes on my evening jogs.

Thing is: The aw-shucks Baltimorean arrives in St. Louis just as a controversy of enormous significance unfolds in the diocese he’s leaving. A retired judge in Massachusetts has published a report about the inner-workings of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

We cannot overstate the significance of Judge Velis’ report. It reveals in detail the profound problems in the way our Church’s diocesan bureaucracies treat sex-abuse survivors. I will soon provide you, dear reader, with a full digest of Judge Velis’ report. It is a document that can guide our discussion here for months, or even years, to come.

The Catholic people of St. Louis deserve better than what this situation will do to their sense of confidence. They have a new archbishop coming to them from a diocese where a clamor is growing that he ought to resign. He presided over an utterly heartbreaking debacle.

That said, we know something about good Catholic people deserving better than what they get at the hands of the hierarchy these days…

Thirdly: We have to face another name change. One that cuts me to my very heart. More on that soon, too.




Scenes from St. Louis’ City

The Mississippi rides high. Here’s the plaza in front of the great Arch:

Mississippi high at the Arch

Before they built the Arch, a statue of the patron saint represented the town, like in this old postcard:

Old StL postcard with King Louis statue

Here’s a closeup:

closeup of King Louis statue

The patron must be watching over the city. If he weren’t, I’m sure it would be even more ramshackle than it is.

(The locals here seem to find it impossible to believe that someone would visit their city, on purpose, during a vacation, without having to.)

…In the art museum they have a St. Francis memento mori (my favorite genre). Zurbaran painted it as part of a large altarpiece, but it makes quite an impression all by itself.

…Twenty-five years ago I had no time for pop art, or the sculptor Claes Oldenberg.

But now the everyday objects that he depicted in his sculptures don’t necessarily appear in everyday life anymore.

His three-way plug sculpture in Forest Park took me back to simpler days, and the house I grew up in, and the world before the internet (see below).

Speaking of which, the raging rivers I have seen on this drive reminded me of these lines, written by a St.-Louis native, T.S. Eliot:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

(from “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets)

Claes Oldenburg plug


Some reputable scientists, even today, are not wholly satisfied with the notion that the song of birds is strictly and solely a territorial claim…It could be that a bird sings: I am sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, as Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests: “myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

…Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mockingbird singing. My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning? …Surely they don’t even know why they sing. No; we have been as usual askng the wrong question.

It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? …If the lyric is simply “mine mine mine,” then why the extravagance of the score?

–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Your unworthy servant feebly seeks vanaprastha in a moutain wood. I miss you, and I am grateful for your prayers for me.

…An old friend has written a short story and a novella.

The author has no means of publishing these pieces himself, so I publish them here.

“President Wilson and the Other Dead People I Talked To” (no longer available–author’s request)

“West-East Highway”


Who fails to drink little or much from the golden chalice of the Babylonian woman of the Apocalypse? (Revelation 17:4) …She reaches out to all states, even to the supreme and illustrious state of the sanctuary and divine priesthood, by setting her abominable cup in the holy place… She hardly leaves a man who has not drunk a small or large quantity of wine from her chalice, which is vain joy in natural beauty.

–St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book III, chap. 22

Good Old War “That’s Some Dream”