The Enduring Confrontation

The political circumstances of the fourth century—ascendant Christianity, a still political Judaism—hardly could remain stable. By the turn of the fifth century the state was firmly Christian and its successors in Europe would remain so for fifteen hundred years. The sages' framing of a Judaic system attained the status of a norm. So far as Christianity in all of its European forms raised challenges to Judaism in its one, now normative, form, answers found in the fourth century retained for Jews the standing of self-evident truth. We therefore should anticipate no rehearsal of that odd moment at which, each in his own idiom, a Judaic sage and a Christian theologian could address the same issue and compose a position based on the same facts and modes of argument. When, under the conditions that prevailed eight hundred to a thousand years later, new encounters took place, they bore no resemblance in intellectual structure to the one we have reviewed. Then, as before the fourth century, different people talked about different things to different people— even when they met face-to-face.

Why the initial confrontation produced no later continuation finds its answer, in my view, in an essentially political circumstance. Conditions for debate later on did not accord equal standing to both sides, such as, in their minds at least, the Judaic sages of the fourth century assuredly enjoyed, and the Christian theologians accorded, as best they could. What this meant, curiously, was that the confrontation later on took place jointly—not by indirection, through sustained writings on a given theological issue treated wholly in its own terms—and through direct interlocution of one side by the other. In that respect, too, the later, and enduring confrontation did not replicate the mode of discourse of the initial phase, which was marked by the composition of large-scale writings clear of all marks of an argument such as I have composed: same issues, same facts, same mode of thought.

We do not have to imagine what one side would have said to the other. We know what each did say to the other. In no way can we characterize this later discourse as an interesting argument about issues important to each side, defined in the same way by each party to the discussion. Quite to the contrary, the issues facing the Judaic participants bore a political, not an intellectual, character. The rights of Jews to live where and how they did were at stake in the disputations; the beliefs of the Jews about the meaning and end of history, the Messiah in the end of days, and the definition of Israel, scarcely came up. And, when they did, Christians framed the issue—Why do you not believe?—and Jews responded. Nor, in their response, did the Jewish partici pants vastly improve on matters. They simply ridiculed the Christians' convictions: "they lacked both ratio and auctoritas," being devoid of scriptural foundation and without logical justification—so Berger (1979, 13). No debate there, scarcely an intellectual confrontation.2

The next major intellectual confrontation, on the side of Judaism, took place eight hundred years later, in the twelfth century. Then the Christian side took the offensive, and, in Berger's judgment, "We find Jews arguing that Christianity is so inherently implausible that only the clearest biblical evidence could suffice to establish its validity" (1979, 7n.2). Issues of the initial confrontation scarcely occur in the medieval debates between Judaic and Christian officials, at least not in their classical formulation. An account of the disputations of the Middle Ages—Paris, 1240; Barcelona, 1263; and Tor-tosa, 1413-14—therefore carries us into a world far removed from the one in which the issues of history, Messiah, and Israel produced a genuine confrontation on the same set of issues, defined in the same terms.3

Of special interest here is the bearing these later debates have on the thesis at hand. Specifically, can we identify a political foundation that made common discourse necessary, even urgent? By that question, I mean to ask whether we can find points of public policy, not merely theological doctrine, that debate was meant to settle. The answer is one-sidedly affirmative, according to Mac-coby: "The authority of the Inquisition did extend to some regulation of Judaism." The presence of kings and high lords temporal as well as lords spiritual who bore considerable responsibility in public administration leaves no doubt on that score. Yet in other ways I see no important continuity at all. In the fourth century, when Judaic sages and Christian theologians constructed what I take to have been an argument, they addressed issues of mutual interest. The argument was joined fairly on matters of theological substance, each side working out its position free of the intervention of the other. But in the medieval disputations, Judaism stood in the dock, the accused. The charge for Paris, in 1240, was that Judaism in the Talmud taught blasphemies against the Christian religion, made remarks against Christians, revered holy books that contained unedifying material, e.g., nonsense or obscenity.

The issues at Barcelona, in 1263, prove somewhat more interesting. Mac-coby sees it as a debate rather than an inquisition. The Christian approach now was "to attempt to prove the truth of Christianity from the Jewish writings, including the Talmud. . . . Various Aggadic passages, collected from Talmud and Midrash, were thought to support Christian doctrines, especially the divinity of the Messiah, his suffering on the Cross, the date of his advent, and his promulgation of a new Law. Nahmanides immediately challenged the rationale of this contention." In consequence of this approach, a further issue

2. Cf. Berger: "Christians were genuinely puzzled at the Jewish failure to accept the overwhelming array of scriptural arguments which they had marshalled" (1979, II).

3. Berger: "Anti-Christian works by Jews... are virtually nonexistent before the twelfth century" (1979, 8).

derived from the authority of the so-called Aggadic portions of the Talmud. The Judaic side treated the passages as unimportant, though the rabbis of the day revered them. Maccoby's judgment that there was a basic "lack of rapprochement and mutual understanding in the disputations" proves definitive: no argument here, only a confrontation lacking all shared discourse (Maccoby 1981, 11,23,26-38,41-42).

As to Tortosa, in 1413-14, chaired by a pope and joined by representatives of the Jewish communities of Aragon and Catalonia, the disputation aimed at the conversion of the Jews. Maccoby's judgment is this: "As far as the larger issues of Jewish-Christian confrontation were concerned, it added little to the Barcelona Disputation." But one thing is clear from Maccoby's fine summary: a matter of public policy greatly engaged the Judaic side, specifically, religious toleration. As one of the Jewish spokesmen stated: "1 say that all disputation about a principle of religion is prohibited, so that a man may not depart from the principles of his religion. It seems that only science should be made the subject of dispute and argument, but religion and belief ought to be consigned willingly to faith, not argument, so that he may not retreat from it." Europe would have to endure the devastation, in the name of religion, of Germany and much else before even that much toleration might win support as a political party, then in the form, after all, of cuius regio eius religio—not much toleration, but better than nothing. In any event the focus of discourse was this: "to prove the truth of Christian doctrines about the Messiah from certain passages in the Talmud." Judaic sages cannot have found very urgent the needs of such an agenda (Maccoby 1981, 82, 86, 89).

I see no point of contact between the shape of the initial confrontation in the fourth century and the intellectual program—such as it was—of the medieval continuation. In fact, the two programs for debate seem to me, in selection and definition of the issues, in the manner of argument, and in the kinds of proofs people adduced in evidence of their propositions, wholly different from one another. Form and substance, context and content, the initial confrontation generated no succession. The reason for this can be seen in the politics of the later confrontation, for these proved wholly different in character from the politics of the fourth-century encounter. In the fourth century two political entities confronted one another out of rough parity, meeting for a brief moment as the one ascended, the other declined. In the medieval confrontations political parity hardly characterized both parties to the dispute, which yielded confrontation but no debate, and certainly not dialogue.

In the fourth century, Christian theologians could consider in essentially the same terms as Judaic sages the scriptural issues they (correctly) deemed critical for Judaism. Aphrahat of course forms the exemplary figure, arguing carefully on the basis of ancient Israelite writings when addressing contemporary Jews. But I do not see the others as much different from Aphrahat. Eusebius addressed issues of world-historical interpretation, doing so in a rational and civil manner. Jerome wanted to engage in serious, equal argument with Jews, and so he took most seriously the lessons they had to teach—again, an encounter between equals. Chrysostom—alas! But he did not argue as an equal in competition with Jews, rather as a beleaguered and harassed figure, fearful of the future of Christians new to the Church and impressed by the synagogue. Eusebius, Chrysostom, Aphrahat, each in his way, addressed the other side by indirection, each with dignity, each in defense of the new faith. Later on, when the encounter became a confrontation that was direct and provocative, it was not between equals, not conducted with much dignity, and not aimed at clarifying, for the faith within, the issues of the challenge from the counterpart without. And this shift in tone and in substance, in the symbolic expression of the issues, expresses a more profound shift in the political realities which dictated and defined the terms of the tragic confrontation of the Middle Ages. In the fourth century sages of Judaism could pretend to ignore the challenge of Christianity, while at the same time systematically countering that challenge. Christian theologians forthrightly could enter the encounter with Judaism as with an equal. In the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries circumstances in no way afforded such an encounter.

The relevance to our own day demands only passing attention. Today Christianity controls few governments but much moral authority, exercises little power to dictate public policy, though (in my view, quite properly) much power of public persuasion. Not hiding in the catacombs, but also not determining the shape of the West, Christianity enjoys a position in the world of politics more like what it had in the time of Constantine—influential, but not (yet) in charge—than in the age of the medieval disputations. And, for its part, Judaism, in the persons of Israel after the flesh, in the West (not to mention in the State of Israel!) enjoys the protection of law that in medieval times proved not entirely reliable. So argument between people equal at both a political and an intellectual level may now go forward once more. Consequently, because of the character of politics in the contemporary West, civil equality exists for both sides. Civil discourse, with subtlety, by indirection, through learning, once more regains the platform. People can now, again, agree on issues, negotiate modes of common argument, concur on the facts that will be probative—that is to say, write books for one another to read.

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