Intensification of Prior Argumentation
The argumentation delivered through the new techniques of forced sermon and forced debate was firmly rooted in the pre-thirteenth-century legacy. In part, old lines of argumentation were pursued more intensely; in part, there were true innovations, yet even here there are discernible links to the past.
An unusually rich collection of polemical materials serve as our major source for the traditional argumentation directed at mid-thirteenth-century Jewry. This collection of Jewish materials, the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] of Rabbi Meir ben Simon of Narbonne, has the virtue of presenting to us both Christian thrusts, as perceived by the Jews, and Jewish responses. It affords direct insight into the new missionizing efforts as seen by the Jewish targets of these efforts and provides as well a sense of the lines of Jewish reaction.
Because of the recurrent use to which this text will be put, a few brief remarks are in order. Rabbi Meir ben Simon is known for a series of works and was obviously a leading figure in mid-thirteenth-century southern French Jewry. His Milhemet Mizvah is a lengthy, rich, and sprawling work of more than two hundred fifty folio pages. The author divides the work into five major segments. Unfortunately, the opening pages of the first segment are lost, and we are therefore deprived of his introductory statement to the work in its entirety and to Part I specifically. We are forced to make our own assessment of the unifying concern in Part I of his opus. Despite the diversity of the component elements in this section of the work—a rambling literary debate between a Christian and a Jew, two sermons ostensibly delivered by the author, the record of a lengthy discussion between the author and the archbishop of Narbonne on the issue of Jewish moneylending, and the text of a letter drafted for submission to the French king—
we are justified, I believe, in seeing this collection of materials as relating essentially to Christian-Jewish argumentation of the middle decades of the thirteenth century.
Identification of the essential thrust of Part I in this fashion is supported by the author's explicit introduction to Part II.
Part II, which I have composed so that one may find in it, in abbreviated fashion, the responses which were in Part I, in the sermons.
Part II is in fact a more carefully constructed statement of Christian-Jewish disagreement, in which the issues addressed in the various sections of Part I are treated in more organized fashion. Part III consists of analysis of biblical verses that deal with the promise of redemption. Parts IV and V are essentially addressed to internal issues within the Jewish community, although certain segments of Part IV are still of great value for our inquiry.
To return to our immediate concern, the materials collected in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] show us continued Jewish sensitivity to old-style Christian exegesis of key biblical verses. The most recurrent of the Christian arguments, and the most timeworn as well, was the claim that Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Deity was either directly predicted or at least clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures that the Jews themselves hold sacred. Christian spokesmen adduce verses from the Book of Daniel and argue that they foretell the advent of Jesus. In addition, a series of items such as the statement "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness," the strife between Cain and Abel, the copper serpent, and the splitting of the Red Sea and the Jordan River are seen as heralding the role Jesus and Christianity were to play in cosmic history. The most extended and forceful statement of this view is presented in the following thrust of the priest:
The priest asked and said that he is surprised at us. The prophets prophesied concerning the coming of the Messiah and ascribed to him important characteristics which were then realized in Jesus. He was poor and rode on a donkey; he was the son of a virgin; he was from the seed of Jesse; many of the wonders which the prophets depicted he did. Since he did all this and since all these characteristics were apparent in him, you must surely accept him, in accordance with the commandment of God given through the prophets. As a parallel to this, if the pope sends his letter and indicates that he will dispatch a certain man with specific characteristics and that this man must be accepted as though he were the pope himself, then, when that man with those characteristics does come, we must all
accept him and do his bidding. If we refuse, we would be considered rebellious.
There is nothing original in this claim; indeed, it is the oldest strand in Christian argumentation against the Jews.
Our sense of ongoing Christian biblical exegesis and its central role in Christian argumentation aimed at the Jews is reinforced by the fact that two major northern European collections of Jewish counterexegesis date from the middle and closing decades of the thirteenth century. The Sefer Yosef ha-Mekane (The Book of Joseph the Zealous) and the Sefer Nizahon[*]Yashan (The Former Book of Polemics) both move through the books of the Bible, isolating verses that had been interpreted Christologically and attacking such interpretations. Composition and dissemination of such works in the mid-thirteenth century buttress our sense that biblically grounded Christian argumentation was still very much in evidence and that Jewish leaders felt it useful and important to provide their followers with counterexegesis.
Somewhat better known is the considerable effort to prove the truth of Christianity in purely rational terms. While such argumentation is not new to the thirteenth century, it is carried to its supreme level by Aquinas's Summa contra gentiles. Embracing from the outset the goal of proving Christian truth to all and refuting the errors of all nonbelievers, Aquinas acknowledges that, in such an enterprise, certain traditional lines of Christian argumentation must be eschewed. Particularly striking is the necessity for abandoning, for the sake of this particular effort, reliance on revealed truth, "because some of them [the nonbelievers], like the Mohammedans and the pagans, do not agree with us as to the authority of any Scriptures whereby they may be convinced, in the same way that we are able to dispute with the Jews by means of the Old Testament and with heretics by means of the New." The consequence of this abandonment of proof from the Scriptures is straightforward: "Wherefore it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, to which all are compelled to assent." Aquinas is quick to point out the limitations associated with this approach, but such limitations did not deter him from attempting and completing a massive work designed for use with those nonbelievers who can be approached only through the universally accessible avenue of rational argumentation. The grandeur of the construction he created is beyond doubt. It should be noted, nonetheless, that this approach, with all the advantages of its universality, suffered at least one
major disadvantage, that is, the highly technical style of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive of a broad missionizing effort based on a rigorous presentation of philosophic issues. Too few listeners—Jewish or otherwise—were in a position to understand its subtleties. What happened more often was the use of a watered down, popularly oriented philosophic position, which could be rebutted or rejected without great difficulty. Given the availability of a scriptural base for missionizing among the Jews, it is not surprising that argumentation drawn from philosophic considerations was accorded distinctly secondary status.
Nonetheless, there is firm evidence for some use of this line of argumentation against the Jews during the middle decades of the thirteenth century. One clear-cut instance is reflected in Nahmanides' report of the aftermath of the Barcelona disputation. According to Rabbi Moses, he remained in Barcelona for a number of days so that he could be present in the synagogue there for an anticipated additional missionizing effort. In fact, two major sermons were preached to the Jews, one by the king, arguing for Jesus' fulfillment of messianic predictions (in all likelihood along traditional exegetical lines), and one by Friar Raymond of Penyafort, arguing for the doctrine of the Trinity. Nahmanides' terse report indicates that Friar Raymond "preached with regard to the trinity, saying that it represents wisdom, will, and power. He further said in the synagogue: 'Indeed the rabbi [Nahmanides] acknowledged this in Gerona, according to Friar Paul.' " While there is much in this brief account that requires further elaboration, it seems clear that this is evidence of two presentations—one in Gerona and one in Barcelona—in which Christian spokesmen attempted to argue the basic rationality of Christian doctrine.
The line of argumentation that suggested on empirical grounds the moral and ethical superiority of Christianity and the debased standards of Judaism was also very much in evidence during this period. Again, the primary focus of this attack seems to have been Jewish moneylending. To be sure, much of the thrust and parry in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] regarding Jewish moneylending involved Christian rationalizations for new antiusury legislation and Jewish objections to these new statutes. One senses in addition, however, a broader thrust, with the Christian disputants often claiming that inferior Jewish moral standards are reflected in Jewish moneylending. Like the arguments from rational premises, this line of attack was present but not prevalent.
Along with traditional biblical exegesis, a second set of arguments utilized widely during the middle decades of the thirteenth century revolved about the empirically observed material superiority of Christendom and the abject and seemingly hopeless position of the Jews. This approach appears very prominently in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] , reflecting the reality of its widespread use by the Christian side during this period. This thrust is central, for example, in the only substantive comment made by the fictional Christian sage in Part II and the note on which this section opens.
A Christian sage asked a Jewish sage: "Why do you not leave the Jewish faith? Indeed you see that the Jews have been in exile for a long time and day by day decline. You see, concerning the Christian faith, that the Christians become more exalted day by day and that their success had been notable for a long time. You would live among us in great honor and high status, instead of living, as you now do, in exile, degradation, shame, and calumny."
This is obviously intended as more than an argument from expediency: leave a wretched status for more appealing circumstances. Implied is the assertion that the successes of Christianity and the suffering of the Jews are in fact a reflection of theological truth, with God dispensing success to those who are correct in their faith and actions and misery to those in error.
The nexus between material success and theological truth is indicated explicitly in the dialogue in Part I.
The priest said that, from the fact that we live in exile and degradation under their [Christian] domination and have remained so for such a long time, we must conclude that their faith is more correct and better than our faith.
A similar point is made later in the dialogue, with specific reference to biblical injunction.
The priest asked: "Why do you transgress the commandment of the Torah, in which it is said: 'Follow the multitude in judgment'? Indeed you should follow us in the faith of Jesus, for we outnumber you."
While there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to this contention, the basic notion that the great material success of Christendom reflects the fundamental truth of the Christian faith was taken quite seriously. The clearest index of its seriousness is the fact that, as we shall see, Jewish authors went to great lengths to combat this argument.
This intensified utilization of old argumentation was met, from the Jewish side, with a set of responses that had been fully elaborated during the preceding centuries. In all cases, the Jewish response was two-fold, arguing against the Christian claim, on the one hand, and attacking Christianity itself, on the other. Thus, for example, the Sefer Yosef ha-Mekane and the Sefer Nizahon[*]Yashan both rebut Christian claims based on biblical exegesis and then launch an attack on the Christian Scriptures as well.
The same duality in treatment of standard Christian claims drawn from biblical exegesis is found in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] . The rabbi, in the dialogue, combats forcefully every bit of Christian exegesis presented by his opponent. Prophecies alleged to point to Jesus are interpreted so as to avoid all such references; incidents seen as foreshadowing Jesus are understood in a different light. Occasionally, the give-and-take includes humor:
The priest said that the splitting of the Red Sea and the Jordan was a hint of baptism, since the waters stood in a single heap to their left and to their right. The rabbi said: "If they would have crossed in the water up to their thighs or their knees or even less, it would have been possible to argue thus. But since they crossed over on dry land, it is a proof in the opposite direction. God caused them to cross over on dry land so that they might not be saved by water and so that they would recognize that they achieved salvation through the negation of the waters. A further proof of the same lies in the fact that, after they crossed the Jordan, God commanded and said: 'Proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites. Thus he subsequently commanded concerning circumcision, to teach that they were not absolved of circumcision by virtue of crossing the Jordan."
These specific exegetical thrusts are often banal and only occasionally interesting. The response of the Milhemet Mizvah to the argument that Jesus represented fulfillment of biblical prophecy runs far deeper, however. The author took the claim seriously and developed a number of lines of argumentation beyond the interpretation and reinterpretation of specific biblical verses and stories. The first of these lines—and perhaps the most interesting—is a quasi-historical attack. Rabbi Meir contends that the clearest refutation of Christian claims associated with Jesus is the reaction of first-century Palestinian Jewry. This argument is presented at a number of points, most fully in the latter segments of the second sermon preserved in Part I. After making yet another case for the eventual salvation of the Jews, Rabbi Meir
indicates "why we should not accept belief in their faith in Jesus and in their teachings and laws." The third through seventh of these anti-Christian statements are as follows:
Thirdly, because the Pharisees condemned him, according to that which is written in the Gospels. It is well known that, at that time, the Pharisees were wiser and more scrupulous in their concerns for the commandments than the rest of the Jewish populace, just as the priests, the tonsured, and the Dominicans and Franciscans are today considered among the Christians. In the case of anyone whom they now judge a heretic or disbeliever, the barons must execute their judgment.
Fourthly, because the greatest of the priests and high priests, called in their books Caiaphas, condemned him. It is written in the Torah: "If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your courts—you shall promptly repair to the place which the Lord your God has chosen and appear before the levitical priests or the magistrate in charge at the time and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place which the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you." It further says: "Should a man act presumptuously and disregard the priest charged with serving there the Lord your God or the magistrate, that man shall die . . ." Thus we must not swerve from the command of these high priests, and anyone who transgresses their injunctions is deserving of death.
Fifthly, because the entire people agreed in condemning him to crucifixion. If it were true that he was beneficial in healing their sick and restoring sight to their blind and hearing to their deaf and in reviving their dead, then all the people would not have agreed unanimously to have him killed. But indeed it says in their Gospels that, when the procurator Pilate said: "What shall I do with Jesus?", then all the people said: "Let him be crucified." Who can believe that someone who brought only great benefits and lightened the burden of the commandments would be condemned to death, unless the people recognized unfailingly that his deeds were performed through magic and that his words were not proper and true. . . .
Sixthly, because he was their kinsman and, according to Christian testimony, of royal lineage. If the Jews had done this [condemnation of an accused] to a stranger, we should believe them; how much more so to a kinsman. For it is natural that a man attempts to prove the innocence of his kinsmen and declines to see their guilt, unless the matter is simple and obvious. Thus if Jesus's guilt was not obvious, they would not have condemned him . . .
Seventh, because, if it had been as Jesus claimed, all the Jews would have felt pride and exultation and self-esteem more than any other
people—if it had been true that God had taken on flesh in the womb of a Jewish woman and that she gave birth immaculately and that he performed many signs and wonders and was exceedingly wise. . . . But behold, they did the opposite and transformed his glory into shame, for truly it is embarrassing and shameful for the members of a clan when one of them misbehaves and is exceedingly wicked.' Therefore those Jews must be believed when they testify negatively against Jesus. It is well known that the confession of a litigant is superior to a hundred witnesses.
This is an important line of anti-Christian argumentation in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] . The author is willing to acknowledge the veracity of the Gospel accounts of the historical rejection and condemnation of Jesus by the Jews. Rather than a heinous sin, this is viewed by Rabbi Meir as decisive proof of the falsity of the faith based on the life and experience of Jesus. His argumentation is explicit and detailed. He isolates three responsible parties to this condemnation: (1) the priesthood, the source of whose religious authority can be traced to biblical injunction; (2) the Pharisees, whose authority lay in their acknowledged religious scrupulousness; and (3) the totality of the Jewish people, whose wisdom resided in its unanimous rejection of Jesus. All three of these crucial groups agreed in a negative assessment of Jesus, despite a number of psychological predispositions that might have led to an acceptance of his claims.
One of the messianic attributes singled out by the priest in the dialogue was the wonders and signs performed by Jesus, again seen as fulfilling prior prophecy. This, too, was an old line of Christian argumentation, one with which the author of the Milhemet Mizvah was concerned. It was his view that Jesus never performed truly miraculous deeds, such as had been accomplished by great figures in earlier Israelite history. This assertion is found next among the anti-Christian arguments cited.
Eighth, because he never performed a sublime wonder. It is as the sage said: "Heaven forbid that the Holy One, blessed be he, cause the sun to stand still for those who transgress his will." Even according to them [the Christians], of all the wonders which he performed, there were no great wonders like that of the magicians of Egypt, who transformed their rods into serpents, which meant that a living soul entered the rods, which were not of the composition or structure to receive a living soul. But a corpse [into which Jesus was supposed to have infused life], its limbs and body have already held a soul. Thus, if a soul returns to this body, this is not such a great wonder. . . .
Twelfth. It is known that his wonders, which were written in the Gospels and which included curing the ill and similar matters, were done so that people would believe in him. Since this is so, he should have done them in a way which would permit no doubt in any wise and pious man's mind concerning his prophecy and divinity. If you say that he performed these deeds in a doubtful fashion so that some [of the Jews] would not believe in him and would kill him, then why should they be punished for this? They behaved properly, since his wonders were not of the sort which are beyond doubt. . . . Moreover, if it is true that, after he had been killed and buried, he went up to heaven and saved the souls of the righteous from Satan, why did he not ascend before multitudes? He should have gathered together all who had denied his divinity and had condemned him to death, saying: "Now behold that you have erred greatly," and should have ascended before them to heaven. Moreover, since you say that he was revealed to his twelve disciples in the Galilee, he should have done this publicly, so that the entire world would believe in him and not be damned.
As always, Rabbi Meir is verbose. There are two basic points: (1) the miracles attributed to Jesus are, on an "objective" scale, not terribly impressive, for the Bible records numerous instances of far more impressive miraculous occurrences; and (2) Jesus' miracles were conspicuously unsuccessful in achieving what they should have, that is, recognition of his claims by his contemporaries. His own ambivalent attitude toward wonders, recorded in the Gospels and known to Rabbi Meir, is seen as a sign of weakness. The more significant sign of weakness was simply the failure to produce miracles on a scale that would have necessitated widespread assent to his claims. Once again, the Jewish polemicist argues that Jesus failed to fulfill those criteria associated with the Messiah.
Rabbi Meir takes the negative reaction of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries as one indicator of the nullity of Christian claims and the weakness of his miraculous deeds as another. Quite clearly, however, the most telling argument, for him, is the broader failure to usher in the type of era associated with the biblical imagery of the Messiah. Thus, when the priest in the dialogue makes the fundamental claim that the Messiah has already appeared, the rabbi makes the following rejoinder:
Concerning the Messiah there are three major developments which the prophets foretold. They are: that the Messiah will rule throughout the world, as is written: "His rule shall extend from sea to sea and from
ocean to land's end." It is further written: "He shall rule from sea to sea." And it is said in Isaiah: "For the nation or the kingdom that does not serve you will perish." This has not yet happened to the Christians or to the Muslims or to any other people. Secondly, all the world will believe in God, may he be blessed, as is written: "For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve him with one accord." This also has not yet transpired. . . . Thirdly, there will be peace, as is written in Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war." It is further said: "He shall establish peace among the nations." But behold each day war proliferates between the pope and the prince who is the son of the emperor, and likewise between the Muslims and the Christians.
After the priest challenges aspects of this statement and is rebutted by the rabbi, the latter "adds further proof from the desolation of the land and of the enemy who dwells in it." This is not fully adumbrated in the dialogue but is further explicated in the continuation to the second sermon. These observations must of course be seen against the backdrop of ongoing mid-thirteenth-century strife in the Holy Land. Once again, Rabbi Meir is fully attuned to contemporary realities.
Behold the prophets have indicated for us many future events that were intended to take place while we were in exile and that were intended to take place during the subsequent time of redemption.
The first testimony is that God promised that he would turn the hearts of all, "so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve him with one accord" during the days of the Messiah, and this has not yet happened. Secondly and thirdly, it is written in the Torah, in the admonitions of punishment applicable to the Jews in exile: "I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled by it." Behold two future events are written in this verse. The first is the desolation of the enemies living in it. Indeed every day we see that both these predictions are fulfilled. . . . It is well known among us and obvious every day that, even were all the kings—the kingdom of Christendom and of Islam and of other faiths—to make peace and to rebuild the Temple and to inhabit Jerusalem, they would not be capable of so doing. God would sow confusion among them, so that nothing would materialize. There is no king who could rebuild Jerusalem and repopulate it even briefly in the manner in which it stood under our ancestors' rule for many years. Since we see that God, who is truth, has fulfilled this prediction concerning our exile, we must certainly believe that, at the proper time, he will fulfill for
us what he promised concerning the time of salvation, for his capacity for goodness exceeds his capacity for punishment.
In sum, from many points of view, the author of the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] (and many other Jewish spokesmen as well) rejected contemporary—and age-old—Christian claims that Jesus appeared as the fulfillment of messianic predictions from within Israelite tradition itself. The rebuttals in the Milhemet Mizvah are drawn from four directions: (1) disagreement with specific instances of Christian exegesis; (2) the rejection of Jesus by his Jewish contemporaries, with the notion that they should have been in the best possible position to weigh such claims; (3) the inadequacy of the miracles reportedly produced by him; and (4) the failure of the prophetically predicted general changes in the world order to materialize in the wake of his appearance.
With regard to the issue of rationality, Jewish spokesmen insisted that their faith was highly rational and that it was Christianity that was beset with irrationality. Let us note the defense of Jewish rationality presented by the author of the Milhemet Mizvah .
Behold I see that the Torah of Moses, to which I adhere and my ancestors adhered, is true and perfect, and in its practices [one finds] great goodness and pleasure, as is written: "Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace."
It teaches a true faith and the unity of the Creator, may he be blessed: that he created all the superior and inferior beings, as is written: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth"; that he observes all and knows the deeds, words, and thoughts of man; that he recompenses every man according to his behavior, whether good or bad, sometimes in natural ways and sometimes in supernatural ways. . . . All of this is done fairly, justly, graciously, and mercifully. . . . He accepts those who truly repent, as is written: "He forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin." But he punishes the wicked who stand firm in their rebellion and those children who continue in the paths of their [errant] fathers. If it seems that there is a wicked man who flourishes or a righteous man who suffers, all this is through the decree of his wisdom, for the benefit of the man who obeys and for the punishment of the rebel. . . . Indeed, in sum, each person will receive, either in this world or in the world to come, which is the world of recompense, the reward which is appropriate for him. . . . For all these matters there are many stories and verses in the Torah and in the Prophets. True wisdom also teaches them, for it is unthinkable to attribute to the Creator of all, who is infinite in wisdom and power, that he
makes the actions of this world meaningless and pointless, and even more unthinkable that he makes them wicked, cruel, and vicious.
In contrast, the Jewish polemicist sees Christianity as highly irrational. Key doctrines singled out for scorn are Incarnation and Trinity, with heavy emphasis on the former. One instance of the recurrent criticism of the doctrine of Incarnation is found in the continuation of the second of the author's recorded sermons, among his fifteen allegations against Christianity.
Eleventh, all physical characteristics were to be found in his body. He was small at birth, like all infants. There was no difference between him and other children. He was enclosed for nine months in a vessel of blood and there developed. When he was born, he passed through the birth canal and had to be washed. He had to nurse, cried, played, slept, awoke, ate, drank, and was hungry—he and his disciples—, defecated, urinated, and flatulated. But behold, we find with Moses, peace unto him, that he tarried forty days and forty nights, not eating bread or drinking water when he was on the mountain and the spirit of God was upon him. How much more should we believe that he was not in need of elimination and other objectionable bodily functions. Concerning Jesus, if it were true that divinity was within him, why was it necessary for him to eat and drink and perform other bodily functions. Moreover, he slept, but behold it is written: "The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Moreover, they were forced to smuggle him to Egypt, out of fear of the king, and he remained there until he matured, because of fear of the king. He was likewise hidden many times, even after he matured and returned to the Land of Israel. . . . Many times he was shocked and frightened out of fear of death. He also prayed to the Creator to remove the cup of death, but his prayers were not accepted. He would also conceal and deny out of fear. . . .
In penning such criticism of the doctrine of Incarnation, Rabbi Meir was, of course, in the mainstream of medieval Jewish polemics.
Jewish polemicists approached the issue of empirically observable moral and social standards with similar convictions of Jewish superiority and Christian inferiority. Rabbi Meir argues vigorously against Christian denigration of the Jews for their moneylending. He suggests consistently that there are no moral or religious prohibitions associated with such practices. Rather, Judaism, according to him, is a religion of elevated human values.
I likewise see that the commandments of the Torah are good and proper, useful for man and society and the perfection of the soul, so that it be
bound up in the bond of life forever. For among the commandments of the Torah is [the commandment] to observe the sabbath and festivals, so that man be relieved of the burdens of the world and consider the wonders of the Creator and read the stories of the Torah and Prophets and recognize from them that the Rock, may he be blessed, created all and watches all and directs all, as we have explained. Thus man accepts upon himself love of God and fear of God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. Also among the commandments of the Torah are [the commandments] to honor parents, teachers, and elders; to love one's neighbors; to refrain from vengeance, spite, and hatred; to deal properly with an enemy; to load and unload with him; to return his lost article; to give to the poor that which they lack. Also among the commandments of the Torah are [the commandments] to refrain from illicit sexual relations, from forbidden foods, and from impure objects. In sum, when the wise man examines the commandments, he will find that they promote the welfare of the body, the welfare of society, and the perfection of the soul.
In contrast, Christianity is, according to Rabbi Meir, deeply flawed by moral and ethical shortcomings. Note, for example, the following criticism of the central Christian sacrament of baptism.
You further said that even the sinners among you will not be saved for the world to come, unless they are baptized, even though they belong to the Christian faith. You intended to build a case against me, but you have instead been destructive [to your own cause]. You sought to buttress your claims, but I see through reason that you have smashed them like earthen vessels. Now you tell me how you can believe in such an injustice on the part of the Creator. Consider that two children were born today—one the child of a poor Christian man and a poor Christian woman, both righteous and faithful according to your religion. The father died prior to the birth of the child and his mother died during childbirth. Thus the child remained [alone] and neighbors nursed him graciously and piously, but he died before he was baptized. The other child was the son of a wealthy but wicked man. Because of his wealth, he found someone who baptized him. Subsequently both children died on the same day. Now tell me—what was the sin of the child of the poor man, who could not find someone to baptize him because of his poverty, so that he does not enter into paradise even though he is righteous? And what was the merit of the child of the wealthy and wicked man, so that he does enter paradise, because he was baptized as a result of his wealth? Is there favoritism in paradise toward the wealthy and the wicked, and is there prejudice against the oppressed poor? If I do not wish to accept such belief, because I see in it grave injustice, God will judge me favorably and will condemn those who attribute to him wickedness and injustice. "Far be it from God that
he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should commit iniquity."
This is a criticism that was widespread within Christendom itself all through the Middle Ages. It is particularly striking to find such a criticism of Christianity leveled by a Jew, since the medieval Christian image of the Jew stressed heavily the latter's physical fulfillment of a panoply of laws, without concern for their spiritual substance. Precisely this charge is made by the author of the Milhemet[*] Mizvah[*] in his continuation of the discussion concerning baptism. He points to the centrality of the spiritual content of physical religious acts, notes the essentially physical nature of many key Christian practices, and calls for Christians to be consistent and fulfill other biblically enjoined physical commandments—in the proper spiritual sense, of course.
The Christian practice of confession likewise elicits scorn from Rabbi Meir. In his catalog of critiques that forms the bulk of Part II of the collection, he opens with the following:
After all this [the positive description of Judaism], I shall detail for you all that I observe in the behavior and belief of Christians that is not agreeable to me. I shall commence with the matter of confession, which you call "poenitentia." Your practice is objectionable to me on two grounds. The first is that Christians confess to one set person, whom they call a chaplain, and indicate to him the sins which they commit. For this reason, on occasion, the sinner does not disclose all sins out of embarrassment and is thus damned, according to their belief. Moreover, on occasion, that man whom they call a chaplain learns from the one who confesses and imitates him. . . .
Secondly, women confess to this man and declare to him their infidelity, if she sinned with another man in place of her husband. The passion of the confessor may overcome him and he likewise will sin with her and will frequent her. For this reason, he will sin with many women from the town or citadel, and they will bear him children, but the matter will not be known. As a result, a brother may marry his sister or his aunt. . . . According to their faith, they should have ordered that a woman confess only before an old man seventy years old or more, unless the women themselves are very old and known to be proper.
Indeed, the Jewish polemicist's critique of patterns of Christian behavior extends beyond the sphere of religious practice into the general realm of societal norms. He claims, in effect, that the society that is rooted in Christian doctrine is, in a broad sense, cruel and amoral. While the author's concern is to buttress his Jewish readers' commit-
ment to their faith, his critical reflections on medieval Christendom have an independent interest for the modern social historian. They represent an unusual minority perspective on the shortcomings of medieval Christian society. The criticism of Christianity in Part II continues as follows:
Thirdly, they are lax in regard to sexual prohibitions, such as the prohibition of a married woman or of a relative, such as one's sister, mother, daughter, mother-in-law, or aunt. They then go off to shrines near and far and say that they will spend a night there and offer a candle or a coin and thus the sin will be forgiven, even though it is a serious sin worthy of divine punishment through premature death or capital punishment. . . .
Fifthly, anyone who is an extortionist and a criminal is given an opportunity to extort and to rob. He produces a seal from the head of the kingdom against another, forcing him upon threat of excommunication to travel two days journey from his home and to be judged before a judge whom the plaintiff has chosen. [All this is done] in order that the defendant redeem himself by payment from the expenses of the journey and from the loss of funds occasioned by cessation of work or from fear of danger on the roads. . . .
Sixthly, it would be proper that the bishop and the governor establish a faithful and honest judge and scribe, along with police and messengers, so that all these take nothing from anyone. They would only take their wages from the town's governor or from the townsmen as a group. Thus, when the defendant pays the plaintiff the sum owed, the latter would lose nothing. Now, however, if the sum owed is two shillings, he has expenses for the wages of the messengers who bring the defendant before the judge, and the scribes receive wages for writing down the charge and the response and the testimony of the witnesses. Thus the amount at issue does not remain; in fact sometimes there is not even half. It would be proper to return the sum of the obligation owed to the aggrieved and to punish the transgressor for all the expenses of the aggrieved. . . .
Seventh, they relax vows and withhold loan repayment by lengthening the period of repayment for those who have taken the cross and traverse the sea [to war] against the Muslims. They should instead warn that anyone who is sullied by sin not cross the sea until he correct that shortcoming.
Again, the essential point is that the moral deficiencies of Christian society reflect, in a profound way, the fundamental infirmity of the religious vision on which that society rests.
The last traditional Christian argument, that derived from the readily observable contrast in the status of Christendom and the Jew-
ish world, the former exalted and the latter oppressed, was powerfully presented by the Christian side and intensely resisted by the Jews. The author of the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] was deeply concerned with rebuttal of this argument and devotes much energy and ingenuity to assuring his coreligionists that contemporary realities are not what they seem to be and that Jewish status is not to be taken as proof of the rejection of the Jews or the nullity of Judaism. Two of the components of Part I of his compendium are, in fact, fully devoted to rebuttal of this line of Christian attack; these are the transcripts of two of the author's sermons.
Rabbi Meir responds in a number of ways to the challenge posed by Christian power and Jewish weakness. One line of defense is to mitigate the reality of Christian achievement. We have already noted the argument that, despite its acknowledged successes, Christendom has not fulfilled the high standards set for messianic times. Such promised features of the messianic advent as universal recognition of the true God and perfect peace among peoples are nowhere in evidence. On a less exalted and absolute scale, the author is well aware of the extent of Muslim power and sees that reality as yet another mitigation of Christian achievement. This is expressed in the dialogue in the following terms:
There is another clear proof for my claims. For behold the Muslims rule in portions of the world as do the Christians, and we are in exile under their control. Now the Christians acknowledge that the Muslims do not possess a true faith and that they will not be saved through their faith and that their souls will be damned and cut off. Indeed it seems fitting to say that for this reason God sent us into exile among these two people, so that neither might have a claim against us in this regard.
If Christians acknowledge that Muslim domination serves as no proof for the truth of Islam, then they must recognize that their own material achievements prove nothing. Once more, the message is aimed at Jewish readers who would fill in the list of subjugators of the Jews with additional names. They are thus encouraged to recall that no past subjugation had proved the truth of the religious vision of the subjugators, and neither would any present domination.
More important than challenging the Christian claim to truth based on material achievement and power was rebuttal of the allegation that the abject state of the Jews reflects the vacuity of Judaism. This contention is raised directly in the dialogue, eliciting the following strong reply from the rabbi:
[It was foretold] that, if we transgressed the word of the Torah. . . , God would exile us from our land and disperse us among the nations, as is written: "And you I will scatter among the nations." It is further said: "The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar." It is also said: "They incensed me with no-gods, vexed me with their futilities; I shall incense them with a no-folk, vex them with a nation of fools." It is hinted in Daniel that men of proper faith will be subjugated, as is written: "It cast down truth to the ground." It is further said: "And it waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and some of the host and of the stars it cast down to the ground and trampled upon them." Indeed this alludes to our holy Torah which is called truth . . . and to the Jewish people who have been compared to the stars of the sky. Thus you see that they have no proof from the greatness of their power and their domination over us that their faith is better than ours . . . Indeed the lengthiness of our exile is hinted in Daniel elsewhere.
Ultimately, however, we shall be saved, as is written: "Truth will spring up from the earth; justice will look down from heaven." It is further said: "For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." It is further said: "For all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know me." It is also said: "For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord." It is also said: "The Lord is a God of truth." These are true prophecies which will not fail. It is further said: "To you nations shall come from the ends of the earth and say: 'Our fathers inherited utter delusions, things that are futile and worthless.' " And it is said: "For then will I make the people pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve him with full accord."
Two elements in this passage are particularly noteworthy: (1) There is no challenge raised to the claim of degraded Jewish status. The author acknowledges the reality of Jewish subjugation. (2) The proof that this status is no reflection on the truth of Judaism is drawn exclusively from biblical prophecy. The essential argument is that the contemporary reality of degraded Jewish status is part and parcel of the divine scheme fully predicted in the Scriptures. Prophetic writings foretold a period of degradation, such as that through which the Jews were living, and also unequivocally foretold eventual salvation, which would likewise come about. The efforts to reinforce this sense of ultimate redemption are extensive and reflect awareness of the potential damage that prolonged Jewish degradation might entail.
Both of the author's sermons are based on the same kind of argumentation. In the first of the sermons, the focus is fixed on a set of verses in the Song of Songs; in the second, there is emphasis on verses from the later chapters of Isaiah. In both cases, the author argues that
Israel's suffering was foreordained; that it therefore cannot serve as a negation of the truth of the Jewish faith; and that it will eventually be replaced by a period of dignity and splendor. Let us conclude with a brief segment of the second sermon, which repeats many of these key themes.
The prophet said: "Fear not the insults of men, and be not dismayed at their jeers." That is to say, pay no heed to the insults which they shall level against you, whether by words or by blows of their hands or feet. The prophet used the term enosh rather than adam or ish in order to hint that they will be punished for this and that the insulters and jeerers will receive their punishment. It further says: "For the moth shall eat them up like a garment; the worm shall eat them up like wool." Now see and understand the parallel. For it is known that the moth is created from cloth and eats it and destroys it, just as does the worm in wool. The parallel has two aspects and both are true. In the first place, it comes to indicate that confusion will develop among them, so that they will destroy one another, as is written: "I will incite Egyptian against Egyptian." Thus vengeance for the people of the Lord [the Jews] will be self-inflicted [by the Christians upon themselves]. . . . Secondly, the verse comes to indicate that, with the sword with which they come upon Israel, they will be killed, as David said: "Their swords will pierce their own hearts." And it is said: "He has dug a pit and deepened it and will fall into the trap he made." Likewise, with the claims which they raise against our faith, we shall vanquish them. Thus God assured us through his prophet: "No weapon formed against you shall succeed, and every tongue that contends with you at law you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord; such their triumph through me—declares the Lord."
In sum, the new commitment to missionizing among the Jews, utilizing the new techniques of forced sermon and forced debate, often fell back on old and tested lines of Christian argumentation. The Jews were quite well prepared for these thrusts with traditional lines of defense. This, however, is far from the whole story. These same decades also produced strikingly innovative lines of argumentation, which necessitated new Jewish responses. This innovativeness is reflective again of the seriousness of purpose that animated the new missionizing of the mid-thirteenth century. While old arguments were occasionally utilized, there was a restless and unremitting search for claims that might be more effective. The key to these new claims lay in a remarkable effort to penetrate the Jewish tradition and the Jewish psyche, seeking to construct arguments in the light of a fuller understanding of the Jewish mentality.