Jewish Converts to Christianity Against Their Brothers:The Barcelona and Tortosa Debates /DR.R.S.Lissak

According to the ideology of the Catholic Church, G-d despised the Jews and transferred the status of the Chosen People to the Christians. The Catholic Church wanted Jewish conversion to Christianity as proof that G-d had transferred the elected status to the Christians. The way to persuade Jews to convert was to impose restrictive laws designed to humiliate them and isolate them from Christian society.

In Spain the Catholic Church went two steps further toward inducing Jews to convert to Christianity. First was to conduct public debates between rabbis and priests to demonstrate that Christianity was the true religion, and the second measure was conversion by force. The first disputation took place in Barcelona and the second in Tortosa under the aegis of the Kings of Aragon.

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270), also known as Nachmanides or the Ramban, represented the Jewish side in the Barcelona debate and Pablo Cristiani, a former Jew who converted and became a monk, represented the Christian side. Appointing a convert was intended to serve two purposes: he had the advantage of proficiency in the Talmud and other Jewish religious literature and he could serve as a model for emulation.

Cristiani presented four fundamental assumptions in his arguments: the Messiah that the Jews were awaiting had already arrived, the Messiah according to the biblical prophecy is both a person and G-d, the Messiah suffered tortures on behalf of humanity's redemption and upon the arrival of the Messiah all the laws of the Torah and the Commandments become null and void. Cristiani brought citations from the Talmud to back his arguments, focusing on a Talmudic passage that said the Messiah was born the day the Temple was destroyed.

Nachmanides refuted the fundamental assumptions of Cristiani one by one, and produced a totally different interpretation to the verses in the Bible and the Talmud upon which Cristiani relied. Nachmanides argued that by the time the Temple was destroyed Jesus was already dead. The destruction of the Temple occurred 60 years after his death. Likewise Nachmanides negated the possibility that the Creator had impregnated a Jewish woman and that a son who was born was the son of G-d, as it ran contrary to nature and simple logic.

In practice, Nachmanides bested Cristiani in the debate, but the Church published an announcement that Cristiani had gained the upper hand, and compelled Nachamanides to issue an announcement confirming this. Nachmanides' life was in jeopardy following the disputation and in 1267 he was forced to flee Spain to avoid arrest.

The Barcelona debate was a turning point in relations between Jews and Christians. Following the disputation trepidations increased among the Jewish communities in Spain due to the increased incitement and hate literature against Jews and Judaism. In effect a balance of terror had been created that threatened to blow up at any moment.

The Barcelona disputation provoked a stark controversy within the Jewish community, revolving around Nachmanides' declaration that halacha includes only the legal part of the Talmud, not the aggadic sections and commentaries. This declaration undermined Jewish self-confidence in their fate and created demoralization. The worried Spanish rabbis altered their approach to educating the younger generation due to the severe spiritual crisis.

The Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, who served as chief rabbi of Barcelona from 1265 to 1310 and was considered one of the Jewish world's greatest sages, was worried about the influence of secular studies on the religious faith of the younger generation. He therefore imposed a ban against studying the natural sciences and philosophy before the age of 25, assuming that if young people first engaged in Torah study exclusively they would be sufficiently steadfast in their faith to resist influence by outside studies. The ban did not apply to the study of medicine and astronomy.

In practice, two schools of thought formed in the Spanish Jewish community. The first was influenced by Greek philosophy and took a rational approach to the religious sphere, and the second preferred, under the circumstances, to adopt the Ashkenazic approach regarding secular studies. The elites, whose sons had studied secular subjects, preferred the first school.

The internal divisions undermined the resilience of the Jewish community and Spanish Jewry was stricken by a spiritual crisis. The second disputation at Tortosa in 1413 or 1414 further aggravated the internal crisis. But the balance of terror had exploded earlier, with a wave of pogroms that began in Seville in 1391 and spread throughout the country.

to be continued

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