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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Dispeck, David ben Joel
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Public debates on religious subjects between Jews and non-Jews. Religious differences have at all times induced serious-minded men to exchange their views in order to win opponents over to their own side by appeals to reason. Abraham is represented in the Midrash as holding a religious debate with Nimrod (see Jew. Encyc. 1:86). In Alexandria disputations between Jews and pagans were probably quite frequent. The first actual disputation before a worldly ruler took place at Alexandria about 150 B.C., under Ptolemy Philometor, between Andronicus ben Messalam (Meshullam), the Judean, and Sabbeus and Dositheus (Theodosius), Samaritans, with reference to the Scripture text which the Samaritans claimed had been omitted by the Jews in the Septuagint translations. (Grätz, "Gesch." 3:44,650; compare Josephus, "Ant." 13:3, § 4). In the time of the emperor Caligula the first disputation between Jews and pagans before a ruling monarch took place at Rome, the erection of statues of Caligula in the synagogues of Alexandria having caused the Jews to send a deputation under Philo to the emperor, while the anti-Jewish party sent a deputation under Apion. It was typical of all later disputations, inasmuch as the defeat of the Jews was a foregone conclusion. Some of Philo's arguments are probablypreserved in part in his "Legatio ad Caium" (§§ 20-45). Papyri fragments discovered in recent years contain records of disputations held before Claudius and a later emperor ("Rev. Et. Juives," 37:218-223; Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., 1:65-70).

Between Jews and Romans.

In 'Ab. Zarah 4:7 and Baraita 'Ab. Zarah 54b is recorded a disputation held in Rome between pagan sages () and four Jewish elders, whom Grätz properly identifies with Gamaliel II., Eleazar b. Azariah, Joshua b. Hananiah, and Akiba, who went to Rome to have Domitian's decree against the Jews withdrawn (Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., 4:110). The following was the dialogue: "If your God hates idolatry, why, being omnipotent, does He not destroy it?" "Shall sun, moon, and stars, without which the world can not exist, be destroyed on account of the fools that worship them?" "But why are not other idols which are of no consequence destroyed?" "As well should seeds when stolen not grown in the soil, or a child conceived in adultery not be born. No; the world goes on in its prescribed course, and the transgressors shall meet their retribution" (compare Bacher, "Ag. Tan." 1:84). According to Eccl. R. 1:9, R. Meïr was delegated to represent the Jews at a public disputation with the government in Rome, the boar (), as the Roman emblem, being made the subject of the debate (compare Bacher, c. 2:35 et seq.). R. Meïr also had disputes with the Samaritans (Gen. R.; Bacher, c. pp. 32 et seq.).

Between Jews and Christians.

Of an altogether different nature were the disputations between Jews and Christians. At first these were bitter and sarcastic in tone, but, like quarrels between members of one household, harmless in their consequences. As they turned chiefly on Scripture interpretations, the Jew easily obtained the victory over his less skilled adversary. A number are recorded in the Talmud and Midrash between Christians called "minim" (heretics) or philosophers and R. Gamaliel II. (Yeb. 102b; Midr. Teh. to Psalms 10; Ex. R.; see Derenbourg, "Hist." 1867, p. 357; Bacher, c. 1:87) and R. Joshua b. Hananiah (Ḥag. 5b; see Bacher, c. 1:176). How prominent these disputations were in the early days of Christianity is shown by the number of fictitious dialogues written by Christians for apologetic purposes, and mainly copied one from the other, with references to the same Scriptural passages, and all of them ending in the same way: the Jew, who seldom knows how to answer, finally yields and embraces Christianity (see Origen, "Contra Celsum," 4:52, where the disputation between Papiscus the Jew and Jason is referred to; Harnack, in "Texte und Untersuchungen," 1:1-3; Conybeare, "The Dialogues of Athanasius and Zaccheus and of Timothy and Aquila," Oxford, 1898; McGiffert, "A Dialogue Between a Christian and a Jew, Entitled Αντιβολὴ Παπίσκου καὶ φίλωνος 'Ιουδαίων προς Μόναχόντινα," New York, 1889). Most valuable as a characteristic example of such a disputation is Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Tryphon the Jew." The author, who frequently calls himself "philosopher," took the famous R. Tarfon (also pronounced, probably, "Tryphon": Derenbourg, c. p. 376; Grätz, c. 4:58), noted for his fierce opposition to the Christian sect (Shab. 116a), as a typical representative of Jewish teaching, putting into his mouth rabbinical arguments for the sake of refuting them (see M. Friedländer, "Patristische und Talmudische Studien," pp. 20 et seq., 80-137, Vienna, 1878; Goldfahn, "Justinus Martyr und die Agada," in Monatsschrift," 1873, pp. 49, 104, 145, 194, 257). Often the Jew was horrified at the identification of "Christ" with the "Divine Shekinah," and termed it "blasphemy" (Friedländer, c. pp. 62 et seq.); and as the arguments taken from Gen. i 26, and similar expressions regarding the Deity used in Scripture, were ever reiterated by these troublesome "heretics," he found these disputations "full of weariness" (Eccl. R. 1:9; compare Sanh. 38b, 105b; Yer. Ber. 9:12d; Friedländer, c. pp. 62, 82). In the course of time, however, polemics became a fine art with some of the rabbis, Cæsarea, a place where Christians and Jews constantly met, being the chief School of controversy (Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 1:92). R. Simlai and R. Abahu were known as keen debaters (Bacher, c. 1:555, 2:115). On the fictitious disputation in Rome between Pope Sylvester (314-335) and twelve Pharisaic doctors before the emperor Constantine, see Güdemann, "Gesch. des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der Juden in Italien," 1884, pp. 39, 295.

In the Middle Ages.

Learned disputations of a harmless nature took place frequently in Italy, and a controversial Jewish literature sprang up in the thirteenth century (see Güdemann, c. pp. 12, 24, 87, 39, 230) with the declared object of defending the truth without giving offense to the Christian Church (see see Polemical Literature). Quite different was the tone of the disputations introduced in the Byzantine empire. Here Basil I., about 880, instituted such disputations, and the Jews were to be forced either to admit or to disprove "that Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets" (Grätz, c. 5:229), the result being generally expulsion and persecution. In the West, Jews and Christians disputed freely and on terms of mutual good-will in spite of occasional hostile attacks (see "Rev. Et. Juives," 5:238 et seq.). The impression prevailed among Christians that they were no match for the learned and witty Jews, while the latter frequently challenged the former, openly and frankly criticizing the dogmas of the Church. Among these Nathan L'Official and his son in France obtained about the close of the twelfth century great renown as bold and skilful debaters, and the disputes they had with popes, archbishops, and other prelates have been partly preserved (Grätz, c. 6:143,366; Güdemann, "Gesch. des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der Juden in Frankreich und Deutschland," 1880, pp. 18, 140 et seq.).

Paris and Barcelona.

It was only after Pope Innocent III. had infused the spirit of the Inquisition into Christendom, and the Dominicans had begun their warfare against every dissenter, that the disputations became associated with relentless persecution of the Jewish faith. Being turned into great spectacles by the presence of the dignitaries of Church and state—mock controversial tournaments in which the Jews were boundto suffer defeat—they became a direct menace to the literature and the very lives of the Jews. In order to secure to the Church the semblance of a victory, Jewish apostates lent themselves to the task of bringing malicious charges against their former coreligionists, supporting these by ferreting out every weak and ambiguous point in the Talmud or the Jewish liturgy that might be construed as a "blasphemy" or as defamation of Jesus and Christian dogma.

The first of these famous disputations took place at the royal court of Louis IX. in Paris June 25-27, 1240, in the presence of the queen - mother Blanche and the prelates of Paris, the rabbis Jehiel of Paris, Moses of Coucy, Judah ben David of Melun, and Samuel ben Solomon of ChâtteauThierry being ranged against Nicholas DONIN, the Jewish apostate. The four rabbis were to defend the Talmud against the accusations of Donin, turning mainly upon two points: that the Talmud containes immoral sentiments and blasphemous expressionsagainst the Deity, and that it speaks in an offensive manner of Jesus. R. Jehiel, timid at first, was encouraged by the assurance of protection by the queen, and succeeded in refuting Donin's charges by proving that Jesus, the son of Panthera, can not be the Jesus of the New Testament; that the term "goy" in the Talmud does not refer to Christians; and that the Minim who are made an object of execration in the Jewish liturgy are not born Christians, but only born Jews who have become sectaries or heretics. R. Jehiel's defense, however successful for the moment, did not save twenty-four cartloads of copies of the Talmud from being consigned to the flames two years later in Paris (see Levin in "Monatsschrift," 1869, pp. 97 et seq.; Grätz, c. 7:401; Loeb, in "Rev. Et. Juives," 1:247, 2:248, 3:39).

The second disputation took place at Barcelona on July 20, 1263, at the royal palace, in the presence of James I. of Aragon and his court, and of many prominent ecclesiastics and knights, between Naḥmanides and Pablo Christiani, who, like Donin, was the accuser and the instigator. The debate turned on the questions whether the Messiah had appeared or not; whether, according to Scripture, the Messiah is a divine or a human being; and whether the Jews or the Christians held the true faith.

Differing from R. Jehiel of Paris, Naḥmanides met his antagonist with fearless courage and with the dignity of a true Spaniard; and when Pablo undertook to prove from various haggadic passages the Messianic character of Jesus, Naḥmanides frankly stated that he did not believe in all the haggadic passages of the Talmud, and he went so far as to declare that he had more regard for the Christian monarch than for the Messiah. As to the question whether the Messiah had come or not, he could not believe that he had come as long as the promised cessation of all warfare had not been realized. It was a triumph for the Jewish cause, yet all the more did both the Jewish and the Christian friends of Naḥmanides warn him against the peril threatening his brethren from the terrible power of the Dominicans in case of defeat, and so, at his own request, the disputation was interrupted on the fourth day. But the enemies of the Jews were not set at rest. They claimed the victory, and when Naḥmanidespublished the frank statements he had made, the king, who had dismissed him with presents and with expressions of his regard, could no longer protect him, and he had to leave the country. Again the Talmud was made the object of attack; but this time, instead of the whole Talmud being proscribed or burned, only the offending passages were singled out for erasure by a censorial committee appointed by the king (see Grätz, c. 7:121-124).

Of literary rather than of historical importance are the public disputations held at Burgos and Avila in 1375 by Moses Cohen de Tordesillas with the apostates John of Valladolid and Abner of Burgos, and that held about the same time in Pampeluna by Shem-Ṭob ben Isaac Shaprut of Tudela with Cardinal Don Pedro de Luna, afterward Pope Benedict XIII., the disputations being made the subjects of the books "'Ezer ha-Emunah" (by Moses) and "Eben Boḥan" (by Shem-Ṭob: POLEMICS AND POLEMICAL LITERATURE).

Disputation of Tortosa.

The most remarkable disputation in Jewish history, for the pomp and splendor accompanying it, the time it lasted, and the number of Jews that took part therein, is the one held at the summons of the antipope Benedict, XIII. in Tortosa. It began in Feb., 1413, and ended Nov., 1414, and was presided over by the pope in state, surrounded by the cardinals and dignitaries of the Church who still retained allegiance to him, while hundreds of monks and knights and men of all degrees were among the audience. Joshua Lorqui (Geronimo de Santa Fé), the apostate, was to prove from the Talmud that Jesus was the Messiah, and the twenty-two most distinguished rabbis and scholars of the kingdom of Aragon had the choice of refuting his arguments or—and this was the scarcely concealed purpose of the pope, anxious to regain power and prestige through the conversion of the Jews of Spain—espousing the Christian faith. To judge from the fragmentary records, there was no great erudition or acumen displayed either by the aggressor, who dwelt on a few haggadic passages concerning the Messiah, or by the defenders, who no longer possessed the courage and self-confidence shown by Naḥmanides. The sixty-nine sessions passed without any other result than that neither the blandishments nor the threats of the pope, nor the fierce attack on the Talmud made by Lorqui, the pope's physician and chief adviser, could induce the Jews to become traitors to their heritage. A papal bull (May, 1415) of eleven clauses, forbidding the study of the Talmud and inflicting all kinds of degradation upon the Jews, showed the spirit that had prompted the disputation (see Grätz, c. 8:116,406). Under James II. of Castile, about 1430, Joseph ben Shem-Ṭob and Ḥayyim ibn Musa held frequent disputations with learned Christians at the court of Granada, but henceforth disputations became rare and of no historical importance.

Friendly Disputations.

Belonging to the class of friendly disputations (ib. 8:417, note 4) are those, whether authentic or embellished by legend, mentioned in Solomon ibn Verga's "Shebeṭ Yehudah": (1) Between Don Joseph ibn Yaḥya and King Alfonso V. of Portugal, (a) concerning Jesus'miraculous powers; (b) regarding the perpetual character of the Mosaic, law; (c) as to the efficacy of the prayer of a non-Jew; (d) whether the hosts of angels are numerable or infinite; (e) why sorcery, being based on error, is so severely punished in Scripture. (2) Between three Jewish artisans taken from the street, and Don Joseph ibn Benveniste ha-Levi with Alfonso XI. of Castile, (a) on the qualities of God; (b) on the distance between earth and heaven; (c) on the sun's radiation of heat; (d) on the forbidden fat and blood of animals; (e) on the night's sleep; (f) on the immortality of the soul. (3) Between Don Samuel Abrabalia and Don Solomon ha-Levi and Pope Martin (Hebrew text has ; see Grätz, c. 8:128, note), (a) concerning the fierce words of Simon b. Yoḥai, "The best of the heathen deserves killing" (: Mek., Beshallaḥ,; Yer. Ḳid. 4:66c; Massek., Soferim, 15:9; see Müller's ed., note): (b) on Jer. 1. 12 (Hebr.), "The end of the heathen is shame and desolation"; (c) on Simon b. Yoḥai's utterance, "You are called men, but the other nations are not called men" (B. M. 114b; Yeb. 61a; compare Lazarus, "Ethics of Judaism," 1:264, Philadelphia, 1900). (4) Between Don Pedro IV. of Aragon (1336-1387) and his physician, who, when asked why the Jews were not allowed to drink the wine touched by a Christian, had water brought to wash the king'sfeet, of which he then drank to show that the fear of impurity was not the reason of the prohibition (Grätz, c. 1:12). (5) Between Don Abraham Benveniste, Don Joseph ha-Nasi (ben Abrham ibn Benveniste) and R. Samuel ibn Shoshan of Ecija, and Don Alfonso XI. on the social conduct of the Jews, their usury and avarice, their musical accomplishments, their luxury, the Jewish sages ascribing Jewish usury to Christian legislation; as regards the dishonest means by which the Jews were said to have obtained wealth, they remarked, "We Jews are treated like the mice: one mouse eats the cheese, and people say, 'The mice have done it.' For the wrong-doing of one the whole race is made responsible" (ib. 8:25-27). (6) Between a Christian and a Jew, before Don Alfonso (V. ?) of Portugal, on the Messianic passages in Psalms 22, and on the hyperbolical haggadic passages in the Talmud. (7) The remarkable disputation of Ephraim ben (Don) Sango (Sancho ? more probably identical with the famous poet Don Santo de Carrion; see "Orient, Lit." 1851, , though disputed by Kayserling, "Sephardim," p. 328, note) with Don Pedro IV. on the question, Which religion is the better, the Jewish or the Christian? the Jewish sage answering with the parable of the two precious jewels and the two sons, obviously the original of the parable of the three rings, taken from Boccaccio by Lessing for his "Nathan the Wise" (see Wünsche, in Lessing-Mendelssohn's "Gedenkbuch,"1879, pp. 329 et seq.). The story of a disputation on the question, Which is the best religion? is, however, very old. One is said to have taken place about 740, before Bulan, the king of the Chazars, who, uncertain whether to exchange his heathen religion, which he had come to abhor, for Mohammedanism or Christianity, summoned representatives of these two creeds, as well as of Judaism, for a disputation. None could convince him of the superiority of his faith, and Bulan resolved to espouse the Jewish, since both Christian and Mohammedan referred to it as the basis of their own, and each recognized it as superior to the others (See CHAZARS). Upon this story the religious disputations in Judah ha-Levi's "Cuzari" are based. The story of a disputation occurs in Russian legends regarding Vladimir's conversion, but with a different result (see Karamsin, "History of Russia," bk. , ch. ).

In Italy, Germany, and Poland.

In order to have a great spectacle to excite the passions of the ignorant masses, John Capistrano, the Franciscan Jew-baiter, arranged in 1450 a disputation at Rome with a certain Gamaliel called "Synagogæ Romanæ magister," but otherwise very little known (see Vogelstein and Rieger, "Gesch. der Juden in Rom," 1895, 2:14). Disputations of a friendly character were held at the court of Ercole d'Este I. at Ferrara by see Abraham Farissol with two learned monks, the one a Dominican, the other a Franciscan, the matter of which is produced in Farissol's "Magen Abraham" and "Wikkuaḥ ha-Dat" (see Grätz, c. 9:45). In Germany it was the Jewish apostate Victor of Carben who, under the direction of Herrman, the Archbishop of Cologne, and in the presence of many courtiers, ecclesiastics, and knights, held a disputation with some Jews of the Rhine provinces about 1500, accusing them of blasphemy against the Christian religion; the consequence of this disputation was that the Jews were expelled from the lower Rhine district (ib. 60:70).

An Eighteenth Century Disputation.

Quite different in tone and character were the disputations held by the Jews, both Rabbinites and Karaites, with Christians of various denominations in Poland at the close of the sixteenth century. Here the Jews, untrammeled by clerical or state despotism, freely criticized the various religious sects, and it was considered a difficult task for a Christian to convert a Jew (ib. 9:456; see Isaac b. Abraham Troki). Occasionally disputations for conversionist purposes were arranged at German courts. One is reported to have taken place at the ducal court of Hanover, about 1700, in the presence of the duke, the dowager-duchess, the princes, clergy, and all the distinguished personages of the city, between Rabbi Joseph of Stadthagen and Eliezer Edzard, who had had been the instigator of the disputation. It ended in the complete victory of the rabbi, who not only refuted all the arguments of his antagonist from Scripture and the Midrash, but under the full approval of the court declined to answer under oath the question as to which religion was the best. He said: "We condemn no creed based upon the belief in the Creator of heaven and earth. We believe what we have been taught; let the Christians adhere to what they have been taught" (Bloch in "Oesterreichische Wochenschrift," 1902, p. 785).

Regarding the disputations between the rabbis and the Frankists before Bishop Dembowski at Kamenetz in 1757, and before the canon Nikulski at Lemberg in 1759, Frank, Jacob. For others, see Steinschneider in "Monatsschrift," 1883, pp. 80 et seq., and his "Uebersetzungen," pp. 305, 461.

  • Isidore Loeb. La Controverse Réligieuse Entre les Chrêtiens et les Juifs au Moyen Age, Paris, 1888;
  • I. Ziegler, Religiöse Disputationen im Mittelalter, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1894, reproduced in Hamburger, R. B. T. Supplement, 5:1900, s. Disputationen.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Disputations'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/disputations.html. 1901.
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