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Reading Medieval Religious Disputation: The 1240 “Debate” Between Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin

Reading Medieval Religious Disputation: The 1240 “Debate” Between Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin

By Saadia R. Eisenberg

PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008

Abstract: This dissertation takes as its subject the Latin and Hebrew accounts of a much-studied event: the Jewish-Christian Disputation of 1240. In medieval Europe’s first formal religious debate, Friar Nicholas Donin challenged Rabbi Yeḥiel of Paris over the legitimacy of the Talmud. After the disputation, Donin and Yeḥiel wrote individual accounts of their experiences. This dissertation concentrates on the texts of the two disputants and suggests a new approach to reading these texts. Based on the records of the 1240 Debate, this dissertation demonstrates that the authors’ goals in writing polemic were not necessarily or exclusively to offer a response to their antagonists. Read as a historical narrative, Yeḥiel’s document reveals that it is less an account of the debate than a manual for future Jewish disputants. Moreover, because Yeḥiel’s intended audience consisted of learned Jews, he was able to write in melitza, a pastiche of biblical verses in rhymed prose which is impenetrable to the uninitiated. Both explicitly and subtextually, Yeḥiel provided words of encouragement to his readers, as well as subtle anti-Christian invective. Donin’s Latin record addressed a Christian, clerical audience, as this was the population with both the ability and the interest in reading such literature. As such, Donin’s account must be understood as addressing ecclesiastical concerns, notably the development of unmonitored texts. In an increasingly text-oriented environment, unmonitored texts such as the Talmud were feared as potential catalysts for heretical or offensive ideas. This dissertation places the debate in a Christian context of increasingly tight systems of religious control over books. This dissertation concludes with a comparison of cultural developments in the Jewish and Christian world such as the rise of textual communities, questions of anthropomorphism, heresy, and the structure of academic institutions. Through cognizance of the milieu and audiences of the authors, both Jewish and Christian, we can come to a more nuanced understanding of religious, cultural, and intellectual currents of thirteenth-century northern France.

Click here to read the first part of this thesis from the University of Michigan

Click here to read the second part of this thesis from the University of Michigan

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