Whither the Torah She’ba’al Peh?
BY RABBI JONATHAN ALTMAN
Rav Meir ben Baruch (c. 1215–1293), the Maharam of Rothenburg, penned Kinah 41 that we read on Tisha B’Av. The horror and sorrow expressed is deeply felt as the Maharam personally witnessed unspeakable atrocities committed against the Jewish community by Christian authorities in France and Germany. The kinah refers specifically to the fateful date of June 17, 1242, when twenty-four wagons filled with handwritten Jewish manuscripts were incinerated in Paris.
Two years earlier, at the Disputation of Paris, also known as the Trial of the Talmud, Tosafists including Rav Yechiel ben Yosef of Paris, head of the Yeshiva of Paris, and Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov of Coucy, were forced by Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity, to defend the Talmud from accusations that it contained blasphemous passages about Christianity. In letters sent to the Bishop of Paris, Pope Gregory IX claimed that the Talmud contained “matters so abusive and so unspeakable that it arouses shame in those who mention it and horror in those who hear it.” He also said of the Talmud: “This too is the chief factor that holds the Jews obstinate in their perfidy.”
The disputation resulted in Jewish books, specifically copies of the Talmud, being violently collected from shuls and batei midrash throughout France. These hundreds of volumes were then burned, a great catastrophe for worldwide Jewry in the times before the printing press. In the Maharam’s kinah, we sense his fear that the Torah would be forgotten, as there might be no books from which to learn!
The Maharam equated the catastrophe of the burning of the Talmud with the burning of the Beit HaMikdash. Without the Torah She’ba’al Peh, without the Oral Torah, there is no Knesset Yisrael.
Sadly, the story does not end there. R’ Hillel of Verona, a student of R’ Yona of Girondi, author of the Shaarei Teshuvah, wrote a letter to Rav Yitzchak the Doctor in which he blamed the burning of the Talmud on a scandal that occurred not too long before and in the exact same place. He is referring to the burning of the works of the Rambam.
The background to this is the translation into Hebrew of the Rambam’s philosophical works, Moreh Nevuchim, “The Guide to the Perplexed”, and Sefer HaMadah, the Rambam’s introductory work to his Yad HaChazakah. Much debate ensued around the legitimacy of these books; many criticized them, and others went so far as to burn them. On the burning of the Rambam’s writings and the subsequent tragedy of the incineration of the Talmud, Rav Hillel writes: “Don’t ask who knows if those decrees happened due to the burning of the ‘Madah and Moreh.’ I will answer that there is a sign. There were not even forty days between the burning of the Rambam’s writings and the [burning of the] Talmud and it took place in the same location, with the ashes of the writings of the Rambam mixing with the ashes of the Talmud. This was true and known by Jew and gentile alike and soon everyone will be aware that it was decreed from Heaven. From above a fire was sent because the Rambam’s writings were destroyed.”
The catastrophe and anguish over the destruction of these precious Torah books cannot be underestimated. But in these calamities we may find a lesson that is both contemporary and relevant.
The eventual destruction of the Rambam’s writings was caused by a legitimate concern regarding the introduction of external philosophical ideas into the mainstream of Jewish scholarship. The debates that ensued in a milieu of confrontation and animosity could have led to permanent extinction of books that today hold an eminent place in the shelves of every mainstream yeshiva and beit midrash.
Perhaps if we would take to heart the connection made by Rav Hillel and his teacher Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi, we would see that the greatest challenge to our existence as Torah-based communities worldwide is a level of tolerance and acceptance of Torah thinking that is different from our own. Hashkafic debate and analysis – the continued development of the Oral Torah in every generation – challenges us all to maintain a path that is halachically valid and true to foundational Torah truths.
Rav Kook, in a speech given at the opening of the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, spoke of the fears that we all have in allowing change into our private domains: the fear of changing winds and the fear of embracing new aspects of modernity. We fear because we are vulnerable. We worry that we have not absorbed our values deeply enough to withstand challenges from our surrounding environment. And this fear and vulnerability is legitimate and should not be underestimated.
This fear should motivate each one of us to strengthen our core principles, our foundational values and our personal commitment. All this brings growth. But when our fear motivates us to destroy the “other,” we should bear in mind the lament of the Maharam at the burning of the Talmud: “Without the Torah She’ba’al Peh, there is no Knesset Yisrael.”
The Torah She’ba’al Peh is a dynamic organism entrenched in the timeless Torah She’bichtav, the Written Torah. It paradoxically requires both stabilization and novelty. Though novelty elicits fear, being grounded in Torah She’bichtav allows each of us from across the spectrum of the Torah world to accept our differences. Once we have done that, our engagement with the broader community of Am Yisrael will be founded upon pride, stability and unwavering commitment.
In doing so we ensure the survival of Am Yisrael, with all its eclectic differences.
Rabbi Jonathan Altman is a Rabbi of the Yeshiva Mizrachi Community in South Africa.