Angry outbursts are not something one would expect from an erudite and thoughtful rabbinic scholar. So it comes as a surprise when one reads in the surviving accounts of the disputation in Tortosa, Spain (1413-1414) that Rabbi Joseph Albo, the consummate theologian and author of the classic Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, a substantial philosophical work on the foundational beliefs of the Jewish faith, lost his temper.
As Sina Rauschenbach and others write, Rabbi Albo was impatient and spoke furiously, later getting trapped by his own words. On two occasions, he had to be interrupted by the pope.
Perhaps we can provide Rabbi Albo with the benefit of the doubt, however, by taking a closer look at the difficult circumstances of the disputation.
Besides the rabbis that attended, such as rabbis Moses aben Abez, Zerahia Halevi, and Matityahu Hayitzhari, and the Aragonian and Catalonian Jewish communities that were invited, it is widely accepted that there were 70 seats prepared for archbishops, bishops, and cardinals. It was also presided over by none other than Pope Benedict XIII himself.
Not surprisingly, according to one source, the rabbis’ “hearts melted” when they first entered the big hall. Moreover, unlike the previous disputations in Barcelona and Paris which lasted a few days, this disputation lasted 21 months during which time the rabbis were not allowed to leave Tortosa. Furthermore, the disputation took place at a time when there was great urgency to convert Jews.
The catalyst for the debate was a “sourcebook” on so-called Christological midrashic homilies and it was written by Geronimo de Santa Fe (formerly Joshuah Lorki.) Geronimo was converted by Vincent Ferrer, a roaming preacher and key figure in the disputation. According to the late Hyam Maccoby, Ferrer was filled with an “apocalyptic fury” not uncommon in the mendicant orders of his day. It is likely that the rabbis were well aware of the environment leading up to the disputation.
If its historical and physical settings did not create enough tension, the format of the disputation surely did. Maccoby explains that the disputation represented a summary of sorts on the Christian views of the Talmud, which varied historically from being perceived as an extension of “Old Testament Judaism” to being seen as a heresy against Christianity.
The content of the discussion, then, was a recognition of some parts of the Talmud and a rejection of the rest, but that determination was for the Christians to make. Indeed, if the rabbis responded that some parts of the Talmud were not as authoritative as others, they were accused of being inconsistent. Often, the rabbis had no choice but to answer that they are not learned enough to offer an explanation of the talmudic sections that were raised.
Thus, although the topic of the disputes was not about the veracity of Judaism or Christianity per se – and focused mainly on the question of if the Messiah had already arrived – the pressure on all levels was enormous. In fact, even when the rabbis were successful at one point at completely refuting Geronimo, at which point they asked the pope if the disputation can be terminated, their request was denied.
In light of all this pressure – and I am arguing that it had a significant impact on the 33-year-old Rabbi Albo – the quality of his arguments at Tortosa was impressive. According to Yitzchak Baer and others, Rabbi Albo continued building on these points in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim. Support for this claim can be seen from the fact that the epiphenomenal importance of the belief in the messiah, a point Rabbi Albo made at Tortosa, is discussed in the Ikkarim as well. Thus, from Rabbi Albo’s book one gets a deeper understanding of his views, while from the historical sources relating to the disputation, one gains an insight into the cause of his demeanour. n
Milevsky is a PhD candidate in religious studies at McMaster University, Hamilton. Twitter.com/TheLordGave