The Church and the Jews

A survey of Church issues relevant to Jews, including papal attitudes and actions and the enactments of ecclesiastical councils

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His successor, Innocent IV, generally less favorable to the Jews, at first followed his predecessor's course of action. However, when he became convinced by the Jews that there were no such "blasphemies" and that they needed the Talmud in order to interpret and follow their own laws, he not only relented, but spoke, for the first time, of the necessity of "tolerating" the Jews. If this in not very impressive by modern standards, it was nearly unique in medieval terminology.

Ecclesiastical Councils

Church councils could either be "national" or local, presided over by a local bishop, or if convened to deal with serious issues facing the entire "body of believers," ecumenical. It was only in the twelfth century that an ecumenical council was called by the Pope, I Lateran in 1123 (the Lateran palace in Rome was the residence of the popes prior to the building of the Vatican); however, it said nothing at all about Jews. Only III Lateran (1179), dealing in part with heresy in Provence, began to consider Jews. [Southern France was a hotbed of Christian heresy in the latter part of the twelfth and the thirteenth century. The heretics involved were Christians who disagreed with the church doctrine.]

Canon 26 renewed the old prohibition against Jews and Muslims having Christian slaves or servants. The pope, Alexander III, further prohibited the use of Christian women to nurse Jewish babies in the homes of Jews. Also, Jewish converts were not to be in worse economic condition after their conversion (converts were sometimes disinherited, or their goods and property confiscated by rulers).

According to a 16th century Jewish chronicle, not always reliable, the Jews were distressed when they heard of plans to call the council and allegedly fasted for three days, but the pope "spoke only good" about the Jews. The famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela reported that he met in Rome Yehiel, grandson of Rabbi Natan, "a handsome, understanding, and wise young man," who as in the service of Pope Alexander III and was in charge of his household finances. It is possible that he exerted some influence on the pope.

The Fourth Lateran Council - Bring on the Badges

It is far from settled whether the story in the same chronicle about the preparations of Jewish communities in northern Spain and southern France prior to the next ecumenical council, IV Lateran (1215), is accurate. It is certainly not impossible that rumors reached these communities about the planned agenda, which for the first time was to deal at length with the Jews.

The canons (67-70) on Jews have frequently been published, translated and discussed. The first dealt, again, with the issue of Jewish "usury" but nothing could be done accept to urge rulers to control the interest charged by Jews and be sure that Jews pay tithes to the Church on property formerly owned by Christians. More serious was Canon 68, which dealt with separation of Christians and Jews lest "accidentally" they have sexual relations.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.