Censoring Early Modern Hebrew Texts: A Review of The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania

by Yitzchak Schwartz

Each year, The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brings together enthusiasts of the Hebrew book to study topics in Hebrew book history with leading scholars in the field. Housed at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies in downtown Philadelphia, the workshop is a rare event that brings scholars, professionals and laymen together for in-depth learning and conversation. Participants generally include academics, graduate students, book collectors and museum, library and auction house professionals. Topics range across various disciplines but the workshops are generally grounded in careful material study of books. Recent past topics have included the implications of processes of printing (misprints, for example) on Jewish law and late medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama's commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: "Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688."

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama’s commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: “Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688.”

This year’s workshop, held May 8-9, was led by Dr. Piet van Boxel and focused on the censorship of Jewish books during the early modern period. Professor van Boxel is Distinguished Professor at the Oxford University Oriental Institute and is the former Curator of Hebraica and Judaica Collections at the Oxford University Libraries. In 2009, he curated the landmark exhibition of the Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, which examined medieval Hebrew manuscripts as a site of cooperation and cultural exchange among  Jews and Christians. The exhibition brought together some of the highlights from the Bodleian’s collection of medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which is the largest in the world, and a version of it traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2012-2013.

Over the two days of the workshop, Dr. van Boxel traced the history of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern Papal State. It has long been known that Jewish texts were censored during the early modern period, but the Church policy that informed this censorship and the realities of its implementation remain murky. Dr. van Boxel’s presentations aimed to elucidate both the theory and practice of early modern censorship of Jewish texts through research that draws on the history of the Catholic Church’s policies and examination of censored books housed in libraries around the world.

He began by discussing the infamous burning of the Talmud in Rome, which occurred during the Council of Trent in 1553. The 1553 burning was not the first time the Church had burned the Talmud: In 1244, after a disputation in Paris in which four Rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against accusations that it contained blasphemous statements, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned. However, it represented a shift in Church policy: Prior to the Counter-Reformation, Jewish texts had for the most part been protected by the Papal decree. In particular, the bull Sicut Judaeis, issued by Pope Callixtus II (1065-1124) in 1120, states that suasion, not violence, is the only proper means to evangelize to Jews to and that it is forbidden to take their property as a means of encouraging conversion. The burning of the Talmud contradicted this Papal decree but was made possible, Van Boxel argues, because Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the head of the Roman Inquisition, argued that the blasphemous teachings of the Talmud would lead Christians into the arms of Luther. Carafa used his power to compel local rulers and Bishops to collect copies of the Talmud and punish individuals who did not forfeit their copies. The books were collected and taken to Rome, where they were publicly burned.

Shortly after he burned the Talmud, Carafa planned to order the burning of other Jewish texts that contained blasphemous statements. However Pope Julius III (1487-1555) intervened and ordered that henceforth such texts merely be expurgated, that their blasphemous sections be blacked out by Church-appointed censors. Julius III’s decree made official Church policy harsher than it had been before the Council of Trent but van Boxel argues that the implementation of his decree was highly inconsistent and varied by location and by censor. At times censors, who were paid per book by Jewish communities, would expurgate a few lines at the beginning and end of a book and leave the rest. At other times they went far beyond protocol and blacked out words that had any association with blasphemous Jewish teachings.

Moreover, the professionalization of censorship necessitated the preservation of heretical portions of texts: Both the Church and Jewish communities created indices for expurgation, which excerpted heretical portions of Jewish and Christian texts to be expurgated. These were intended only for the eyes of censors but in the wrong hands they are veritable encyclopedias of heresy. The inconsistency of censorship also aided text’s survival in that many publishers, knowing that only some copies of a given edition of a book would be censored, continued to print texts in full. Other Christian and Jewish publishers collected all offending portions of texts they were printing on separate pages meant to be appended to the censored books, allowing their owners to dispose of these in the event of a censor visiting them and keep them otherwise.

One of the arguments Professor van Boxel made that I found most interesting was that because of the inconsistency of censorship very little if anything was lost to posterity because of it. Many uncensored copies of books survive today and it is hard to say if expurgation ever led to the complete disappearance of the original version of a text. I personally have often been taken by the romance of the notion that there might be countless early modern texts that vanished because of censorship, but that sentiment illustrates precisely what was so informative about the workshop: Equipped with a careful understanding of the process of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern period that penetrates the myths surrounding the subject, scholars can begin to consider this widespread phenomenon’s actual social and intellectual-historical implications.

3 comments

    1. Always an honor R’ Ronald! I thought you would find Dr van Boxel’s idea that censorship ultimately did little real damage interesting

      Like

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