Parshat Bo – פרשת בא- Refuting the Blood Libel

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא- Refuting the Blood Libel
THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom evanhoffman@gmail.com Parshat Bo – פרשת בא February 4, 2017 – ח שבט תשע"ז   This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Roslyn Levine; and by David Tantleff in memory of Estelle Tantleff.   Refuting the Blood Libel   Sacrificial blood played on important role in the ritual observed by the Israelites on the night preceding their departure from Egypt.  God commanded them to smear the blood of the Paschal lamb on the lintel and doorposts of their homes (Exodus 12:7).  Doing so would spare them from the ravages of the tenth plague, death of the firstborn.  “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I shall pass over, so that no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (12:13).”   Tragically, the association of blood with Passover rites sinisterly was reintroduced more than a millennium after Jewish sacrificial worship fell into desuetude.  The first known ritual murder charge leveled against Jews by Christians was the case of William of Norwich in 1144.  At first, the claim was that Jews kill Christian children before Passover as a mocking reenactment of the Passion.  After the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation, the ritual murder charged evolved into a blood libel.  It was claimed that Jews needed to kill and drain the blood of a Christian for use in the preparation of matzah.   In the medieval period the blood libel was not textually based; rather, it survived and was repeated because an ignorant Christendom was willing to believe vile calumnies about Jews.  Jewish attempts to refute the charges were simple and straightforward.  They encouraged Christians to look at actual Jewish practices concerning murder and blood consumption, not the malicious and fictitious claims made about Jewish behavior.   In the Ten Commandments the ban on murder is unambiguously set forth, without any caveat concerning the victim’s religious affiliation (Exodus 20:12).  Scripture repeatedly forbids the eating of blood (Leviticus 7:2617:12).  The blood of ritually slaughtered fowl or undomesticated animals must be covered with earth (17:13).  Human sacrifice is anathema, with child sacrifice being especially abominable in the eyes of God (Deuteronomy 12:31).  Israelite cultic officiants must scrupulously avoid contact with a human corpse (Leviticus 21:11).  Adherence to these Biblical precepts make Jewish commission of the crimes charged in the blood libel an absolute impossibility.   Starting in the early modern period, some Christian theologians were sufficiently literate in Hebrew and Aramaic to comb the vast corpus of rabbinic literature in search of textual evidence for Jewish hostility to Christians.  Johann Andreas Eisenmenger’s (1654-1700) Entdecktes Judenthum was a massive collection of Talmudic and halakhic citations.  Taken hyper-literally and out of context, these passages could be seen as proof of Jewish violent hatred for Christians.  August Rohling’s (1839-1931) Der Talmudjude was a condensed version of Eisenmenger’s work, though it went further in distorting real Jewish texts and completely fabricating others.  Rohling’s work later served as propaganda material for the Nazis.  Father Justin Pranaitis (1861-1917) wrote The Talmud Unmasked: The Secret Rabbinical Teachings Concerning Christians.  He was a charlatan who passed himself off as a Hebraic scholar.  During the 1913 trial of Mendel Beilis, Pranaitis embarrassed himself on the witness stand and exposed his ignorance of basic Jewish concepts.   These anti-Semites cited several Talmudic passages that, in their view, lent support to the charge of ritual murder:   “With respect to idolaters and shepherds of small animals, we neither raise them up from a pit nor lower them into a pit (Avoda Zara 26a).”  Those looking to find fault with the Talmud attempted to read into this passage that Jews habitually kill non-Jews.  Plainly, that is not what the Talmud says.  At worst, the Baraita discourages Jews from offering lifesaving assistance to a heathen in an emergency.  The Talmud immediately qualifies that ruling and encourages Jews to come to the aid of heathens lest Jewish refusal lead to inter-religious enmity.   The Talmud records how the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan butchered hundreds of thousands of Judeans following the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple.  Nebuzaradan noticed that a blood spot on the floor of the Temple appeared to be boiling.  He inquired about it, though the Jews were initially hesitant to tell him the truth.  Under threat, the Jews admitted that it was the blood of the prophet Zechariah who had been slain by his own people.  The spirit of Zechariah had not been assuaged; hence, his earthly remains were unsettled and bubbling.  Nebuzaradan proceeded to slay the leaders of Jewry, young men and women, and schoolchildren.  Yet the blood continued to boil.  Only when Nebuzaradan wondered aloud whether he should exterminate all of Jewry did the blood calm down (Gittin 57b).  Anti-Semites read into this tale that Jews believe an unjust killing can be expiated by shedding more innocent blood. In this view, ritual murder of an innocent young Christian was the means by which Jews thought they could atone for having killed Jesus, the supposed messiah, whom they spurned.   The Talmud teaches that, following the death of his father, a minor should be raised by his mother and not entrusted to relatives who are potential heirs of the deceased father.  On one occasion, an orphan boy was placed in the custody of relatives fit to inherit the deceased’s estate and they butchered him (Ketuboth 102b).  In describing when the relatives killed the boy, the Talmud used the acronym ער"ה.  Some scholars understood the cryptic term to be ערב הראשון, “the first night,” indicating the haste with which the wicked relatives acted to secure their financial gain.  Other scholars read it as ערב הפסח, “Passover eve.”  Anti-Semites seeking to prove the veracity of the ritual murder charge obviously preferred the latter reading.  Yet even if the Talmud meant ערב הפסח, there is no proof from this passage that Jews kill young Christians for religious reasons.  It would merely show that a small group of evil Jews killed a Jewish child for material gain.   The most troubling episode in which Judaic texts were cited as proof that Jews engage in ritual murder and blood ceremonies was the disputation at Lvov in 1759.  The Frankists, followers of the false-messiah Jacob Frank, entered the debate as professed Contra-Talmudist Jews.  Yet they went too far in attacking Judaism and embracing Trinitarian theology.  They emerged from the debate ripe for apostasy; most of them quickly converted to Catholicism.   The Frankists cited seven rabbinic sources in seeking to prove that ritual murder is not just a marginal Judaic phenomenon but is, instead, an obligatory and pervasive aspect of normative Rabbinic Judaism:   1) Rabbi Joseph Karo ruled that it is a positive obligation to use red wine at the Passover Seder (Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 472:1).  Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal explained that the color red is a reminder of the blood of the Israelites slaughtered by Pharaoh, although, he also noted, the contemporary custom was not to use red wine because of concern about the blood libel (Taz 472:9).  The Frankists argued that Taz’s comments are nonsensical, since Pharaoh did not slaughter the Israelites but only enslaved them.  Moreover, argued the Frankists, there would be no point in Taz commenting on a custom that no longer existed.  Rather, they claimed, Taz was cryptically referring to the use of red blood extracted from Christians slaughtered by Jews.  Instead of reading יין אדום as Yayin Adom, red wine, the Frankists read it as Yayin Edom, Edomite wine.  Badly misreading Maimonides (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 9:4), they claimed that Edom refers to those who keep the Sabbath on Sunday, meaning Christians.   The Frankist position is laughably absurd.  The Shulchan Arukh never ruled categorically that one must use red wine at the Seder.  It merely offered guidance that red wine is to be preferred absent the availability of (superior) white wine.  Taz’s homiletic connection between the color of the wine and the bitter experience in Egypt is entirely benign, without devious undertone.  His mention of the symbolic significance of a custom no longer in vogue does not raise a red flag and is hardly reason to spin a conspiratorial yarn.   2) In the Passover Haggadah appears an acronym for the ten plagues דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב.  The Frankists claimed that the true meaning of the acronym is דם צריכים כולנו על דרך שעשו באותו איש חכמים בירושלים.  “We all need blood, just as the sages did to this man (Jesus) in Jerusalem.”  This is plainly a fabrication and deliberate distortion.  The claimed sentence is grammatically and syntactically awkward.  Most notably, Jesus is never identified in rabbinic literature as אותו איש, but as אותו האיש.  Unfortunately for the Frankist who conjured the alternative reading of the acronym, none of the names of the ten plagues began with the letter ה.   3) The Shulchan Arukh rules that gentiles, deaf-mutes, imbeciles, and children should not knead the matzah dough nor place it in the oven (Orach Chaim 460:1).  The Frankists purposefully misread ע"י to mean על יד “next to” instead of על ידי “by the hand of.”  They argued that Rabbinic Jews were afraid to have gentiles witness the matzah baking process lest the secret of the blood ritual be exposed.  In fact, the exclusion of various groups from the baking process reflects the principle that the matzah must be prepared and safeguarded from leavening by people who are themselves obligated to eat matzah (Pesahim 38b).   4) “Rav Huna said: The dough of a heathen, a man may fill his stomach with them, providing that he eats an olive’s bulk of matzah at the end (Pesahim 40a).”  The Frankists understood this passage to mean that Jews actually consume heathens, specifically the blood of Christians.  What Rav Huna actually meant was that on the Seder night one may eat non-matzah types of unleavened bread baked with dough procured from gentiles, but that one must not forget to consume at least an olive’s bulk of real matzah (baked by Jews for the sake of the commandment) before the meal is concluded.   5) The Frankists cited the famous tale of an Aramean who participated in the Paschal ceremony under the guise of being a Jew.  The Aramean made the mistake of gloating to Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra about his illicit behavior.  The wise rabbi tricked the Aramean into having him subtly reveal his gentile identity the following year to the Paschal officiants in Jerusalem.  Upon realizing the Aramean’s true religious status, the Jews killed him (Pesahim 3b).  A Talmudic story about the slaughter of a heathen on Passover Eve in connection with the Paschal sacrifice was an obvious text for Frankists to cite in their efforts to prove the ritual murder accusation.  But this story does nothing of the sort.  Some scholars claim that it is ahistorical because Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra lived in the post-Temple era.  Even if the story happened, however, it merely shows how seriously Jews took the Biblical ban on heathen participation in the most important annual national-religious rite.  Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes suggested that they killed the heathen lest he report to the Roman authorities that Jews were surreptitiously convening on the site of the destroyed Temple for worship purposes. Whatever their motivation in taking the life of their deceiver, it most certainly was not to procure Christian blood.   6) “If a proselyte has been converted on the eve of Passover, the House of Shammai says he immerses and eats his Paschal offering in the evening.  But the House of Hillel says: One who separates himself from an uncircumcised state is like one who separates himself from the grave (Mishnah Pesahim 8:8).”  The Frankists read the words of Bet-Hillel as an open admission that Jews kill heathens on Passover Eve and that circumcision, meaning coerced conversion, was the only way for an ensnared gentile to escape the murderous clutches of his Jewish captors.  The Talmud explains the true import of Bet-Hillel’s statement.  The proselyte who converts on Passover Eve might get the impression that immersion in a ritual bath is a simple and immediate process by which all prior impurities are removed.  But that is only true for someone who was previously a gentile, and thus impervious to impurity.  The following year, as a full-fledged Jew, and having contracted corpse impurity in the meantime, he might repeat the same procedure of immersing on the eve of the holiday without undergoing the necessary week-long purification rite.  To forestall this unwitting error, Bet-Hillel ruled that proselytes who immersed too close to Passover should not participate in the Paschal ceremony (Pesahim 92a).   7) For centuries, Jews defended against the blood libel by pointing to the Scriptural ban on eating blood and the elaborate system of salting, melichah, required for the consumption of kosher meat.  The Frankists conceded that Jews were careful not to consume animal blood, but they claimed Jews were not nearly as averse to drinking human blood.  They cited the Mishnah.  “The blood of two-legged creatures is like the blood of creeping things in that none can become culpable by reason of it (Mishnah Bikkurim 2:7).”  The Frankists were here being intellectually dishonest because, as any student of halakhah knows, there is a wide gap between an action’s not resulting in a Biblical violation and that same action’s being outright permitted.  The Talmud rules that one may swallow one’s own bloody saliva, but that a bloodstain on bread must be scraped off before the loaf is eaten (Ketuboth 60a).  Maimonides explained that human blood is prohibited by rabbinic law once it has escaped from the body (Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 6:2).  Shulchan Arukh posits that the rabbinic decree is a matter of מראית עין, concern for what onlookers might think (Yoreh Deah 66:10).  No pious Jew, adhering to the full rigors of halakhah, ever drank human blood or ate blood-based matzah.   Despite living in the 21st century, many generations removed from the ignorance of the pre-modern period, we must nevertheless guard against the lie that never dies.  Jewry must be able to refute the blood libel on historical and textual grounds.  No purported incident of ritual murder was ever proven -- not Simon of Trent, not Father Thomas of Damascus, and not Andrei Yushchinsky of Kiev.  The Judaic texts marshaled by renegade Jews and hostile Christian clergyman most definitely do not remotely support the calumnious notion that Jews kill Christians or use their blood for matzah. We live at a time of renewed and intensified anti-Semitism.  May it be God’s will that our people always successfully defend against the vile defamations of the past and those of the present.