A Medieval Jewish View of the Catholic Liturgy
The medieval Church's position on the Jews is summed up in the document Sicut Judeis. Repeatedly issued and re-issued by popes from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and included in the Corpus of Canon Law, it also incorporated earlier material going back to Pope St. Gregory the Great (reigned 590604).
[A]lthough [the Jews] prefer to persist in their obstinacy rather
than acknowledge the words of the prophets and the eternal secrets
of their own scriptures, thus arriving at an understanding of
Christianity and salvation, nevertheless, in view of the fact
that they have begged for our protection and our aid, and in accordance
with the clemency which Christian piety imposes, we, following
in the footsteps of our predecessors of happy memory..., grant
their petition and offer them the shield of our protection....1
The pope's benevolent protection was at best a mixed (if not a missed) blessing. Sicut Judeis affirmed the right of Jews to practice their religion, and it probably did restrain some forced baptisms, libelous accusations, malicious prosecutions, acts of extortion, and general harassment. But it explicitly excepted Jews who were accused of plotting against the Church, creating a massive loophole for any Christian who was willing to make such an accusation, however unfounded. Moreover, by endorsing the Christian perception of Jews as people who obstinately refused to admit the true message of their own scriptures, the popes contributed much to an environment in which helping Jews discover the truth of Christianity was perceived, not as a kind of religious persecution, but as an ethical and even charitable act of Christian love and piety. Even preachers who brazenly walked into synagogues on Saturday mornings to deliver their message had the support of both church and state.2
Of course, arguments about biblical interpretation had been going on since Christianity first emerged from within Judaism. For almost that long, Christian writers had been collecting controverted or compelling biblical proof-texts for use in such disputes, in anthologies or florilegia that often had the title Adversus Judaeos, "Against the Jews."3 It is hardly surprising, then, that medieval Jews, given the centrality of biblical interpretation in their own religion, began compiling a literature of their own, to collect rebuttals of Christian exegesis and approved Jewish interpretations of the contested passages.
One of the oldest such collections is the Nizzahon Yashan or "Old Polemic" (hereafter NY), a large compendium in Hebrew of Christian proof-texts and Jewish refutations. Evidently compiled in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, in a place where the vernacular was German, it was first published by a Christian Hebraist in 1681, then in a critical edition with English translation by David Berger in 1979.4 Most of the collection is devoted to passages from the Old and New Testaments, which Christians cited from the Latin Vulgate to support their claims. Usually these are quoted in somewhat garbled Latin, followed by a Jewish disproof of the Christian interpretation. But toward the end is a section dealing with proof texts taken from another source.5 These are not from the Bible, but from the medieval Catholic liturgy, primarily the Mass and the rite of Baptism. The sources of most of these liturgical quotations have not been identified accurately until now, partly because most of them have become very corrupt.
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