Radical rabbi says Notre Dame fire retribution for 13th-century Talmud burning

Shlomo Aviner, who moved to Israel from France in the 1960s, suggests fire that gutted iconic church may have been divine retribution for burning of Jewish manuscripts in 1242

Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Hubert Hitier/AFP)
Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Hubert Hitier/AFP)

A prominent religious-Zionist rabbi known for his extremist views suggested on Wednesday that the fire that gutted the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this week may have been divine retribution for the mass-burning of Talmud volumes by French Catholic priests in the city eight centuries earlier.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the rabbi of the Beit El settlement and head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva, said that Jews should not commit arson against churches, but also that there was no duty to be saddened by the fire, which gutted the famed 12th-century cathedral.

He made the comments to the religious-Zionist website Srugim as part of a question-and-answer column (Hebrew).

After initially balking at the assertion that the Notre Dame fire was divine vengeance, as “we don’t know the secrets of God,” Aviner went on to say it was “possible to say so.”

Christianity, he explained, “is our number one enemy throughout history. [They] tried to convert us by arguments and by force, carried out an inquisition against us, burned the Talmud, expulsions, pogroms. Western anti-Semitism draws from Christianity’s hatred of the ‘murderers of God.’ It also had a role in the Holocaust.”

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

He suggested the Notre Dame fire may be divine retribution for the mass-burning of Talmud manuscripts near the cathedral in 1242, following a Talmudic disputation.

“The first great Talmud burning happened in Paris, right there at the Notre Dame Cathedral square,” Aviner wrote. “It was the result of the Paris trial in which Jewish sages were forced to debate Christian sages, and the result was the burning of the Talmud. Volumes of Talmud were brought in 20 carts and burned there, 1,200 Talmud volumes. So [the fire demonstrates] ‘there is justice and there is a Judge,'” he wrote, the quote a reference in Jewish religious literature to divine justice.

An illustration by Jean Fouquet from about 1450 that depicts the cathedral of Notre Dame with the rest of Paris in the background.

The 1240 Disputation of Paris, in which rabbis were forced to defend accusations that the Talmud was anti-Christian, was remembered by medieval Jews as a traumatic event. The public “trial” culminated in the burning of some 1,200 volumes of Talmud and other Jewish holy texts in Paris in 1242.

In a period before the invention of the printing press, the destruction of so many manuscripts amounted to a significant setback for Jewish learning in the region.

The fire at Notre Dame began Monday afternoon, devastating the 800-year-old cathedral in the heart of Paris. French officials have tentatively attributed the blaze to refurbishment work begun in recent months in the medieval landmark.

By nightfall on Monday, the fire had claimed most of the building’s roof, including its steeple, which crashed to the ground, as well as an unknown number of priceless artifacts and works of art housed in the building. The church’s main organ, which had close to 8,000 pipes, also suffered extensive damage.

Debris inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 16, 2019, a day after a fire that devastated the iconic building. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/AFP)

Aviner, who moved to Israel from France in the 1960s, is a prominent and prolific writer and commentator on current events, and has often espoused radical views he insists are rooted in religious law. He has claimed Jewish law forbids Jews from renting apartments in Israel to Arabs — a claim denounced by many other religious-Zionist rabbis — and has advocated so-called “conversion therapy” for gays.

While he said he did not support burning churches abroad, Aviner claimed that the “issue is more complicated” in Israel and called Christianity an idolatrous religion.

“The [anti-Zionist] Satmar Rebbe, in one of his arguments against returning to the land of Israel, wrote that there is a commandment here to burn churches, and the failure to do so is a transgression” — and therefore, since Jews were not about to start burning churches, they should not immigrate to the land of Israel.

Aviner also said burning churches isn’t a great solution, since by doing so, the arsonists will be unwittingly making it possible for the church to rebuild.

Building a church in the land of Israel “is a greater transgression than leaving one intact,” he claimed.

One Israeli religious group devoted to interfaith understanding, Tag Meir, lashed Aviner for his comments on Wednesday.

“How sad, outrageous and shocking it is to read Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s response to the fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” the group’s Gadi Gvaryahu was quoted as saying in the Haaretz daily.

Illustrative photo of graffiti reading ‘Christians are monkeys,’ spray-painted on Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, in May 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy Dormition Abbey)

“If an important rabbi says, ‘There is no commandment to seek out Christian churches overseas and burn them, but in our holy land the issue is more complicated,’ what can we expect the outlying extremists on the right to say and do?” Gvaryahu asked.

Recent years have seen a spate of vandalism targeting Christian churches in Israel by suspected Jewish extremists and terrorists. They have been widely condemned by Israeli leaders and others, but efforts to identify and prosecute the culprits, who are believed to belong to tight-knit groups of far-right activists, have been mostly fruitless.

In February 2015, for example, officials at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem found parts of the seminary burned along with Hebrew hate slogans graffitied on the walls. Messages included “death to Christians,” “death to Arabs,” and “Jesus is a monkey.”

The Dormition Abbey is located next to the Cenacle outside the Old City’s Zion Gate, a compound that Jews revere as the site of King David’s Tomb and Christians as the room of the Last Supper. It has been the site of numerous graffiti attacks over the last decade. In 2014, hours after Pope Francis celebrated mass at the Benedictine abbey, where Christians believe the Virgin Mary died, arsonists set fire to the compound, causing minor damage.

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