During the Passover ceremony of the Seder, a few drops of the child’s blood, the symbol of Edom (Christianity) and of Egypt, dissolved in the wine, had the power to transform the wine into blood, intended to be drunk and sprinkled onto the table as a sign of vengeance and a symbol of the curses directed at the enemies of Israel as well as a pressing call to Redemption. Again, in connection with the Pesach, vengeance on the children of Edom—Christianity—representing the Edom renewed, at Rome, the city of impurity.
Passovers of Blood by Ariel Toaff
Very infrequently, a book about history becomes history—never was that circumstance more apt than Ariel Toaff’s publication of Passovers of Blood (the “Toaff Affair”). Not only does the book itself have something important to say about the era it covered, but the Toaff Affair also has something important to say about our era.
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On February 7, 2007, a relatively unknown Israeli professor of medieval history, Professor Ariel Toaff, published a book that immediately caused a sensation, at least in the Jewish and Israeli press, and he came under a withering assault from all quarters. From the sleepy environs of medieval history, Professor Toaff, the son of the then Chief Rabbi of Rome, became an instant Jewish pariah. From a then contemporary article:
[Bar-Ilan University] said Sunday it had “severe reservations” about a book published by one of its professors that reportedly suggested some ritual murders might have really taken place in the Middle Ages, committed by Ashkenazi Jews seeking revenge for massacres, forced conversions and persecutions suffered by German Jews from the First Crusade of 1096 onwards. … Stressing that the university had not yet seen Toaff’s book, the statement said that the university’s “senior officials and researchers condemned in the past and condemn today any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against the Jewish people.” The university said it had not been in contact with Toaff since the book’s publication in Italy on Thursday and that on his return to Israel, the professor would be summoned to a meeting with the university’s president, Professor Moshe Kaveh, to explain his research. Until then, the statement continued, the university would not comment on the book. Toaff’s work, “Pasque di Sangue”—Bloody Passovers—just released in Italy, shocked the country’s small Jewish community—in part because he is the son of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi who welcomed the late pope John Paul II to Rome’s synagogue two decades ago in an historic visit that helped ease Roman Catholic-Jewish relations after centuries of tension. The author, who teaches medieval and Renaissance history at Bar-Ilan University delves into the charge Jews added the blood of Christian children to wine and unleavened bread for Passover—allegations that resulted in torture, show trials and executions, periodically devastating Europe’s Jewish communities over the years. Historians have long disputed the medieval allegations, dismissing them as racism. But “blood libel” stories remain popular in anti-Jewish literature today. In his book Toaff cites confessions from Jews accused of ritual murder to expose what he claims was a body of anti-Christian literature, prayers and rites among Jewish communities of central Europe. Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars have denounced Toaff’s work, saying he simply reinterpreted known documents—and has given credence to confessions that were extracted under torture.
Initially, Professor Toaff maintained a defiant posture with regard to critics who had condemned him without even reading the book, which had been the product of years of research. On February 12, 2007, Professor Toaff responded, ironically enough, in an interview with Haaretz that: “‘I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me.’” Within days of searing criticism and threats made to his professional career, Professor Toaff was ostracized and shunned by virtually the entire Jewish world. On February 13, 2007, according to the Jerusalem Post:
Toaff has already paid a heavy personal price for his book and said that he feels as if he has been excommunicated. None of his old friends have called him at his Rome hotel during his entire week’s stay here, he said. He has been dismissed as editor of the Zohar historical review and is concerned he might lose his university position in Israel as well, although the university has said it will withhold judgement on the book until Toaff returns to Israel. He has even been prevented from seeing his father, Rabbi Elio Toaff, Rome’s former chief rabbi who led the community during both the terror attack on the main synagogue in 1982 and the pope’s visit in 1986. A rabbinical press release was issued against the contents of the book even before anyone had read it, based on the review. Riccardo Pacifici, vice president of the [Roman Jewish] community and its spokesperson … rejected what he said were Toaff’s claims of verbal threats from Italian Jews and said the reason he refused to come to the synagogue was out of shame, not fear. Comparing Toaff to a Jewish lawyer who wanted to defend two Nazis at a post-Holocaust trial in Lithuania, Pacifici noted the lawyer “broke down, cried and did teshuva (repented). I think Ariel Toaff’s case is similar. He has created enormous damage to our image in the Christian world but even more so in Islam. I hope he will do teshuva.”
Under incredible pressure, on February 14, 2007, Professor Toaff did teshuva and beat a hasty retreat, ordering that the publication of his work be halted:
The author of a new book that suggested there was factual basis to blood libels that led to the murder of millions of innocent Jews announced on Wednesday that he was suspending the book’s distribution. Ariel Toaff … said in a statement that he ordered the Italian publisher of his book to freeze distribution of his book so that he can “re-edit the passages which comprised the basis of the distortions and falsehoods that have been published in the media.”
(NB: “millions of innocent Jews”—really?)
In February 2008, Professor Toaff republished Passovers of Blood following extensive revisions, and it was received without much fanfare. The Toaff Affair, sordid as it is, is something that we should learn from. Even if Professor Toaff showed considerable cowardice in his pathetic retraction and later mutilation of his work to satisfy intense intra-Jewish criticism, his willingness to explore this issue honestly and deeply—the issue of the “Blood Libel”—is something for which he should be commended. If it is true that Professor Toaff’s critics condemned Passovers of Blood without even reading it, they were, at least in this instance, more than justified in doing so if their aim were avoid bringing shame and ignominy upon Jewish history—this work is by far the most devastating work on any part of Jewish history I have ever read, and, it is incredible that someone could have written it without understanding its toxicity. That said, his critics have succeeded in marginalizing him—and his work—to a stunning degree. A simple Google search of Ariel Toaff demonstrates that he has been reduced to an incompetent academic and Passovers of Blood, a recent and critical study of the history and circumstances of the “Blood Libel” phenomenon, is dismissed as a shoddy and unimportant work.
Notably, this review is based upon the first edition of Passovers of Blood, which is still available as of this date.
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Before we even touch upon the Passovers of Blood in either edition, the Toaff Affair raises important and pertinent issues that are relevant today. Indeed, the Toaff Affair is an example of “Cancel Culture” years before that idiom became popular. Moreover, we must remember the context of the humanities and social sciences today when we evaluate Professor Toaff’s work and the Toaff Affair itself—as an historian in the traditional Western sense, Professor Toaff was undoubtedly taught to challenge historical maxims and conventional understandings as a matter of course. The critical spirit of academia thrives on this type of challenge. Indeed, one cuts his teeth—and obtains tenure and a name—by challenging long-held and conventional assumptions of historical studies by adopting, as it were, its opposite conclusion. Even if it is ultimately wrong, the historian gets “credit” for his originality in the challenge. As a result, there is a dialectical nature to the study of history within the academy—“position A” becomes the mainstream accepted position; its antithesis, “position B,” becomes a popular critical mode by which some historians make a name for themselves; and still yet other historians construct “position C,” the synthesis, as a “new” way of understanding past events. What then emerges is thesis, antithesis and synthesis in historiography. But, since most contemporary historians are functional Marxists, the dialectical degree of movement takes place within a Marxist spectrum. In other words, academic historical study and analysis is actually very circumscribed and anything but critical. It may be viciously critical of private property, traditional morality, Western sensibilities, and religious authenticity and sincerity (especially Christian), but its criticisms end there. And it certainly is not critical of collective Jewish hagiography and essential victimology.
What Professor Toaff evidently did not know is that that there are certain types of “position A” that cannot be challenged by their antithesis, and, in particular, one “position A” that is beyond historical criticism is the axiom that medieval Jews were always and everywhere falsely accused of killing Christian children for their blood, and the Christian outrage that followed such false charges were thinly veiled spates of anti-Semitic violence. This “Blood Libel” then feeds an historical narrative that Jews were always victims and Christians were always aggressors and bigots. More to the point, the “Blood Libel” is a core tenant and narrative in the belief of universal Jewish victimology and universal European Christian culpability. Because of its foundational support for the claims of later Jewish victimhood, weakening or destroying the idea of the “Blood Libel”—or worse, actually assigning blame to Jews for the despicable actions of which they were accused—then threatens the entire thread of Jewish victimhood, which is the only contemporarily acceptable cultural narrative.
To challenge the so-called “Blood Libel,” i.e., that medieval Jews actually killed Christian children is to touch, evidently, a third rail of historical criticism and critique, much like critical discussions of Holocaust dogma. Professor Toaff found this out the hard way. Obviously, at a minimum, the Toaff Affair says something significant about academic freedom and its limitations as applied to Jewish sacred cows and the Jewish historical narrative—and the perverse reality that outside pressure can bring to bear upon it. Clearly, Professor Toaff’s initial work (i.e., his 2007 first edition) represented years of laborious work reconstructing the world of Ashkenazi-Christian interactions during the later medieval period. With an erudite grasp of the medieval Arabic, Latin, Italian, Yiddish, German and Hebrew, Toaff sought to reexamine the entire question of the “Blood Libel” to understand how that phenomenon came to pass—and he discovered, honestly, that the commonly held axiom of the “Blood Libel’s” patent falsity may, in fact, have overstated reality. Indeed, he had the temerity to conclude that certain “Blood Libels” may have been—and likely were—true.
Obviously, as a Jew, Professor Toaff did not set out to discredit Jews in researching and writing his book—he was, however, an initially truthful historian who drew conclusions from what he believed the existing historical data told him. In a sense, Professor Toaff did not understand that the ideas of academic freedom and academic inquiry were chimeras if they were turned upon the prevailing Jewish understanding of the history of the Jewish people. And he further did not understand that his Jewishness—and, indeed, sympathy for the Jews—did not operate to insulate him from violating this unstated maxim and eleventh commandment of Jewish life: Thou shalt never bring disrepute upon the Jewish people. That he was crushed for honest research is, of course, obscene, and illiberal—and the irony of his crushing is that it demonstrates that the Jewish world at large is not interested in applying their legendary intelligence and critical skills to their own history. Other people’s histories are fair game—but, what the Toaff Affair showed, is that anything that disturbs the axiomatic nature of collective Jewish hagiography is definitively and categorically off-limits.
It is not as if Jews do not understand that the efforts to whitewash history—the history of others—is pernicious. An example of Jewish outrage at something similar is evidenced by the Polish government’s recent adoption of a law criminalizing the association of the Polish people with the Nazi concentration camps built and maintained on Polish soil during the Second World War. Consider the following coverage of a Polish trial in which two Holocaust researchers were charged under the law—and note the themes at work:
The trial was also criticized by Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem, who labeled it an attack on free speech and academic and public discourse. “Any effort to set the bounds of academic and public discourse through political or judicial pressure is unacceptable,” said Yad Vashem in a statement to the press at the time. “It constitutes a serious attack on free and open research. Legal proceedings against Holocaust scholars because of their research are incompatible with accepted academic research norms and amount to an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust and on the veracity and, reliability of its underlying historical sources.” Overall, many have criticized Poland for its perceived tendency to whitewash the role of its own people during the Holocaust.
Setting aside the wisdom of legislating the scope of historical research, as adopted by Poland, there is something rich in all of this considering the overwhelming Jewish response to silence and destroy Professor Toaff. If “any effort to set the bounds of academic and public discourse through political or judicial pressure is unacceptable,” why was it acceptable to pressure Toaff through threats to his career and even threats of prosecution in Israel? If legal proceedings against Holocaust scholars constitute “a serious attack on free and open research [and] attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust and on the veracity and, reliability of its underlying historical sources,” why was the Toaff Affair not a serious attack on free and open research in order to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the “Blood Libel”? Finally, the claim, that “many have criticized Poland for its perceived tendency to whitewash the role of its own people during the Holocaust,” is especially duplicitous when the Jews themselves have more than just a tendency to whitewash their own history—they have a tenacity in whitewashing it and a willful blindness to any interpretation that conflicts with their own historical narratives.
Unwittingly, the Jewish critics and censors of Professor Toaff did more to validate his work questioning whether the “Blood Libel” was, in fact, a libel at all than any anti-Semite could—if they, including many Jewish professors themselves, are collectively and uniformly willing to silence someone for saying something uncharitable to Jews (even if true) about Jewish history, what else are they silencing? And, more to the point, how is authentically free academic research possible under such circumstances? When we consider that Professor Toaff touched upon actions and accounts hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, how much more vicious would an attack be today if a genuine sacred cow (like the extent and meaning of the Jewish persecution during the Second World War (i.e., the Holocaust)) was questioned or examined? Indeed, it is a crime in some countries to question that axiom. Again, I am not questioning it here—I am merely observing that it, like any historical narrative, must be grist for critical and thoughtful examination. The Toaff Affair suggests that we are many centuries away—if ever—from having a society that engages in that type of honest examination. More to the point, the Jews today have done more than they realize to validate every anti-Semitic notion that non-Jews sense by their deliberate destruction of honest and self-evaluative academic work.
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I had always considered the “Blood Libel” charge of the medieval ritual murder of Christian children by Jews as something far-fetched and, in all likelihood, to have been the product of a superstitious and ignorant Christian community in fear of the “other” (namely, the Jew) during a hyper-religious time. That opinion has been nurtured subconsciously in me from a very early age—to the extent I had ever heard of the “Blood Libel,” it was always prefaced or concluded by the sheer preposterousness of the accusation. Add to that a form of ubiquitous conditioning that Jews are uniquely and divinely opposed to any form of eating “blood” (see, e.g., Kosher dietary laws), the idea that they “ate” Christian children always struck me as something more appropriate for Grimm’s fairy tales than it was to authentic history. In fairness, as with many things, the “Blood Libel” controversy was never something that occupied much of my conscious time—in other words, I never considered it enough to come to a thoughtful conclusion, it was just an historical piece of data that I encountered from time to time.
In retrospect, my programmed response to the assumed falsity of the “Blood Libel” should not have been accepted so blithely for a few reasons that I knew even before undertaking any research of the question. First, I knew, in the ether, as it were, that there were various trials undertaken by the Church and local officials at that time that found Jews guilty of the very charges now conventionally deemed as ludicrous. And because I know enough now to know that the Church, especially in the medieval period, was an institution that valued due process and punctilious observation of form (even if it availed itself to certain methods we now reject), I should have never rejected, out of hand, that those medieval tribunals were something akin to hopeless kangaroo courts. Second, I also know now that the Church, despite the modern gloss, has always been indulgent and circumspect with respect to the treatment of the Jews. Far from the anti-Jewish monster that she is so frequently represented as, the medieval Church habitually protected the Jews from lowbrow anti-Jewishness and pogroms more than any other force in Europe. If the Church found some Jews guilty of these charges, she undoubtedly did all that she could to exonerate them if exoneration were possible. Indeed, the Church has always been, to a large extent, a diplomatic institution that sought to maintain whatever the given social and political dynamics were in an historical and geographic setting—trials of large groups of prominent Jews for killing Christian children undoubtedly threatened the delicate balance of social peace and economic wellbeing of the territories in which both Jews and Christians lived.
In other words, the Church had every reason to want these charges to be false. But as an institution with far more integrity than her critics give her credit, she also had to follow a process that ultimately led to the truth of the matter. In the end, she not only declared the guilt of the charged, the individual child at Trent, slain because he was a Christian, was canonized, and is Saint Simon of Trent. That alone should have been a giant blinking light to me that the charge of ritual murder had more to it that the modern dismissals that we are fed ad nauseum.
Perhaps the conventional dismissal of the “Blood Libel” is easier—even for observant Catholics. The very idea that medieval Jews conspired to murder Christian children—to crucify them in mockery of Christ—and then use their blood in a macabre religious ritual is too much to stomach. If true, the “Blood Libel” is a terrible case in which the malefactor successfully branded the victim as the criminal. What is one to do with that knowledge? And more to the point, if Jews abducted and crucified Christian children five- and six-hundred years ago, what does that say about how Jews, even today, feel about us? And what does it say about the historic coverup that redirected the guilt of these murders onto the victims as an alleged spasm of irrational anti-Jewish activity? In other words, does the truth of the allegations of the “Blood Libel” in fact threaten the idea, modern as it is, that there can be an effective and enduring rapprochement between Jews and Catholics? In other words, if Jews cannot come to terms with their historic anti-Christian bias while demanding that Christians come to terms with their historic anti-Jewish bias, what congress can we have with them?
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With at least some of these ideas in mind, I undertook to read Professor Toaff’s work and found that Passovers of Blood is an incredible book—an impressive feat of detailed and well-sourced scholarship. Unwittingly, Professor Toaff has done more to unravel the mystery of the medieval “Blood Libel” more than any author, living or dead. What undoubtedly began as attempt to understand the nature, context, and milieu for the accusation of medieval Jewish ritual killing of Christian children turned—almost palpably as the book progressed—into a stinging indictment and acceptance of the reality of the practice. In other words, the book reads as if written by a mind slowly and definitively being convinced of the veracity of the charge—namely, that certain Ashkenazi Jews abducted Christian children to crucify them and use their dried and desiccated blood in the Passover ritual. By the end, there appears little doubt that Professor Toaff believes that the “libel” of Jewish ritual murder and blood use was, in fact, true for many Ashkenazi Jews.
Passovers of Blood is so fascinating because it introduces us to a world that has been shrouded in so much secrecy. While the medieval Christian world, at least to the relatively knowledgeable reader, is known to some extent; the medieval Ashkenazi Jewish world is brought into stark relief by Professor Toaff. Admittedly, the context for that introduction is necessarily a negative one—i.e., ritual slaughter of Christian children—but the world of medieval Jewry is nonetheless brought out. Before delving into some of the specifics, what emerges is a Jewish world that was paradoxical—calculating but fanatical, frightened but emboldened, united but disjointed, influential but powerless, and pious but irreverent. Upon reflection, it looks a lot like the Jewish world today. What hangs over the entire episode of the “Blood Libel” question is the phenomenon of the Crusades—both in terms of what it meant for the Jews who crossed path with the hyper-religious armies of Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, and what it meant for the Jews when those same armies conquered the Holy Land and established a kingdom in Jerusalem. While the Crusades were a distant memory when the “Blood Libel” became a reality all over Europe, the success and folly of the Crusades strongly impacted the Jewish mind. That Christianity was triumphant over Judaism—and Jerusalem—caused a rash of voluntary conversions during the eleventh century all over Europe. But those who remained defiantly Jewish in the wake of the Crusades harbored an animosity towards Christianity that is hard for us to fathom today. The Crusades, more that perhaps anything, solidified the Jewish hatred of Christianity and, in a sense, institutionalized it as a dominant feature of Ashkenazi Judaism. To be a Jew then was to have an unutterable antipathy for Christianity, and that hatred revived and enhanced even the prior animosity that had always existed among Jews and Christians given their rival claims towards God and man.
Passovers of Blood is fifteen chapters—some of which are thematic of historical and religious Jewish ideas and some of which are descriptive of the real historical persons who played roles in Jewish ritual killings. In that sense it is two books in one—one is the history of the trial of the ritual killing of Saint Simon and the other is an explanation, broadly speaking, of the social and religious predicates for why ritual child murder and the consumption of blood was not as outlandish as it sounds. Indeed, as mentioned above, Toaff seems progressively convinced of the veracity of the “Blood Libel” as the book itself continues. Initially, Toaff introduces the reader to Ashkenazi community’s relocation from the German-speaking area above the Alps to what is now Northern Italy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Almost all the families that migrated were involved, in one or another, with moneylending and banking and the Ashkenazi newcomers managed to muscle out the existing Italian Jews. In a theme that runs throughout the work, Professor Toaff is antagonistic towards the German Ashkenazi Jews: as an Italian Jew himself, there is a distinct hostility towards German Jews that is not unlike, ironically enough, the hostility that Italians have towards Germans. Toaff says that the Ashkenazi Jews were overbearing, aggressive and boastful in their collective demeanor, and that they looked down on other types of Jews as inferior. In other words, the Ashkenazi Jews viewed themselves as the best and most pure form of Judaism. While numerically inferior to the other Jews existing at that time, the sheer will of the German Jews was enough for them to define themselves as the gold standard by which other Jews ought to live.
Toaff makes the point that the Ashkenazi Jews were more severe in their practice of Judaism than their Sephardic and Italian cousins. Indeed, he makes clear that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Judaism diverged after centuries of separation with distinctive liturgical practices and beliefs. Indeed, to some extent, Toaff blames this Ashkenazi distinctiveness for the “Blood Libel” itself. The German Jews were also involved with illegal practices that complimented their moneylending business—notably, counterfeiting. The picture that Toaff paints regarding the German Jewish entry into the world of Northern Italy is not an attractive one—a hostile and aggressive version of Jewry entered and appeared to have conflict after conflict with the Jewish and Christian locals year after year. They also appeared to become successful notwithstanding the failure of some banks and the trouble that some unscrupulous German Jews caused.
After this introduction of some of the characteristics and themes of Ashkenazi Judaism during this period, Toaff moves the reader to a specific date and time: March 23, 1475 and the murder of a two-year-old Christian child, Simonino, who was found on a riverbank close in proximity to the home of one of Trent’s leading Jews. The ensuing trial, the voluminous records, and depositions of which have been meticulously handed down to us from posterity, constitute the most important and detailed record of the ritual murder accusation, and a description, as it were, of the incredible and singular world of medieval Jewry. Professor Toaff notes:
These texts are a glimpse into a different world: the world of the Ashkenazi Judaism of the German territories and northern Italy, in all its sociological, historical and religious particularity. This was a Jewish world, enclosed upon itself, fearful and hostile towards outsiders, often incapable of accepting its own painful experiences and overcoming its own ideological contradictions. It was this world, which, moving from the negative and often tragic reality in which they lived, sought an improbable anchorage in the sacred text, which might illuminate a hope of redemption, which for the moment appeared beyond credibility: a Hebraic world discharging its energies in religious rights and antique myths, now re-enlivened with the renewed and different meanings and translated it into an alienating, harsh and rigorous confessional language, in which internal tensions and unresolved frustrations they had hidden at all times. A world in which, having survived the massacres and forced conversions of men, women, and children, Jews continued to experience those traumatic events in a sterile effort to reverse the meaning of that world, rebalancing it and correcting history. It was a profoundly religious world in which redemption could not possibly be far off; in which God was to be involved, despite himself, and compelled to keep his promises, sometimes by force. It was a world drenched with magical rites and exorcism, within whose mental horizons, popular medicine and alchemy, occultism and necromancy were often mixed, finding a position of their own, influencing and reversing the meaning of ordinary religious standards.
In a sense, this passage reflects both Professor Toaff’s indictment and seeming exculpation of the Ashkenazi Jews for their ritual crucifixion of Christian children. Parenthetically, if he thought this type of sympathetic contextualizing of the reality of this Jewish practice of ritual sacrifice would suffice to satisfy today’s Jews as an ameliorative to the concession that ritual child sacrifice was indeed practiced among Jews, he was sorely and naively mistaken. As if to demonstrate the widespread mania surrounding Jewish ritual murder, Professor Toaff details over two chapters the known cases and trials of Jews for ritual murder. What makes them more believable, in part, for Toaff anyway, is that they almost universally involved Ashkenazi Jews—there were few cases involving Sephardic or Italian Jews. Sometimes, the mere disappearance of a child would lead to accusations against the Jews but would terminate, embarrassingly enough for the accusers, when the child was found unharmed. Clearly, even if the “Blood Libel” was true in part, Professor Toaff admits that the hysteria surrounding it led to seemingly many other accusations that were either palpably or likely false.
That said, Professor Toaff shows that there were a rash of these deaths over the course of two hundred years that almost always involved Ashkenazi Jews and almost always occurred during the spring (corresponding with Holy Week and Passover). The assorted records from these other ritual murder trials range from none to scant—but there is a theme that runs throughout: Jews were interested in Christian children and their blood, and there appears to be something of a network of Jews whose business was to procure such children (often, most easily, from beggars or orphans). There is also a suggestion that the Ashkenazi community closed ranks when someone or some group was accused of such a charge—and either bribed, attempted to bribe, or purchased the freedom of whomever they could. Professor Toaff also details how these same Ashkenazi Jews were often accused of, or witnessed, blaspheming Christianity, doing violence to Christian symbols and, even in some cases, profaning the Blessed Sacrament. In sum, a picture is presented of a very hostile and contemptuous Jewish minority living among the Christians during this time. Implied in the text, although not stated overtly, is that the resident Italian Jews enjoyed a more harmonious relationship with their gentile neighbors than did their Ashkenazi co-religionists.
If the first five chapters of Passovers of Blood set the table, pardon the pun, for the predicate and reality of ritual child sacrifice and consumption of their blood by Ashkenazi Jews, the next five chapters go into detail of the why and how this tradition came into existence. While Professor Toaff is certainly hazy, as are the records, on its beginning—he nonetheless does yeoman work in describing why the practice—both the ritual crucifixion and the consumption of blood—fit within a unique episode of a deformed Ashkenazi religious practice. In other words, Professor Toaff details how the ritual murder and blood consumption charge was not only plausible—it fit neatly within the weltanschauung of certain fundamentalist Ashkenazi Jews.
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Professor Toaff’s first predicate for understanding ritual murder is the role and belief of the special powers of blood that medieval people (both Jews and Christians) believed it possessed. In a world in which alchemy was widely practiced and scientific medicine was in its infancy, the medicinal and magical powers of blood were seen in a way that is hard for us to recognize. These powers was seen both as curative and restorative—a potion and a powerful spell. In addition to moneylending, the other profession that attracted Jews at this time (and in ours) was that of medicine. Jewish doctors were common enough and they accepted the coagulant (hemostatic) powers of blood. Dried and powered blood was deemed to help staunch the bleeding that came from the practice of circumcision. And, in many cases, the Jewish murderers or accomplices thereof of Christian children admitted that they used the blood as a circumcision hemostatic. Moreover, this was not merely a contrived confession: the practical Kabbalah contained recipes and advice for using “young blood” expressly for this purpose—so the idea that blood, dried and powdered by pestle, was used by the Jewish communities is not only not far-fetched—it is attested to by the then-contemporary sources of Jewish medicine.
The use of blood in connection with circumcision is connected to two other facets of then-prevailing Ashkenazi practices—practices that defy imagination. First, Professor Toaff details how young men would wash themselves in a concoction made of perfumed water and the blood flowing from the infant Jewish males that would act as an aphrodisiac and help them in their procreative powers. Similarly, and more disgustingly, the foreskin itself would be eaten by young Jewish women in what Professor Toaff calls “ritualistic cannibalism” in a ceremony that looks something like the tossing of a bride’s bouquet in a contemporary wedding. If we dispense with our revulsion at such practices, which are, after all, not the point, we find that blood itself—as a medicinal and magical property—had a surprising and wide currency among Ashkenazi Jews at this time.
Professor Toaff addresses the objection of the religious strictures that Jews—especially religious Jews—impose against the consumption of human blood. First, he notes that Jewish recipes in a compendium of Ashkenazi remedies at the time provided for many recommendations for consuming human and animal blood for curing an assortment of ailments. When, during various trials, the accused Jews were confronted by the seemingly ironclad prohibition against the consumption of blood—several rationales by the accused were interposed. Some said that only animal blood was deemed prohibited by the Torah. Others were more candid—the prohibition, as applied to human beings, only pertained to Jews and not gentiles—so what was prohibited among Jews was not necessarily prohibited among gentiles. This latter argument, whether it was popular or not, would explain why Christians, among other reasons, were specifically targeted for their blood. Professor Toaff also cites a later Rabbinic opinion, in response to a query regarding the propriety of the practice and custom of ingesting dried blood among the Ashkenazim, that deemed it as acceptable because the blood was dried and, at least in a sense, was no longer what we consider “blood.” Thus, the common prohibition does not appear to be binding against dried and desiccated human blood provided it did not come from a Jew, and this practice was confirmed to be longstanding until recent times. Moreover, the practice of procuring the blood of Christian children was subject to a type of documentation requirement to ensure that the dried blood was what it was claimed to be—thus a type of testimonial certification of authenticity (not unlike a Kosher certification) was often required. Evidently the Jews were leery of being conned by a “dishonest” seller hawking dried animal blood in place of the blood of Christian children.
The predicate therefore is established first for what we could call “motive” as to why Jews at this time would have been interested in obtaining—and consuming—blood from Christian children—for its perceived value and properties. Already then, the idea of the “Blood Libel,” without anything further, becomes exponentially more plausible.
* * *
Along with the unsavory business of counterfeiting and usury, medieval Jews were known and feared for their role in the Muslim slave trade, which included the abduction of children inside Europe for sale in Muslim controlled territories and slave markets. And the fear of Jewish abduction for slaving appears to predate the hysteria and concern associated with Jewish ritual murder. Professor Toaff readily admits that the Jews of this period were preponderant in the medieval slave trade—noting that both then-contemporary Arab and Christian sources testify to the abduction, castration, and sale of Christian boys for use as eunuchs were undertaken by Jewish merchants. And this fear of child abduction and sale into Muslim lands had a profound effect on the Christian populations of Europe. His aside, as it were, on Jewish slaving appears to be introduced briefly as if to demonstrate a sort of reciprocity of hatred and loathing between the two communities. Indeed, at one point, he seems to suggest that the entire “Blood Libel” was one based upon harsh and mutual recriminations and fear of one another.
Professor Toaff’s observation regarding slavery is short, and perhaps that is fair because the book is not centered on the medieval slave trade. I do note that we live in an era in which European Christians—and European Christians alone—are being made to bear the guilt of the African slave trade as if they alone were the only peoples to engage in slaving. Now, African chattel slavery was a terrible and ignoble demerit on Western Civilization—one that needs no condemnation. But the reality is that slavery has been a constant of human civilization—and, indeed, continues in one form or another even today. Others, the Muslims, for example, practiced and sanctioned slavery on a scale that is beyond comprehension. But it is only Europeans, or their descendants, who are excoriated as history’s unique slaving villains. What is fascinating to me is that the slave trade to the Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also featured Jewish merchants and slave traders prominently—but the mere suggestion of a corresponding Jewish guilt for the American slave trade is verboten as if it is tantamount to anti-Semitism. That said, I never considered, one way or the other, the role medieval Jewish involvement in the Muslim slave trade. For Toaff to call them predominant players in that vile way of life is a greater indictment of medieval Jewry that Professor Toaff himself understood. In that sense, I wonder if he realized just how horrendous a description he was crafting, even incidentally, of medieval Jewry.
* * *
If the Jewish interest in, and restrictions around, human blood could be classed as something indicative of something relatively benign, the Jewish interest in ritual murder was anything but. According to Professor Toaff, Jewish converts and various accused murderers admitted that Jews murdered Christian children “to bring redemption closer.” In some of these cases then, the interest in acquiring human blood appears to be secondary. Professor Toaff addresses the antecedents of ritual murder in some early sources, including Talmudic sources, dating from the first few centuries after Christ but dismisses their value because later Christian polemicists did little to use them against the Jews. That said, he seems to make the connection because, in his words, the idea that ritual murder is alien to Judaism is simply not true. That said, the sources are relatively thin in this regard.
More pointedly, however, according to Professor Toaff, is the outsized role that the festival of Purim played in stoking and animating Jewish hatred of Christ and Christians. In particular, Haman, the infamous Persian leader, who persecuted the Jews and eventually lost his life on a gibbet of sorts, is remembered and cursed during the festival. Purim is, to this day, a raucous Jewish holiday in which drunkenness and carnival-like activities are observed. Part of the celebration of Purim among medieval Jews (and before) involved the hanging of Haman in effigy. The hanging of Haman—and the death of Christ on the Cross—gave way to a certain license among Jews to merge the two into one enemy of the Jews—the old enemy and the new enemy in Christianity. He notes that Purim gave vent to a strong anti-Christian sentiment in which it was observed that medieval Jews, at least in Venice, greeted each other during the festival that, “May the King of the Christians go down to ruin immediately, the way Haman went down to ruin.” And Toaff notes that occasionally the figure hung was no mere effigy—but sometimes a live Christian child. Other instances of killing Christians during the Purim festival are noted as well. Later, well into the modern era, Purim lost its distinctly violent connotations, but Toaff notes that the clearly anti-Christian meaning “was never renounced.”
The festival of Purim comes typically soon before Passover. Professor Toaff’s point, although never made so bluntly, is that the observance of Purim and the legitimizing of rage against Christians during Purim created a moment of vengeance that came together uniquely at the time of Passover. Purim whetted the appetite of indignation, as it were, of a population who resented and scorned the people with whom they shared a territory and lived under their laws and dominion. As such, the Jewish anger was intense on the eve of Passover, and Professor Toaff directly connects that wrath with the ritual slaughter of Christian children all over Europe.
If Purim was an emotional precursor to anti-Christian violence, then Passover, at least for some Ashkenazi Jews of the medieval period, was the realization of that violence and vengeance. And for these same Jews, Passover was intimately related to two types of blood—the blood of the lamb and the blood of circumcision, both of which were seen in sacrificial terms and as salvific. Circumcision began to take on exorcistic properties among medieval Ashkenazi Jews. The two types of blood signified two different divine realities: the blood of circumcision represented God’s mercy to the children of Israel; the blood of the lamb represented God’s justice to the enemies of the children of Israel. How this morphed into instrumentalizing the blood of Christians in the Passover Seder is fascinating and harrowing; Professor Toaff theorizes that:
The link between the blood of the circumcision and that of the Passover lamb came to assume additional meanings during the Middle Ages, particularly in the German-speaking territories, and no longer alluded merely to the blood by virtue of which sin is expiated. The latter blood came to be added to the bloodshed by Jewish martyrs, who offered their lives and those of their dear ones, “to sanctify the name of God”, rejecting the waters of baptism. Thus, the blood of circumcision, that is of the Passover lamb, and that of those killed in defense of their own faith, became mixed together and confounded, hastening the final redemption of Israel and persuading God to wreak his atrocious vengeance on the children of Edom, the Christians, responsible for the tragedy suffered by the Jewish people. The Jews in Germany who, during the First Crusade, sacrificed their own children, ‘as Abraham sacrificed Isaac his son’, were perfectly convinced that their own blood, together with that of the two other sacrifices—circumcision and the Passover lamb—all offered to God in abnegation, would not be lost, but would constitute the powerful fluid from which the well-deserved and predicted revenge and the much-desired Redemption would ferment. Thus, in a distorted logic borne of suffering and distorted by passion, one might even arrive at aberrant analogies which nevertheless appear justifiable from the point of view of the persons concerned. In the ceremony of the milah, a few drops of blood from the circumcised child, poured into wine, possessed the power to transform the wine into blood; therefore the wine was drunk by the child, his mother and the mohel himself, with propitiatory, well-auguring and counter magical meanings. By the same logic, during the Passover ceremony of the Seder, a few drops of the child’s blood, the symbol of Edom (Christianity) and of Egypt, dissolved in the wine, had the power to transform the wine into blood, intended to be drunk and sprinkled onto the table as a sign of vengeance and as a symbol of the cures directed at the enemies of Israel as well as a pressing call for redemption.
As if to leave no doubt regarding the abhorrence of this brand of Ashkenazi Judaism, in addition to the drops of blood from the child of Edom, Toaff goes further and recounts how stories of actual body parts were kneaded together into the charoset, which is the otherwise tasty admixture of fruit, nuts and wine, that I have had a chance to eat. The elements—the use of blood and outright cannibalism—were thought, at least according to Toaff’s speculations, to hasten the redemption of Israel and punish its enemies.
While this is admittedly vile, it is the closest that Professor Toaff comes to providing a theological justification, or, perhaps more fairly, a theological rationale for the practice. It is, and this goes without saying, so foreign to Christian ears. Even if one sums our collective foibles and sins—and they are gargantuan, Christianity is not capable of blessing and solemnizing this type of putrid and contumely behavior. Such a practice, even in the most warped interpretation of Christianity, could never have materialized: it is simply too remote from its Founder’s teaching and mission. For example, while forced conversions or attempted forced conversions for political, social, or even religious reasons are, unfortunately, a part of Christian history, they represent something deeply at variance to what Christianity is and what it requires, i.e., that man’s relationship with Christ must be essentially voluntary. As a creedal religion, it must be voluntary for it to be salvific. Even as an aggressively missionary religion, the phenomenon of attempted forced conversions has always been at variance with Christianity’s core teachings and principles. Nonetheless, we “own” it, as it were, and must not shirk from the responsibility of studying and considering it as a black mark on Christian history. In a sense, forced conversions were always fundamentally anomalous with Christianity.
By contrast, the practice and theology of ritual murder among the medieval Ashkenazi Jews, even if “deformed,” comes up from the wellspring of Judaism itself—it is taking something normative within mainstream Judaism, that is, the hatred and cursing of the non-Jew, and elevating that sentiment to a plane of action. It is not a deforming variant that is fundamentally at odds with the underlying ethos of the religion; it is something in concert with it even it is an extreme manifestation of it. And therefore, as such, it is itself an indictment of Judaism writ large as a deformation of the residual religion of those Jewish deniers of Christ and their progeny. Judaism after Christ is thus a religion predicated upon a faulty and chauvinistic aloofness that amounts to an unholy and unsanctioned rage against the “other.” Ritual murder of the “other” is simply an extension of that rage. There is at the heart of Talmudic Judaism something that is essentially vengeful and angry—something that is soaked in curses and hatred. While ritual murder itself was anomalous within mainstream Judaism, it is not fundamentally anomalous with the underlying and animating spirit of hatred of the “other.”
If child sacrifice, as alleged in every “Blood Libel,” seems almost too absurd to believe, yet another antecedent—or seeming justification—of it is in the Passover story itself. The Talmud contains the story that Pharaoh was stricken with leprosy in punishment for his persecution of Israel, and, in turn, Pharaoh soothed his diseased skin by bathing in the blood of Jewish boys. While this Talmudic legend was largely ignored by most Jewish groups, the Ashkenazi Jews incorporated it prominently into their Passover traditions. Woodcuts of the Haggadah amply show young Jewish boys as victims of this form of infanticide. According to Professor Toaff, “these images were intended to provide a response of irrefutable historical, obviousness and vivid suggestiveness, to the ritual murder accusation linked with the celebration of the rituals of the Pesach. The accusation was therefore turned on its head, or generally subordinated to the crime of child murder for ritual or curative purposes, which was then demoted in the scale of seriousness, as an aberration of which the enemies of the Jews (including the Christians) were also guilty.”
* * *
As a coda to the milieu of Ashkenazi Jewry and its rabid hatred of Christianity, Professor Toaff goes into some detail regarding the incredible events that were said to correspond to the Christian religious fervor that accompanied the Crusades, which, in chronology, took place a few hundred years before the events at Trent in 1475. As the Crusading armies passed through Germany and Italy en route to the East, attempted forced conversion of the Jews evidently were common. What happened in response was not:
[T]he phenomenon of martyrdom among German Jews at the time of the First Crusade, had no significant precedence in Judaism capable of explaining or justifying the phenomenon. Jewish Chronicles, written subsequently to those events, intended to describe the behavior of the Jews of their communities of the Valley of the Rhine. In these situations, they offered no excuse at all, nor did they appear to feel the need for justification of any kind. Under such tragic and exceptional circumstances, the choice to act contrary to the innate instinct to survive, and to love and care for one’s children, was a rational, spontaneous, and unpremeditated. The rational dictates of Jewish law could have no influence in such a situation.
In other words, in a circumstance without precedent, German Jews sacrificed their lives and those of their children to avoid baptism against their will. Thus, “German Jews were terrorized by the possibility of forceful conversion to Christianity.” Implied by Professor’s Toaff’s inclusion of this event, the mass self-sacrifice of Jews that accompanied the First Crusade heightened the already lively Jewish thirst for vengeance. The victims of past Christian attempts at forced conversions—huddled as they were in their synagogues and deliberating as to whom among them should perform the act of collective slaughter—were avenged according to Professor Toaff in the same place—the anteroom of the synagogue, and the sacrificed Christian child became part of a macabre ritual in which the congregants all took part. This vengeance was only partially vindictive for past crimes—it was also a pledge and offering for the final redemption of Israel and the destruction of its enemies.
What one takes from all of this is that German Jewry possessed a singular fanaticism that surpassed other Jewish groups. In a sense, Ashkenazi Jewry was right regarding its own commitments to its faith: it was willing to endure and inflict horrible things in its name. Obviously, Professor Toaff’s analysis of this type of historical gloss is designed to elicit an understanding of the Ashkenazi mentality—an almost absolution of the crime of Christian ritual murder given the context and memory of the suffering inflicted upon them. The hatred, the curses, the malignance of these Jews towards the Christians in their midst was overwhelming.
This point is something that deserves special consideration. If we take Newton’s third law, i.e., formally stated, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and apply it to human behavior and memory, and, further, if we take seriously the idea that the experience of the Ashkenazi Jews during the First Crusade was what has been passed down to us, then the violent and unhinged actions of later Ashkenazi Jews is not excused but understood, at least in a sense. It doesn’t even matter whether Crusader armies and the surrounding populace actually attempted to force conversion on masses of Jews, who, in turn, committed suicide to avoid the baptismal font. What matters is that later Jews believed that they had. For my own part, if my Christian ancestors in faith violated the first principal of conversion in threatening the Jews, i.e., its essentially voluntary nature, then they deserve condemnation for that gross violation of Christian values. And if it is believable that forced conversions happened, then it is believable that the anger that drove Christian men to take up arms against the Muslims who occupied and defiled Christian holy places—the same places where the Jews had conspired to slaughter our Lord—likely motivated these same Christian men to have little patience for the Jews who continued to resist the Lord. And if Professor Toaff is right to connect this experience with the later practice of ritual murder, perhaps, in a sense, we share culpability for what they did.
* * *
If the first chapters of Passovers of Blood are illustrative of both the atmosphere of Ashkenazi Jewry in Northern Italy and its hatred and contempt for Christianity and Christians alongside the circumstantial evidence of how this hatred could have—and indeed did—manifest itself in the murder and crucifixion of Christian children and the consumption of their blood, the final chapters are an in-depth analysis of the Trent trial records. In that, Professor Toaff reconstructs the testimony of the defendants with an eye to comparing their testimony to the nuances of Ashkenazi Judaism.
Critics, i.e., every seeming living historian, of Ariel Toaff’s position have always maintained that the “confessions” of the Trent defendants are functionally useless because they were procured utilizing interrogation techniques that we would, at least today, deem to be coerced. As someone familiar with, at least in part, the traditional English common law rights afforded to the accused in examinations, including the right against self-incrimination, I too am totally opposed to techniques based on coercion. What is interesting though is that the U.S. military—secretly—and the Israeli Defense Force use “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture by another name) techniques regularly in ferreting out the truth. This indicates that professional interrogators who are interrogating people in life-and-death situations believe that torture is legitimate. That is no defense of “torture” as an investigative tool but the uncritical dismissal, per se, of confessions obtained using these types of techniques appears to be too broad. The condemnation of “torture” in judicial proceedings can be maintained while simultaneously evaluating those statements procured as such for internal and external consistency and marks of corroboration. In other words, a categorical dismissal of the “confessions” is too punitive if the search for the truth is what is at stake; indeed, it’s just as suspect as taking the confessions at face value.
What one ought to do—and what Professor Toaff did—is take apart the confessions to determine if they had elements of truth. He found, almost completely, that they did. And the suggestion, carelessly made, that the defendants merely confessed—or signed off on—the words that the interrogators wished them to adopt is not consistent with the nature and content of what the confessions, at least at Trent, stated. The “torture” objection then to the Trent defendants appears to be a strawman—something designed to deflect from what the Trent defendants confessed. Thus, part of that reconstruction appears designed to rebut the charge that the confessions—and the use of torture—merely elicited testimony from the accused in the form that the presiding officials wished to hear. Whether Professor Toaff intended that result or whether it was a byproduct of honestly examining the testimony and coming to that conclusion, the net result is that he communicates that he does not think the testimony was a regurgitation of what the Christian judges wanted to hear because it is too steeped in the esoterica of the Jewish rituals and language that was often lost on the tribunal. The testimony, in terms of the confessions of how and why, fits too neatly within the milieu and sources of medieval Ashkenazi Judaism. In other words, it was far too accurate to be a contrivance of the tribunal.
The testimony and reconstruction are terrible—what it recounts is infernal. The ghastly liturgy that accompanied the medieval Ashkenazi Passover is reconstructed by Professor Toaff in three parts—the Seder, the Memorial of the Passion and “Doing the Fig.”
- The Seder
The Seder for the Trent defendants began traditionally enough—and is described as such—but then it diverged: “according to the custom of the Ashkenazi Jews, the curses against the Egyptians were transformed into an invective against all the nations and enemies hated by Israel, with explicit reference to the Christians.” Notably, this custom to curse the Christians preceded, according to Professor Toaff, even the First Crusade. As an aside, the curses pronounced, even as against the Egyptians, were only offered by the Ashkenazi Jews during their Seders and unknown by the Sephardic and Italian Jews. Toaff writes, “the Seder thus became a scandalous display of anti-Christian sentiment, exalted by symbolic acts and significances and burning imprecations, which was now using the stupendous events of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, simply as a pretext.”
Following the dinner and related benediction, another Ashkenazi innovation was a new “violent invective” against the Christians: “Vomit your anger onto the nations which refused to recognize you, and their kingdoms, which do not invoke your name, which have devoured Jacob and destroyed his seat. Turn your anger, upon them, reach them with your scorn; persecute them with fury, cause them to perish from beneath the divine heaven.” In the words of Professor Toaff, this curse was designed to call fury down upon the Christians and hasten the redemption of Israel; he writes:
The meaning was obvious. Messianic Redemption could only be built upon the ruins of the hated Gentile World. In reciting the curses, the door of the room in which the Seder was held was kept half ajar, so that the Prophet Elias would be enabled to intervene and announce the promised rescue. The anti-Christian invective was intended to prepare and facilitate Elias’ entry. … [T]he magical cult of the outrage and anti-Christian evil omen was one of the principal elements characterizing the religious fundamentalism typical of the Franco-German environment of the Middle Ages, and its so-called passive messianism, which was aggressive and ritualized.
Compare the medieval Ashkenazi Seder with the contemporary description of the Passover Seder as written by the anonymous authors of the same in a Wikipedia article: “the Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and for re-dedication to the idea of liberation. Furthermore, the words and rituals of the Seder are a primary vehicle for the transmission of the Jewish faith from grandparent to child, and from one generation to the next.” The vitriol of the Ashkenazi medieval Seder is one almost entirely predicated on rage and vengeance—the ideas of liberation and punishment are forward-looking and punitive. For medieval Ashkenazi Jews then, the Seder was directed primarily as a vehicle for revenge against the Christians in particular—which, as Trent confessions make abundantly clear, was soon to be acted out in real time. In sum, beyond the malevolence of the Seder as it was practiced by these Ashkenazi Jews, the testimony corroborated closely to reality as it was. According to Professor Toaff, “in substance, the so-called ‘confessions’ of the defendants during the Trent trials relating to the rituals of the Seder and the Passover Haggadah are seen to be precise and truthful.”
- The Memorial of the Passion
Professor Toaff details two aspects of the medieval liturgical Seder rite performed by Ashkenazi Jews—the use of the Christian child’s blood in the wine during the Seder itself and its procurement by the ritual crucifixion of that same child. The thrust of the ceremony was recounted as follows:
The rite of the wine, or blood, and curses, had a dual significance. On the one hand, it was intended to recall the miraculous salvation of Israel brought about through the sign of the blood of the lamb placed on the doorposts of Jewish houses to protect them from the Angel of Death when they were about to be liberated from slavery in Egypt. It was also intended to bring closer final redemption, prepared by means of God’s vengeance on the gentiles who failed to recognize him and had persecuted the Jewish people. The memorial of the Passion of Christ, relived and celebrated in the form of an anti-ritual, miraculously exemplified the fate destined for Israel’s enemies. The blood of the Christian child, a new Agnus Dei, and the eating of his blood were premonitory signs of the proximate ruin of Israel’s indomitable and implacable persecutors, the followers of a false and mendacious faith.
The Trent defendants noted that they “use[d] the blood as a sad memorial of Jesus in outrage and contempt of Jesus, God of the Christians, and every year we do the memorial of that passion … every year by mixing the blood of the Christian boy into their unleavened bread.” Further, “the Christian boy who was to be crucified during the rite in commemoration of Christ’s shameful Passion had to be less than seven years old and of the male sex.” Toaff notes the testimony that, “all those present placed their hands, now one and now the other, as if to suffocate the child, because the Jews believe that they render themselves meritorious before God by demonstrating their participation in the sacrifice of a Christian child.”
The history and provenance of this sacrifice undertaken to mock Christ was attested to by the most learned and senior of the Trent defendants—Toaff recounts:
[The defendant] vaguely attributed these traditions to the rabbis of the Talmud who were said to have introduced the ritual in a very remote epoch, “before Christianity attained its power.” These scholars, united at a learned congress, were said to have concluded that the blood of a Christian child was highly beneficial to the salvation of souls, if it was extracted during the course of the memorial ritual of the Passion of Jesus, as a sign of contempt and scorn for the Christian religion. Over the course of this counter-ritual, the innocent boy who was to be less than seven years old and had to be a boy, like Jesus, was crucified among tournaments and expressions of execration, as had happened to Christ.
The connection that Professor Toaff earlier made regarding the Ashkenazi understanding the blood of the lamb and its vengeful quality—and the need to somehow replicate it in the Passover Seder is brought into full relief in this passage and testimony of one of the defendants:
According to the laws of Moses, it is the custom of the Jews that, in the days of the Passover, every head of family should take the blood of a perfect male lamb and place it (as a sign) on the doorposts of the dwellings. Nevertheless, since the custom of taking the blood of the perfect male lamb was being lost, and, in its place, [the Jews] now use the blood of a Christian boy … and they do this and consider it necessary as a negative memorial [of the passion] of Jesus, God of the Christians, who was a male, rather than a female, and was hanged and died on the cross in torment, in a shameful and vile manner.
Professor Toaff references that the corroboration of this testimony is related to the then-prevailing funeral customs of the Ashkenazi Jews who touched the casket and tomb in a collective act that amounted to a joint exorcism. In addition, the reference to the rabbis who were claimed by the defendants to have taught the defendant the intricacies of this rite corresponded to real and notable Ashkenazi rabbis.
The blood was added to the kneaded dough of the unleavened bread, and it was also added to the wine at the dinner. The addition of the blood to the bread appears expressly, according to the defendants, to “consume” it as both a sign of outrage towards Christ, and as expressing a type of overlordship over Christ by Israel’s consumption of Him, i.e., “eating unleavened bread with Christian blood in it means Christians, went down to perdition with His death, Thus, the Christian blood contained in the unleavened bread shall be ingested and completely consumed.” Interestingly, Professor Toaff finds some corroboration for the ritual in one of the details provided by the defendants that would have presumably been beyond the knowledge of the Christian interrogators. In particular, the curse that accompanied the final preparation of the blood-infused unleavened bread recalled an invective that accompanied the curses of Rosh Ha-Shanah. In other words, this testimonial detail could not have been the product of torture.
The Seder itself incorporated the use of the Christian child’s blood immediately prior to the recitation of the ten curses against Egypt. The blood inserted into the wine was part of a ritual of cursing the Egyptians and the gentiles, and in particular, the Christians. The head of the household would dip his finger into the wine and sprinkle it on the table while reciting “this is the blood of the Christian child.” In describing this aspect of the ritual, Professor Toaff indicates that the description of gestures and order are not something that an outsider would have understood or appreciated. In other words, the very details provided by the confessions signify a veracity that was beyond the ability of the interrogators to control.
If all of this wine and bread used as a ceremonial remembrance has a Eucharistic, or, more aptly, an anti-Eucharistic feel to it, then we see something that is a Jewish ritual that acknowledges His importance and centrality but converts into something horrid and uniquely blasphemous. In a strange way, the description of this ceremony will be particularly understandable for Catholics who understand the importance of bread and wine in sacrifice. This anti-Eucharist of medieval Jewish making is so detestable and despicable precisely because it is a ceremony offered by the right people, i.e., the Jews, but for the wrong reasons. It is then dangerously close to a “Black Mass,” which also acknowledges the power and efficacy of Christ if only to mock and deride Him. In a sense, the Jews, no matter what they do, cannot avoid the Nazarene, and they are compelled, as it were, to continue paying attention to Him even if that attention is ghastly.
This strident hatred and cursing fit within a type of generational teaching to loathe and detest the Christians. Toaff notes the charge of a Jewish convert who admonished his fellow Jews as follows:
You are accustomed to instilling in those little children, along with their mother’s milk, the observance and concept of the Law and the holy language, with Hebrew names for many things. … This is so that they may easily and soon understand the Law and Bible. But at the same time, you inculcate hatred against the Goyim, that is the gentiles, by which name you refer to the Christians, never missing a chance to curse them, and make your children curse them. Thus, the name most frequently used against [Christian] children is Sciekatizim, that is Abominations, which is also the word you use in reference to the ‘Idols’, as you are accustomed to call them.
The defendants admitted that this custom was unknown among the Italian Jews—and not even totally accepted within the Ashkenazi community. He also writes that some Jews testified that they had been fearful that some within the Ashkenazi community would report them to certain Jewish elders who, in turn, would report them to authorities.
- Doing the “Fig”
For Anglo-Americans, the “fig” is something foreign. But if we liken it to the display of the middle finger, most commonly seen on American roadways, we catch a glimpse of what the “fig” is—but it is even more obscene in the cultures in which it is used. The “fig” then, in all of its obscenity, was perhaps a fitting way to end this gruesome and wrathful rite. Indeed, as if to offer a coda to the entirely dreadful scene of the medieval Ashkenazi Seder, Professor Toaff recounts the ceremony that took place with the Christian child’s body following his murder and extraction of blood. A sabbath service commenced with the body of the dead Christian child placed on the almemor, which was the center table and pulpit of sorts. According to the testimony, a fiery sermon denouncing Christianity in which Jesus and His mother were horribly blasphemed occurred over the body. Our Lord’s mother’s purity was ruthlessly mocked, and his parentage also calumniated. The content of the sermon, per Professor Toaff, fit within the later Hebraic Counter-Gospels written by members of the German Jewish community. And even though the leader’s sermon at the sabbath service in connection with Simon’s murder predated these polemical anti-Christian writings, they were, “doubtlessly characteristic of the intolerant climate of a certain section of late medieval Ashkenazi Judaism.” To that end, Professor Toaff references several other instances in which similar calumnies against our Lord and against our Lady were known and prosecuted during this time period in Northern Italy.
Following the sermon, Professor Toaff notes what the defendants described what happened next:
On the Sabbath, right after Little Simon’s murder, when the child’s body was placed on the almemor [center pulpit], the Jews of Trent, gathered in the synagogue, abandoned themselves to excessive gestures, absolutely without inhibition or restraint. According to the deposition of [one of the defendants], after concluding his fiery anti-Christian sermon against Jesus and His mother, [the leader] rushed up to the almemor, and, after “doing the fig,” slapped the boy in the face and spat on him. Not to be outdone, [another one] imitated these outrageous gestures, spitting and slapping the corpse, while [another] “did the fig,” mockingly showing his teeth, while [another] allowed himself to be carried away in the performance of other acts of violence with no shortage of slapping and spitting. … [Another] added that he had bitten the child’s ear in an attempt to imitate or outdo [the leader].
What Professor Toaff makes clear is that this ritual was clearly directed at Christ—the child, Simon, was merely incidental—he notes:
In fact, in their eyes [the Jews], the boy lying on the almemor and the crucified Christ were one in the same person. Simon did not exist—if he had ever existed—and, in his place, they saw the Talui, Jesus the hanged, and Talui, the hanged or crucified woman, as Mary was called in an extemporaneous Hebraic neologism. To them, he was Christ, and whoever had engendered Him—the detestable embodiments of Christianity, was responsible for their miserable Diaspora, their bloody persecutions, and forced conversions. Almost trance-like, they cursed and swore, performed contemptuous and obscene gestures, each one, recalling tragic family memories and the many sufferings of those who, in their eyes, had embraced the cross as an offensive weapon.
In this horrible spectacle, Professor Toaff noted some similarity between the longstanding practice of kapparot, in which Orthodox Jews to this day swing a young free-range rooster above their head in order to transfer their sins onto the chicken, which is then ritually slaughtered and eaten. This symbolic imputation of Christ—and sin—onto another has a distant analogue, Professor Toaff writes:
Similarly, as with the kapparot, in the case of the Christian child, his crucifixion transformed the child into Jesus and into Christianity, symbolically allowing the community to savor that vengeance against the enemies of Israel which is a necessary, although insufficient, preamble to their final redemption. The crescendo, insults and contemptuous gestures in front of the almemor of the synagogue was not, paradoxically, directed at the innocent Boy, but rather, against Jesus, “the hanged one,” whom the boy personified. Whether by ‘doing the fig,’ spitting on the ground, grinding their teeth or stamping their feet, all the participants in this spectacular representation, alive and charged with tension, repeated the Hebrew wish, ken ikkaretu kol oyevecha, which means, “thus may our enemies be consumed.”
Taken in sum, the anti-ritual as confessed to by the Trent defendants as a mock memorial of the Passion of Christ is like the Good Friday liturgy in reverse. Whereas we Catholics, in reverence and compassion for our crucified Lord, love Him and pray for the world, including the Jews; these Jews mocked Him anew with the blood of an innocent child and cursed Him and His followers. One bespeaks a heavenly service of atonement and supplication; the other, an infernal call of vengeance actuated by yet still more shedding of innocent blood. If it is true, which it certainly appears to be, it was one of the most diabolic things I have ever read.
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Passovers of Blood is a dumbfounding and revealing book. Whether Professor Toaff realized it at the time, he wrote one of the ugliest and vilest accounts of Jewish history. What he describes, from almost beginning to end, is a blood-thirsty (literally) nation who are the worst of people, who scheme and curse their neighbors, who steal and rob, who murder and enslave—and all with the distorted sanction of God. I see now, when I take the whole of it in, why an anti-Semite would want to see this reach a wider audience: the only conclusion that one can draw from it is that the Jews are a uniquely loathsome and detestable people. Considering that the book itself is well-written and well-reasoned, it is beyond credulity that someone as capable and intelligent as Professor Toaff could have missed the import of what he was publishing. It is like he validated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and then said, “oops.”
And therein lies the question, did Professor Toaff convince his readers of the veracity of at least some of the “Blood Libel” narratives? His proof, which ranges from the textual to the circumstantial to the testimonial, is riveting and compelling. At a minimum, Professor Toaff has established an aura of credibility that makes the “Blood Libel” plausible and even likely. In doing so, a whole new view of the medieval world was opened up—one that is pregnant with magic, potions, evil eyes, and curses. And if it is true, it is a terrible and damaging mark in Jewish history—a shameful and horrible practice that almost defies belief. The indicia of corroboration that Professor Toaff musters to validate the confessions are powerful as well, even if, at times, I felt that the corroboration at certain points was thin.
For my own part, after reading and re-reading this book to write this review, after thinking and mulling it over, I come out basically where Professor Toaff comes out—that it is more likely than not that some of the “Blood Libel” defendants did what they were accused of doing and did it for the reasons that they confessed to doing it. An inevitable inference and one that I think Professor Toaff missed from his conclusion, is that if he is right that some Ashkenazi Jews crucified Christian children and used their blood as part of a ritualized Passover malediction that was common enough to be taught and practiced among leading medieval Ashkenazi rabbis, we should probably assume that it took place more frequently during this era than Professor Toaff is willing to concede, and maybe more commonly than the number of reported cases that have come down to us from the historical records. And if that is true, it bespeaks something truly rotten at the core of Ashkenazi Judaism.
Part of me does not want to believe this—it is so difficult to internalize this type of charge and accusation. It is so disturbing, that it undoubtedly flavors my subconscious reaction to the Jews in a way that I wish could be avoided.
At least for the present, the antagonism between Jews and Christians in the West has operated in a non-violent way—in the guise of a civilizational conflict of ideology and religion. However, conflict in the West is being waged in the absence of Jewish ability to influence the political process in the way that, e.g., they did in communist Soviet Union with an authoritarian government and an ideology that mass murder was legitimate in order to create a classless Marxist utopia; or in Israel as a Jewish state increasingly dominated by the same types of religiously fanatic and ethnonationalist Jews who engaged in ritual murder of Christian boys centuries ago; or among the dominant neo-conservative U.S. foreign policy establishment that has fomented wars against Israel’s enemies and now against Christian Russia seen, as an Bolshevik times, as an historic enemy of the Jewish people. That is, one must consider the very prominent role of Jews in the Bolshevik slaughter of Russian Christians in the last century, the contemporary Jewish violence and dispossession being waged against Palestinians in Israel, and the recent neoconservative wars throughout the Middle East and in Ukraine (see here and here). And it’s obvious that anti-White and anti-Christian ideologies are becoming increasingly common as the West devolves into societies dominated by non-Whites (including a Jewish elite hostile to the traditional European-descended people and Christian culture of the West and has been instrumental in creating the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural West) and non-Christians, so it is not at all unlikely that the millennia-long conflict between Jews and Christians will turn violent.
To the extent that the historic animosity of Jews towards Christians has some contemporary meaning, i.e., if that hatred has continues to infect the attitudes of Jews towards Christians and their world, then Professor Toaff has revealed an historic wellspring of Jewish hatred that—even in the absence of ritual Christian child sacrifice—is astounding and frightening.
Saint Simon, Pray for us.