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The Redemption of the King’s Talmud

by Geoffrey Clarfield (July 2011)


Last month the sun came out in New York City. As its rays bounced off the two marble lions that flank the neo classical entrance to the New York Public library at Bryant Park (a perfect example of the 19th century Beaux Art architectural style) I bounced up the sculpted staircases of the Astor Vault and entered a temporary exhibit called Three Faiths, displaying original Jewish, Christian and Islamic manuscripts and books, many of them more than a thousand years old. As a former curator at a national museum I came to be dazzled and I wasn’t disappointed. Had they displayed the Ark of the Covenant itself, I would have been just as happy.

My spirits rose as I examined a plethora of different languages, scripts, adornments, illustrations and typefaces. Some of the books were encrusted with large precious stones. Each piece seemed to give off a residual spiritual radiation, as if they still reflected the moods and hopes of the people who once used them. For example a medieval Samaritan Bible appeared quietly confident, maintaining a Bronze Age script that had changed little since the 8th century BC. The Samaritan Bible contains eleven commandments.

The exhibit is designed so that at a glance you can compare and contrast the way Jewish, Christian and Muslim scribes and authors have dealt with common themes like the sacrifice of Isaac or the representation of the Biblical prophets. As it is sponsored by the Coexist Foundation, no doubt it is a small effort towards cooling the inter communal tensions that are still rising here over the proposed building of a mosque at ground zero.

In one book case my eye stopped in front of an open book from the Talmud. The Talmud is a multi volume collection of commentaries on the Bible, and commentaries on these commentaries. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in what is now Iraq and Iran while the Jerusalem Talmud was finalized in the land of Israel during late antiquity. Over the centuries the Rabbis used the Talmud to distill the 613 commandments which have structured Orthodox Jewish life for the last 1500 years. Its study is the avocation of all Orthodox Jewish men (and now some women) as it is a key pillar of Jewish religious life, in addition to charity, family life, gainful employment and participation in the daily, weekly and annual liturgical cycle.

Daniel Bomberg was a Flemish Christian printer who moved from Antwerp to Venice where he opened one of the world’s earliest printing presses and publishing concerns. From 1519 to 1523 he published complete sets of the Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. These are among the first printed Hebrew books and comprise some of the earliest printed books anywhere.  When Gutenberg established his printing press in Germany Jews were not allowed to join the printers' guilds. So Bomberg hired Jews in Venice to advise him on language, scripts, fonts and lay out. He was known to hire Jews in his printing shop and worked closely with Rabbinical experts in the community. We assume he sold many copies to the Jewish communities of his day. Had he lived in the 20th century we would have called him a dissident, refusenik or Righteous Gentile.

Soon afterward Pope Julius III and the Inquisition decided that the Talmud was a blasphemous collection of books. This was the culmination of a growing anti Talmudic trend among medieval Christian authorities during the middle ages and the Catholic Counter Reformation. Joseph Ha Kohen was an eyewitness to the burning of one thousand copies of the Talmud in Venice alone. The Italian Catholic Hebraicist Andrea Masio wrote to the Pope in protest, but nothing was done. Jews fled the heightened persecution in Christian Western Europe and took surviving copies of Bomberg’s Talmud to Eastern Europe or the Ottoman Empire.

The Jews of medieval Europe were not allowed to own land and barred from most of the guilds. They were allowed to deal in precious stones and Jewish involvement in the jewelry trade is still quite common. The diamond trade of New York is still dominated by Orthodox Jews who have such a high degree of interpersonal trust that deals are sealed with a handshake and a blessing. Woe betide any man who breaks his word. If he does no one will ever deal with him again.

Despite the Ghettoization of the Jews of Venice and the growing legal and financial restrictions on Jewish life in both Catholic and Protestant Europe, the Renaissance and Reformation triggered an awakening of Hebrew studies among European scholars and aristocrats. Protestants no longer depended on priestly interpretation of the Bible and wanted to read the scriptures in the original language. Renaissance scholars wanted to know and understand the wisdom of the ancients in their own words as they had been doing with the ancient Greek and Latin texts that characterized Renaissance and early Humanistic scholarship. Both Protestant and Catholic intellectuals were fascinated by the Kabalistic writings of medieval Jewish mystics and wanted to read them in the original Aramaic or Hebrew.

And so when King Henry the VIII of England was tiring of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and not succeeding in obtaining an annulment of his marriage to her from the Pope, he adopted a unique strategy. He had heard that Jewish law allows for divorce under certain circumstances. In order to examine this possible precedent that would have solved his marital and dynastic problems, he imported a full Bomberg Talmud. It is also thought that he brought Jewish scholars to England to explain it to his savants. No Jew had been allowed to live there since their violent expulsion by King Edward the I in 1290 (The exhibit has a Hebrew Bible from England that was produced a few years before this expulsion. It seemed to emit a tragic vibe. It was probably seized by King Edward and sold overseas). As we all know, Henry simply did away with the Catholic Church in England and the Jews did not return to England until the reign of Oliver Cromwell in 1656.

By the time of King Henry VIII Lambeth Palace had become the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury the top position in the Anglican Church that Henry had created. It also has a world famous library. In 1991 a Hebrew expert from the British Library was poking his nose around the library there when he discovered a complete set of the Bomberg Talmud that had apparently lain there untouched for four centuries. It was annotated in Italian suggesting that it had been the possession of Christian scholars.

We know that in 1628 the London bookseller Henry Fetherstone advertised a full set of the Bomberg Talmud for sale in London. Soon after 19 residents of London pooled their resources and raised the 26 pounds needed for the purchase. They donated it to Sion College, an Anglican establishment. It miraculously survived the Great London fire of 1666. This Talmud was the first antiquarian book every advertised for sale in England. The edition was apparently untouched for centuries. It is in perfect condition. At that time there was still no Jewish community resident in England.

Yet the study of the Talmud was clearly a passion of aristocratic intellectuals during the Protestant reformation in England. On July 4, 1629 John Selden Esquire wrote a letter to Sir Robert Cotton asking to borrow a Babylonian Talmud from Westminster Abbey, the great Cathedral that holds the tombs of England’s kings and queens and the place of their coronation. He wrote,

Noble Sir,

Your favors are always so great and ready upon all occasions to me that I take upon me the confidence to trouble you in all kinds. I have much time here before me and there is in Westminster Library the Talmud of Babylon in divers great volumes. If it be a thing to be obtained, I would beseech you to borrow them…

In 1956 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London put on an exhibit celebrating three hundred years of the Jewish community of England since its reentry under Oliver Cromwell.  A young Jewish man named Jack Lunzer visited the exhibit. He noticed that it contained books in Hebrew that were incorrectly labeled for the exhibit. When he spoke to the curators he found out that one of the books on display was a volume from the Bomberg Talmud. He then found out that it had been sent from the library at Westminster Abbey.

When he contacted the Abbey and together explored the shelves he found that they had not been aware that they were the owners of another complete set of the Bomberg Talmud different from one at Sion College. It is undoubtedly the one that once belonged to Henry VIII. Lunzer was determined to redeem it. At the time the authorities at the Abbey politely told him that they consider the books part and parcel of the Abbey itself and would not part with them under any circumstances. In the meantime Lunzer was busy with other projects.

Like Daniel Bomberg, the original publisher of the Bomberg Talmud, Jack Lunzer was born in Antwerp. And, like so many European Jews from the time of the middle ages until now he worked in the diamond trade. His father had worked for the De Beers Company but when young Jack entered De Beers he chafed at their institutional culture and opened his own business specializing in industrial diamonds. As his profits increased so did his desire to collect books. But his collecting mania is different from most of the wealthy art collecting set. Lunzer is an observant Orthodox Jew and has not collected the usual nude statues and paintings of Western Europe. He has spent a life time collecting original Jewish manuscripts and printed Jewish books.

On a trip back from a diamond mine in West Africa an article in a paper led him to discover a British aristocrat who was down on his luck and was willing to sell a nine hundred year old copy of the title deed of Westminster Abbey. Jack managed to buy the deed and then called up the Abbey. They said they were expecting his call! An exchange was made, the Abbey received their official historical covenant and Jack was given the complete Bomberg Talmud that was once the possession of Henry the VIII. He had finally redeemed the king’s Talmud and returned it to an observant Jewish family.

Lunzer is now in his mid eighties and he is looking for a home for his collection. To that end he brought it from England to New York two years ago and together with Sotheby’s opened it for public inspection for ten days. There were lines around the block to get in to get a glimpse of it. Thousands visited and it was covered by all the major papers. The collection includes 13,000 manuscripts and books produced during the last thousand years. It includes a full range of religious and secular documents from the European and Asian Jewish Diaspora. On Sotheby’s web site you can hear Jack speak about the collection. Despite the fact that he is a restrained Englishman you can see the emotion on Jack’s face when he talks about his travels to communities where Jews no longer live but their books are still there. He describes his collection with the same passion as one who has rescued living refugees, for in truth his collection is the neglected cultural heritage of many refugee communities who no longer exist in the lands of their dispersion. Their buildings are there, their books are there but the people have fled. The majority of the world’s Jews now live in Israel and the Western democracies.

A recent article in a New York paper last December announced that the collection has been sold to an unknown buyer, but Sotheby’s has not publicly confirmed the sale. Although Lunzer would like the collection to remain intact, and although the Library of Congress is an interested candidate, we do not yet know where the books will end up. As it goes in the Latin expression, “Habent sua fata libelli…Books follow their own destinies.”


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

 


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