The Glory of the 8th Century Jewish Learning Academies in Southern France
By Eva Feld
Hitler's "Fremdenrech" (foreign rights) - a derogatory expression against foreigners specifically aimed at Jews was often articulated by payments of exuberant taxes to the government was not a Nazi invention. In fact the Nazis did their homework extremely well, so well, they dived into a little known and often ignored history of Jewish greatness and glory. The Nazis had no regard for scholarship and pride of identity. They did however understand jealousy and greed. They did know how to take advantage of history and they excelled beyond expectations. The "Fremdenrech" (foreign rights) laws were established in 9th Century in the region of Narbonne which is in Southern France. A short-lived forgotten and neglected Jewish magnificence that vanished into history and destroyed by jealousies and greed starting with the "Fremdenrech" (foreign rights).
In Eighth century France, Jews established a glory that is not only embedded in grandiose and gracious living but also reputed itself in greatness of Torah studies and a learning capacity that enjoyed recognition second to none. While all this seems too good to be true in reality the story is not quite as perfect as it seems. All this goodness was bestowed on the Jews by Pepin the Short on a small Jewish community in Southern France, on the border of Spain, at the fortress city of Narbonne in the territory of Septimania in return for help given by the Jews to Pepin in driving out the Islamic Moors from the city.
The fantastic story has a much more intriguing beginning:
The Exilarchs also known as Nisi'im was an ancient Babylonian Jewish institution the origin is traced all the way to King Yehoiakim, the exiled monarch of Judea in the Sixth Century BCE. According to the Bible, the Babylonian King Evil Merodakh released this descendent of King David from prison, admitted him to the his court and elevated him above the other kings in Babylon, presumably designated him as head of the Jews in his empire. Zerubbabel, a descendant of Yehoyakim became the Protector of Judea. There followed a succession of Jewish leaders within the same family.
It is assumed that some Jews accompanied King Archelus into exile to Vienne (today's Vienna, Austria) in the Sixth Century CE. There are claims of Jewish arrivals in France at the time of the destruction of the Jewish State in 70 CE, Lyons, Arles, Bordeaux are said to have received an influx of Jews taken as captives at the time in the war against Rome. They may have also arrived there with the Roman legions, either as member of the armed forces or perhaps as merchant-traders.
Under Pepin the Short it was a politically prudent thing to confirm Septimanian independence under the rulership of a Nasi (Potentate) of Judah. The decision was also upheld by the Caliph of Baghdad and reluctantly, by Pope Stephen the III in Rome. How did all this come about?
A document (also known as a Gesta) gives credit to the Jews for the fall of Narbonne to the Franks. As a reward a delegation of Narbonne Jews requested permanent kingship of their own and at the same time offering a handsome gift of 70,000 mark silver to Charlemagne the son of the Great Pepin the Short. Charlemagne agreed to the gift and terms. Witness to the negotiations were the Pope Stephen III , 768 CE and many barons. When the town fell Charlemagne kept his promise. He gave the Jews their Principate or Princedom and ceded to them one third of Narbonne.
While the Jews were permitted to own land and even have Christian slaves run their homes and farms, a great Academy rose in Narbonne which attracted the greatest of scholars from Palestine as well as Babylon. At the time this was chronicled in 705 CE there were but a mere 300 Jews in the area. The author of that statement is one Abraham ibn Daud author of Sefer Seder HaKabbalah (The book of the Order of the Kabalah also known as the SKh) which was completed in 1160-61. (Figuring that there were approximately six people to an average household, we are talking about 1800 to 2000 people).
Guilhelm de Toulouse de Gellone established a Judahic Academy in 704. The great chronicler Benjamin of Tudela who was held in the highest esteem wrote that they "were teaching Torah to the great delight of the Jews of the gola (diaspora) that they eyes grew (with jealousy) to the size of the mid-day sun." Such were the words of Benjamin Tudela in 1166 when the Jews reportedly still held significant estates under the prevailing Davidic heirs. "Narbonne is an ancient city of the Torah" he claimed, therein are sages, magnates and princes, at the head of whom is Kalonymos son of the great Prince Todros of blessed memory, a descendant of the House of David, as it states in his family tree.
Others who taught at the Academy where: Rabbi Shesheth, Rabbi Shealtiel, whose family tree is alive and well throughout Western Europe, Israel and the United States, Rabbi Solomon Chalafta, Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Nathaniel, Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac (RABAD), Rabbi Abba Mari son of Rabbi Isaac and not to be forgotten is the family of Bustananni whose genealogy goes back to Zurubbabel and goes on to present time. Rabbi Abraham, son of Chisdai are just some of the prominent names mentioned in the community. There was also Rabbi Abraham head of the Academy, also Rabbi Machir and Rabbi Judah.
In theory the Jews had full rights and significant social and legal status of certain significance and privilege. This was greatly supported by considerable payments to the crown and these tributes made further privileges worth while for the King.
For theological reasons the Davidic ancestry and monarchial power of the
Exilarchs (Nesi`im) were extremely important to the Jews, especially in Christian lands. The Jews would point to the rule of a Jewish king, and they considered the Exilarchs kings. They concluded this decision from the traditional quotation from Genesis 49:10, "The Scepter (of royal power) shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet until Shiloh comes." Traditionally, Jewish theology refers to the "Scepter" to the monarch of the Babylonian Nesi'im. While the "ruler's staff" symbolized the quasi-royal sway of the patriarchs of Roman Palestine, both of whom claimed Davidic (Judahic) lineage. The Jews were expected to yield up their rule only to the king messiah (Shiloh) when he should come. Therefore, as along as a Jewish prince exercised monarchial power, the Jews could claim that the Messiah had not yet come. On the basis of this it was concluded that a political reality was established to reject Christianity.
By the Tenth Century enormous changes worsened the considerable rights for the Jews in Narbonne.
The Bishops and the Pope viewed the Princedom with extreme alarm. Not only were great expanded of land granted to the Jews but at stake here were possible losses of taxes and tribute. As if that were not enough, the actual establishment of a Jewish princedom, even if it was not a princedom in fact but only a Principate ruled over by a member of a Jewish royal house, drove Christians to distraction. One can only imagine the enormous implication of blasphemy that was promoted by the Frankish kings that promoted pure mortification that Christians should serve in Jewish homes, and be tempted indeed perhaps even subjected to conversion to Judaism. This was enough to send more than just shivers up a spine.
The Church under Pope Stephen III was less than thrilled with the arrangement and attacked with wrath the land grant on the Jewish statues of the Frank kings. Anti-Jewish pogroms were instituted whose resonance echoed into the 20th Century. The "Fremdenrech" (foreigner rights) royal graces payable with tax and tribute would establish a continuous flow of cash without having to put up with a Jewish Princedom to threaten the established Church dogma. Assurances had to be established beyond any question of doubt that the Jews were properly kept in a subservient place. Laws after suppressive laws were established.
In cases of litigation in 809 CE Jewish litigants were at distinct disadvantage depending on the amount that was involved. A Jew could prove his case against a Christian only by producing four, nine or seven Christian witnesses while a Christian needed only three Christians and three Jews to establish his claim. By 845-846 under Pope Gregory and Frankish judges Jews were barred from public office. Jews were forbidden to hold Christians in servitude and were prevented from converting them to Judaism.
Barriers were set up to keep a social distance; mercantile intercourse was prohibited as were intermarriages. Every effort was made to suppress Judaism. Jewish children were to be separated from their parents and brought up in the Christian faith by God fearing Christians. Any Christian showing favor to Jews was cursed and shamed, removed and shunned from the Christian community.
The Academy itself that existed for more than four centuries and was a hub of learning was converted to the monastery of Gellone. The vast estates were divested from the Jews of Lyons and other places and became the lands of the church simply by depriving them of labor made them into wastelands. This was in substance a condition that the Jews had to turn over the lands in the same way they had received them in the first place. Pressures from a changing political arena made the Princedom vulnerable to external and internal turmoil. Jealousies and greed became the norm. It became more efficient to suffocate and eliminate the sovereignty and establish the power of the Church without having to cater to minority populations that sprung up to challenge the Church.
The well-intentioned battle weary forces that brought the glory of the Princedom with its political agenda had passed away. A new power rose to prominence that did not wish to be challenged or could afford diversity from anyone. As late as the 11th Century comes a report that Joseph the son of Samuel ibn Negrela has entered into negotiations with a neighboring Andalusia in the hope of setting up a Jewish principality in Spain but it led to a riot. The instructions to the papal army in 1106 were simple and direct, "kill them all." The Princedom vanished from the pages of history.
from the August 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine