Haim Beinart writes in Encyclopedia Judaica:
The disputation held in Tortosa, in 1413–14 was the most important and longest of the Christian-Jewish disputations which were forced upon the Jews during the Middle Ages. It was apparently prompted by Gerónimo de Santa Fé (the apostate Joshua Lorki) in which he claimed to prove the authenticity of the messianism of Jesus from Jewish sources.
In 1412 the anti-pope Benedict, XIII who was recognized as pope in Spain, ordered the communities of Aragon and Catalonia to send delegates for a discussion in his presence on the claims of Gerónimo. The disputation was drawn out over some 20 months, and 69 sessions were held; it was presided over by the pope, who also actively participated in it. From the outset, the disputation did not assume the form of a free discussion between two parties but that of a propagandist missionary attack accompanied by psychological pressure – to the point of intimidation and threats – by the Christian side against Jews, in order to compel them to accept the arguments of their adversaries.
The principal Hebrew source for the history of the disputation is Shevet Yehudah by Solomon *Ibn Verga. The Jewish sources mention about 20 participants on the Jewish side; some of these actively participated, while others were advisers and observers. A neutral Christian account of the debate is also extant. In the disputation, the most prominent personalities were rabbis Zerahiah ha-Levi, Astruc ha-Levi, Joseph Albo, and Mattathias ha-Yiẓhari.
Immediately upon the first encounter, the pope announced – contrary to the promises which he had previously given to the Jews – that it was not intended to hold a discussion between two equal parties, but to prove the truth of Christianity and its principles, as it emerges from the Talmud. Gerónimo opened the disputation with a veiled threat against the obstinate Jews, and during the disputation he passed to open threats. To the arguments presented by the Jews, he retorted by accusing them of heresy against their own religion, for which they would be tried by the Inquisition.
In this heavy atmosphere, the Jewish delegates were overtaken by fear and confusion and occasionally did not dare – or did not succeed – in answering correctly, especially because those replies which did not please the pope aroused vulgar rebukes on his part which only intensified their fears and anxieties. During the disputation new participants appeared on the Jewish side, and their arguments were not always coordinated with the former; besides, the last word was always granted to Gerónimo, so that the impression could be formed that he had the upper hand.
During the first part of the disputation (until March 1414), the discussion revolved around the Messiah and his nature (as in the Disputation of Barcelona). Its second part concerned the “errors, the heresy, the villainy, and the abuse against the Christian religion in the Talmud,” according to the definition of the initiators of the disputation, and resembled the disputation of Paris, initiated by Nicholas *Donin. The Jews were requested to answer the claims of Gerónimo which appeared in his work that was being used as the basis of the disputation, and to explain various Midrashim which had been collected by Raymond Martini. After a while, 12 questions were presented to the Jews on the subjects of Jesus, Original Sin, and the causes of the Exile. The discussions on these subjects were prolonged over several months. It was at this stage that some of the most brilliant answers ever given to questions of this type in similar disputations of the Middle Ages were offered.
At the beginning of 1414 Pope Benedict entered the disputation himself and demanded that the procedure be shortened and practical conclusions arrived at. Most of the Jews sought to withdraw from the disputation because during their prolonged absence from home and as a result of the mental strain prevailing among their communities, faith was being undermined and there was rising despair, while the missionary preachings of the monks had succeeded in bringing many Jews to baptism. Zerahiah ha-Levi, Mattathias ha-Yiẓhari, and Astruc ha-Levi, however, presented memoranda in which they refuted all the arguments drawn from aggadot and Midrashim. R. Astruc even dared to point out the injustice inhering in the actual conditions of the disputation.
The delegates of the communities were away from their homes for about a year; they became impoverished and tremendous harm was caused to their communities; this may also be regarded as a reason for the failure of the Jews to reply successfully. Gerónimo reacted with words of contempt against the Talmud and the Jews who denied the validity of the aggadah, he argued that they ought to be tried according to their own laws as unbelievers of the principles of their faith.
The second part of the disputation opened in April 1414. Its details are not entirely known, but it is clearly evident that at first the Jews chose to remain silent. When Gerónimo brought a list of sayings which were to be effaced from the Talmud as impugning the honor of Christianity, the Jews replied that they themselves were unable to answer, although it was certain that the sages of the Talmud in their time would have been able to reply, and that consequently the value of the Talmud could not be deduced from their own weakness; they once more requested to be freed from the disputation. Gerónimo summarized his arguments and demanded of the pope that the delegates be brought to justice. The latter, with the exception of Zerahiah ha-Levi and Joseph Albo, claimed that they failed to understand the meaning of Gerónimo’s citations. On November 12, the memorandum of R. Astruc was presented as the last Jewish memorandum, and on the following day the disputation was concluded with the issue of a bull on the subject by the pope, and the Jews returned to their homes.
Consequences of the Disputation
Throughout the period of the disputation, Jews continually arrived in Tortosa, where they converted to Christianity. The authorities, on their part, intensified their persecutions, and ordered that everything which had been disqualified by Gerónimo should be obliterated from the Talmud. The disputation in itself acted as an incentive for anti-Jewish incitement, and in several towns the inhabitants adopted severe measures in order to force the Jews to convert. Many broke down and accepted baptism. Three works were written after the Disputation of Tortosa in an attempt at soul-searching: Sefer ha-Ikkarim (“Book of Principles”) of R. Joseph Albo, in which the author clarified the religious fundamentals discussed at the disputation; Sefer ha-Emunot(“Book of Beliefs”) by R. Shem Tov, who regarded the cultivation of philosophy as the cause of conversion; and Iggeret Musar (“Letter of Ethics”) by R. Solomon Alami, who considered that disrespect toward religion and ethics was the cause of the destruction of Spanish Jewry.
Prayer: Father, forgive the attempts of Christians to argue the Jewish people into belief in Yeshua through forced debates, public disputation and oppressive practices. Thank you for the gift of faith that is available to all who truly want to know. Help us to distinguish between appropriate presentation of our faith, and the insensitive imposition of our beliefs. In Yeshua’s name, Amen.
S.Z.H. Halberstam, in: Jeschurun, 6 (1868), 45ff. (Heb.); J.D. Eisenstein, Oẓar Vikkuḥim (1928), 104–11; Baer, Spain, index; Y. Boer, Die Disputation von Tortosa, 1413 – 1414 (1931); idem, in: Sefer Zikkaron le-Asher Gulak u-li-Shemu’el Klein (1942), 28–49; S. Lieberman, Sheki’in (1939), index; idem, in: HJ, 5 (1943), 87–102; A. Posnanski, in: REJ, 74 (1922), 17–39, 160–8; 75 (1923), 74–88, 187–204, 76 (1923), 37–46; A. Pacios López,La Disputa de Tortosa, 2 vols. (1957).