Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
By Rabbi J. Bejarano-Gutierrez
Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were quite familiar with the phenomena of forced or coerced conversions. In the 7th century CE, the Visigothic King Sisebut adopted a policy of forced conversion or expulsion. In the 13th century, the Almohades initiated a new era of Islamic rule when they also forcibly converted many Jews likely including even the greatest medieval halakhist and Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. The forced conversions of 1391 however, were markedly different both in scope and in effect.
Unlike previous conversions, for most individuals, a reversion to Judaism would not be so easily achieved within a generation or two without a dramatic escape or potential danger. The initial slew of forced converts was reinforced by additional converts throughout the 15th century. The shear numbers of Conversos would create a recognizable social class which would not be easily accepted by Spain’s dominant Christian society. The relationship of these Conversos to their un-converted Jewish brethren both in the Iberian Peninsula as well as in other communities throughout the Mediterranean would also prove complex at times.
Rabbinic responsa yield seemingly contradictory positions regarding the halakhic [i.e. Jewish legal] status of the Conversos with regards to a variety of issues (i.e. levirate marriage, handling wine, testimony, divorce, priestly status, etc.). Scholars such as Benzion Netanyahu and Norman Roth have adopted absolutist positions regarding the “Jewish status” of the Conversos based on a particular reading of these texts. Their views are founded on certain rabbinic responsa but fail to account for other selections which often give evidence to the contrary. The paradoxical nature of rabbinic thought on the Conversos should not be surprising, however. Rabbinic responsa most typically dealt with specific questions rather than across the board decisions. More importantly, rabbinic perspectives on sectarian groups like the Cutheans (Samaritans) in the SecondTemple period or the medieval Karaites reveal how diverse views on the collective identity of these groups were. This does not even begin to focus on the at times, very positive day to day relationships that existed with these groups beyond the world of rabbinic jurisprudence. This essay will focus on a brief review of Jewish identity, its relation to Conversos, and an understanding of these elements in light of the complexity of some key rabbinic responsa.
What Constitutes Jewish Identity?
Before considering the Jewish identity of Conversos, the terms “Jewish” and “identity” must be defined. Defining a Jew or describing Jewishness at any point in history is, as Gary Porton points out, a difficult task since a variety of groups and individuals have defined themselves as Jews and have been defined by others as Jews (Neusner, 197). Since Mishnaic times, classical Jewish orthodoxy has maintained its views quite consistently on this issue (Schiffman, 10). The criteria for Jewishness until the modern period remained linked to the Halakhic definition. The argument from traditional Judaism is that rabbinical and biblical law define Jewishness on the basis of matrilineal descent (see Ezra 10:11, Nehemiah 10:31, 13:23; Tosefta Kiddushin 4:16). Such a narrow definition would render the Conversos with matrilineal Jewish line as halakhically Jewish without question. Their conversion to Christianity, whether forced or “voluntary” would however, initiate sociological and theological challenges for the rest of the Jewish community with regards to their relation to Conversos since they had adopted an idolatrous religion.
Without additional contributing factors, the simple halakhic definition is nevertheless, problematic. To define a Jew by his or her matrilineal descent apart from other factors can easily devolve into circular reasoning. To speak of observance of “mitzvoth” (i.e. commandments) has also been offered as the criterion for establishing Jewishness. This only raises another more complicated question – which mitzvoth and in accordance with what standard of observance (Orr, 3). This would prove to be a major issue of discussion among rabbis addressing the viability of Conversos as legitimate witnesses for signing marriage and divorce documents, etc. since the public violation of certain mitzvoth (e.g. Shabbat observance) were points of exclusion for any Jew, converted or not to serve as a witness. The fact that many Conversos were legitimately wary of Catholic oversight and scrutiny of their praxis was an issue that many rabbis, but not all were mindful of.
With respect to handling wine properly, a key concern in Jewish law, Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran stated that is was not customary to rely upon converts in guarding wine, because in part, as a result of the pressure on them, converts could not prevent Gentiles from handling their wine (Sefer ha-Tashbez, no. 1:66, p.144). To do so could arouse suspicion from Christian neighbors. Duran also notes the case of a non-Jewish woman inquiring about wine under the care of a Converso. He related that because the convert was regarded as a Gentile by the Gentile woman, he must listen to her. If he did not, she might accuse him of continuing to be a Jew and that his loyalties were in fact closer to Jews than to Gentiles. For this reason, the convert was deemed unreliable by Duran regarding guarding wine (Sefer ha-Tashbez, no. 1:66, p.144). While Duran also states that many Conversos were not stringent in their observance of Jewish religious precautions relating to wine, the aforementioned concern over Christian oversight and how this could impact observance is clear.
To not violate Shabbat publicly or as in the case just noted, protest again Gentile inspection of wine, could certainly draw attention to them and further enhance scrutiny and likely punishment from Christian authorities. The matter therefore can be quite confusing since Conversos, because of a declining level of Jewish education and external pressure would often create hybrid Jewish/Christian practices and theology which they considered as authentic expressions of Judaism. Rabbinic attitudes towards the reality of the Converso predicament would vary. The continuing proximity of Jews and Conversos made day to day interaction likely and overall positive.
Given the complexity of issues to consider, Cohen chooses to describe Jews as an ethnic group attached to a specific territory whose members shared a sense of common origins, claimed a distinctive history and destiny, and possessed one or more characteristics (Cohen, 3, 7). While his definition was in relation to the SecondTemple era, it remains valid for our discussion.
Jewish Identity can therefore be defined in a number of different ways (e.g. ethnically, culturally, halakhically, theologically, etc.) and while for some rabbis, Conversos may have met the legal requisites to serve as witnesses in one instance, their behavior may have not warranted or merited it by other rabbis in other cases. One position did not by default imply the other. Therefore scholars making arbitrary judgments on the ongoing Jewish status of Conversos should take note.
The Problem with Universally Applying Responsa
The most controversial work on Anusim is that of Benzion Netanyahu. The most problematic aspect of Netanyahu’s approach to rabbinic responsa is that he does not relate halakhic decisions to the specific elements of historical significance which appear in the framework of the legal discourse, and which are not independent of it. Hence, many seemingly universal responsa are not meant to be full-fledged statements meant to apply in all circumstances. As Dorottya Zsom notes, Netanyahu often introduces statements from responsa without even presenting the question under consideration (Zsom, 7).
Hence his aim of definitively determining the Jewish status of Conversos (Netanyahu, 22) is inherently flawed as this was never addressed to the rabbis as a distinct subject but only in relationship to specific acts. Netanyahu therefore reaches false conclusions due to the superficial interpretation of the texts. For example, as Zsom notes, it should not be assumed that if a specific element is not mentioned in a certain responsum, but it is mentioned in another, that this without doubt indicates that the view of the rabbi has changed in the interim. Zsom argues that we must consider that if a new consideration is presented and relates to a social or historical phenomenon, this naturally influences the halakhic argumentation even while it does not constitute the basis of it. A rabbi then might mention a social phenomenon in order to support his halakhic argumentation without attaching fundamental importance to it. To further illustrate the problem with Netanyahu’s technique, he mentions a part of a supporting statement while ignoring any contradicting information (Zsom, 7).
When Netanyahu (Netanyahu, 42) relates the decision of Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran that the death of a convert should not be mourned by his non-convert relatives, he fails to note that this responsum (Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran: 2:139) also distinguishes between three types of converts. In this case, two of them should be mourned while the third class should not (p. 9).
In the case of the Ribash, Netanyahu argues that in his later response, he had abandoned his unsubstantiated trust in the Jewishness of the Conversos and had begun to limit their validity as kosher witnesses. The Rashbaẓ/Tashbez in contrast still insisted on considering them as Jews without any reservation whatsoever (Netanyahu, 33).The Ribash, Zsom rightly points out however, never discussed the “Jewishness” of converts per say, but only discussed their legal status concerning specific issues such as marriage, testifying, writing a divorce document, handling wine, etc. A person could as Zsom argues, be considered as a Jew from one point of view, while at the same time he can be considered as a Gentile with respect to behavior or standing with regards to a specific halakhic issue (Zsom, 9). What most scholars fail to miss is an excellent comparison to the political realities of present day politics in the Jewish community. As an example an Orthodox rabbinical court might refuse to accept the testimony of Jews espousing a more liberal branch of Judaism. Nevertheless they would not by default question the halakhic status of these individuals.
Returning to the matter of the Conversos, a certain rabbi taking a more severe position towards converts would not accept them universally as valid witnesses, but might hold, those to be considered as Jews with regard to their marital status only, since this depended on their lineage, and not on their ritual observance (p. 9).
The rabbis did not concern themselves with the articulation of Jewish identity in its own right. It should go without saying that cultural and ethnic Jewish ties aside from religious and theological ones were certainly maintained for a considerable time. Jewishness cannot, according to Stern be reduced to purely Halakhic status. It is rather the “multifarious and holistic experience which can only be described with reference to the whole panoply of Jewish life (Stern, xv, xxxiii).” It is important to remember this regarding the Converso experience.
Rabbinic Responsa and Jewish Identity of Conversos
These issues are best illustrated by examples. There are more dozens and dozens of responsum related to the subject of Anusim/Conversos. Our goal is to focus on a few sample responsum to illustrate the subject of Jewish identity and how halakhic decisions contradictory as well as complementary aspects. Two responsa of the Ribash of are particular interest into the Jewish status of Conversos. One responsum of the Tashbez will also be reviewed. The goal is to understand how nuanced issues of Jewish identity in relation to Conversos were.
With regards, to the Ribash, his responsa appear in his work of responsa simply titled, She’elot u-Teshubot first collected and published posthumously in Constantinople in 1546-1547 and later as (She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Ribash ha-Ḥadashot). The first question (Shivat haRibash Siman Dalet ) that the Ribash received involved the kosher status of wine and meat touched by anusim and was likely received not to long after his arrival in Algiers. The laws of kashrus as related in the Mishneh Torah specify that wine that a non-Jew pours/handles is forbidden to be drunk by a Jew. Furthermore a Jew is prohibited from even deriving benefit from it. The principal concern here goes back to antiquity wherein wine was used as a libation in pagan ritual. During the medieval period when Christianity was by and large considered avodah zarah (idolatry) by most rabbis, the concern remained a valid one.
The petitioners continued with their question by noting that many anusim made wine in their houses. They claimed the wine was kosher. Were non-converted Jews allowed to rely on the testimony of Conversos and hence drink their wine? Furthermore, if Conversos transported wine from across the sea, could they testify that it was kosher? The complexity of the daily relationships between Conversos and Jews is further highlighted by the statement which describes the social interaction between the two groups. Sometimes Conversos would invite a Jew to eat with them and place before him meat and wine. Could Jews, the writers asked the Ribash, trust a Converso that their food was kosher? Could the principal of hazakah (presumption of innocence) prove sufficient?
He responded by first relating the idealized level of self sacrifice a person should have when faced with the possibility of conversion or death. The Ribash noted that an individual should be willing to give up their life before serving an idol because of the severity of this sin. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, should a person haven proven weak in the face of persecution and accept baptism over death, these Conversos would not become non-kosher witnesses. They were instead to be considered complete Jews since if a conversion happened under duress, G-d would certainly forgive. Hence a Jew who sinned was still a Jew and consequently, their wine and meat was kosher and available to other Jews. For the Ribash, Jewish status was intrinsic and immutable. The privileges associated with certain levels of observance, however were different as we will see.
The Case of a Divorced Woman
The second response (Shivat haRibash Siman Sheis) of interest to us concerns the matter of a certain divorced woman. The woman divorced her husband who was also a forced convert. The woman was able to, as the petitioner’s note, serve G-d without fear by escaping from the land of persecutions and journey to the land of the Muslims. In divorcing her husband, she obtained a get, a Jewish writ of divorce. The witnesses were themselves Conversos, however, and this fact led some to question the legitimacy of the get and hence the ability of the woman to marry again. Were these Conversos, kosher witnesses?
Many years had passed since his own escape from Spain. The Ribash now answered in a very complicated fashion in contrast to his rather direct and seemingly simple answer in the previous responsum. The continued presence of Conversos in Spain presented a theological problem for the Ribash. He argued that these forced converts who signed the get and which had lived for a number of days in Spain and did not choose to flee, must be investigated carefully to ascertain whether they could legitimately serve as witnesses.
The Ribash provided his rationale for such a different answer by arguing that there were some initially forced converts which had not taken steps to escape. Furthermore, many after having converted had now let go the yoke of the Torah and heaven and were willingly going the way of the Gentiles and violating all the commandments. Some were even informing to the government on other Conversos whose hearts were in fact directed toward heaven and attempting to maintain their observance of Jewish law (Faur, 113-124) These informers, according to the Ribash did not have a share in the world to come or a share in the house Israel. If these were the type of people who signed the get, then the divorce document was invalid.
Regarding other anusim who did want to leave but often stayed for the sake of maintaining their family unity and even keeping their family connected to Torah, the Ribash recognized that many attempted to avoid violations of the Torah unless is was too difficult. The Ribash perhaps surprisingly argued that if an individual could save themselves even if it meant, leaving their children behind, it was to be preferred because the service of G-d superseded everything even the ability to redeem a brother or family. These individuals, while in their minds having stayed for the right reasons, were nevertheless acting inappropriately. Nevertheless, the Ribash argued that this type of forced converts were not to be regarded as non-kosher witnesses since they did not in fact believe they were committing a sin. The Ribash appealed to the famous letter of the Rambam, Iggeret Hashamad which noted that a person capable of leaving is like or close to a wanton sinner but this did not make them non-kosher witnesses.
The Ribash argued that the Conversos who had acted as witnesses and who had stayed behind in Spain, should undergo a thorough investigation to properly determine which category they belonged to. The underlying reason for such an approach, the Ribash contended, lay in the fact that this group of people had stayed in Spain for such a long period. He assumed they had not tried to escape as many people both rich and poor had successfully done before. Consequently they lost their hazakah (i.e. presumption) of kosher status. Their status as witnesses would now rest with a rabbinic scholar capable of investigating which category they fell under. If they were fit to serve as witnesses, then the divorce document was legal. If not then the woman in question would be considered an agunah (i.e. a bound woman) and could not remarry without obtaining an acceptable divorce document. Their Jewish status remained unaltered, only their eligibility as kosher witnesses need be clarified.
Changing Attitudes towards Conversos
The position of the Ribash reveals that at least with regards to the halakhic status of Conversos perspectives were beginning to change. Interestingly, the Ribash assumed that he or other rabbis could find out if forced converts were in fact living kosher lives to the best of their ability. This may simply reflect the fact that Conversos and unconverted Jews continued to live side by side in many areas and the rabbis who remained in Spain could reasonably inquire about Converso practices and observances.
The Ribash however seems to have ignored a number of important issues regarding the identity of the four individuals in question (i.e. the husband, the wife, and the two witnesses). For example, the very fact that the woman requested a Jewish divorce document and that the husband granted it, is of significance. Furthermore that the witnesses signed the get should have arguably pointed to the fact or likelihood that the parties were interested in continuing Jewish observance since they were potentially risking exposure to themselves. The Ribash also seems to have ignored the fact that Conversos could not go to a regular rabbinic court since as in this case, both the husband and woman in question were themselves Conversos (Antine, 2010).
The Ribash’s decisions would certainly not prove definitive, however. His successor as head of the rabbinic court in Algiers would also receive a number of inquiries regarding the status of Anusim with a regards to a number of Jewish ritual issues.
The Responsa of the Tashbetz
Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran known as the Rashbatz and in reference to his responsa as the Tashbetz was born in Majorca in 1361, and died in Algiers in 1444. Like his contemporary Ribash, the Tashbetz fled to Majorca in 1391, in the wake of unprecedented violence. Unlike the Ribash, he did not undergo forced conversion. He settled in Algiers and served under the Ribash’s rabbinic court until his demise. He then served as chief rabbi of Algiers.
In the She’elot u-Teshuvot Tashbetz, Pt III, §43, the Tashbez was presented a question regarding the legitimacy of a get written in Majorca by someone who was a Converso who was known to have publicly violated Shabbat. Unconverted Jews however testified that his conversion was in fact under duress and threat of harm. In secret he observed Judaism to the best of his ability. His loyalty to Christianity was suspect and was demonstrated by the fact that upon his death, Christians would not bury him according to Christian rites.
The inquiry focused on whether the get he wrote was invalid as in the case of a divorce document written by a Gentile referenced in Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gerushin 3.3. The consequences of this were significant as in the case of the Ribash. Were the get invalid, the woman to remarry without a valid divorce document, she would be legally considered an adulterous and children born from such a union would be considered mamzerim (i.e., illegitimate and unable to marry other Jews). In short, would she require another document?
Maimonides had written on the basis of Hullin 5a, that an apostate who practiced idolatry and publicly violated Shabbat was to be considered like a Gentile in every respect. Consequently such an individual would not be permitted to author valid gittin (i.e. kosher divorce documents). But perhaps one might argue that ultimately the issue was related to whether the conversions were forced or voluntary. Were it under duress, once could certainly argue that he is not like a Gentile—but all this remains a matter of doubt according to Maimonides, who did not draw such a distinction.
The Tashbez notes that the following case was distinct however because witnesses testified that unlike sincere apostates, his conversion was dissimulation and his heart was towards Heaven. Even the Rambam would agree, the Tashbez argued that the get in question was valid, because he had not converted voluntarily. Even if, the Tashbez notes, one might argue that with regards to ritual slaughtering animals, he should be treated like an idolater and hence such meat found unacceptable, the writing of a get should be considered differently, since it is not rendered unfit because of a defect in personal status. The only disqualifier lay in whether the get was with the intention of being written as a get. If in fact it is a Converso did so, then the get was to be regarded as valid.
The Tashbez also addressed another concern raised by the inquirers. One of the witnesses did not remember whether the Converso in question had written the get at the order of the husband or whether the husband had in fact requested another person to write it and this person had subsequently requested him to write it because of his scribal skills. The Tashbez remarked that if Jews were to collectively be concerned about such issues, it would create a significant problem, since the Talmud stated that the get is not valid until the husband tells the scribe to write (Gittin 71b). As the get was given in Majorca, the Tashbez ruled that there was no basis to question the decisions of another rabbinic. This was in keeping with the view that one court should not question the actions of another.
The continuing relationship between Conversos and un-converted Jews is highlighted by this particular case. The rabbinic court had accepted the document authored by a Converso which likely highlights both the declining level of Jewish life in 15th century Spain and the continuing bonds that existed between Conversos and un-converted Jews. While the Ribash might have questioned a get signed by two Converso witnesses, the Tashbez would validate the very get authored by an “observant” Converso. Both rabbis accepted the Jewish status of the individuals while imposing different expectations and assumptions for them to serve as witnesses, etc. Jewish identity was in and of itself complex and could be understood and applied in and to a number of independent categories and situations.
Rabbi Nissan Antine, Lecture at Beth Sholom and Talmud Torah, 2010.
Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Jose Faur, Four Classes of Conversos: A Typological Study, Revue des Etudes Juives, CXLIX (1-3), Janiver-Juin 1990).
Akiva Orr, Israel, Politics, Myths and Identity Crisis, (London: Pluto Press, 1994).
Jacob Neusner, ed., Judaism in Late Antiquity: Where We Stand: Issues and Debates in Ancient Judaism, (Boston: Brill, 1999).
Gary G. Porton, The Stranger within Your Gates: Converts and Conversion in Rabbinic Literature, (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Lawrence Schiffman, Who was a Jew? : Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (KTAV: New York, 1985).
Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (New York: Brill, 1994).
Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Dorottya Zsom, Conversos in the Responsa of Sephardic Halakhic Authorities in the 15th Century, 2011.
Posted Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?