Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez
The reason for the edicts of Expulsion of the 15th century has given rise to considerable debate of late, especially in light of the works of Benzion Netanyahu and Norman Roth. Significant numbers of Conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) had existed since 1391 and they were from the perspective of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella the primary reasons for the edict of the expulsion. The choice of exile from the Iberian Peninsula or conversion added to the numbers of the existing Converso community. The edict of Expulsion for the Kingdom of Castile states:
“You well know that in our dominion, there are certain bad Christians that judaized and committed apostasy against our Holy Catholic faith, much of it the cause of communications between Jews and Christians. Therefore, in the year 1480, we ordered that the Jews be separated from the cities and towns of our domains and that they be given separate quarters, hoping that by such separation the situation would be remedied. And we ordered that and an Inquisition be established in such domains; and in twelve years it has functioned, the Inquisition has found many guilty persons.
Furthermore, we are informed by the Inquisition and others that the great harm done to the Christians persists, and it continues because of the conversations and communications that they have with the Jews, such Jews trying by whatever manner to subvert our holy Catholic faith and trying to draw faithful Christians away from their beliefs.
These Jews instruct these Christians in the ceremonies and observances of their Law, circumcising their children, and giving them books with which to pray, and declaring unto them the days of fasting, and meeting with them to teach them the histories of their Law, notifying them when to expect Passover and how to observe it, giving them the unleavened bread and ceremonially prepared meats, and instructing them in things from which they should abstain, both with regard to food items and other things requiring observances of their Law of Moses, making them understand that there is no other law or truth besides it. All of which then is clear that, on the basis of confessions from such Jews as well as those perverted by them, that it has resulted in great damage and detriment of our holy Catholic faith.”
In addition, it is helpful to quote from the edict of expulsion authored by the Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada.
“It has been proven that they [unconverted Jews] have [through various] means, ways and manners [attempted?] to steal away [Christians] from our Holy Catholic faith and have them depart from it, bringing them and perverting them to their damned beliefs and opinions, instructing them in ceremonies and in observance of their law, making congregations where they read to and taught what they had to do hold and keep and maintain in observance of the said law, arranging for circumcisions for them and for their sons, giving them books in which there were prayers to be made each year, and accompanying them in the temples of their ancestors in order to read and teach them the history of their law, informing them in advance of the festival of Passover, holidays, and mourning days, and advising them of what they had to observe and do, giving them and placing unleavened bread in their hands and meat killed according to their ceremonies in order to celebrate these holidays and festivals, instructing them in things in which they had to partake, such as food and other things, convincing them as much as they could that they had to uphold and keep their law making them understand that the Christian’s law was a mockery and the Christian idolaters. All of this was rendered evident and attested to by a great number of witnesses and confessions, by both Jews and those they had perverted and tricked, thus resulting in great damage, detriment to our Holy Catholic faith, according to what has been made public and is known to all in these kingdoms and this bishopric.”
Torquemada’s edict was undoubtedly the basis upon which the edicts of Castile and Aragon were based. The edicts assert that the continued presence of Jews in Spanish lands presented a major problem for certain Christians. The Christians in question are of course Conversos or their descendants. The claim of the expulsion decree is that Jewish interaction with Conversos caused the latter to relapse into Jewish practices. For the Inquisition, the goal was simply the elimination of an “option” for Conversos to revert to Judaism. As long as Jews and synagogues existed in fairly accessible areas, the possibility of interaction remained. In should be noted that in 1480, the Cortes had issued instructions for the complete separation of Jews from their neighbors. From the standpoint of the Inquisition, this was apparently insufficient. Quite surprisingly in the early years of the Inquisition preceding the Expulsion, Jewish witnesses against Conversos often appeared as in the case of the proceedings at Zaragosa. In his Censura et Confutatio libri Talmud, Antonio de Avila stated the following which reveals the complex relationship of Jews and Conversos.
“In VIIa, the sons and grandsons of Jews who convert to Christianity are called anuzes, whom the Jews are bound to bring back to Judaism; if they are willing to believe in the law of Moses, although they are not able to practice it, they [the Jews] will not kill them, and will work to bring them back to Judaism. It can be deduced from this that Jews are valid witnesses against such men, since they are obliged to protect their lives and not to kill them, which contradicts those who are making instigations amongst most majestic kings.”
Herein lays the controversy initiated by Netanyahu and Roth, which requires a brief review of the history of the Conversos and the complicated issues related to their relationship to both the unconverted Jewish community and the “Old Christian” society which at this point was reacting quite negatively towards Conversos.
 Joseph Perez, History of a Tragedy: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 114.
 Ibid. 111-112.
 According to Henry Kamen, the ultimate goal of the edicts of expulsion was in fact conversion. He states: “From the wording of the decree it is easy to conclude that this was a total expulsion, giving no alternative, and that death and confiscation were the lot of those who came back. Yet there can be absolutely no doubt that the decree had conversion, not expulsion, as it motive, even though not a single word in its offers the alternative.” Elie Kedourie ed., Spain and the Jews: The Sephardi Experience 1492 and After,(London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 81.
 Ibid. 80-81.
 Jewish witnesses were sworn in by using a Jewish oath wherein the witness swore by the law of Moses to tell the truth. Anna Ysabel d’Abrera, The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2008), 62.
 Anna Ysabel d’Abrera, The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2008), 62. D’Abrera also notes the following: “The high proportion of Jewish witnesses before 1492 demonstrates the reliance upon the Jewish community for any information regarding the New Christians of Aragon. Jews had hitherto been legally prohibited from testifying against Christians and only those individuals accused of committing crimes against Christianity could fall under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. It appears that the Inquisitors made the rabbis swear to punish any Jews who failed to denounce Judaizers. On 10 December 1484, the Jews of Aragon were read the following decree: ‘For the successful investigation of the Inquisition, the Inquisitors believe it necessary to be informed of some things by certain Jews of this aljama. For that reason, were order and compel the rabbi and the sacristan of the synagogue and any other Jews, by all means of justices, that when they are questioned, they tell us the whole truth about everything.” Ibid., 63-64.
Posted Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?