Why did Spanish Jews Convert to Christianity?

Interior of the Amsterdam Synagogue: the bema ...
Interior of the Amsterdam Synagogue: the bema (or tebáh) is in the foreground, and the Hekhál (Ark) in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez

Regarding the motivations or reasons why so many Spanish Jews converted to Christianity, Don Isaac Abarbanel provides a review of the immediate ones.

“Because of the miseries, the condemnations, and the massacres by the enemies, they left the totality of the Law, and they thought to become like one of the people of the land.”[1]

While these were immediate reasons, scholars look to understand why Spanish Jews converted in such large numbers in contrast to other Jewish communities faced with desperate circumstances. A major assumption has been that the rise of the Maimonidean and the philosophical tradition in general which reflected the cultural and philosophical heritage of Jewish life in Spain brought about in part the tendency of many Jews to opt for conversion in the face of persecution (physical, economic, or cultural). This view is based in part upon the idea that secular knowledge and in particular philosophical studies created a greater tendency of skepticism towards Judaism. The view is supported by several Jewish sources of the period. The eminent historian Yitzhak Baer, in his work History of the Jews in Christian Spain summarizes the standard view:

“There were many, it would seem, in Spain, who found in Maimonidean philosophy convenient support for their extreme liberalism…These men accepted only a faith of reason and rejected popular beliefs. They put rational understanding ahead of the observance of the commandments… [and] denied the value of Talmudic Aggadot.”[2]

Yitzhak Baer finds some support in the 15th century writings of Solomon Alami, Shem Tov ben Shem Tov, Isaac Arama, and Joel ibn Shuaib. Alami for example held that the philosophical movement was the primary cause of Jewish collapse. Alami’s argument lay that in the elevation of philosophy, intellect, rational search and natural inquiry as means to “salvation,” obedience to the commandments was undermined.[3] Shem Tob continued the critique of philosophy as a cause of Jewish communal life, but targeted Aristotelian thought in particular, which promoted the idea of an impersonal G-d. This view is certainly connected to Maimonides’ own perspectives. For Shem Tob, a G-d removed from the sphere of human activity undermined Jewish convictions that G-d would ultimately judge people with appropriate reward and punishment. An impersonal G-d and the elimination of belief in an afterlife, as far as Shem Tov was concerned, diminished fidelity to Judaism.[4] Shem Tov’s own possible contribution to the decline of Jewish life is a subject which we will address shortly. Secret Jews-3D

The root cause according to this dominant view then is that the philosophical leanings reflected in pro-Maimonidean circles resulted in the spread of Averroism.[5]  In the case of ibn Shuaib, Jews abandoned belief in the coming of Messiah. Without explaining why, ibn Shuaib’s contention that Spanish Jews had abandoned the messianic hope may have rendered hopes of any future redemption mute. According to Gerson Cohen, rationalism helped undermine faith creating doubt about miracles such as the resurrection, and this in turn discouraged martyrdom.[6]

[1] Cited in Jose Faur, Four Classes of Conversos: A Typological Study, Revue des Etudes Juives, CXLIX (1-3), Janiver-Juin 1990, pp. 113-124.

[2]  Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, (Philadelphia, 1961), Volume 1, p. 97.

[3]  Allan Harris Cutler and Helen Elmquist Cutler, The Jews as Ally of the Muslim: Medieval Roots of Anti-Semitism, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1986), 273.

[4] Ibid. 274.

[5]  Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 235. See also Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College and Jose Faur, A Crisis of Categories: Kabbalah and the Rise of Apostasy in Spain, Bar Ilan University and Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), 11.

[6] Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 175.

The featured image of Yehuda Cresques by Lliura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted  Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts.

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