Religious Belief and Practice among Crypto-Jews

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

In the context of Crypto Jewish individuals and communities, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World as well as in India, the knowledge of and distinction between halakhah and minhag persisted. But as contact with established Jewish communities (in particular in Spain before the expulsion), with rabbis, and with Jewish texts lessened, the overall knowledge of Jewish practice and beliefs diminished. By the close of the seventeenth century the breach between what the average Converso regarded as Jewish and what was normative Jewish practice was pronounced.

The Judaizing of most Conversos was increasingly limited to a set of attitudes and ideas that undermined Catholic beliefs as opposed to normative Jewish practices and thought.[1] Included in such a rudimentary belief system was the rejection of Catholicism as a form of idolatry, a belief that the Jewish people served the only true G-d, that redemption would be seen with the coming of the true Messiah, and that personal salvation would be secured through observance of the Law of Moses rather than in faith in Christ.[2]

This is not to say that many individuals and in fact some communities of Crypto Jews did not retain sophisticated levels of Jewish knowledge. But the fact that an open expression of Jewish spirituality was impossible meant that individuals and communities generally practiced less detailed levels of observance as compared to their counterparts living in open Jewish communities. Nissimi notes the difficulty that any crypto Jews group would have encountered in attempting to maintain a semblance of Jewish practice alive.

“The deepest loyalty notwithstanding, religious practices, and indeed religious faith itself, could not but change in underground life. The lack of formal religious education, the lack of knowledge as the weight of time grew heavier, and the impossibility of practicing precepts that could be detected by outsiders would in time create a growing lacuna and even distortion in the crypto-religious behavior.”[3]

This fact effectively transformed Jewish faith for Conversos into matters of belief. In a parallel to Christian faith, it was for many Conversos, sufficient to believe in one’s heart that the Law of Moses was sufficient. This notion had even been supported by a rabbi in 1503 who had undergone a forced conversion in Portugal. He eventually made it to Salonica where he argued that G-d would judge Conversos “by their thoughts, not by their deeds.” Amazingly he would later reject this view, perhaps because he felt it justified Conversos remaining in the Peninsula.[4] Less educated Conversos embraced this idea. Miriam Bodian relates the case of a Converso father who instructed his son “that one must perform many ceremonies and rituals, but that one could not perform them in this realm because of the danger of being discovered.”

While this reality weighed heavily on Conversos, the father tried to reassure his son by stating that for now it was sufficien to direct his heart on one single G-d. He would be assisted in this by observing the Fast of Yom Kippur. Antonio Homem, a professor of canon law at the University of Coimbra who was eventually arrested by the Inquisition also espoused this view.

Portuguese Inquisition

He believed that while living in the midst of persecution it was adequate to direct one’s thoughts toward the observance the commandments.[5] One Conversa suffering from physical blindness related that she lit the candles for the Sabbath in her heart. But it was not simply those who were physically impaired who transformed Jewish observance. Conversos who Judaized effectively spiritualized the commandments. At this stage, the focus for many Conversos does not appear to have been focused on leaving the Peninsula. It may be related to a sense that their “exile” could only be solved by miraculous means or a fear of what they would find outside the life they had grown accustomed to. Against this view, Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam preached the following.

“The prophet’s intention was to rebuke Israel because of the evil of a false opinion that is prevalent among us and some of the descenants of our people. This is that G-d demans what is in the heart and is concerned only about inwardness, caring not about external actions prefirmed in contradiction to the inner truth.

For ‘the Merciful One desires the heart.’ Therefore the prophet said, What has come upon your mind, and upon your thought and your intellect, meaning in opposition to your mind and the truth that you possess, it shall never, never be, when you say alone, without doing it. ‘We will be like the nations, in order to live among them, like the families of the lands’ (Ezek 23:32). This means, ‘Let us become like the family in whose midst we live, following their religion and their way of thinking, for since it is all nonsense to us and our only intention is to live among them, we may act in accordance with the place and the family in whose midst we find ourselves.’ You also say, ‘ What difference does it make to G-d that we become like them, worshiping wood and stone (ibid.)to G-d that we have become like them, worshiping wood and stone (ibid.) for this is nonsense, and we recognize and say in their presence that they are wood and stone. What is the problem with being like them in this matter?’[6]

[1] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 99.

[2] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 100.

[3] Hilda Nissimi, Religious Conversion, Covert Defiance and Social Identity, Numen Vol. 51, No. 4 (2004): 376.

[4] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 100.

[5] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 100-101.

[6] Marc Saperstein, “Christianity, Christians, and ‘New Christians’ in the Sermons of Saul Levi Morteira,’ Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 70/71, One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (1999-2000): 362. In his sermon on the weekly portion of the Torah titled Mattot, Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira related the following commentary on Conversos remaining in the lands of idolatry. “We have interpreted this matter of the moist and dry alike (Deut 29:18) in a different context, as pertaining to those who say that ‘The Merciful One desires the heart,’ and He is not strict about actions, and therefore it is permissible to worship idols and to act as a Gentile together with those who worship them, while worshiping G-d in one’s heart alone, for the Eternal examines the hears (Proverbs 17:3). That is why [Moses] said, Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our G-d to go and worship the gods of those nations […] fancying himself immune thinking ‘I shall be safe’ and these curses do not pertain to me, for I follow the dominance of my heart (Deut. 29:17-18), meaning, so long as I follow the dictates of my heart, believing in G-d, even though in my actions I follow a different path. He does this in order to share the moist and dry alike (Duter 29:18). He labeled the true faith in G-d the moist, for it satisfies and quenches the thirst of those who follow it. The dry is a label for idolatry, which causes thirst and does not suffice to quench the thirst of those who pursue it. He does this in order to hold on to both of them, to share and cleave to the moist, and the dry, continuing to make one adhere to the other. The Eternal will never forgive him; rather will G-d’s anger rage… (Deut 29:1).”

Posted  Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

1 Comment

  1. Really nice post. Thank you. I took a course last semester on the Inquisition and ‘heresy’ in the Peninsula. To what extent do you think that most Converso practices were Biblically inspired ‘fabrications’ as opposed to practices based on family traditions? For example, a three-day fast of Esther seems to just be a lift from the Book of Esther and not based on any actual normative Jewish practice. Either way it is pretty amazing, I’m just curious about the development.

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