Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez
The rise of Sabbatai Zevi and his messianic movement greatly impacted communities comprised of former Conversos. In 1666 for example, many of the members of the community in Amsterdam succumbed to the predominant enthusiasm as did those in Hamburg. Prayers had even purportedly been offered in the synagogue denoting Zevi as King Messiah. Some prayer books were printed which included reference to year one of the Messiah, and even incorporated etchings portraying Sabbatai Zevi. Some members of the community traveled to Adrianople to meet the professed messiah. Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, a member of the board aggressively combated the movement and its influence.
The attraction of former Conversos to Sabbatai was not limited to the communities of Western Europe. Many persons from Converso had links to Sabbatai and mystics of the movement. A map detailing the dissemination of Sabbateanism makes it clear that the cities that were centers of Sabbatean engagement before Zevi’s apostasy were centers of settlement for many former Conversos as well. Major cities like Istanbul, Salonika, Livorno, Amsterdam, and Venice had flourished as centers of Jewish learning and were home to significant numbers of former Conversos. In Izmir, Sabbatai Zevi’s native city, many former Conversos had settled. Some of them were among Zevi’s closest associates in his youth and several were among the first to support his messianic claims. These included Rabbi Moses HaCohen Isaac Silveyra, Abraham Baruch a physician, and Rabbi Moses Pinheiro the teacher of Abraham Miguel Cardoso who furthered a branch of the Sabbatean movement after Zevi’s conversion to Islam. Whether or not former Conversos were predisposed psychologically to towards anti-nomianism or even nihilistic leanings which attracted them to the Sabbatean movement is conceivable. There is undoubtedly the possibility that some former Conversos were drawn to the idea that the Messiah was first to be humiliated, a perspective certainly drawn from their own Christian backgrounds but also existent among even individuals like Rabbi Isaac Abravanel. Regardless of the ultimate source, extensive public support for the movement among Converso centers in Western Europe and in the Levant rose soon after the movement was initiated. Yoseph Kaplan views the unique backgrounds of Conversos as a critical reason for Zevi’s success among them.
“…as crypto-Jews, they had been precluded from sharing a mode of life founded by Jewish Law, many of them came to feel that an interior, emotionally-felt identity with the Jewish heritage was more important than the actual implementation of the commandments.”
Gershom Scholem argued Conversos were attracted to the movement as a means of atoning for their Christian past. Given Zevi’s conversion however, the repudiation of his messianic claims would have been as Isaiah Tishbi points out, the expected rational response. Some Conversos were not deterred by the enigma of an apostate Messiah however, despite its unsound consequences. For Ezer Kahanoff, a possible explanation of this perseverance is that the commitment to the messianic idea was so profound for them that to acknowledge its failure was simply too painful to acknowledge.
As we have already noted, many Conversos who settled in Amsterdam and in other settlements struggled with the challenge of integration into a normative Jewish environment. Their previous lives as Christians, the financial challenges if not devastation many had faced in fleeing the Peninsula, coupled with the stark differences to what they may have imagined as being reflective of Jewish life may have provided some with ample reason to embrace views which offered what they perceived to be a more a spiritual solution. I do though find it difficult to believe that Conversos would have automatically accepted views and behavior so easily which contradicted the social and religious behavioral norms of either Judaism or Christianity. Since even rabbis had supported Zevi’s claim, this in addition to whatever issues Conversos struggled with may have been sufficient to encourage their belief. According to Moshe Idel:
“The presence of significant numbers of former conversos in many centers of Jewish population paved the way for a positive response to Sabbatean nihilistic and antinomian doctrines. These doctrines struck a deep chord within those religiously tormented people, sometimes unsatisfied or in many cases also more strongly uneasy with the painful process of acceptance of rabbinic Judaism.”
In the end, the reason for Conversos joining the Sabbatean movement may have reflected as wide a range of reasons as the rest of those in the Jewish community which supported Zevi. In his work titled Zizat Novel Zvi, Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, described the enthusiasm for the Sabbatai’s messianic claims in Amsterdam:
“And all of the city of Amsterdam pulsated and was under the fear of the L-rd. They increased the joy with drums and dances in the market places and streets and in the synagogue, dancing with joy, and all of the Torah scrolls were taken out of the arks with their beautiful jewels, without paying attention to the danger of the envy and hate of the nations. On the contrary, they would make public declarations and speeches to the nations…”
The excitement was not limited to Amsterdam, but to another community composed of former Conversos. In Hamburg, Rabbi Sasportas noted that exhilaration was even greater.
“What was done was very much greater than in Amsterdam, and the great sound was arousing and the sound from the holy temple resounding and ringing…saying, this is the end of wonders and David King of Israel does live…And I with my very own eyes did see…that they unleashed their tongues against the non-believers and called them heretics, in a way that made my hands tremble, and I could not speak for my followers were few …and even they did not speak aloud but in secret. And the masses were stronger than their leaders and there was no one to talk back to them, and on many occasions they desired to excommunicate the non-believer.”
Rabbi Sasportas noted in a letter to Rabbi Isaac Nahar that the support for Zevi was not limited to the lower classes, but also included the wealthy and intellectuals. In 1666, According to the records of the Livro da uniao geral, the governing board of the Beit Israel community of Hamburg debated whether or not a delegation should be sent out to the Levant in order to pay respect to “nosso rey Sabettay Seby ungdio do Dio de Jaacob cuja coroa seja exaltada.” In the end, the timing of sending a delegation was deferred to another meeting. Despite its seeming caution, the Mahamad nevertheless adopted a resolution to sell all communally owned buildings since “with the grace of G-d, we hope to set out soon” to the Land of Israel.
The community’s indecisive approach was further reflected in the publication of a Sabbatean booklet authored by Gideon Abudiente. The pamphlet titled Fin de los dia was an assortment of sermons on the looming redemption. But members of the Mahamad were apprehensive that its dissemination could damage the community’s associations with the surrounding Christian community which demonstrates that for all the enthusiasm a measure of doubt still existed. Cooler heads among the Mahamad may have been hedging their bets.
With this in mind, the Mahamad determined that all copies circulating in the community were to be seized. The books were to be stored “until such time which we await anxiously and which G-d would certainly bring to pass speedily.” Despite the seeming overall support for Zevi, a split in the Mahamad was apparently in process and the selling of communally owned property was not put into practice. The decision to hold off on a delegation to Zevi was also based upon the possibility of violent outbursts by Christians who at the outset had expressed some curiosity in Zevi’s messianic claims, but whose disposition had now turned antagonistic. Still, the sales of personal property did happen in Amsterdam and Hamburg. This was principally among wealthy individuals who intended to the journey to the Land of Israel. Among these was the wealthy Abraham Pereira according to Gershom Scholem founded the yeshivah Hesed le-Abraham in Hebron in 1659. Pereira journeyed to Venice. From there he planned to travel to the Land of Israel to find Zevi. Even after Zevi’s conversion, it appears that Pereira remained involved in the movement.
For Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, Sabbatai’s conversion was a fair act of G-d. Divine providence had pressed Zevi into a public act of treason. For Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, had Zevi simply been killed, his movement would have survived in a much more significant fashion perhaps a reference to the story of Christianity. In his Zizat Novel Zvi, Rabbi Jacob Sasportas stated that,
“… his believers would have waited for his salvation forever, saying that he was still alive and that death had no sway over him, and it was our deeds which caused him to ascend to the heavens in a whirlwind, and at the right time he will be sent from the heavens and deliver us.”
But for Sabbateans, the conversion of the Messiah Zevi to Islam was not a treacherous act. It was in fact a necessary action to begin the redemptive process. Here the influences of the Converso experience begin to reveal themselves.
“For the King Messiah wanted nothing other than to sanctify G-d’s name and the Turkish king wanted nothing other than according to his counsel to dress him in garments of shame. Thus he was violated (anus) in every way and from every quarter. And the reason for our iniquities, and the prime secret to which we are obligated by the Torah is that all of us must be anusim before we leave the Galut, as it is written in the Torah that ‘you shall serve other gods of wood and stone ‘…and of their abandoning Torah, defamation was destined for the Messiah the son of David so that he will be forced against his will in such a way that he will not be able to obey the Torah.”
What may have triggered Zevi’s supporters to be willing to embrace such a bizarre idea is multifaceted. Jacob Barnai argues that the movement of Sabbatai Zevi was influenced by both Christian and Conversos messianism. The seeds had arguably been laid even earlier. Rabbi Isaac Abravanel, a leading scholar of the expulsion generation, had written four books dedicated to messianic inquiries and calculations. The expulsion was certainly an event which fostered the hope for redemption of the Jewish condition. But the predilection of Conversos looking towards a rectification of their spiritual and physical situation was certainly a factor in the continuation of the messianic idea in the Peninsula which was carried by former Conversos with them when then left the Peninsula or other lands of idolatry.
A particular source of the influence was felt in Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire which became a key settlement of former Portuguese Conversos. Jacob Barnai notes the influence of various factors in the rise of the Sabbatean movement which reinforced the already present ideas.
“Yet it is now known that Christian messianism, Portuguese Marranism and Sabbateanism were inextricably tied together. Recently discovered texts have revealed the scope of Christian millenarianism and messianism. Intense messianic hopes were harbored by many Christians in England, Portugal, France, Sweden, and elsewhere towards the mid-seventeenth century.”
In 1650, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel had unintentionally provided a spark for the growing messianism among both Jews and Christians. Menasseh authored Esperanca de Israel, in Spanish in the city of Amsterdam. By the appearance of Sabbatai Zevi’s in 1665, the book had been published in seven languages. With the mysterious ten tribes as it focus, many Christians grew interested and supportive of Jews returning to places such as England and most importantly Palestine. The concern over the Ten Lost Tribes was according to Ezer Kahanoff a near obsession particular to Conversos who wondered about the tribes “on the other side of the river…” which was mentioned by individuals like the Converso Alvar Gonzalez from the Canary Islands.
As a result of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the New World, Africa, and India, similar stories circulated about tribes located in the Andes Mountains, in the horn of Africa, and in the Arabian Peninsula. The fundamental idea behind these claims was the desired reinstatement of Jewish political freedom. The former Converso Aaron Halevi i.e. Antonio de Montezinos swore to the leaders of the Amsterdam community, that he had come into contact with people from the tribe of Reuben during his visit to Quito, Ecuador. These tribes he claimed had related to him the location of the tribes of Menasseh and Ephraim. The idea was not without precedent. Almost a century before, David Reuveni had written to King Joao III of Portugal informing him that he was sent from “the desert of Havur as an emissary of the King Joseph,” in whose army there were “close to 300,000 good warriors.”
With increasing talk of redemption and lost tribes, the unique position of Conversos between the worlds of Judaism and Christianity as a facilitator in the rise of Sabbateanism is clear. Jacob Barnai states:
“Sabbateanism, at the lead in Western and Central Europe, did not spring up in a vacuum. In acceptance in Jewish society was preceded by a sequence of mutually influential and revealing encounters between millenaries of all stripes, Jewish and Christian. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century there was a great awakening of Christian messianism, and the Jews of Europe, particularly the Marranos, were aware of this.”
As a consequence, Christians deepened their interest in Judaism and even reinforced their relationship with Jews in Western Europe especially with Portuguese Conversos. Certain Christians even had contact with Kabbalists such Rabbi Nathan Shapira who related the struggles of Jews in the Poland suffering from pogroms and the difficult status of Jews in living in Ottoman Palestine.
Sabbatai´s Inner Circle
The heart of the evidence for suggesting that Portuguese Conversos were instrumental in the rise of Sabbateanism however, is ultimately rooted in the community of former Portuguese Conversos who settled in Smyrna. Barnai notes the close circle of former Converso contacts that surrounded Zevi. In discussing Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s Esperanca de Israel, Barnai relates that,
“Counted among the book’s more avid readers were none other than Sabbatai Zevi himself and his close Smyrnan friends, including those from his youth, some of whom were Marranos, for instance, Dr. Abraham Baruch, R. Moses Pinheiro, Itzhak Silvera and R. Moses Hacohen. Equally important was the intense interested provoked in European and Levantine Christian circles by Sabbatai Zevi’s messianic proclamations, an interest stimulated not only by millennialism but the fear that a Jewish Messiah had indeed arrived.”
Barnai speculates that Christian millenarians may have also influenced Jews because of their business and social relationships. He also notes that Zevi’s own father was an agent of an English merchant in Smyrna. This contact may have been a source for Trinitarian elements which entered Sabbateanism, though Barnai correctly notes that a likely alternative was via Kabbalistic texts of the medieval period.
The Jewish community of Smyrna in contrast to other Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire came into being only in the late 16th century. Its principal development occurred in the first part of the 17th century however. A critical group in the formation of the Smyrnan Jewish community was Portuguese Conversos who settled there. Conversos established two congregations in Smyrna. One was known as Neve Shalom and the other Portugal. These two communities maintained close relationships with other Spanish and Portuguese communities throughout Europe.
Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s Esperanca de Israel along with the work titled Apologia por la noble nacion de los Iudios was printed in Smyrna. The volume published there includes four poems in honor of Menasseh. These were written by two Converso physicians: Daniel de Sylva and Isaac Moron. Barnai theorizes that Moron have been the among Sabbatai Zevi’s Smyrnan associates, in particular one identified as Dr. Carun. Barnai admits that no ties have been established between Daniel de Sylva and Zevi, though he notes that the poems he wrote in honor of Menasseh feature various messianic themes including the resurrection of the dead, the return of Jews to the Land of Israel, and an expectation of redemption. Following Menasseh’s own focus on the Ten Tribes, Sylva’s poem also makes reference to them. The prominence of the idea of the Ten Lost Tribes in Jewish circles is also reflected in the much earlier reference by David Reubeni to this theme. The Ten Tribes were also discussed in the Nathan of Gaza’s infamous letter to his fellow Sabbatean Raphael Joseph of Egypt. They were also featured in the writings of Rabbis Jacob Sasportas.
Another source which may connect Conversos to the Sabbatean movement is a book of rules written in Ladino. The book was found in the records of the Orphan Society of the two Portuguese congregations in Smyrna. An appendix lists the names of those who served in the Society between 1644 and 1749. Many of the names found during the Sabbatean period up until Sabbatai’s death in 1676 are identical to the names of Conversos who were living in communities in Western Europe. This may point to extensive travel between ex-Converso communities in Italy, Amsterdam, and Smyrna. The extent of the connection is marked by Barnai’s statement:
“Marranos not unlike those in Europe, therefore –including, it would seem in their millernaristic attitudes-and also perhaps related to blood, were among the prominent members of the Smyrna Marrano community at the time of Sabbatai Zevi.Moreover, many of these same Smyran Marranos were among the direct supporters of Sabbatai Zevi, as well as eventual leaders of the Sabbatean movement. Some…were also childhood friends of Sabbatai Zevi, who continued to be enthusiastic supporters from the inception of the his messianic activity in the 1640s through his proclamation of messiahship in 1665-1666 and were among those Zevi appointed when he took control of Smyrna in 1665, divided the world into regions, and named his supporters as kings.”
Members of the Orphan Society were also connected with Mordecai Jessurun who was Zevi’s “King Jehoiakim.” Dr. Abraham Baruch was also a member of the Orphan board and was designated as “King Portugal.” Another individual Haim Pena was designated as “King Jeroboam.” Pena initially opposed the Sabbatean movement, but later came to support it. His brother, Jacob Pena was also married to a woman designated as a Sabbatean prophetess. Abraham Leon was designated as “King Ahaz.” The previously mentioned Abraham Jessurun was also known as a Sabbatean prophet. Isaac Silveira was listed as King David and had been a friend and student of Sabbati Zevi for some time. Barnai notes:
“Indeed, the membership list of the Orphan Society includes five of Sabbatai Zevi’s twenty-five kings, and nearly half of the eleven he appointed in Smyrna alone. This list, moreover, is not exhaustive. Other Portuguese supporters of Sabbatai Zevi included the propagandist R. Moses Pinheiro, who lived in Smyrna until at least 1648, when, exiled at the command of the communal rabbi Joseph Escapa (as was later Sabbatai Zevi himself), he moved to Leghorn.”
Zevi’s circles were not simply dotted with Converso personalities, but formed the heart of his support base. This was particularly true among those who were designated as prophets and prophetesses. In what was surely painted as a fulfillment of Joel 3:1, many followers of Sabbatai Zevi believed themselves to have been given the gift of prophecy. In the cities of Aleppo, Izmir, Portoferraio, and other Ottoman cities, this prophetic frenzy occurred. One account is provided by Rabbi Raphael Supino to his former teacher, Rabbi .Jacob Sasportas, just before Passover in the spring of 1666. Rabbi Supino had joined the ranks of the Sabbateans and recorded that,
“The spirit of prophets and prophetesses has been established outside the Land [of Israel], and they are numerous as far away as the island of Portoferraio, sixty miles distant from here. I saw with my eyes a young student in particular on Rosh Hodesh of this past Adar [around March 1666.] He recited biblical passages, and while speaking he lost use of his limbs and was almost without pulse. Then he said, “Shabbatai Zvi is our king and our savior, the righteous teacher crowned with the most high crown. He will rule over all the land and the hosts of heaven. And Nathan the prophet teaches salvation to Israel,” and many similar things. He repeated the passages of redemption and salvation, praise, and the like, with prostrations, sometimes crying and sometimes laughing. Once an evil man stood before him and beat him. And when he returned to his senses, he remembered nothing. A person may lie about all things, but with a pulse nobody can deceive.”
Another account is provided by Baruch Ben Gershon of Arezzo, a follower of Sabbatai and the author of the pro-Sabbetean tract titled Zikkaron li-Bene Yisrael. His account relates a list of the prophets in question.
“After this, prophecy came upon many men, women and children in Izmir, Constantinople, Aleppo, and elsewhere. [The common reference in most Jewish sources is to Constantinople, not Istanbul.] The same message came from all of them. They would bear witness and declare “Shabbatai Zvi is the Messiah of the G-d of Jacob!” Now this is the manner of the prophecy which came during those days. A deep sleep would come upon [the prophets] and they would fall upon the ground like dead people with no breath
remaining in them. About a half hour later breath would come from their mouths though their lips would not move, and they would recite passages of song and passages of comfort. They would all declare, “Shabbatai Zvi is the Messiah of the God of Jacob.” Afterward they would rise back to their feet knowing not what they had said or done. In the city of Izmir over 150 prophets prophesied; among whom were these who blasphemed [pronounced divine Names]: the wife of our master [Shabbatai; that is, Sarah], the wife of Jacob Peña, the wife of Vana, the wife of Jacob Serrano, the wife of Jacob Benveniste, the wife of Jacob Capua, the sage Daniel Finti [Pinto], Joseph ha-Levi, Solomon the son of Rabbi Daniel Valencin, Joshua Morletto, Samuel Bomuano [Bon Homme], Moses Shefami, Elijah Bonseneor, and a certain orphan. And these are the names of the prophets of Aleppo: R. Isaiah ha-Kohen, Moses Galante, Daniel Pinto, the wife of Yomtov Laniado, the wife of Rabbi Nissim Mizrahi, the From Mystical Vision to Prophetic Eruption daughter of Rabbi Abraham Tammon [Simhon], and others to the number of twenty prophets and prophetesses…”
As Goldish points out, the majority of those mentioned have Sephardic names. The names point to the fact that they were descendants of Spanish or Portuguese émigrés as opposed to native Romaniote Jews. Some are clearly former Conversos such as the Peña family which has been verified through other documents. The embrace of the Sabbatean movement by Iberian Jews from non-Converso backgrounds surely aided credibility those from Converso backgrounds that joined the movement.
Abraham Miguel Cardoso and Sabbatai Zevi
In the aftermath of Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam, Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi argues that given their unique experiences, former Conversos were in all probability better prepared than other Jews to see the conversion as “a mask for an inner existence of a radically different order.” This was certainly true for Abraham Miguel Cardoso who ultimately saw himself as a successor of sorts to Zevi. For Ezer Kahanoff, the tendency of former Conversos was to conglomerate existing political elements with eschatological and messianic hopes. This Kahanoff argues, is evidenced in the letters of Abraham Miguel Cardoso. Cardoso emphasized the idea that the Torah “as it now exists” would soon “no longer be necessary.” To achieve this there was a need to cast off the yoke of Exile and all it involved. The consequences of this view were as Gershom Scholem explains a “…negating the exile meant negating its religious and institutional forms as well as returning to the original fountainheads of the Jewish faith.”
Abraham Miguel Cardoso was born in 1626 into a Crypto-Jewish family in Rio Seco, Spain and would play a key role in the Sabbatean movement serving as Bruce Rosenstock notes as one of its “major theoreticians.” His support of Sabbatai Zevi eventually led to a severing of the relationship with his brother who rejected Zevi’s messianic claims. Former Conversos were often faced with difficulty choices if they left the Peninsula and embraced Judaism. This often included the severing of ties with family members.
Even after the death of Zevi, Cardoso remained intensely engaged in the surviving movement debating against other Sabbateans who adopted the view that the Messiah was divine. Cardoso rejected these views arguing that they had in short adopted Christian motifs on the subject. Cardoso has largely been characterized as having embraced Gnostic thinking. The basis for this lay in Gershom Scholem’s contention regarding the influence of the former on Kabbalistic thought.
“Scholem saw in Cardoso’s thinking the crystallization of what he believed was the latent antinomian Gnosticism within Kabbalah and especially within the later strata of the Zohar, and he pointed to Cardoso’s likely acquaintance with Gnostic ideas, filtered through the Church Fathers (read during theological studies in Spain), as the most significant factor in precipitating this crystallization.”
More recent studies have however pointed to alternate sources of influence.
In 1665, Sabbatai Zevi revealed his Messianic aspirations and thrust the Jewish world into an incredible frenzy of eschatological zeal in Jewish history. On September 15, 1666, the proclaimed Messiah appeared before the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His appearance before the Sultan gave a measure of confidence to those that believed he would receive permission to rebuild the Temple in the land of Israel. Nathan of Gaza wrote in 1665:
“And now I shall disclose the course of events. A year and a few months from today, he [Sabbatai will take the dominion from the Turkish king without war, for by the [power of] the hymns and praises which he shall utter, all nations shall submit to this rule. He will take the Turkish king alone to the countries which he will conquer, and all the kings shall be tributary unto him, nut only the Turkish king will be his servant.”
Contrary to these expectations, Sabbatai Zevi emerged from his session with the Sultan a convert to Islam and proclaimed himself as the hidden Messiah of Israel. Some Sabbateans followed the example of their Messiah and converted to Islam. Others such as Cardoso argued that the extraordinary act of apostasy committed by Zevi was a singular act which was not to be followed by Sabbatean supporters. For Gershom Scholem, Cardoso’s continued attachment to Sabbatai Zevi was
“…an example of the attraction which a ‘hidden’ Messiah had on former crypto-Jews who themselves may have spent a considerable part of their lives in hiding their real identities.”
Faced with the Zevi’s apostasy, Cardoso struggled to define Sabbatean faith amidst the reality of a degraded Messiah. He was faced with a bitter reality. Cardoso embraced the view of a messianism characterized by the ultimate triumph of Judaism over the claims of Christianity and Islam. Zevi’s apostasy countered Cardoso’s views especially since Zevi’s self-humiliation was eerily close to that of Jesus in Christianity. Despite this fact Cardoso was nevertheless capable of using biblical passages most often associated by Christians asserting the messianic claims of Jesus. Rosenstock points to Cardoso’s willingness to use passages typically used by Christianity in asserting the messianic claims of Jesus.
“Although he was not afraid to use the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 as a proof text for the messianic status of the debased Sabbatai Zevi, he sought to distinguish Sabbatai Zevi’s debasement from that of Jesus by claiming that Sabbatai Zevi would not die in a condition of debasement as Jesus had: ‘And we say that between the abasement and the glory of the Messiah son of David, there must be no death, for the Messiah son of David does not have to die.”
When Zevi died in 1676, Cardoso retooled his theory to incorporate the classic idea of Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David. Cardoso argued that Sabbatai Zevi was the Davidic Messiah and in an interesting twist argued that he, David Cardoso was the Messiah ben Joseph. Bruce Rosenstock argues that while Cardoso’s claiming to be the Messiah ben Joseph may seem odd at first glance, it was not as awkward as might first appear. He points to the fact that Rabbi Isaac Luria’s disciples considered him to be the Messiah ben Joseph. Rosenstock also points to the case of Rabbi Samson b. Pesah of Ostropol. Pesah died during the 1648 disasters. A contemporary of Sabbatai Zevi, Rabbi Nehemiah Cohen even argued with Zevi because he believed that he and not Zevi was the Messiah ben Joseph. According to Rosenstock, Cardoso characterized himself as an “anti-elitist” Messiah. In this role, he believed he would share the secrets of “Israel’s redemption bearing knowledge” to the masses of Israel. Despite his aversion to emulating anything Christian, Cardoso appears to have done just that by arguing for an inherent unity between both messianic figures. In short, “Cardoso makes the two Messiahs into a single, powerful icon of redemption. This single icon is the image of the two messiahs joined together as one.”
Despite his support of Sabbatai, Rosentstock argues that Cardoso deemphasized the former as a model. Cardoso attempted to circumvent the very apparent issue of apostasy. Sabbatai was in fact, Cardoso argued the precursor to another messianic figure. This messianic figure would in turn bring about the full manifestation of Sabbatai’s teaching and hence redemption. Cardoso relates that he and his students in 1680 began to await the looming end of the exile. Cardoso and his students hoped that the redemption would not tarry beyond the celebration of Passover in 1682. In the end, the mass apostasy of Sabbatians in Salonika in the year 1683 dashed Cardoso’s hopes that the redemption might be revealed.
In his treatise titled Qodesh Yisrael, Cardoso would lay out the case for his own claims to fill the role of Messiah ben Joseph. The argument as one might expect, is not a simple one and involves somewhat convoluted evidence. Cardoso worked with the various acronyms resulting from the first and last letters of numerous biblical phrases. He also did this with the phrases “Messiah son of David” and “Messiah son of Ephraim.” In short, Cardoso would derive through this process that his name “Michael son of Abraham” equated the sequence of “Messiah son of Ephraim.” In a complex argument, Cardoso saw himself fulfilling a critical role in Israel’s redemption. Cardoso argued that he as the Messiah ben Ephraim would be provide a more lucid, more intelligible understanding of the Messiah’s message regarding the “mystery of faith.” In characterizing his perceived role, Cardoso viewed himself as a speculum that shined in contrast to that Sabbatai Zevi, who did not. Rosenstock argues that the reference here is tied to the Kabbalistic terminology reflective of male energy within sefirotic arrangements. In effect, Cardoso was arguing that he possessed a greater clarity of the divine than even Sabbatai Zevi had obtained.
Rosenstock argues that the death of Sabbatai forced Cardoso to revise his earlier views regarding the splendor and mission of Sabbatai Zevi. In a text written earlier, Cardoso had described Zevi in the following terms:
“Now we must make clear that no creature is able to grasp with knowledge the affairs of the King Messiah because his knowledge is greater and higher than of all who have ever passed through the world or whoever will, whether in purity or its opposite [i.e. whether members of Israel or not]. And this is what the sages hinted at in saying [TB San83b] that the Hole One, blessed be He, would lay upon the Messiah commandments as a heavy burden which enjoin upon him strange things which will be done by the King messiah to the point that they will appear strange in the eyes of all the world. Indeed, because they are established as a remedy for their own heavy burdens, the deeds which are strange in the eyes of all people are heavy [for the King Messiah]. There is no one who is able to comprehend them in any way or manner because they are profoundly hidden acts of reparation [tiqqunim]… (Maggen ‘Abraham, p.137).”
Following death of Zevi, Cardoso crafted an interpretation of Zevi’s conversion to Islam as a test of faith for the Jewish people. Rosenstock describes Cardoso’s description as
“…a stage in Israel’s path to knowledge from out the blindness of its faith. I see this reconceptualization of the strange deeds of the Messiah as springing from Cardoso’s desire to present an image of a Messiah without the taint of debasement, even it if means presenting another Messiah, the Messiah son of Ephraim, as the one who fulfills what Sabbatai Zevi began.”
Cardoso nevertheless asserted that faith in Zevi as the Messiah son of David was necessary as Zevi had done what no Jewish messianic figure would have done- apostatize. Zevi was the debased figure rather than a glorious king. To offset the obvious problem, Cardoso laid the responsibility on the Jewish people for the ultimate success or failure of his mission. Without the faith of the Jewish people, Zevi’s mission and hence Israel’s redemption would not be realized. Cardoso stated: “Faith is a speculum which does not shine, and knowledge is a speculum which does shine, and someone who wishes to ascent to knowledge must enter through the door of faith, because this is the gate of the L-RD.”
Cardoso’s embrace of Sabbatai Zevi and his own claims obviously put him on a collision course with the rabbinate that could not support the former’s assertion. Describing Cardoso’ opposition to the rabbinate, Rosenstock states:
“In an intellectual tour de force, Cardoso strikes at both the philosophizing kabbalists and the rabbinic establishment with a single attack. He accuses the rabbinic tradition, since the close of the Talmud, of having forsaken the knowledge of G-d, which had been the unique possession of Israel and adopting in its place a false idea of G-d which the pagan philosophers had also proclaimed. “
In the end Cardoso’s views highlight what was potentially shared by some former Conversos. Cardoso’s beliefs embraced a significant measure of anti-elitism which was manifested as anti-rabbinic sentiments. The nature of Cardoso’s complicated anti-rabbinic as well as anti-philosophical Kabbalistic views are summarized by Rosenstock in the following:
“…Cardoso cannot truly overcome his crypto-Jewish past until the Jewish people are redeemed from their exile. So long as Israel’s Judaism is crypto-Judaism- the enforced worship of the G-d of the nations coupled with a long for redemption, Cardoso cannot find a home in Israel. Sabbatai Zevi inaugurated the redemption of Israel, but he could not complete the process…According to Cardoso, Sabbatai Zevi’s messianic task required him to assume the identity of the crypto-Jew by separating himself from his people.”
Cardoso was very explicit in this view as he stated, “the King Messiah was destined to become a forced convert [anus, ‘converso’] like me.” The purpose of this was to atone for Israel’s sin of idolatry. His past as a crypto-Jew and his inability to escape this identity is revealed in his treatise, Qodesh Yisra’el:
“Abraham Cardoso…was destined to be born among the uncircumcised in order to bring forth the sparks which fell from holiness and also the sparks which fell from Yesod in accordance with the secret of the emission. And the gazelle [Zevi] always turns its face towards the place from which it came, and this relates to the Messiah son of David, who had to depart from the entirety of Israel, from the Torah, and from holiness into impurity and even from his body, which must return to him, in order to hasten the ingathering, and because of all this his name is Zevi. But the Messiah son of Ephraim shall go from impurity into holiness, and it is not fitting for him to turn his face back toward the place from he came. Because the uncircumcised are now declaring Jesus to be like G-d, it is fitting for the Messiah son of Ephraim to say ‘Who is like G-d?’…and that is why from all time his name was Michael and not Zevi.”
His birth in the land of idolatry was now transformed into part of the plan which G-d had orchestrated to bring about Israel’s redemption.
The Uncircumcised Messiah
Another element regarding his crypto-Jewish past is the matter of circumcision. Cardoso claimed that two women had accused him of having a blemish on the site of his circumcision. The assertion was apparently that Cardoso, perhaps like other Crypto-Jews was either uncircumcised or improperly uncircumcised. The accusations apparently spread to various cities. According to Cardoso, the women who made the accusation argued that the blemish was preventing the coming of the Messiah. This apparent jab was likely intended to put an end to Cardoso’s claims. The women stated that his salvation was dependent on his repairing his circumcision, a possible allusion that he needed to submit to rabbinic authority. Rosenstock summarizes Cardoso’s amazing claims:
“The circumcision was faulty, he tells us, because he had been born without a foreskin, and after he left Spain, a mohel had removed skin unnecessarily…what this must have mean to Cardoso was that while may have been born in a land of impurity, and considered by its people to be of ‘impure blood’ as a New Christian, his true identity was that of purity, indeed a natal purity that put him on a plane beyond other Jews.”
Regarding the sociological humiliation suffered by Conversos, Yosef Kaplan writes:
“The Spain with which we are dealing was surrounded by a fiery wall of messianism and religious purpose; and in this context the question of unsullied Christian descent mean, of course, membership of a Christian family of long standing, including neither in its pedigree nor in its living representatives the slightest hint of the presence of ‘New Christians’ of Jewish origin. The scions of the original chosen people came to be held of low account, and indeed in contempt, by the self-styled successors to their elected status-those Spaniards of uncompromised Christian descent who were carrying the Christian gospel to the world at large.”
Rosenstock argues that in this may lie another reason for Cardoso’s belief in the unification of the two Messiahs and the unification of all Israel- i.e. the house of Judah and the dispersed tribes of Israel which had been previously lost. Cardoso saw the unification of the two Messiahs as rectifying the breach that had divided the two houses of Israel. “You have already noted the affair of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and this extends all the way down to the Messiah son David and the Messiah son of Ephraim, between whom there will be conflict and jealousy until the end of time, and then ‘Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass Ephraim.” As a consequence of Jeroboam’s action, Cardoso states that he was predestined to live in a land of idolatry and force to be an “idol worshipper.” Rosenstock states that just the apostasy of Zevi had atoned for the Israel’s adoption of foreign conceptions about G-d which were tantamount to idolatry, so too was Cardoso’s own crypto-Jewish past atonement for the sin of Jeroboam.
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez, the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education, and author of What is Kosher?