B'nei Anusim Center for Education

Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos

Judaism and the Boundaries of Heresy

Catherine Navarro argues that for Christianity from the 7th century CE onwards, Judaism was increasingly situated or at least perceived to be close to the boundaries that defined heresy. Because of this proximity, Judaism was progressively regarded as perfidious by the Church. From the time of the reign of the Visigoth King Recared, the theological position adopted by the Church of Toledo was that of a transformation of the Jew from effectively a heretic to an active enemy of the Church. This concern may have been an unwillingly connection to the time when the Visigoth kingdom embraced Arianism which asserted that the Jesus was a secondary entity to G-d the Father. In an attempt to distance itself from its previous theological heresy, the Visigoths may have become more ardent about the demarcations between orthodox faith and heretics. A perfidious Jew like a heretic was to be suspected not only of theological error, but also of political treason. This position, adopted by Archbishop Julian of Toledo (642–690 CE) who was born to Jewish parents or perhaps by King Egica, was reflected in the punishments levied on Jews, secret-Jews, and even those Christians who may have assisted either of the former groups in maintaining their faith.

The status of Jews who had converted to Christianity but returned to Jewish practice was an issue of discussion not only in Jewish circles but also one of concern to the Church. The Second Nicean Council (787 CE) had decreed that converted Jews who had relapsed to Judaism should be rejected by the Church. Pope Hadrian I (722-795 CE) however, refused to agree to this. The dilemma of forced conversion was also addressed in the Gratian’s Decretum I, 45, 5 stating that while no force was to be applied to force Jews to convert: “those, however, who long ago were forced to Christianity, as happened in the times of that most religious of prince Sisebut” were to remain in the faith. The Decretals included this philosophy as a binding rule of canon law. The ninth Toledo council also ruled that converted Jews were to observe Christian festivals and stringently adhere to Christian beliefs.

The rules directed against what would eventually be called Judaizing in the later medieval period, was the principal concern of the edicts. The twelfth Toledo council under the direction of King Erwig (circa 680-687) decreed that any unconverted Jews still living throughout Visigoth territory were to be presented with the choice of baptism. If they refused, their property was to be confiscated and they would be expelled if they continued to refuse. In 681 CE, Canon 9 of the council related the following:

“That Jews shall not abstain themselves, nor withhold their children or slaves from baptism. That Jews shall not celebrate the Passover as accustomed, nor practice circumcision, nor dissuade any one from the Christian faith. That Jews shall not presume to observe the Sabbath, or any festival of their religion. That Jews shall make no distinction in food. That Jews shall no longer marry near relations. That Jews shall not dare to defend their religion to the disparagement of ours, nor flee anywhere to avoid the faith; nor shall any person harbor such.”

In addition, King Erwig enacted harsh punishments for observing the ritual of circumcision and for reading of anti-Christian writings. Egica, the son-in-law of King Erwig succeeded him as king. The king eventually confiscated all property owned by Jews, and declared all Jews, baptized or not, to be slaves and dispersed them as gifts to Christians owners. In addition, Jewish children over the age of seven years were taken from their parents and also given away as slaves. What is of most significance is the continuing linkage between un-converted Jews and converted Jews. Given the fact that converted Jews like Julian of Toledo who authored some of these laws was accepted, and other converted Jews were not, the existence of crypto-Jewish observances is quite clear.

In 680 CE, Erwig also authored a decree which addressed the existence of non-converted Jews in the kingdom. The decree included the following statement:

“All Jews who were not baptized, or who do not send their children and slaves to be baptized, within one year shall receive the above punishments.”

The punishments included 100 lashes, shaving of the head, confiscation of property, and permanent exile. The last council of Toledo, the seventeenth was convened in 694 CE and once again decreed that the property of Jews was to be confiscated and that they were to be exiled from their homes and sold into slavery to prevent them from observing Judaism. The existence of Jews not yet baptized may refer to Jews within the kingdom highlighting the limited ability of the state to achieve this or may be a reference to Jews outside of the Visigoth dominion. The various Toledo councils show that crypto-Jewish practices were being followed and the idea of a dual identity was being nurtured by nascent Spanish Jewry.

In this council, even a hint of suspicion could lead to baptized Jewish adults being pressed into slavery. The most severe component of this council was the order that children were to be separated from their parents, an action which was implemented in hauntingly similar fashion by the Portuguese crown at the end of the 15th century. Canon 8 states:

“By command of our most pious king, Egica, who, inflamed with zeal for the L-rd, and impelled by ardour for the holy faith, not only wishes to avenge the insult offered to Christ’s cross, but to prevent by severity the ruin they savagely engaged to bring on his country and people, that the perjurers themselves and their posterity be deprived of all their property and possessions, the same being confiscated to the national treasury, that they be deprived of their homes in all the provinces of Spain, and be subjected to; and so remain forever. Nor shall any opportunity by connivance be afforded them of recovering their liberty, while they continue obstinate in their unbelief, for they are branded with numberless transgressions…Finally the persons to whom the said Jews shall have been appropriated by our said Lord the king, shall sign a bond on their honor, not to permit them to perform their worship, or celebrate their rites, or in any way to follow the perfidy of their ancestors. We further decree that their children of both sexes of seven years old and upwards, are not to reside or associate with their parents, but their owners shall give them to be brought up by faithful Christians, keeping in view that he males are to be united in marriage with Christian women, and the females married to Christian men. And as before said, permission shall not be given either to the parents or children, to observe the ceremonies of Jewish superstition, nor opportunity be afforded them of again walking in the paths of their unbelief.”

The passage makes it clear that Jews coerced to become Christians were assumed to dissimulate and maintain Jewish practices to the best of their ability.

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