The problem of Conversos and circumcision arose even after Conversos had left the Iberian Peninsula. The following translation of a rabbinic responsum on the question shows one fascinating case. It also reveals how the concept of “duress” could be understood by different authorities. This responsum was translated by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman.
“Let us now examine the religious lives of the Conversos and their observance of the commandments. The Conversos were forced to forego the practice of circumcision as it entailed a serious danger of threat to their very lives, as there was no clearer mark than this of the observance of Judaism, and one who fell into the hands of the Inquisition and was found to be circumcised would be in dire straits. Notwithstanding, some of the Conversos nevertheless circumcised their sons at the age of eight days, while some of them circumcised themselves with their own hands when they were adults, “for they did not trust anybody, out of fear that the matter would be discovered.” As is known, Shlomo Molcho did so. In his letter to R. Joseph of Tatitzak, he relates the details of the incident: “At night I performed the covenant of circumcision, and there was nobody with me. And the Holy One blessed be He, for the sake of His Name, helped me and healed me, even though I felt great pain and suffering and fainted, for the blood flowed copiously; but the All-Merciful Healer healed me in a short period of time.” [ref to David ha-Reuveni] R. Manasseh ben Israel tells of a Converso who was hanged in 1632 after having been imprisoned for fourteen years, during all of which time he did not eat meat, and did not wish to make himself impure with any forbidden thing, who circumcised himself in prison.
However, the vast majority of Converses were uncircumcised, but when they came to another land / country where they were able to live openly as Jews most of them immediately had themselves circumcised / circumcised themselves. But there were those who did not hasten to do so, because they still had many businesses in their country of origin and were afraid that they might have to return there for a certain period of time. There were also those for whom circumcision as such was difficult, and they delayed doing so. Among most of the Conversos, “who came from servitude of the soul” there was a widespread “false opinion / belief / view… which served them as an obstacle and stumbling block, that they thought that so long as a person is uncircumcised and has not been circumcised he is not considered part of Jewry, and his sins are not sins and his transgressions and rebellious acts are as if they had not taken place… and the day of circumcision is considered by them as the first day of taking account of transgressions.”
A very interesting question was asked of one of the rabbis of Pisa in Italy: “One of the Conversos of the time had saved his life… and he came to a city where Jews live. And in the counsel of the upright and of the congregation he thanked God with all his heart.” He prayed three times a day, wrapped himself in a talit, and engaged in the mitzvot, but hh had not yet entered into the covenant of our father Abraham, “the reason being that his money was scattered far and wide in the hands of Gentiles in the city from which he had come,” and he might need to return there to save / redeem / rescue his money. Meanwhile, “the holidays had come, and in the synagogue he purchased the honor of opening the gates / doors, to take the Torah scroll out of the holy ark.” The question was: “Is it permitted to allow him to engage in mitzvot and to hold a holy thing such as this, so long as he is not circumcised and has immersed himself [in the waters of the mikveh]… Or if one ought to… to hold him back, just as he is not allowed to don tefillin.” The rabbi to whom this query was addressed permitting him to do so, and even tended to allow him to wear tefillin, but the sages of Livorno disagreed with him. “For even though the law is thus, it is not suitable for this time, and one ought not to make him completely equal / equivalent to those who are full Jews… so long as they have not been circumcised… for they shall tarry to enter into the covenant of Abraham our Father, seeing that even while they are uncircumcised nothing is withholden from them. And they may serve / engage in every matter of holiness, like a complete Jew. Which would not be / is not the case if some explicit distinction is made between them, for then everybody will hasten to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin so as to be counted for every holy thing, like a [regular] Jew … Unless / Except for the a situation where he is an anus in the literal sense [i.e., subject to coercion? / acting under duress} , which is that, even though he is here, he is subject to duress and he is forced not to be circumcised yet, and his heart is whole with Heaven, and he is careful / punctilious regarding all the other mitzvot, like a proper Jew, for regarding an anus of this type we draw no distinction… apart from the matter of tefillin, which he should not wear…. But those who hold themselves back and postpone being circumcised, not out of duress, but because of laziness / lethargy, one should be very strict with them, and prevent them from serving in any matter of holiness, not to wrap themselves in tzitzit and not to come to worship in the synagogue, but rather they should [pray] in solitude in their homes until they are circumcised like us, and we shall be as one people” [the last phrase is an allusion to Gen 34:16].”[*]
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?
[*] Responsa Mayim Rabim, R. Rafael Mildula (Amsterdam, 5497 [=1737], Pt. 10, §§51, 52; quoted in El Libro de los Acuerdos (Oxford, 1931). In the regulations and agreements of the Portuguese and Spanish communities in London in 1663–1681, that is, during the first years during which that community was established, we find a regulation not to bury in the congregational cemetery any individual who was not circumcised, as well as those members of his family who were dependent upon him, unless this is voided by a special decision of the members of the “Ma’amad” and the parnassim of the society (ibid., p. 23). But in 5430 (=1670), there died in London a certain converso who had come there from Middelburg [in Netherlands; or it might be Mittleberg, a city in Austria], and during his illness revealed his desire / wish that if he were to recover from his illness he would enter into the covenant [i.e., be circumcised]; and he also ordered his wife and his brothers who were in Bordeaux that they should circumcise his son who was in Bayonne, and he expressed regret that he had not had himself circumcised. On this basis they decided to bury him in a Jewish grave (p. 40).