Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
Once Conversos fled Spain and Portugal, returning to Judaism openly was not always an attractive option. Many Conversos wavered in their decision to adopt Judaism openly. Many rabbis and laymen tried to convince their Spanish and Portuguese Converso relatives and friends to return to Judaism.
One such approach was the work of Samuel Usque titled Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel directed at providing Conversos “evidence” that G-d’s hand was active in history and was calling them to return to Jewish life. Usque, an ex-Converso himself understood the environment that ex-Conversos experienced and suffered through. While he was faulted Conversos for failing to return to Judaism, Usque is I believe more understanding of the situation Conversos faced and wished to coax them back to Judaism.
The exact date of Samuel Usque’s escape from Portugal is unclear. The Consolation however, mentions various key events including the deportation of Jewish children to Sao Thome; Emanuel’s forced conversion of Jews; the massacre of 1506, and the rise of the Portuguese Inquisition. The latter may indicate Samuel Usque left Portugal sometime after 1531. He appears to have journeyed from Naples to Constantinople and then to Salonika which had become a major center of Sephardic exiles and returning Conversos. From Salonika, he travelled to the land of Israel and spent time in Safed which likely explains his affinity for Jewish mysticism and messianic speculation including the return of the Ten Lost tribes. Usque’s journeys did not conclude in the Land of Israel, however. He returned to Europe where he traveled through Bohemia and finally back to Italy to the city of Ferrara. He appears to have been related to Abraham Usque, though the exact relationship is not known. The latter published his work in Ferrara in 1553.
Dedicating his work to Dona Gracia, Usque heaped praises on this ex-Converso Sephardic heroine and referred to her as the “heart in the body of our people.” He lauded her further for her work in helping Conversos escape from the Iberian Peninsula. Usque praised Dona Gracia for “bringing forth into the light the fruit of the plants [i.e. Conversos] that lie buried in its darkness.” He was also intimate with the Abravanels. The remainder of Usque’s life is like the earlier portion- veiled in uncertainty. The exact year of his death is unknown, but Isaac Akrish writing in 1577, spoke of Usque as having passed- possibly some time before.
Usque’s treatise is an extensive review of the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people, together with his views on the theological causes of the grief endured by them. The Consolation is divided into three dialogues between the patriarch Ycabo (Jacob but also a play on the word Ichabod meaning the glory has departed) who is introduced as a shepherd lamenting the fate of his children and Numeo (Nahum) and Zicareo (Zechariah). Critical to understanding Usque is the person of Ycabo. As Cohen notes:
“Though Ycabo narrates the past history of his people, he stands in the present as a contemporary of Samuel Usque: he sees in the past not the dear relics of bygone generations but his own reflection and the reflection of his people’s lives. When Ycabo bemoans his fate, when he raises questions or voices doubts, he does so from this vantage point in the present, fully aware that the entire sweep of his history has failed to provide him with satisfactory answers.”
In the first two dialogues, Usque relates the history of the Jewish people through the destruction of the Second Temple. He then turns to the rise of Roman rule following the fall of Hasmonean rule. In the third dialogue, Usque provides a lengthy review of Jewish history once again, but this time recounts the sufferings of Jewish communities up to his own day. He quotes Biblical prophecies which he believes reflect fulfillment of the events in question. Usque begins his narrative by recounting the persecution by the Visigoth King Sisebut, and continues with the stories of the alleged desecrations of the sacred host by Jews in France and Spain. He reviews the persecution of Jews in Persia, Italy, England, and Germany and a series of other accusations against the Jewish community once again in Spain and France. He relates their then recent persecutions in Spain and Portugal; and the fortunes of those who were exiled from the Iberian Peninsula following the two Expulsion decrees.
Samuel Usque begins with the goal of his work in mind from the start when in the pastoral introduction Ycabo articulates the desperation of forced converts:
“When will I see the end to wrongs and offenses against me, to my longings and agonies, to my bruises and the wounds in my soul? When will my happiness not be confined to dreams and my misfortunes not be real?…When will peace come to my battered body, or to the fears, suspicions, and apprehensions of my spirit? How long must I moan and sigh and slake my thirst with my tears.”
Ycabo’s and by extension the desperation of Conversos is also an appeal for a response to the claims of Christianity. Christianity saw the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent hardships of the Jewish people as proof that G-d had rejected His covenantal relationship with them. Christians pointed to sin as the ultimate reason for Israel’s continuing sufferings. On this, Usque is actually willing to agree, but not for the reasons that Christians argue. Instead, Usque argues that the sin in question is the sin of assimilation. Cohen notes:
“It was the sin of assimilation to gentile peoples, leading Israel to apostasy, idolatry and marriage with non-Jews. By this sin, Israel broke its covenant with G-d and provoked the divine punishments recorded in the Bible.”
Usque seeks to address the trials of Conversos by appealing to various examples from Israel’s history. Usque looks at the experiences of the Ten Lost Tribes, for example, with whom many Conversos must have certainly shared a connection to:
“I fear above all that the L-RD, so provoked and offended, has not rejected me as His people. And then I fear lest He has gone over to another people, after seeing how little effect His remedies and punishments have had on me. And if He has left me, I dread still a third evil, namely that being thus deprived and absent from His favor, my memory may end and be consumed in the paws and teeth of the animals of this world, this frightening desert through which I travel.”
Usque responds to the concerns of Conversos who fear being lost to G-d and the people of Israel. For Usque, just like Rabbi Akiba, since the prophets’ promises of punishment had been realized, so to would their predictions of Israel’s happiness and restoration be fulfilled. Like the Ten lost Tribes of Israel who were now indistinguishable from the neighboring peoples, but would eventually be gathered, so too would the forced converts and their descendants be reassembled and restored to Israel. For Usque, Conversos have not been abandoned by G-d. Nevertheless, reconciliation to G-d involves the rejection of idolatry. Ycabo states:
“You have placed me in a frame made of clay and adobe, subject to temptation’s unabating winds and storms; how can that which is infirmed by its very nature sustain itself when it is buffeted to and fro.”
Usque seeks to comfort Conversos in their despair by stating the following:
“The force of divine mercy toward you has not diminished, nor does the pardon of your children and the healing of your wounds depend upon your good or evil deeds alone. Many and incomprehensible are the ways by which the L-RD performs lofty action and marvels.”
For Usque, the situation of Conversos was not an anomaly but simply reflects a recurring pattern in Jewish history of Jews adopting the ways of the nations. When Israel sinned, it experienced the same types of punishment. The very people and lifestyle they seek to emulate become the source of their oppression. In ancient Israel, the temptations toward assimilation may have been evidenced in Canaanite practices; in Usque’s day the drive was towards Spanish and Portuguese society. Hence Conversos were not outside the fold of the Jewish community. They were like their Israelite ancestors in the wilderness, like the children of Israel in the plains of Moab, and the like the countless other times, at a crossroads where they must choose to follow G-d’s paths or abandon them.
In Dialoque II, Usque reviews the history of the Maccabees and the struggle against Hellenistic assimilation. The stories of the aged priest Eleazar who suffered death while being tortured at the rack as well as the death of Hannah and her seven sons by fire are vivid reminders of the Inquisitional methods that Conversos faced in their own day. But the Consolation does not simply serve as a lengthy review of Jewish martyrdom. For Usque, the time of redemption was drawing near and the suffering endured by Conversos was a sign that an eschatological redemption was at hand. The suffering of Conversos in Spain and Portugal signals the beginning of the end of Israel’s tribulations. Usque states:
”…you have run the entire gauntlet of misfortunes and have reached the end of your tribulations…The ancients were unable to attain this proof as were, for we find ourselves living it in experience, which is the mirror where truths are clearly seen.”
Usque through the person of Numeo relates the prophecy of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy which states that the L-RD will scatter the people of Israel among all peoples from one end of the earth to the other. Furthermore, the prophecy continues, as long as the children of Israel do not walk in G-d’s paths, they will be given a “constant restlessness of heart, sunken eyes and sadness of soul.” Their lives will “dangle on a thin thread…” But in this chapter and with this calamity, Moses ends his enumeration of the curses. When all these things have transpired, Moses adds, “you shall turn your heart, there among the nations, and consider the state in which you are and why so many misfortunes befall you, and you shall repent.” With this, Numeo declares; “G-d’s mercy will descend upon you and He will gather you from all the peoples whither He scattered, you…”
For Samuel Usque, Conversos were the latest example of Jews who had become entangled by non-Jewish ways only to learn that the nations are interested in their destruction, socially, spiritually, theologically, and at times physically. For Usque, the Inquisition, contrary to popular views that it did not punish Jews, does exactly that. The Inquisition focused on Jews: Jews who had sinned, but Jews nonetheless. Jews who make must a choice to return to the G-d of Israel- but Jews nonetheless. As Usque writes:
“But you shall be called priests of the L-RD, and ministers of our G-d shall be your name. And you shall not be occupied in vile things; rather you shall eat the wealth of the nations and you shall delight in their splendor.”
Usque does not simply respond to Christianity’s supercessionists claims regarding the nature of Israel’s current and past sufferings. Instead like the Biblical prophets of old Usque takes aim at Christianity through the imagery of Edom to paint a dire picture of G-d’s pending retribution on the former:
“As though you, Edom, soar as high as the eagle and set your nest among the stars, I will throw you down from there by force (Obadiah 4). And on that day, says the L-RD, I will destroy your wise men and discernment from the mountains of Esau. I will destroy your wise men and which you committed against unto your brother Jacob, you shall be injured and forever cut off from the earth(Obadiah 8:10).”