It would be logical to believe that the Conversos of the 17th century who were able to escape or journey to cities like Amsterdam where openly practicing Judaism was tolerated would have found peace. After all they had in many cases maintained for several generations some form of secret Jewish identity. The reality for many Conversos, however was that arrival in Amsterdam was only the starting point to deep reflection, tension, and even confusion.
The reason that this happened for many Conversos was that their expectation of what traditional Judaism actually was often through the prism of their experiences in Spain and Portugal. Their understanding of Judaism was often mediated through the depiction of Catholic teaching or in their personal study of the “Old Testament.”
The differences between the “Old Testament” and classical Judaism were often too much to bear for many. This was certainly the claim of Uriel da Costa, though the extent of his knowledge of Jewish practice seems to have been different than he originally claimed. Whatever the case, the rabbinic system was not something the typical Converso had experienced.
Rabbi Sherwin Z”L many years ago commented that “Judaism is not the religion of the Bible, but rather the religion of the Jewish interpretation of the Bible.” Hence the fact that a certain Scripture is common to both Judaism and Christianity does not of course mean that Judaism understood the verse the way that Christians would.
Some Conversos were taken a back at the extensive requirements of living a Jewish life. Life was certainly not easy for everyone who journey to Amsterdam despite the fact that many were economically successful. Traditional Jewish life of course requires commitment and discipline. Shabbat observance by itself includes an extensive list of prohibitions which can be overwhelming to the uninitiated.
The Converso dilemma reminds me of a story of a village with no physician. The villagers used natural or folkloric remedies but yearned for a real doctor to serve the village. A villager is ultimately able to study at a university and return to serve his friends and families. A problem arises when the physician begins to correct the various remedies that the villagers had used. The villagers wanted authentic medicine, but they did not necessarily want the doctor to invalidate their age old traditions.
Some Conversos who arrived in Amsterdam knew that their understanding of Judaism was limited to say the least. Others, aware of the challenges (even imprisonment or torture by the Inquisition) they had faced in the Peninsula to preserve some semblance of Jewish tradition, did not see the rabbis as a legitimate source of authority or at the very least resented them.
The challenge of Conversos in centuries gone by is not simply a historical one but can be seen in the struggles that some modern Conversos face when returning to Judaism. It is also a challenge that Jews often face when studying a Jewish tradition with which they are often less familiar.
As always, more to come…
Posted Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of What is Kosher? and What is Jewish Prayer?