Conversos and the Rise of Secularism

The rise of a secular alternative to Jewish life was the product of a series of complicated events and trends brought about in part by the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and various wide ranging political changes in Europe.  It was also brought about in part by changing views on Jewish religious texts. Jewish individuals like Azariah Dei Rossi of the 16th century opened the door for textual and historical criticism and set the stage for sacred texts to be subjected to the same critical methodology.[1]

But a secular alternative to Jewish religious life was ultimately realized in the person of Baruch Benedictus Spinoza in the 17th century. The seeds of secularism are ultimately rooted in earlier Jewish experiences, however. The expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and the Converso phenomena that both predated and followed this tragic event certainly played a role in forging the notion of secularism in a previously religiously dominated world.

The Impact of the Expulsion

While significant numbers of Conversos had existed since 1391 and in fact were from the perspective of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella the primary reasons for the edict of the expulsion, the exile from the Iberian Peninsula and the subsequent conversion of more Spanish and Portuguese Jews swelled the numbers of the existing Converso community.  Conversion to Christianity initially provided Conversos with unprecedented opportunities but also created complex psychological phenomena that created a unique view of religion, history, and politics.   A community already deeply rooted in a philosophical tradition of the medieval period was now confronted with an Inquisition that often targeted even Conversos faithfully practicing Christianity. For those who saw conversion as the means to escape the persecution and limitations imposed upon the Jewish community, a bitter reality was gradually revealed. As Don Isaac Abarbanel noted:

“The indigenous people of the land will always call them ‘Jews’ and they shall be designated ‘Israel’ against their will, and they would be accused of Judaizing secretly, and they will be burnt at the stake.”[2]

The physical, psychological, sociological, and theological impact of the Inquisition  was staggering. Americo Castro states:

“The converts of Jewish descent reacted with desperate indignation when seeing that they were not protected by the human principle upon which was founded the Christianity that they had adopted.”[3]

The assumption of many Conversos that the rights and status of the individual would be preserved under Christianity as they had been under Judaism was soon dashed. Those hoping to gain from their new found status, voluntary or coerced were forced to confront the idea that Christianity did not offer the gains they had expected.[4] The opportunities of advancement in business and social standing were checked by the rise of purity of blood laws that sought to restrict the phenomenal rise of Conversos into Spanish and Portuguese society.  The promise of acceptance and equality now fell flat for many and interestingly echoes through the modern period. As Stephen Gilman noted:

“The belief that only the caste of the old-Christians was truly Spanish and truly honorable was so rooted that it has endured for over four centuries. There even seem to prevail among some of our colleagues, peninsular and otherwise, the tacit notion that to bring to light the background of a Rojas or a Diego de San Pedro (not to speak of a saint Teresa of Avila) is an unpatriotic act, a virtual deletion of their work from the national Honor role.” [5]

Those Conversos that did escape from Spain and Portugal and journeyed to areas such as Amsterdam to rejoin Jewish society were in many ways a continuing “Jewish-Christian” community. While they sought to return to Judaism, the simple reality of having been brought up in a Christian environment contributed significantly to the challenges they faced in rejoining the Jewish community.  The extent of these challenges is captured by Byron Sherwin, in his work, Finding Faith in Meaning:

“Despite their sincere desire to return to the Jewish faith and the Jewish fold, they [who had fled the Iberian Peninsula] had many obstacles to overcome. Though they had left Spain and Portugal behind, though many had divested themselves of Christianity, though many had exchanged their Spanish names for Hebrew names, and though some had accepted harsh penances as the price of “return,” most “new Jews” retained the culture and the language of Spain and Portugal. They not only remained influenced by Christian doctrines but also intended to understand the nature of Jewish identity and Judaism through the prism of Spanish-Catholic teachings. As one of them put it, ‘It is truly difficult to desert a religion which one has known from the cradle.'”[6]

The Undermining of Intellectual Freedom

The rise of the Converso phenomena is in large part connected to the undermining of Jewish religious institutions. According to Jose Faur, the rise of the anti-Maimonidean movement as well as the changing nature of rabbinic leadership in the Iberian Peninsula led to the collapse of Jewish communal life and leadership. A major assumption has been that the rise of Maimonidean tradition which reflected the cultural and philosophical heritage of Jewish life in Spain brought about in part the tendency of many Jews to opt for conversion in the face of persecution.  This view is based in part upon the idea that secular knowledge and in particular philosophical studies created a greater tendency of skepticism towards Judaism.  The eminent historian Yitzhak Baer, in his work History of the Jews in Christian Spain summarizes the standard view:

“There were many, it would seem, in Spain, who found in Maimonidean philosophy convenient support for their extreme liberalism…These men accepted only a faith of reason and rejected popular beliefs. They put rational understanding ahead of the observance of the commandments…[and] denied the value of Talmudic Aggadot.”[7]

The root cause according to this dominant view is that the philosophical leanings reflected in pro-Maimonidean circles resulted in the spread of Averroism.[8] This generally held view also holds that the anti-Maimonidean forces held the line against assimilationist trends engendered by the rationalistic and philosophic camps of the former.[9] The anti-Maimonidean forces are generally considered the authentic expression of Judaism.[10]

Instead, Faur contends, the opposite is actually true and the anti-Maimonidean forces far from embracing a more authentic Jewish expression were actually reflective of an assimilation of prevailing Christian attitudes towards philosophy and humanistic studies. Faur states:

“Unknowingly, the anti-Maimonideans promoted Christian ideology. It should be emphasized that they were not conscious of their mental assimilation. Their opposition fostered the illusion of total autonomy, barring an analysis of the basic elements affecting their own thinking process.”[11]

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Faur’s proposition is as follows: “A mark of the anti-Maimonidean ideology (whereby zeal displaces halakhah) is the sanction of violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of ‘religion.’” Among the principal characteristics of then contemporary Christian society was the persecution of heterodox minority communities. Persecution became a major component of Christian ideology. In the context of the Jewish community, the anti-Maimonidean circles harassed Jews who favored other approaches to Jewish thought other than their own and created a distinct group marked for persecution.[12]

 The consequences of these actions cannot be underestimated as Faur notes:

“One need not be particularly bright to have realized that requesting the Dominicans to burn Maimonides’ works established an extremely dangerous precedent.”[13]

The trend resulted in the loss of the creativity that had been characteristic of Iberian Jewish life in centuries before. Intellectual life in it’s scientific, humanistic, and as Faur contends diplomatic life ended. An alienation of the lay elite occurred and the loss of creative leadership were felt when anti-Semitic riots of the 14th and 15th centuries were experienced. The only venue for continued “Jewish” creativity in the intellectual sphere was in Christian circles, though these circles were often narrow as well. Noting Americo Castro, Faur states:

“Most of all creative thinking in the sciences, humanities, and literature in Spain was the product of Conversos.  And yet nothing similar was taking place within Jewish communities. It was only in modern times, when Jews were able to function outside of their community, that Jewish creativity flourished, and scientific and humanistic knowledge became possible. Thus, the Converso phenomenon was the result of internal, as well as external, causes.”[14]

The Undermining of Religious Institutions

The other major internal reason critical to the rise of the Converso phenomena is the changing of religious leadership in Spain which led to a spiritual vacuum as well as diplomatic ineptitude when crisis arose.[15] The intellectual and religious life of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula had previously reflected a religious tradition that was based upon the ideal of a pluralistic society of Andalusia, where Christian, Moorish, and Jewish scholars worked “side by side” to transmit the classics rediscovered and produced by Islamic schools.   Jewish life until the Maimonidean era was regulated on the basis that the commandments of the Torah were regulated by precise legislation and not by impulsive religious zeal. As Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi had noted, the commandments had exactly known definitions and functioned as the ultimate categories of Judaism.[16]

One of the anti-Maimonidean forces’ greatest champions was Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman. Nachman reflected a new form of Jewish orthodoxy deeply rooted in emerging Kabbalistic thought and strongly opposed the philosophical inclinations so reflective of Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers and halachists. Nachman’s approach to both the basis of rabbinic authority and an understanding of the observance of Jewish law were radically different than that of his predecessors. It arguably subordinated halakhah to Kabbalah.[17]

In short Nachman’s approach posited him as a harsh critic of the rationalism hitherto known in Andalusian Jewish communities. The issue is not the validity of Nachman’s views but rather the radically different approaches and antagonism that arose against what had been the mainstay of Jewish life for centuries. The philosophically and nationalistically leaning approaches of former years were over. This was coupled with a gradual shift in rabbinic leadership by the process of emigration and a radical change in the nature of Jewish scholarship in the Talmud academies. The notion of a talmid chacham as a master of halakhah was instead replaced by increasing numbers of rabbinic students dedicated to a dialectical method referred to as pilpul.. The change in emphasis led to a decline in the scholarship of rabbinic circles and this coupled with the shift towards religious fervor at the expense of ethics and morality eroded the leadership of the Jewish community at the moments it was most needed.[18] Rabbi Solomon Al’ami in his Iggeret Mouser notes the following:

“Some of our recent sages lost their way in the wilderness! They erred [even with] the most obvious! Because they hate and are jealous of each other, and put up for sale the Torah for presents. Their goal of their curriculum is to know how to read [the Torah] meticulously and expand their own innovations. The study of the Talmud and other works [also is wanting] because they are concerned with every minute detail of the law and the different views and opinions [ not with its substance]. They thrust aside the humility of the virtuous, temperance, and holiness. What [-one rabbi] instructs the other darkens; what [one rabbi permits the other prohibits. Through their quarrels the law had become two!”[19]

The Resulting Options: The Beginnings of Secularism or Pluralism

The transformation in ideology and most important its impact on reducing the nature of scholasticism in Jewish circles alienated educated Jews. The undermining of long held Sephardic traditions inevitably created doubt in the steadfastness of centuries old traditions and institutions. If respected institutions and stalwarts of Jewish life could be rendered illegitimate and deemed erroneous, if not out and out persecuted, then current religious Jewish views suffered the same weakness.  Faur’s contention then is that those unable to embrace such narrow views were necessarily pushed to the edges of the Jewish community.[20] While the rise of the pogroms in the late 14th and 15th centuries were not the direct result of the anti-Maimonidean circles, those individuals at the margins of society may have led many to believe that Christian identity might offer them the safety they longed for as well as the intellectual freedom they had been lacked.  The resulting envy and series of anti-Converso legislation that arose destroyed the hope of integration and instead led many to believe that only a secular state as the only option for ensuring freedom from religious duress. Many Conversos resigned themselves to their status as “New Christians,” and they abandoned Jewish praxis for practical reasons. Again Don Isaac Abarbanel states:

 “They don’t observe G-d’s laws, rituals, and commandments for fear of the Gentiles. Lest they [the Christians] should say that since now they form part of them and their society, if they observe the laws of Israel they would be killed as sectarians and heretics.” [21]

Yet their attachment to their new faith was often empty as well. Abarbanel relates: “And they don’t observe the religion of the Gentiles, because they don’t believe in their religion.” [22]  For those that remained in the realm of Christian belief, the questions raised by Conversos about Christian doctrines such as image worship, the cult of saints, and classical Christian approaches to interpreting Scripture heralded the very same issues that were brought to the forefront of the Protestant Reformation.[23]

Some Conversos who were able to escape to openly practicing Jewish communities such as in Amsterdam often found it difficult to acculturate themselves to their new surroundings. Byron Sherwin reflective of de Castro’s position argues that the concept of honra (personal honor) was part of the challenge:

“…such Conversos…arrogantly considered it an affront to their “honor” to accept the teachings or the authority of the rabbis and teachers who tried to lead them back to Jewish faith and communal life. Their convictions regarding the superiority of Western cultural norms to Judaism and their assimilation of Christian prejudices against Jews and Judaism prevented them psychologically, intellectually, and sociologically, from reintegration into Jewish communal and religious life.”[24]

These Conversos often fluent in the arts and sciences such as logic, physics, and philosophy, including Greco-Roman literature helped set the stage for the rise of philosophical skepticism and epistemology by individuals such as Francisco Sanchez, a son of Conversos, as well as other individuals such as Uriel da Costa and ultimately Baruch Spinoza.[25]

Baruch Spinoza: The First Secular Jew

It is generally in the person of Spinoza that the idea of secularization reaches its most pronounced advocate. Spinoza was the product of two distinct traditions both rooted in the Jewish experience. The first was connected to the tradition of the great Jewish medieval philosophers which included the likes of Judah HaLevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides among others. The other was the skepticism of Conversos like Sanchez and Uriel da Costa. Spinoza highlights the challenges of many Conversos who escaped Spain or Portugal. Noting this, Faur states:

“The only successful attempt to free human reason from the authority of religion was that of Spinoza. In his Theologico-Political Treatis (1670) he denied the claims for divine authority based on the text of Scripture and religious tradition…Spinoza was the first secular Jew, and as such, the first secular man. Indeed, he served as the role model for all secular Jews, instituting the precise features that characterized future Jewish secularists.”[26]


While the Jews of Europe were yet to experience the Enlightenment and emancipation, the notion of Jewish secularism and indeed of secularism in general had been laid down. Inadvertently, Conversos attempting to deal with the consequences of the personal social and religious transformation they and the larger Jewish society had undergone helped create a secular experience

[1] Lester A. Segal, Historical Consciousness and Religious Tradition in Azariah De’ Rossi’s Me’or ‘Einayim, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 27.

[2] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 42.

[3] Americo Castro, Hacia Cervantes, (Madrid: Tauras Ediciones, 1967), 138-139.

[4]  Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 53.

[5] Stephen Gilman, The Spain of Fernando de Rojas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 27.

[6] Byron Sherwin, Finding Faith in Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6.

[7]  Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, (Philadelphia, 1961), Volume 1, p. 97.

[8]  Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 235. See also Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College and Jose Faur, A Crisis of Categories: Kabbalah and the Rise of Apostasy in Spain, Bar Ilan University and Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), 11.

[9] Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, (Philadelphia, 1961), Volume 1, p. 96-110.

[10]  In his article Anti- Maimonidean Demons, Jose Faur, notes the simple point that the mass apostasy to Christianity took place after and not before the attack on Maimonides. This is a point largely ignored by those placing blame on the impact of philosophical speculation on those who converted.

[11] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 1.  See also Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College.

[12]  Ibid. 2.

[13]  Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College.

[14]  Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 2.

[15] Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), 13.

[16] David H. Baneth, The Kuzari (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1977), III, 49, p.129.

[17]Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College, 20.

[18] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 19, 21.

[19] Rabbi Solomon Al’Ami, Iggeret Musar, A.A. Haberman, ed. (Jerusalem, 1946), 40-41.

[20] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 2.

[21] Ibid. 50.

[22] Ibid. 50.

[23] Ibid. 40.

[24] Byron L. Sherwin, Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.

[25]  Ibid. 10-11.

[26] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 142.

This work was originally published in the JOURNAL OF SPANISH, PORTUGUESE, AND ITALIAN CRYPTO JEWS VOLUME 3 SPRING 2011 by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism.

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