Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism

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For Jews, life in the Iberian Peninsula was never quite as idyllic as is often portrayed. Jews residing there had experienced early Christian anti-Judaism in the fourth century and had undergone persecution, forced conversions, and expulsions under the Christianized Visigoths in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Islamic conquest of Spain in the eighth century improved Jewish life and created a period of stability and growth. Jewish life under Islamic rule, however, was not devoid of its trials and misfortunes as experienced under the Almovarids in the eleventh century and the Almohades in the twelfth century. Islamic fortunes eventually declined in the Iberian Peninsula. In the transition between Islamic and Christian rule, Jews flourished as an essential minority for the emerging Christian kingdoms now dominating the Peninsula.

In 1391, a new period in the history of the Jews of Spain began. Jewish communities throughout the Peninsula except those in the Kingdom of Portugal were attacked. The violence was stoked by long-held Christian anti-Judaism and popular discontent. The violence forever altered the position of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula. Thousands of Jews were murdered, and many more converted to Christianity under the direct threat of violence or to forestall it. The scope of the attacks in 1391 overshadowed all past trials as well as achievements and initiated a social and religious crisis that would last for more than a century.

The Jews who converted to Christianity were known as Conversos or New Christians in Christian literature and primarily as anusim (i.e. forced converts) in Jewish texts. According to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Judaizing by Conversos was the primary reason for their decision to order the expulsion of all unbaptized Jews in 1492 from their Iberian and overseas dominions. They argued that some unbaptized Jews had aided and abetted Conversos in Judaizing. The only way to resolve the problem was the absolute separation of the two groups. The accusation was, in fact, true. Their solution to the problem was brutal.

The descendants of Jews who had survived the mass conversions of 1391 were given a choice between exile and conversion. Further conversions were also brought about by the expulsion decrees issued by the Kingdom of Portugal in 1497 and the Kingdom of Navarre in 1498. Many exiles from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon had taken refuge in those domains in the wake of the original expulsion orders. Those Jews who converted to forgo exile faced challenges with an anti-Converso sentiment very much alive and well despite the drastic moves taken by the Spanish monarchs. Such actions had included the creation of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, which was already firmly focused on Conversos continuing to observe Jewish practices. In the Kingdom of Portugal, no real choice between exile and baptism was presented. Thousands of Jews expecting to leave the Kingdom were forcibly baptized and forbidden to leave. Since these refugees had lived openly as Jews, their ability to preserve Jewish identity secretly was much stronger than had been the case for Conversos in Castile and Aragon. The latter had already experienced a century of severe conditions resulting in a weakened state of Jewish identity.

The real religious identity of Conversos has often been the source of debate among scholars. Yitzhak Baer and Haim Beinart argued that Conversos were one with the Jewish people. According to their position, the Jewish community recognized that the choice to convert had been made under duress and that Conversos, on the whole, were insincere in their attachment to Christianity. For Baer and Beinart, the Inquisitional documents correctly testified to the Jewish practices of Conversos. The initial Conversos, as well as their descendants, remained faithful to Judaism to the best of their ability. In contrast, Benzion Netanyahu argued vociferously that outside of the first onslaught of 1391, the subsequent generations of Conversos were, in fact, sincere converts to Christianity. The Inquisitional records were nothing short of a farce. According to Netanyahu, while the first generation may have converted due to the threat of death, their children and grandchildren were sincere Christians. Netanyahu argued that whatever Crypto-Jewish practices existed were mainly due to the resentment stirred by unjust Inquisitional tactics. Netanyahu maintained that the Inquisition was not religiously motivated to extirpate the heresy of Judaizing. While a hatred of Judaism had motivated previous sentiments against Jews, Old Christians were now driven by anti-Semitism to destroy the Conversos as a social and economic class regardless of what religious beliefs they sincerely held.

In contrast to Netanyahu’s contentions, this study maintains that while there were certainly exceptions, most Conversos did retain essential elements of Jewish identity well beyond the years immediately following 1391. They did so despite challenging circumstances and the watchful eyes of local priests and bishops. Conversos had always been mindful that Old Christians (i.e. Christians prior to the violence of 1391 and effectively Gentile Christians) could rise violently against them as they had before. These concerns were proven to be correct several times throughout the fifteenth century in cities like Toledo, Ciudad Real, Córdoba, and in Lisbon in the early sixteenth century. That religious fervor did not solely motivate these outbreaks of violence was in due course admitted by the Christian populace. These persecutions were motivated in part by the resentment that many Old Christians felt towards Conversos because some had taken advantage of the new found social and economic opportunities open to them. In addition, recently converted Jews were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism secretly. Those who converted but observed Judaism clandestinely were known as Judaizers or Marranos meaning swine. The Old Christian population regarded Conversos and their descendants as Jews and treated them accordingly.

The insincerity of most of the conversions was also recognized by the Jewish community with which Conversos retained extensive connections. There were religious issues with regards to the status of these individuals in Jewish law. However, an expanded view of Jewish identity together with an appreciation for the nuances of Jewish law confirm that they remained a part of the Jewish people collectively. This was true regardless of whether or not their individual paths continued along the same accepted routes as their unbaptized brethren. While the majority of Conversos, not just the first generation, were insincere Catholics, the reality is much more complicated than the polar extremes depicted by either Yitzhak Baer or Benzion Netanyahu. The Jewish identity of the Conversos with respect to religious practice, belief, and theology lay along a broad spectrum reflective of their unique experiences. This applies also to the attitudes that Jews and Old Christians held toward Conversos.

To prove the assertion that most Conversos retained key elements of their Jewish identity, a series of chapters will lay out the case for their continued Jewish distinctiveness while also examining those who departed or deviated from it. This study will provide a conceptual overview rather than a strictly historical approach in the hope of offering a more easily understood discussion.

Chapter one, titled The Rise of the Converso Problem, will provide the historical context for the mass conversions of 1391. It will do so by providing a survey of important events in the history of Iberian Jewry from the Late Roman Period until the massacres of 1391. Under the rule of the Visigoths, Jews were forcibly converted. Many dissimulated in a manner eerily similar to the practices of the 15th and 16th century. The forced conversion of Jews to Islam by the Islamic sect known as the Almohades will also be discussed since dissimulation was similarly practiced during this era. The Castilian Civil War of the middle decades of the 14th century will also be reviewed. Henry of Trastámara rebelled against his half-brother Peter I and introduced anti-Jewish sentiment as a powerful weapon of war. Henry’s actions helped stir widespread resentment against Jews and set the stage for the approaching violence of 1391. A cursory study of the consequences and critical events following the massacres until the Expulsions at the end of the 15th century will also be included. Among these events will be the Tortosa Disputation, which saw the conversions of more Jews to Christianity.

The second chapter, titled Christian Attitudes Towards Conversos, will survey the range of Christian views towards Conversos during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The idea of supersessionism was critical to Christians’ understanding of Jews. This idea that Christians had replaced the Jews as the chosen people of God was and remains a cornerstone of Christian thought. The continuing distinctiveness of Conversos evidenced in their ongoing relationships with Jewish family, cultural practices, and most important Jewish religious expressions challenged Christian notions regarding the boundaries between Jews and Christians rather than resolving them. The Christian concept concerning the irrevocable nature of baptism and most importantly, the problem of Judaizing among Conversos will also be considered.

An essential aspect of this discussion will be those Christian attitudes towards Jews which shaped the mindset of Christians during preceding centuries and influenced their views towards Conversos. The conversions of 1391 were initially met with enthusiasm by many Old Christians and even considered to be miraculous in nature. This excitement eventually turned to disdain as the reality of most Conversos’ true attitude, towards Christianity became apparent. This viewpoint was matched by similar antipathy on the part of the Christian clergy towards Conversos. The minimal enthusiasm of the Conversos towards Christianity was motivated in part by the lack of Christian education given to Conversos in the years following the massacres of 1391. The fact that Conversos lacked Christian education only served to reinforce their identity as Jews and further distinguish them from an Old Christian community growing in its skepticism and contempt for them.

In some quarters, a measure of toleration for Converso Judaizing was given due to the need for the Crowns to balance their financial needs and their religious obligations. However, the supposed success of the conversions animated many, including the previously mentioned Geronimo de Santa Fe to drive more Jews towards embracing Christianity. The result was the Tortosa Disputation in 1412-1414. The perceived success of the debates by Christians notwithstanding, growing contempt for Converso economic success and accusations of Judaizing helped transform the perennial “Jewish Problem” into a new but equally devastating “Converso Problem.” The tension boiled over into violence and resulted in the adoption of purity of blood laws to stem the rise of Conversos in public offices. Such laws proved insufficient for many Old Christians, and individuals such as Alonso de Espina called for the creation of a reinvigorated Inquisition to attack the “deadly cancer” of Judaizing at its source. Works such El Alboraique depicted Conversos as hideous beasts who were intent on the downfall of Christianity. Despite such rhetoric, many clerics defended Conversos and argued that discrimination against them was contrary to the Christian faith. Time and separation from Jews they argued were the ultimate guarantors of orthodoxy among Conversos. In the end, even the violent tactics of the Inquisition were deemed insufficient, and the expulsion of all the Jews of Castile and Aragon was proposed as the final solution to the Converso dilemma.

The third chapter, titled Jewish Attitudes Towards Apostates, will review the social and theological challenges that apostasy posed for Jews. While most Jews understood the circumstances they faced, Conversos had technically adopted a pagan religion. This fact impacted various aspects of Jewish identity including marriage and divorce, and the permissibility of food and wine prepared by apostates. How relapsed converts were accepted and treated in the Jewish community is another point of interest. Chapter six will expand on this topic by providing greater detail on concrete examples of interaction between Jews and Conversos.

The fourth chapter, titled Types of Conversos, relates the major categories of Conversos which existed and the motivations for their conversions. It will be demonstrated that most converts were not sincere in their conversions and did so only to escape violence, crippling poverty, or judicial punishment. Others did so to break free of the social and economic limitations Jews had increasingly endured as a religious minority under Christian rule. When the Edict of Expulsion was issued in Castile and Aragon, the various Jewish communities of these realms were still liable to repay their debts to the Spanish Crowns. The individual members of each community were taxed accordingly, and the weight of this burden caused some to contemplate conversion to escape their financial obligations. Other persons exhibited much more complex traits. Some such as Pedro de la Caballeria were quite adept at walking in both worlds. He falsified his Converso background and pretended to be of Old Christian ancestry. He even authored a work in defense of Christianity. Yet he was capable of participating in Jewish rites at his discretion and interacting intelligently on Jewish matters when he chose. Others, such as Guillem Ramon Splugues converted out of spite towards his family, later regretting the decision that forever tied him to Christianity. Splugues was a respected member of the Jewish community and a lay scholar. His involvement with Christian women led to friction with his family and a rash decision to convert. He remained committed to Judaism and even worked to convince others to embrace Jewish practices until the Inquisition arrested him.

Some were born as Conversos and maintained a sense of Jewish identity that was transmitted by their parents’ generations after the massacres of 1391. Many of these individuals received assistance from friends and family in the Jewish community. As time passed, however, even the most sincere individuals intent on maintaining a sense of Jewish identity were stymied by the gradual decline of Judaic knowledge. Contact with other Jews even after the Expulsion was occasionally possible, but inquiring Conversos often gathered information regarding Judaism through the literature that the Inquisition itself had distributed to identify Judaizing practices. There were many Conversos who after generations strove to recapture their Jewish identity, but their understanding of Judaism was increasingly filtered through Catholic lenses. For many, the deterioration of their knowledge of Judaism slowly transformed their Jewish identity into a sum of anti-Christian beliefs. Jewish belief was the negation of and mockery of fundamental Christian dogmas.

Those who were able to escape the Iberian Peninsula and make their ways to openly Jewish communities underwent a process of return. The successful assimilation of individuals like Abraham Israel Pereyra and Isaac Orobio de Castro will be studied. Other Conversos who arrived did not adjust as quickly and struggled to accept the rabbinic norms that now defined Jewish life. Since they had rejected the authority of the Church, the tendency to question authority may have already been present making the path towards integration into Jewish life that much harder. Having survived the challenge of living a dissimulated Jewish life, they now encountered expectations that often differed from what they had envisioned.

There were some who gained a sophisticated knowledge of Jewish practices and theology even while still living outwardly as Catholics. Samuel Yahya was one such individual. He was born in Antwerp in 1576 and settled in Hamburg in 1605 when practicing Judaism openly was illegal. Samuel played a crucial role in the forming of the Hamburg Converso community. His Jewish education was very extensive as revealed in his sermons. He was conversant in Hebrew and quite impressively able to reference classical rabbinic commentaries as well as the Shulchan Aruch, and the Zohar, which he shared with his fellow Conversos. Another former Convero who mastered rabbinic texts was Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Born in Spain he and his brother Isaac fled the Peninsula and journeyed to Italy where they returned to Judaism. Cardozo was swept up in the frenzy of the Sabbatean messianic movement and became a principal theologian of it despite his never having met Sabbatai Zevi. Cardozo ultimately saw himself as a Messiah ben Joseph, the complimentary figure to Messiah ben David whose role was filled by Sabbatai Zevi. Cardozo’s endorsement of Zevi and his own messianic claims were deeply rooted in his identity and experience as a Converso.

Some Jews had in fact converted sincerely to Christianity. Sadly, many of these individuals were not content to embrace their new faith quietly. Many of them rose to prominent positions in the Church. In these offices, they actively worked to ensure the social and economic isolation of the Jewish community. After their conversion, individuals like Solomon Ha-Levi and Joshua Lorqui successfully antagonized their former coreligionists. Despite their conversions, many of these people retained an odd measure of pride in their Jewish origins. Their Jewish backgrounds coupled with their Christian faith allowed them to claim that they most closely resembled the earliest followers of the Christian message. In this sense, even they retained a measure of Jewish identity that they sought to transmit to their progeny. Not all of these converts, however, were so enthusiastic about maintaining a claim to their Jewish backgrounds. Individuals like the great humanist Juan Luis Vives, who had witnessed multiple family members tried as Judaizers, saw themselves as wholly subsumed in the mystical body of Christ to the exclusion of any other identity.

The fifth chapter, titled Skeptical Conversos focuses on those Conversos who gave up on both religious traditions and endeavored to create a world where religious affiliations were no longer the determining factor in a person’s life. The violence of 1391 had presented them with a choice of life or death. Their coerced adoption of Christianity and the anti-Converso sentiment that arose may have led them to conclude that all religious beliefs were pointless. These skeptically oriented Conversos were reported to search for false gospels, reject the immortality of the soul, involve themselves in philosophical discussions, and believe that salvation was available within various faith traditions. Generations later, other Conversos, who at least superficially, maintained allegiance to Catholicism, resurrected Academic and Pyrrhonian skepticism. They argued that ultimate knowledge was unachievable and human understanding was limited. Individuals like Francisco Sanchez and Michel de Montaigne as well as the biblical critic Isaac La Peyrère set the stage for the undermining of traditional religious beliefs. Their actions created the environment for Uriel da Costa and Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century who rejected the veracity of both Christianity and Judaism.

The sixth chapter, titled Jewish Attitudes Towards Conversos, will discuss the range of emotions and attitudes towards Conversos, which were held by unbaptized Jews. The continuing family bonds, which tied Jews and Conversos were an important factor in the relations between these two groups. Even those Jews not bound by blood were often supportive of Conversos and expressed this by providing them with kosher food, teaching them Hebrew, and giving them access to Jewish ritual items. They risked their fortunes and lives in doing so. They did so because they saw Conversos as continuing members of the Jewish people despite their conversions. Such sentiments were not limited to ordinary Jews. Rabbis were also supportive of Conversos trying to maintain their Jewish identity and worked to re-integrate them into the Jewish community. The venerable Isaac Abravanel held firmly to his belief that Conversos would play a crucial role in the future redemption of Israel and the nations even if their return to Judaism was not immediate. A century and a half after the Expulsion decrees, Rabbi Isaac Aboab from Amsterdam viewed Conversos as having a share in the World to Come regardless of their failures to live openly as Jews. Others, such as Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam, were convinced that unless Conversos escaped the lands of idolatry to a place where they could worship openly as Jews, they were condemned to eternal punishment. Despite Rabbi Morteira’s harsh stance, his view was predicated on the Jewish status of these individuals and a desire for them to fully rejoin the people of Israel.

The seventh chapter, titled Modern Day Conversos, willsurvey various accounts of modern Conversos ranging from Spain and Portugal to Latin America, and the American Southwest. Hundreds if not thousands of individuals, from Hispanic backgrounds, have claimed Converso ancestry and have acted to reintegrate themselves into the Jewish community in some form or fashion. The subject of Conversos, therefore, is not merely a theoretical or historical subject, but a topic of increasing contemporary relevance and importance. The study of Crypto-Judaism has brought about the creation of some organizations, academic and others religiously focused, on assisting Hispanic individuals interested in Judaism or claiming to be the descendants of Conversos. There are controversies regarding their claims, but the number of persons interested in their Converso past is growing with the increasing availability of information and resources.

The last chapter, titled The Crypto-Jewish Controversy,discusses the scholarly debate over the veracity of Inquisitional records. The discussion is important since how the motivations of the Inquisition impacts how the subject of Crypto-Judaism is understood. A brief review of scholarship on the Inquisition and Crypto-Judaism is included.

Checkout Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism today on sale at Amazon!

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