Innovations among Conversos and Portuguese Jews


Menasseh ben Israel

Menasseh ben Israel

Expressions of Jewish belief among the descendants of forcibly converted Jews in Spain – and particularly Portugal – persisted clandestinely into the eighteenth century. Under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, and in the absence of Jewish communal institutions, Jewish books, rabbinic leaders, or extensive contact with the wider Jewish world, crypto-Jewish beliefs inevitably evolved dramatically over time. It is true that the first generation of converts after the Expulsion from Spain, or after the forced conversions in Portugal in 1497, would have been relatively conversant in rabbinic thought and practice. But a child could be initiated into Jewish practice and belief only at an age when he or she could be trusted to keep the family’s crypto-judaizing secret, and in any case the details of Jewish practice became irrelevant when observing the most rudimentary precepts was dangerous or impossible. The vast body of traditional liturgy, lore, and Torah learning was thus soon lost. And the knowledge of Hebrew disappeared almost entirely.

Among ordinary crypto-Jews, repeating pithy statements (often as much anti-Catholic as specifically Jewish) became the primary means by which the tradition was transmitted. For example, one crypto-Jew was taught to say, when the host was raised at Mass, “I see a piece of bread; I worship you, Lord, instead.” The historian I. S. Révah has identified as the three core elements of crypto-Jewish belief a) the rejection of Catholicism as a form of idolatry, b) the conviction of belonging to the Jewish people which worships the only true God and will be redeemed by the Messiah, and c) the belief that personal salvation can be achieved only through the “Law of Moses.”

In learned circles, however, crypto-Jewish theology was more complex and more innovative. The Inquisition’s Index of Prohibited Books, and its fairly systematic enforcement, made not just Jewish texts but even vernacular Bibles inaccessible to the public in Spain and Portugal. Crypto-Jews with a knowledge of Latin, however, could gain access to the Bible in Latin, and learned to draw support for their beliefs on the basis of its textual authority alone – an application of Reformation theology, as it were, to Jewish apologetics. Such crypto-Jews also gleaned knowledge of classical Jewish polemical arguments against Christianity by examining the many anti-Jewish treatises that were a part of the available Church literature. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi’s biography of Isaac Cardoso reveals just how much such private researches could yield.

It is likely that the highly individualistic, bibliocentric theological perspectives developed among learned crypto-Jews in the Iberian Peninsula contributed to “heretical” thinking among ex-conversos who joined Jewish communities in Europe. One of the earliest such figures was Uriel da Costa, an ex-converso in the Portuguese-Jewish community of Hamburg who was excommunicated for publicly and demonstratively denying the authority of the Oral Law. It is possible that habits of autonomous religious thinking and speculation that developed among certain crypto-Jews in the Peninsula contributed to the emergence of skepticism among seventeenth-century Portuguese Jews – among them, most famously, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677). Scholars continue to debate how Spinoza’s ex-converso background contributed to his intellectual development. His excommunication from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656, at the age of twenty-four, meant that his mature work was done entirely outside the Jewish sphere. But the development of his Jewishly heretical ideas, about which we unfortunately know very little, was certainly encouraged by skeptical currents within the Amsterdam community.

Most of the ex-conversos who reverted to Judaism, however, were strongly inclined to conform in a basic way to early modern standards of rabbinic Judaism. Their predicament, however, was unparalleled. They arrived in Venice or Amsterdam with almost no knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish practice. The rapid establishment of printing presses that served this population made possible the creation and dissemination of a new literature of adult Jewish education. Such works as Hebrew prayer books with an accompanying Spanish translation, an abridged version of the Shulhan Arukh in Spanish, and Spanish or Portuguese manuals of Jewish practice played an role in the reeducation among the Portuguese Jews, and can be considered forerunners of today’s many “how-to” manuals of Jewish practice.

Because the Portuguese Jews were extraordinarily knowledgeable about Christianity, they were able to produce an extensive polemical literature whose primary purpose was to put to rest religious conflicts among converso refugees from the Peninsula. Isaac Orobio de Castro and Saul Levi Mortera stand out among the authors who contributed to this literature in Spanish or Portuguese. The ex-conversos’ intimate knowledge of Christianity also allowed them to engage in a complex exchange with Christian Hebraists and millenarians whose sympathetic interest in the Jews was both encouraging and threatening. The famous Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel had a particularly wide network of Christian friends, which included such theologians as Gerard Vossius and Caspar Barlaeus.

Secondary Sources

  1. Altmann, Alexander. “The Eternality of Punishment- A Theological Controversy within the Amsterdam Rabbinate in the Thirties of the Seventeenth Century,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 40 (1972), 1-88.
  2. Popkin, Richard. “Menasseh ben Israel and Isaac la Peyrere,” Studia Rosenthaliana 7 (1974), 59-63.
  3. Teicher, Jacob. “Why Was Spinoza Banned?” The Menorah Journal 45 (1957), 41-60.

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