Re-Education of the Marranos, by Yosef Yerushalmi

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An article describing the re-education of Iberian anusim in the early Modern period.


The Re-Education of the Marranos in the Seventeenth Century By: Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi In one of the rare autobiographical accounts to come to us from a former Marrano, the poet Joao (Moshe) Pinto Delgado, who returned to Judaism in France, writes poignantly of his parents in Portugal as having planted in his soul the trees of the Most Holy Law whose fruits were late in coming (los arboles de la Santissima Ley, de que tardaron los fruitos).1 That metaphor could well have served as the title of this lecture on the means by which those thousands of Marranos who still fled from the Iberian Peninsula in the seventeenth century managed to make the transition from a truncated clandestine Judaism to full and open Judaism, and who were thus absorbed into Jewish communities the world over. At the very outset we must be astonished at the phenomenon itself. We are dealing in this period with Marranos of the fourth, fifth, even sixth generation, born and raised as Christians in Spain and Portugal where, since the end of the fifteenth century, open Jewish life had ceased to exist. These were men and women who grandparents had already known neither synagogue nor house of study, yet they continued to flee abroad in order to bring their Jewish faith to full flower, and to rejoin the living body of the Jewish people throughout the vast Sephardic diaspora. To be sure, some fled and failed. The tragic case of Uriel dAcosta is the best and most famous example of this. But most succeeded. Da Costa and some others who came into collision with the Judaism that awaited them achieved notoriety precisely because they were not typical. Most of the Marranos who fled took their places quietly within established Jewries. Some went on to become communal leaders, scholars and rabbis. The galaxy of former Marranos who contributed to every sphere of seventeenth-century Jewish life far exceeded the number of heretics among them, and I shall not weary you with their names. In any case, for our present purposes we are as concerned with the anonymous as well as the illustrious. How was this metamorphosis achieved? How did a person who had reached maturity in Catholic Spain or Portugal acquire those Jewish traditions, skills and attitudes that would enable him to feel at home in the Jewish community and become an active participant in both its religious and mundane life? The answer depends, in part, on how one views the problem. In general, two assumptions obscure our view of what actually took place: a) That between the Iberian Catholic ambiance and that of such contemporary Jewish communities as Amsterdam or Venice there lay an almost unbridgeable chasm. b) That before leaving the Iberian Peninsula Marranos had access only to the Bible, that they were totally ignorant of post-Biblical Judaism and that all they1

I.S. Revah, Autobiographie dun Marrane: edition partielle dun manuscript de Joao (Moseh) Pinto Delgado, Revuew des etudes juives, CXIX (1961), 93.

encountered once they arrived in a Jewish community was a complete novelty for them. I shall have occasion to indicate that both assumptions are exaggerated and that the real problems lay elsewhere. For the moment we would best plunge in directly and begin to look closely at the Marrano emigrants themselves. I The transition of the Marrano from what I.S. Revah has called a potential Judaism2 to active Judaism began before his arrival in a Jewish community. It began with the very decision to flee, with the flight itself, despite the dangers involved. In a responsum written in 1655 Rabbi Jacob Sasportas speaks of those Marranos whose entire effort is to come to a Jewish community, and who have risked their lives and endangered themselves, and the uncircumcised detected them and they gave up their lives for the sanctification of the Name. And yet, others continue to flee, for they believe that there is yet hope for them, and they seek the nearness of God and they reckon their lives as nothing in accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven lovingly3 In short, the flight was itself already an act of intense Jewish commitment, not to be undertaken easily or capriciously. And this was true not only of those who fled voluntarily, but even of those who were once menaced by the Inquisition and who fled to escape arrest. Once abroad even the latter were now at liberty to live securely as Christians and, to be sure, some did precisely that. If many still chose to enter a Jewish community with a prior existential investment and, as one may well imagine, with great expectations. The primary aspect to ponder is that once the Marrano arrived in a Jewish community his re-education or, if you will, his re-judaizing began on a non-cognitive plane. Indeed, it began on a deep, emotional, symbolic one would almost say sacramental level, which preceded any intellectualizing, and which was all the more powerful for that very reason. Before any systematic study the returning Marrano performed a series of acts and rituals, rites of passage in the fullest sense, which could not fail to impress on him that in reclaiming his spiritual patrimony he was indeed beginning a new life. Some practices were specifically geared to Marranos. Others stemmed from the natural consequences of what Jewish law demands of any Jew. Even the latter, however, often had a different meaning for the Marrano than for other Jews. For the adult male the act of prime significance was, of course, his circumcision, generally performed as soon as was feasible. We can only begin to imagine the impact of such an experience. Gentile proselytes to Judaism have obviously known it, but I am not aware that they have ever written about it. Some former Marranos did. Here, for example, is Isaac Cardoso who, at age forty-five, abandoned his career as court-physician in Madrid to become a Jew in Venice:2 3

I.S. Revah, Les Marranes, Revue des etudes juives, CVIII (1959-60), 55 Jacob Sasportas, Ohel Yaakob (Amsterdam, 1737), no. 3.

For it is not like some light wound in the leg or an easy bruise on the arm, but rather something hard and difficult which now one would undertake unless he were moved by great awareness and zeal to embrace the Law of the Lord. This is also the reason why it is done at the tender age of eight days, when the pain is not so great as later, and the imagination is still weak. But all this increases with maturity, when a man becomes apprehensive and fears things before they happen4 Little wonder that some were reluctant to submit to circumcision. With these persuasion was necessary and, when that failed, various forms of coercion. In the Sephardic community of London, for example, one of the earliest ordinances of the seventeenth century barred any uncircumcised male, as well as his family, from burial in the communal cemetery.5 In some Italian communities the returning Marrano was allowed to perform various ritual commandments even before his circumcision, while others disagreed and denied him the right of putting on phylacteries, or raising the Torah in the synagogue, arguing on psychological grounds that they will delay in entering into the covenant of our father Abraham, since they see that although they are uncircumcised nothing is withheld from them and they can use all holy objects as Jews.6 Yet the evidence indicates that most did undergo circumcision as soon as possible. Indeed, it is not surprising that perhaps nowhere in Jewish literature do we find so great an emphasis on the rite, or such glowing praise of it, as in the writings of former Marranos. In Cardosos terminology it is a mysterious sacrifice (sacrificio misterioso). It, and not the Crucifixion as the Christians claim, made full restitution for Original Sin. Without this seal of circumcision the Jew cannot be saved (sin este firmamento de berit no se puede salvar el judio).7 The seventeenth-century Venetian rabbi Samuel Aboab was upset that some former Marranos seemed to believe that their sins began to count only from the moment they are circumcised, and that therefore they did not sufficiently regret their past deeds.8 But Aboab saw only the negative side of this belief, and so missed the point. It was really a measure of the centrality of circumcision in the eyes of those very Marranos that they regarded it as the crucial event separating their Jewish from their Marrano lives, the mark of a truly new beginning. What I have tried to sketch thus far is not merely a speculative reconstruction. In an inquisitorial trial still preserved in the archives in Madrid there is a uniquely graphic description of the absorption of a Marrano into a Jewish community. The case is that of Christobal Mendez, alias Abraham Franco de Silveira, arrested in Madrid in 1661.9 He had fled originally in 1643 to Venice, where he fully embraced Judaism, and had lived asIsaac Cardoso, Las excelencias de los Hebreos (Amsterdam, 1737), p. 48, paraphrasing Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, III, xlix. 5 El libro de los acuerdos, ed. L.D. Barnett (Oxford, 1931), p. 23. 6 See the respona of Refael Meldola, Mayim rabbim (Amsterdam, 1737), II, nos. 51-53. 7 See Y.H. Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto (New York-London, 1971), p. 380. 8 Samuel Aboab, Sefer ha-zikhronot (n.p., n.d.; ca. 1650), fol. 75. For details see Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court, p. 200. 9 Madrid: Archivo Historico Nacional, Inquisicion de Toledo, Judaizantes, Leg. 165, no. 12 (562), fols. 61r62v. I plan to publish a full study of this case in the near future.4

a Jew for years both there and in Amsterdam. In 1649 he had returned to Spain in order to bring his sister and stepmother out of the country. Now he had returned once more, probably on a similar mission, but was caught. His description of his reception into the Venetian Jewish community, revealed in the course of an inquisitorial interrogation, is of concern to us here. Upon his arrival in Venice in April of 1643 Mendez was taken to the house of an uncle, Abraham Suarez. Twenty years old at the time, Mendez had some natural hesitations about undergoing circumcision, but was persuaded to agree to it by the uncle and by a rabbi, Moses of Toledo, himself a former Marrano. The latter gave him a Spanish bible (la Biblia en romance), and in particular discussed with him Psalm 19:18 (The law of the Lord is perfect). The circumcision took place a month later, the mohel being Solomon Foro, an elderly Jewish merchant who, we are told, considered it a special merit for himself to perform the ritual. The circumcision was accomplished according to all the requirements of Jewish law, including periah. In retrospect Mendez recalled that he had barely heard the benedictions recited on the occasion because of the great pain he felt (con el gran dolor que sentia). As soon as he was circumcised the uncle gave him a prayer-shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin). He also gave him a Spanish translation of the prayerbook which he perused during the twenty days it took him to recuperate from the operation. Once recovered he came to the Sephardic synagogue, the Scuola Spagnola, in the Venetian ghetto. He put on his tallit and tefillin and was called to ascend the open ark, where he recited the traditional blessing of deliverance (birkat hagomel) in Hebrew, repeating it word for word after the cantor. His formal transition to Judaism was completed. II There were other elements as well. Anyone who appreciates the psycho-symbolic significance of names, and especially of a change of names, will readily understand the importance of the fairly universal custom whereby the returning Marrano exchanged his Iberian Christian name for a Jewish one.10 Usually this took place at circumcision or, in the case of women, at their ritual immersion. Some Marrano families even succeeded to transmit the original Jewish surname from the fifteenth century down through the generations, and where this name was known it would now be adopted openly.11 Similarly, while still in the Iberian Peninsula some Marrano parents would give their children a secret Hebrew first nameSometimes both the Christian and the Jewish names continued to be used, depending on the circumstances. Merchants and travelers, for example, often found it safer. On occasion it may have been commercially advantageous. In the Livornia, the charter of privileges granted in 1593 granted by Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in his successful effort to attract Jews (among them former Marranos) to settle and trade in his new free port of Livorno, the sixth clause states: We grant you the right to traffic and trade in all of the cities, territories, fairs, markets, villages and other places of our states, and to set sail for the Levant, the West, Barbary, Alexandria and elsewhere, under your own names or a Christian name (My thanks to Prof. Bernard Dov Cooperman of Harvard for making his translation of the document available to me). 11 For an example of this in the case of the Aboab family, see From Spanish Court, p.56, n. 17.10

with the admonition that this should be used by them if they ever managed to depart.12 More surprising is the fact that the genealogical traditions of Marrano families were generally respected and accepted as accurate. Thus, if a man claimed that he was descended from kohanim or leviim he was given the priestly or levitical prerogatives in the synagogue without further inquiry. A case preserved in the rabbinic responsum concerns a Marrano who came to Salonika and did not know his Jewish family name, so he picked one at random. After a while he received a letter from an old woman in Safed, Palestine, who said she knew he was from a priestly family. On the basis of this testimony he now named himself Cohen, and was allowed to deliver the priestly benediction in the synagogue and to be called up first at the reading of the Torah. And thus it is the custom with regard to all Marranos (anusim) who declare themselves to be kohanim, and they are called thus upon their own word, and there is no suspicion whatever.13 Given the guilt that some Marranos felt for the life they had led as Christians, it is no surprise that penitential rites also existed, including flogging, though here the practice varied widely. Some rabbis saw fit to impose them; in most cases Marranos sought and undertook them voluntarily.14 Most widespread was the custom of observing a private fast, a practice that obtained even within the Iberian Peninsula. The inquisitorial documents reveal instances in which an active Judaizer would persuade another New Christian to join him and urge that he begin to become an observer of the Law of Moses (observante de la ley de Moysen) by first undertaking a fast.15 Finally, after arriving in a Jewish community Marrano coupoles who had married in Spain or Portugal were now re-married in a Jewish ceremony. In Livorno, and probably elsewhere as well, it was the custom to place any children who had been born in th...