Tuesday, December 9, 2008

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part III)

What are some of the major historiographical debates concerning the conversos of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries? Who are the historians who have participated in these debates? Explain which side you take in each debate and why.

The year 1391 saw a wave of anti-Jewish riots engulf the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. This was followed by an intensive and well organized missionary campaign, with apostate Jews such as Paul of Burgos and Joshua Halorki playing prominent roles. The highlight of this missionary campaign was a public disputation at Tortosa, hosted by the Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII. These events utterly demoralized the Jewish community. It is believed that over the course of these two decades upwards of one third of the Jewish community converted to Christianity, creating a new social group in Spain, the conversos or New Christians.

The Christian populace viewed these New Christians with suspicion and as being, in a sense, a greater threat then Jews. Medieval society possessed an elaborate system designed to keep Jews in their place. Conversos, though, as Christians did not live under the traditional strictures that bound Jews. By converting to Christianity, these conversos now could take up high government positions, marry into noble families and even to enter the Church and become priests. In response to this problem, Old Christians developed, over the course of the fifteenth century, a series of mechanisms to keep conversos down, such as a theory of racial identity and purity of blood (limpieza de sangre). This can be seen most clearly in a series of ordinances passed in the city of Toledo in 1449. These ordinances placed restrictions on all those descended from converted Jews and banned them from holding certain offices. Furthermore opponents of conversos accused them of being crypto-Jews or marranos. These accusations culminated in the creation of the Spanish Inquisition, whose purpose was to root out those who practiced “Judaizing” heresies.

In 1492, the monarchs of Castile and Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand, attempted to solve the converso problem by simply expelling all Jews from their dominions. The thought was that the continued presence of a Jewish community served as a negative influence on the conversos; remove the negative influence and the conversos would submerge into the general Christian society. Clearly a reasonable assumption, the problem, though, was that since they offered Jews a choice to convert instead of leaving and even went so far as to allow those Jews who left the chance to come back, embrace Catholicism and regain their property. (An offer that many Jews took the Crown up on.) This created a whole new round of conversos, thus putting everything back to square one. The Spanish Crown had to use the Inquisition to root out Judaizers, a process that would color the Spanish cultural landscape for centuries.

A similar situation, though, as we shall see later, with important differences, played itself out in Portugal. Many of the Jews who fled Spain in 1492 went to Portugal. In 1497 King Manuel forcibly baptized them, thus creating a new converso community. After a few decades Portugal found itself in the same situation as Spain; it had this large population of former Jews and their descendents with serious questions hanging over their doxy. To solve this problem Portugal followed the Spanish lead and instituted an Inquisition of its own to root out Judaizers. And as with Spain, this process went on for centuries.

Throughout the following centuries conversos continued to leave Spain and particularly Portugal. In fact Portuguese became a byword for converso amongst Europeans. Many of these conversos joined established Jewish communities in Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Others went to places such as France and England where, even though Jews were banned, there was no Inquisition and so as long as one did not do anything too obvious one could live in safety. Finally there were conversos who established their own Jewish communities. The most prominent of these was the Amsterdam community in Holland. Thus making themselves, once again a factor in the Jewish world.

The Jewish community in dealing with these conversos was, ironically enough, faced with the exact same problem as the Spanish Inquisition; were these conversos Jews or were they Christians? Just as there was a first act for Spain, when they had to deal with conversos alongside a Jewish community in the fifteenth century, and a second act, when they had they had to deal with conversos without a Jewish community in a post 1492 Spain, so to there are two acts in the story of how the Jewish community dealt with conversos, the fifteenth century and post 1492. Each of these two phases has to be treated separately.

The problem of the conversos has been passed down to modern academic scholarship, which has struggled where to fit conversos and to answer the basic question of to what extent were the charges against conversos true; was there at any point a significant population of conversos secretly practicing Judaism. The two major figures in this debate are Yitzchak Baer, who assumed that the conversos were, by and large practicing Jews, and Benzion Netanyahu, who argues that this was all a myth creating by their Old Christian opponents.[1]

Yitzchak Baer relied on Inquisition material and was willing to lend credence to it. For Baer, obviously, the Inquisition’s charges were hardly negative. Baer embraces the conversos. The conversos were secret Jews and as such they are part of the Jewish people and of the Jewish destiny. The funny thing about Baer is that he believed that that the Jews who converted in the aftermath of 1391 were Averroists, who did not really believe in Judaism. Once they became Christians they continued to practice their Averroist Judaism. So the Church found themselves dealing with a group of heretical Christians made up of what had once been heretical Jews.
Benzion Netanyahu, first in The Marranos of Spain and later in The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, advances the revisionist claim that the conversos, were by and large, believing Christians not any different from Old Christians. Ironically enough, Netanyahu basis this undermining of a Jewish legend completely on Jewish sources. Netanyahu’s argument is that, unlike the Inquisition sources which treat conversos as Judaizers, rabbinic sources particularly once we get past the events of 1391 are almost unanimous in their negative attitude toward conversos, viewing them as Christian apostates. In fact Jews cheered the creation of the Inquisition and willingly cooperated with them, even to the point of making up charges against conversos.

An example of a case that Netanyahu puts a lot of emphasis on is that of Profiat Duran and his friend. Both Duran and the friend converted under duress during the violence of 1391. They planned to travel to the Holy Land to do penance. Later, though, the friend reneged on these plans; even though he had originally converted under duress, he had since come to sincerely believe in Christianity. Duran devotes his satirical polemic, Do Not be Like Your Forefathers, to mocking this former friend of his. Netanyahu loves this story because it illustrates how even the original generation of conversos were hardly the loyal defenders of Judaism that myth would have it.

This begs the question, why the Inquisition; if there were no Judaizing conversos, particularly once we get past the early fifteenth century, why was the Spanish Inquisition formed? Netanyahu devotes Origins of the Inquisition to answering this question. For Netanyahu the Spanish Inquisition was the product of a decades long racial campaign by Old Christians to eliminate the conversos. The claim that conversos were secretly practicing Judaism was a lie made up in order to justify murdering off conversos and maintaining the racial purity of Spain. What is really radical about this theory is that Netanyahu has effectively rewritten fifteenth century Christian anti-Judaism as very modern sounding anti Semitism. Netanyahu’s fifteenth century Spain is almost identical to early twentieth century Germany. You have a large population of highly assimilated Jews who want nothing more than to leave their heritage behind and be accepted by the general populace. They are stopped, though, by a racial anti Semitism, that sees them as a threat not because of their Jewish beliefs, they have none to speak of, but because of their racial heritage.

Netanyahu’s views remain controversial. His main supporter is Norman Roth whose Conversos, Inquisition the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain is a history of fifteenth century conversos, consciously told outside the context of Judaism. Roth’s conversos are Christians and part of Christian society. Outside the field of Jewish history, Netanyahu has gained the gained the support of Henry Kamen, one of the leading scholars on early modern Spain. Kamen’s discussion of the Jewish situation in his book, The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision, comes straight out of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has gained quite a number of opponents, particularly Gershon Cohen and Yosef Yerushalmi. Cohen attacked Netanyahu’s use of rabbinic sources. For example he argued that rabbis were inclined to treat conversos as gentiles simply as a matter of halachic convenience. Saying that conversos were gentiles solves a number of problems, particularly those relating to marriage and divorce. For example if a converso women were to abandon her converso husband without a divorce, and declare herself to be a Jew she could still be allowed to remarry despite never getting a divorce; since she was not living as a Jew her original marriage was never valid in the first place.

Yerushalmi, in From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cardoso: A Study in Seventeenth- Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics, does not directly come out in defense of the conversos Jewishness. What he is particularly interested in, though, is taking the Portuguese conversos out of Netanyahu’s model. These Jews were forcibly converted and were never given any sort of choice. Moreover these Jews had already fled Spain, abandoning their homes and possessions. Also, even after their conversion, they managed to go nearly forty years without having to deal with an inquisition.[2] This allowed them to build some sort of Jewish community. It is not a coincidence that almost all of the conversos leaving Iberia and joining the Jewish community were Portuguese. For example the main subject of Yerushalmi’s book, Isaac Cardoso, and his brother, Abraham Cardoso were of Portuguese descent.

I believe that it is important to transcend the issue of whether conversos were really Jews or Christians. I agree with Netanyahu that while many of the original conversos converted to Christianity out of fear and continued to practice Judaism secretly either in their hearts or in actual practice, the later generations of conversos were distanced from the Jewish community and therefore cannot be viewed as part of it. The Jewish community did not recognize them as Jews and so therefore it would not be appropriate to talk about secret Jews. That being said I am not about to pass on the Inquisition and assume that it was simply the product of a racist conspiracy. I assume that many if not most of the people who went through the Inquisition were not good Catholics and were guilty of something. Considering that the vast majority of the people that the Spanish Inquisition focused its attention on were descended from Jews it only makes sense that there would be a Jewish influence at work and the heresy involved would have a certain Judaic flavoring to it. Of course bad Catholic does not mean good Jew or even a Jew at all. Just as bad Jew does not mean good Catholic. The problem with having rabbinic sources face off against Inquisition sources is that they are talking at cross purposes with each other and mean very different things by Jew and Christian.

The fact that you had Christians with Judaic practices or even heterodox Catholics raises an interesting question as to why this was even important. Christianity has a long history of tolerating the native practices of recently converted people and it has even been willing to wink at their heterodoxies. (What are Easter and Christmas but pagan practices that were brought into Christianity by converts?) A useful parallel is the situation in the New World. Beyond getting natives to commit to the act of baptism there was little done to eliminate their traditional pagan practices and beliefs. Native Americans were specifically exempted from the Inquisition. Even today much of the Catholicism practiced in South America is a syncretist Catholicism far removed from Orthodox Catholicism. So the question is if the Spanish and Portuguese were so willing to turn the other way and ignore the native keeping an idol in his hut why did they care if a converso lit candles in his house Friday night, taught his children Hebrew phrases or believed in the continued relevance of Mosaic Law? Just the Church tolerated the development of a syncretist Catholicism amongst Native Americans it could have fairly easily tolerated a Judaic syncretist Catholicism among Spanish Catholics of Jewish descent. Of course Muslims were in the same situation so it cannot simply be a matter of anti-Semitism.

[1] Before I continue there is something I should make very clear. There is a long heroic mythology about conversos describing them as striving to maintain their Judaism under extreme situations. This myth is exemplified in Marcus Lehmann’s novel Family y Arguilar, written during the nineteenth century. Family y Arguilar features a family of conversos secretly leading a full blown traditionally Jewish lifestyle with an underground Jewish community in seventeenth century Spain. As far as everyone is concerned these sorts of conversos are a myth. No one is trying to claim that such people actually existed.
[2] The conversos did undergo a major attack in Lisbon in 1506. This is the subject of another book by Yerushalmi.

(To be continued ...)

No comments: