Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Reconsidering the Portuguese Jewish Nation

Yosef Kaplan – Building of Sephardic Communities in the “Confessionalization Era:” A Comparative Approach

Confessionalization has not paid attention to Jews. Few references to Jews refer them as a marginal group influenced by Calvinists and Catholics. Jews in fact did undergo their own Confessionalization process even though they had no legal force behind this move. Confessionalization can be seen as the process of creating barricades around different churches. (For example, over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western Europe became fractionalized into Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist regions; each one committed maintaining their ideological distinctions even through force.) This model can be used to understand the western Sephardic Diaspora.

Sephardic Confessionalization, like the general European one, required the effort to consciously establish boundaries. Spokesmen used Manichean rhetoric of the struggle of the religion wars; Judaism gives eternal salvation versus Christianity which offers eternal damnation. (For a specific example of this see Marc Saperstein’s Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira’s Sermons to a Congregation of “New Jews.”) No state stood behind the “Nacion;” we are dealing with an ethnic group that possessed different faiths. Those who followed the banner of traditional Judaism wanted to affect a confessional migration away from lands where Judaism could not be practiced.

The Sephardic elites, backed by the secular authorities, used the power of medieval communities to their utmost. Isaac Cardoso, a converso who returned in Verona, based his ideal government on the model of the Nacion. According to Abraham Pereyra, governors are in charge but they must follow the guidance of the rabbis who are experts in Jewish law. This follows the model of Christian thought as to the relationship between rulers and clergy.

We do not have confession manuels for Sephardic communities. On the book shelf of our former Spanish and Portuguese conversos we find books on prayer and treasuries of commandments. Ceremonies of circumcision were particularly important for those coming from the peninsula. Shavuot became a central event. Proclamations of excommunication were given special pomp as well as the confessions of those who wished to return. This is a very confessional mode of thinking. Sephardic culture presented Judaism civilized and culture in keeping with European genteel culture. Architecture was keeping with confessionalization. We see church-like disciple and a demand for uniformity in dogma. Extensive social discipline was designed to ensure obedience to the ruling system and the unity of the congregation. (For more on this topic see Miriam Bodian’s Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation.)

This does not fit into the Jacob Katz model, which focused on Ashkenazic Jews. With Katz there is little effort to distinguish Jews from Christians in terms of doctrine. (See Tradition and Crisis) We have dozens of Sephardic anti-Christian polemics. For those who had left Christianity the debate with Christianity was an intrinsic part of their being.

(During the question and answer session someone asked about the lachrymose narrative. Kaplan made the interesting point that the main source of the lachrymose history today are general European history text books in which Jews do not exist unless as victims, being kicked out of England and from Spain. All this leading up to the Holocaust.)

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