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Judaism is a Fundamental Human Right

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On June 4, 1391, a mob burst into the Jewish quarter in Seville, Spain, and destroyed it. The philosopher Rabbi Hasdai Crescas records in his book, "Shevet Yehuda" ("Tribe of Judah"): "God has bent the bows of the enemy against the community of Seville. ... They have set fire to its gates and have killed a multitude; many converted, many women and children were sold by the Ishmaelites. ... Some died a martyr's death, and many desecrated the holy covenant." Around 4,000 Jews were slaughtered. Women and children were sold into slavery. Some "died a martyr's death," but most converted to Christianity.

 

The riots, known in the Jewish tradition as the "Decrees of 5151" (the Jewish year equivalent to 1391), spread from Seville to the other provinces of Spain. Incited mobs attacked the Jews in Cordoba, Toledo, Madrid, Ciudad Real, Cremona, Soria, Burgos, Valencia, Barcelona, Gerona, Mallorca and dozens of other cities and villages. Rioters broke into homes and shops, killing, looting, and dragging Jews into the baptistry. The cry "Death or the cross" echoed everywhere. Thus started the predicament of the Anusim (forced converts) in Spain, known also as Marranos, Conversos, and Cristiano Nuevo (New Christians).

 

Jews had lived in Spain probably since the beginning of the Christian era, perhaps even earlier, from the first millennium BCE. Actual records of the presence of Jews in Spain exist from around the year 300 C.E. It is no coincidence that the earliest extant document is an anti-Jewish decree by the Council of Bishops from the year 308. In the year 418, Bishop Severus of Minorca initiated a public debate between Jews and Christians, in the wake of which the local crowd set fire to the synagogue and forced 540 Jews to convert to Christianity. In 416, Spain was occupied by the Visigoths, a Germanic people who adopted Arian Christianity, which rejected the Catholic Trinity doctrine. They were to some extent protective of the Jews, but in 589, when Visigoth Spain transitioned to Catholicism, the Jews were the first to pay the price.

 

In 711, the first major Muslim onslaught on Europe was launched with the attack on Gibraltar. Tariq Ibn Ziyad needed only 12,000 warriors to commence 700 years of Muslim rule in Spain. At the same time as the Muslim conquest, the Christians launched their renewed conquest of Spain, the Reconquista, until its completion on the eve of the Jewish expulsion from Spain. Even during the "Golden Era" and in its aftermath, Jews were forced to convert to Islam.

 

Neither did their situation improve under Catholic monarchy. In the 14th century, all Europe, including Spain, suffered from civil wars and the Black Death epidemic, which wiped out one third of Europe's population. In 1350, King Alfonso XI died of the Plague, and in the 20 years that followed, an inheritance war raged between his two sons, half-brothers Pedro and Enrique. Stuck in the midst were the Jews, called by Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel "the radical other," who were cruelly butchered by both warring sides, for having a clearly alien, abhorrent identity, and also for their financial success. As mentioned, in the last decade of that century, widespread riots broke out against the Jews of Spain, which resulted in their mass conversion to Christianity.

 

The numbers of baptized Jews is under debate. It is clear that this was a widespread phenomenon that fatally impaired Jewish life in Spain at the end of the 14th century, instantaneously creating a new, substantial population of "New Christians." Historical documents tell of families that fell apart, friends becoming estranged to one another, and separation of parents from their children. Often, the divide crossed even the nuclear family, with one spouse converting and the other remaining faithful to Judaism.

 

Christian Spain became acquainted with a new concept: the Conversos. Within 25 years, the Jewish people lost more than 100,000 of its members, and a similar number of former Jews, or "New Christians," entered the established Christian society and became absorbed in most walks of life, especially among the middle class. Parallel to their contribution to the flourishing of the economy and culture in Spain, the Marranos introduced into the Christian society predicaments and contradictions, stemming from the social and religious complexity that governed their lives. Yovel's book -- "The Other Within: The Marranos -- Dual identity and Emerging Modernity" (Princeton University Press), released this month in Hebrew ("Ha'anusim," Keter Publishing House) -- deals with this fascinating story, which in many ways is also the story of the modern Jew and modern man as well.

 

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Almost 80 years of age, Yovel, philosopher, historian, and mostly an intellectual with an inquisitive mind, has been challenging Israeli society, and has greatly contributed to its eternal debate on identity. We are dealing with the subject of the converted Jews following the recent publication in Hebrew of his book.

 

Although the Marranos were economically successful and were even able to enjoy relative political freedom, they were socially ostracized in Spain, and were persecuted by the Inquisition. They were "The Other Within," belonging and not belonging at the same time. Some of the Jews rejected them as traitors and deserters, and most of the Christians perceived them still as Jews, claiming that their blood was impure. Yovel argues in his book that this situation, this social isolation, and personal, religious and social tension of living between two religions, created among many Conversos a split identity, a duality, a split in consciousness, which evoked restlessness, social unrest and religious rebellion.

 

Until he was exposed to this subject, Yovel surmised that all converted Jews led a secret Jewish life, under the nose of the Inquisition, their Christianity merely a mask, while in their minds and hearts they continued to be entirely Jewish. After a critical examination, he concluded that there was no reason to believe that the Marranos, even those who did keep some Jewish customs in secret, remained completely loyal Jews in their hearts, while conducting themselves as Christians on the outside, as it is against nature to fully separate between one's inner and outer identities without these mutually influencing each other.

 

This book is a work of history that corresponds with the study of philosophy. What appealed to me was the fact that this book was actually a by-product of Yovel's particular field of philosophical research. While reading, I felt that Yovel was writing about himself, or perhaps about the forefathers of the contemporary secular Jew, but also about the human longing for religious significance as well as the loyalty to tradition, to an idea, to one's people. Above all, the book tells a fascinating, readable story, which is important for us to know. The book has a flowing style, which does not overburden the reader with unnecessary theories. Yovel allows the readers to draw their own conclusions from the story, which seems more and more to narrate our own story.

 

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Understanding the Marrano phenomenon as a phenomenon

 

To a large extent, your current book "The Other Within" is a continuation of your previous book "Spinoza and Other Heretics." Throughout the book, I felt that you were writing about yourself.

 

Well, that is delving deep, I won't deny that. However, this is not an allegory on Israeli culture. This book was written as an attempt to understand the phenomenological phenomenon of the Marranos in and of itself, contrary to the Spanish historians, and some Jewish historians, who wrote on the subject with a national orientation. So the Spaniards presented the Marranos as complete Christians (as did Benzion Netanyahu to a certain degree), and attributed their achievements to the Spanish genius, ignoring their existence as forced converts to Christianity. Historians such as Yitzhak Baer argued the opposite: The Marranos were part and parcel of the Jewish people, and thus he found Zionist revival heroes. I avoid these interests and examine the phenomenon for what it is: I have found in it the dual identity and the different ways of expression of dual identity. These issues of identity -- and the narrative most of all -- interest me, as I found this a fascinating story that should be reckoned with.

 

Everyone has a story about meeting a Marrano.

 

Yes, it has become a trend in Spain and Portugal. You could be speaking to anyone, even a city mayor or the like, and they would tell you about how their family is such and such, and how this fact had to be kept a secret, during the days of Franco, etc. Now they are proud of it. Franco actually was quite reasonable with the Jews during the war.

 

What were Franco's roots?

 

I believe he had strong Christian roots, but Antonio Salazar, who ruled in Portugal, told one rabbi after a long conversation, "You know something? I'm also one of you."

 

It sparks the imagination to think of it. Your book gives a conservative estimate of 100,000 Jewish converts in Spain (and there are much larger estimates), and another 120,000 were deported to Portugal. These are huge numbers, relative to the period. There must be quite a few among the Spanish and Portuguese with Jewish roots.

 

And the number of 100,000 Marranos doubled by marriage. Not everyone left for Portugal, of course, but also to Morocco, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere. Today it is the fashion in Spain and Portugal to claim to have Jewish roots. Anyone who has a name similar to some fruits, vegetables or plants, strengthens their claim for Jewish roots, as when the converts were given new last names, these were often chosen from lists of trees, flowers, and the like.

 

I heard about an organization that actively strives to convert these people back to Judaism.

 

To my mind that is despicable behavior, and I am very much opposed to it. I write about this issue in the book's epilogue. I visited a place called Belmonte in North Portugal. At the beginning of the 20th century, the place was full of former Marranos. But what does it mean to be former Marranos? Their God was the God of Israel, and not Jesus Christ, but their prayers bear no trace of the Jewish prayer book. They wrote their own prayers.

 

I was fascinated by their prayers. You brought in the book prayers by female Marranos who were tortured by the Inquisition, which also recorded their prayers. I was moved by the account of one woman who did not know exactly what words to use and how to pray. So she went back to the primordial act of prayer from the heart.

 

Her prison interrogator claimed that she was not a Christian, but then she did not know exactly what it meant to be Jewish. She certainly belonged to the Mosaic faith. This was not an imaginary religion for her, yet she knew nothing about it.

 

The human right to preserve past elements of Judaism

 

In other words, what made her Jewish, at least in her own eyes, was her mere desire to be a Jew. If we recall the well-known Hassidic story, she merely "remembered only the existence of the story," not the story itself. But in this book you are interested rather in Marranos who chose the duality, the split identity.

 

The Inquisition persecuted these Marranos. Some wished to remain Jewish, but could not because they did not know what this entailed. So they remained "in hiding" and invented samples of prayers and rituals. It created solidarity between them that led to a kind of secret brotherhood. The Inquisition persecuted them, but it also pursued those who voluntarily decided to convert and wholeheartedly accept their fate, yet did not wish to duplicate Christian society around them, and insisted on keeping certain elements of their former Jewishness within in the New Christianity. They were willing to assimilate and to accept Christianity, but they wanted the human right to preserve certain Jewish customs, such as not eating pork, certain nostalgic elements, like singing certain songs etc. In the eyes of the Inquisition these were a heavy offense. But were they Jews? Not really. The main question is what spurred this desire. There were those who conducted themselves so out of a desire to become Christians and there were those who did so out of a desire to be Jewish.

 

You define two types in the book, the "assimilated" and the "Judaizers."

 

For neither did the external behavior count. The Inquisition did not make such distinctions that I insist on. The Inquisition decided that if you went astray on a single matter -- such as eating cholent on the Sabbath or going to visit a Jew -- this proves you are a Jew. I argue that some of this was done on purpose. The Inquisition reduced the differences to make it easier to incarcerate the Marranos. By the way, Baer also perceived these people as Jewish if they kept only one or two Jewish customs. But were they?

 

The Spanish Inquisition implemented a well-known historical rule, that it is not Jews who determine who is a Jew, but the Gentiles.

 

In World War II, Eichmann said: "Who is a Jew? I determine that." This is so true. So many assimilated Jews found themselves facing the Nazi Iron Wall prescribing them as Jews, and many times they discovered their Judaism the hard way. The Inquisition acted in a similar manner; it determined who was a "Judaizer" -- that was the term they used.

 

In their view, the serious offense stemmed from the fact that once someone makes the sacrament of baptism, there is no turning back.

 

There is no turning back, but that does not mean that all Jewish acts like eating cholent or sitting in a sukkah with Jews is a crime against the sacrament. There is the core issue, which relates to the person's desire, and on the periphery there can be all kinds of options. But the Inquisition did not allow the preservation of any Jewish component. It preferred to label them all "Judaizers." I tend to think that both tests are relevant: an external, negative, test, how others perceive you; and the second test, how you perceive yourself, your Jewishness, without having to give a descriptive account what it means to be a Jew and what a Jew does.

 

Faith in the heart vs. observance of mitzvot: Free choice

 

Eventually, the Marranos referred to the faith of the heart, and valued it higher than practice (observance of commandments). Here we are referring to consciousness, how they saw or did not see themselves.

 

By placing their internal consciousness over practice, they found their inner world, irrespective of their Jewishness. They found their internal Subject which makes its own private decisions, determines its own fate and is aware of itself as an individual. This is their contribution to culture in general.

 

Until then, was there no self-awareness of the Subject?

 

Not in the same way. First, man "discovered" himself. They say that Rene Descartes discovered the Subject. He said: "I think, therefore I am." But what did he discover? Some formal self, examining the way he perceives things. This is not an "identity" self, nor a deep self.

 

But what came before, did a person not think of himself in terms of a Subject (oneself)?

 

This was not an explicit philosophical issue on the agenda. People saw themselves as members of collectives, classes, tribes and nations. They had a sense of self in the sense of "I am not you" and a family identity. But the discovery that my personality is not summed up by the series of my actions and network of social ties, that in addition I have an internal self, something worthy of study and cultivation, and perhaps with moral claims towards myself, for example of conscience -- all this did not exist before.

 

The second issue is the loneliness that this insight draws you into. Suddenly you find yourself alone. Because if you do not completely identify with the tradition, and it seems problematic to you, you stand alone. And this loneliness increases the sense of self. The Spanish mystics, most of whom were Marranos, shared the consciousness that if I delve deeper into the depths of myself, I will discover an entire world, the only place in which I can find my salvation. But even ordinary people among the Marranos were accustomed from childhood to understand that the real religious value was found in their internal consciousness rather than in external conduct. This is very rare and unusual for a religion like Judaism, which emphasizes external actions. It is even more unusual in Catholicism that saw this as heresy. It is not by chance that the Inquisition accused hundreds of Marranos of being Lutheran, as according to the Lutheran belief, the inner faith was what counted and not the external actions. "Judaizers," offspring of Marranos, learned that what was important was not their external actions, the commandments, whether you lit candles or not, but what you felt inside. From this perspective, there was a huge cultural movement by the Marranos towards the concept of the internal self.

 

I thought of the dialectic of history, and perhaps the irony of history. The move you delineate through the Marranos, into modernity, brings us to the core of the religious idea, which is free will: "Choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19), "And now, Israel, what God asks of you, but to fear the Lord" (Deuteronomy 10:12). This verse is explained by the Sages as meaning that "Everything is in God's hands apart from the fear of God" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 33). After all, what is the meaning of reward and punishment if you do not really have really a choice? The idea of free will did develop fully until the modern era, despite the fact it was discussed earlier. Not only the possibility to choose between one or another religion, but the very question of faith, the opportunity to choose whether to believe or not.

 

There is no doubt that once the concept of conscience was raised, so was the option for an alternative, the ability to choose between options. If I realized my capability for choice, it was me who did so. Thus, I isolated myself from others but also increased my self-awareness of myself as an individual. This choice you're talking about certainly depends on the ability of the self to discover and approve of himself as a lone, individual Subject. In this sense, Protestantism, Lutheranism and Calvinism mostly rejected the freedom of choice. They argued for predetermination, namely, that God has already predetermined who will be redeemed and who will not.

 

But in practice, the person actually gets the opportunity to choose whether to believe or not. In the Jewish tradition, before the Marrano phenomenon, were we limited in our ability to choose whether to believe or not?

 

The traditional Jewish person was born into a compact community and tradition, which presented him with the parameters of his identity, from which he could not imagine disengaging, nor seeking an alternative. But with the arrival of the Marranos, an alternative appeared.

 

Between history and philosophy

 

You mentioned that the issue of narrative interested you even before the phenomenological research. How did you get into the historical discipline? It is true that you wanted to explore the phenomenology of the Marranos, but on the way you wrote entire chapters of history. You placed yourself in a great debate between two giants -- Yitzhak Baer's faction on the one hand, and Benzion Netanyahu's on the other, and you say that neither referred to duality (split identity) as the most defining and typical characteristic of the Marrano phenomenon.

 

I arrived at the subject following my study of Spinoza. I dedicated one third of my book "Spinoza and Other Heretics" to the fact that Spinoza was of a Marrano family that had returned to Judaism and which tried to lead a Jewish life in Amsterdam with their heads full of Christian symbols. Spinoza's community was made up almost entirely of people born in Christianity who returned to Judaism.

 

Spinoza himself was born a Jew, but I found to my surprise that much of his ability to free himself from what we said that the individual could not be released from -- tradition and identity ties -- lies in the fact that he lived in a reality where the people around him confused and mixed the two religions. Ambivalence and duality between religions were the norm for the community in which he was raised. Thus, the confusion of identity was not an unusual phenomenon in Spinoza's childhood community, but rather a defining characteristic. This atmosphere, along with his sharp mind and ability to strip himself, as Descartes insisted, from all the prejudices with which we are born and on which we were brought up from infancy, allowed this young man to break loose from these bonds. I saw how, on one issue after another, his Marrano background was reflected in his philosophy. This fascinated me.

 

Has your interest in philosophy always included Spinoza?

 

No. I was initially interested in existentialism. But that was before I started university and in my early years. When I turned to a more rational approach, I arrived at Kant and Spinoza, and the tension between them.

 

This is interesting. Because you ended up with existentialist Judaism.

 

True, in that sense I remained an existentialist. The question I posed to myself was that if the subject of the Marranos interested me, why should I study it only in connection with Spinoza? This is a subject in itself. So I sat down and studied. I read a lot of material. I did not do the work of an historian researcher. I was not looking to discover any manuscripts.

 

You relied on the historians.

 

Many documents appear in print along with commentary by historians. I read the material with critical eyes. If a particular historian reads and interprets a phenomenon in a certain way, and gives a certain emphasis, I questioned whether it was convincing or not. If there are disagreements between different schools of thought, whose is more reasonable, from a phenomenological and philosophical aspect? In my opinion, our own historians, each according to their own method, viewed things from the perspective of 19th century nationalism, the nationalism of post-Hegelians, who saw it as the duty of historians not just to describe history and think about it critically, but to have it serve as a tool for nation-building. And not only they. The Spanish historians too.

 

Who is Spanish?

 

What do the Spanish do in this respect?

 

Here there are even larger discrepancies. They were interested in what determined the essence of the Spanish. Since the late 19th century they have been fighting over the Spanish concept or Spanish essence.

 

At the end of the 19th century, the historians all dealt with this issue.

 

But the Spanish were the most temperamental about it. The dominant nationalist school of thought claimed that a Spaniard was a Christian of Visigoth descent, and all the rest was a footnote in the history of Spain. Liberal historians rejected the Visigoth exclusivity, because all kinds of peoples entered Spain at one time or another, including Arabs and Jews, and they were all assimilated into the Spanish essence.

 

Yet talk of entry into the Spanish people, particularly the talk concerning Jews and Muslims, angered the other camp. Nationalist historians leave the Marranos out of the historical account of Spain. They are mentioned merely as a marginal phenomenon. Once converted, they are considered assimilated into the Spanish essence. The same historians approve of the Inquisition's contribution in eradicating the remnants of the Jewish "wild thorns," on the one hand, and integrating them into the general Spanish fold, but an integration that is not seen to have been contributive in terms of content. Like gypsies traipsing behind a large army without impacting it in any way. Spanish historian Americo Castro said that what distinguishes the Spanish essence is the centuries-long presence in Spanish history of diverse, supposedly marginal elements, without which you would have no Spanish essence. His words aroused considerable opposition.

 

Castro also taught me that works of art can and should be used as historical sources, as much as documents. Even though, already before him, literature was used to understand the history of a period, Castro viewed literature as a real historical source, not merely decoration or an additional background source. And specifically ironic literature, which speaks in two or three voices. If you read the documents Marranos left behind, you suddenly discover that they contain other things than you expect.