Sunday, August 27, 2006


Luis de Leon - final chapter

There is a convergence of circumstances in Leon’s life and interests that would suggest an awareness and appreciation of his Jewish origins. He had no choice in being born into a converso milieu but he did have a choice in deciding who his friends would be, what he would learn, what he would write, what he would teach. The mystery is not whether he was a crypto-Jew in the elemental sense of word. That seems unlikely, given his honesty and straightforwardness. The mystery of the man lies in his intellectual and religious identity – how exactly did he define himself to himself? What were his secrets, the lacunae that his biographers quickly gloss over, dismiss as insignificant? Why did he join a monastic order at so young an age? Why did he want to go to Alacala, the “Berkeley” of the Spanish 16th century, and a known converso intellectual center? Where was he during 1559, the year following his graduation from Toledo university, following his 18 months sojourn in Alcala? Why did he gravitate so inexorably towards the Hebrew language to the point of ingesting it completely? Why did he associate so willingly and openly with other Hebraists, conversos like him, when he must have been well aware of the suspicions it would arouse? Why was he so admired by Cervantes, whose own converso status is still debated today vehemently among scholars? Why did he invest so much time, energy and risk his personal safety in order to translate the Song of Songs, as a passionate love song, for a simple nun, a cousin of his, who joined the convent in Salamanca, right there where Luis himself took his vows of chastity with his own Augustinian order?

If I were romantically inclined, I would presume that the great deal of his life that remains unknown to us could contain the making of a great novel. The furious attempts by his many admirers to paint the picture of a devout Christian may have illuminated but one facet of this man’s life. I remain unconvinced by the arguments brought forth by Thompson and Duran in particular, that what seem like his inclinations towards “Judaistic” approach to religion is an optical abberation, that every single one of his ideas can be traced back to previous, immaculate, Christian thinkers. They do not give any significant weight to his converso status, and his immediate circle of friends. This is not to suggest that they deliberately seek to “exonerate” him. I rather think that, in their, and other biographers’, case, not being Jewish imposes a limitation on their ability to judge his life properly. They may have gotten a hold on one layer of his life, one interpretation of his identity, but obviously there were many other layers there that still evade us. Luis de Leon himself, I suspect, would have been outraged by our attempt to cloister him in any one kind of identity. As the scholar who refused to be bound by any one interpretation of any event, text or person, who fervently believed in the possibility of many meanings existing side by side, he would defy us to reduce his life and works to any one vision, whether that of a monk, a converso, a Christian or a Jew.

I should like to conclude by relating one story involving Leon, which defies our attempt to capture the inner self of this enigmatic intellectual:

It is the story of Horacio Calle, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Javeriana, in Bogotá, Colombia. He found out a few years ago that his family, which has been dwelling in Columbia for the last three hundred years, was of converso extraction. He tells us:

That same day I went to visit an old aunt of mine and I asked her if she had any knowledge about our being descendants of Jews, as a family. And she told me, very easily, that since her early, childhood she had listened to conversation within the family, that we were Jews- Since then I got a fever, a very high one at that, and for the past three years I have been doing everything I can to discover my distant but very much felt Sephardic identity. I do not think I will ever be able to find a secret envelope, very old and written in Hebrew and passed from generation to generation, stating that we are Jews. No, I have been able to trace my genealogy all the way, back to the early 17th century when my ancestors came from Spain. The first thing they did was to change their last names, a typical anusim policy to avoid problems with the Inquisition. Their last names were Perez de la Calle, and Lopez de Restrepo. Now I am only, Calle Restrepo. The Lopez is on my mother's side and I have been told that we were Levi, from Toledo. I do not know. But now I do understand why my maternal grandmother who taught me my first "Catholic" prayers used ones that made no mention of saints at all, but only of one almighty God. Those were prayers written by fray Luis de Leon, a converso who had problems with the Inquisition in Spain....[1]

[1] Saudades, Http://


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