Monday, November 26, 2007

The tragic life of conversos - II

Last week I began a series of postings about this subject.


In my query into the complexity of identity, responsibility and historical denouement I have come to be focused almost obsessively on the Jewish condition in early seventeenth century Europe. “Jewish” is a slight misnomer, since the type of Jews I am interested in, conversos, were no longer Jewish per se but rather a strange and perverted outgrowth of the Jew produced by the special history of the Jews up until that moment. That’s not to say that there were not traditional Jewish communities thriving or failing along the usual historically familiar models. Those, however, form a different branch in the study of Jewish history, which has attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers over the years to do it all the justice it deserves. The kinds of Jews that interest me most intensely are those on the cusp, so to speak. Those who found themselves pulled between worlds of belief, culture, language, and ethos.

A little over two hundred years after the mass conversion of the Jews in Spain, European society had come to view and interact with the new species of identity that event had spawned. The drama of Jewish existence in the Iberian Peninsula reached its apex with the 1492 expulsion of the remaining bona fide Jews. “The Jew”, as the readily identifiable and knowable sectarian identity which needed to be erased one way or another by the Christian mainstream no longer existed. He was replaced by a suspect identity, that of the converso. The vacuum that had been left by the departure of “real” Jews had to be quickly filled by some other inimical entity. It was only natural, as in keeping with human inclination, that the replacement of the inherently suspicious would be sought among its closest relatives, in this case, the conversos. It’s impossible to miss the colossal irony that directionalizes this progress: a visible so-called “threatening” group being knowingly exchanged for an invisible “threat”, of people that have become adept at concealment and subterfuge in order to preserve and maintain some stability and decency in their own life.

To a Spaniard or Portuguese of the seventeenth century the phrase “Jews of our time” was neither an abstraction nor a euphemism. It might well apply to some of his own neighbours, even though they bore authentic Iberian Christian names and he saw them regularly at Mass in the cathedral, and the walls of their homes were adorned with the conventional pious pictures. There was no guarantee that this seemingly unimpeachable orthodoxy was not a mere façade, and that among themselves these people did not practice occult Jewish rites. For they were, after all, Christianos nuevos.. ‘New Christians”, descended of those many Jews who had been baptized in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century these new Christians still constituted a distinct and important class within Iberian society and in the popular mind the line between ‘new Christian” and “Jew” was often blurred”.[1]

Of course, there have been many cases in history when groups were considered persona non grata and had to lead a double life, in which the external manifestation was at odds with the private, internal beliefs. Still, the Jewish experience of the double identity is unique in the circumstances that created the necessity and the way this special identity developed eventually.

One of the consequences that ensued from the anomalous existence of the conversos was the strange intercourse between religious scepticism and religious fundamentalism. A curious melange of frantic desire for religious affirmation side by side with rejection of all religion as a regulator of our life. In the fermentation of such troubled identities, a few factors are brought to bear. In this paper I would like to compare between two historical figures whose life overlapped in more than one way, and whose very selfhoods had become directly embroiled and impacted by the singularity of the converso experience. These two were Uriel Da Costa and Baruch Spinoza. Both were conversos, both were men of letters, both lived in the Amsterdam Jewish community, both were excommunicated for their heresies against the Jewish religion.
The reason I wish to compare between the two men is in my search to understand and articulate the difference between them. Whereas the one lived a tragic existence which culminated in a violent self-immolation, the other lived an exemplary, cool-tempered life of a thinking non-conformist that culminated in an evolutionary philosophical leap into what we term today as secular modernity.

[1] Yerushalemi, Hayim Yosef, (1981) From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, University of Washington press, Seattle and London

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