Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The tragic life of Conversos

The converso experience was a uniquely Iberian historical phenomenon, whose consequences and final resolution are yet to be decisively defined. Religion permeated every nook and cranny of Spanish medieval life. Jews were its most natural victims, at the epicenter of religious fervor. In this kind of atmosphere, never safe and always seething with anti-Jewish animus, Jews became increasingly exhausted and demoralized, both spiritually and pragmatically, leading to the mass conversion of the Jews between 1391 and 1492. Amid the murderous mass rioting of 1391 tens of thousands of Jews who faced militant priests and direct threats to their life and property, opted for conversion. The next stage was the establishment of the Inquisition in1482, with its specific mandate to excise from the Church the heretic conversos who were still secretly engaged in Judaizing. Ten years later, the final episode in this drama saw the edict of expulsion of the remaining Jews from Spain, a measure that was calculated at severing once and for all any ties between Judaism and the vulnerable New Christians. The expulsion of the Jews was a traumatic event that sent shockwaves throughout European Jewry as well as Christendom. The toll of that disastrous century came to this: a third of the entire Iberian Jewish population were exterminated in riots, another third accepted Christianity, and the last third, the remaining Jews, were expelled in 1492.

After the Expulsion of the Jews

There is a tendency among Jewish historians to fit the countless levels of Jewish awareness within the converso communities into neatly circumscribed categories. Accordingly, Jose Faur is one author who divides them into four classes: Those who wanted to be Christians, those who wanted to be Jewish, those who wanted to be both, and those who wanted to be neither. David Gitlitz is more circumspect in his assessments but still feels compelled to organize the converso experience into a belief system, in which three levels of Judaizing can be discerned. On the first level, an explicit contrast with Christian belief is asserted, such as: The Christian God is plural, our god is singular, or, Christian prayer needs the intervention of a saint, our prayer to God is unmediated. On this level, conversos define their special identity by contrasting it to what they know about Christianity, a sort of Jewish identity by default. On the second level, conversos exhibit a partially assimilated Christian theology while maintaining a Jewish “flavor”. Thus, they accept the mediation of saints in their intercourse with God but they turn to “Jewish” saints for this purpose. A significant shift is indicated in the erosion of the concept of communal salvation to be replaced by the Christian model of personal salvation. However, personal salvation will not come through a belief in Jesus but through a belief in Moses or in Mosaic Law. On the third level, we meet the more aggressively Judaizing conversos who rejected Christian beliefs and practices. Incredibly enough, according to Gitlitz, belonging to this group was a majority of Conversos, some of whom went well beyond mere non-acceptance. They wanted to remain Jewish at all costs, and felt a deep abhorrence for anything Christian. These conversos felt part of the Jewish Diaspora and hoped for their eventual reintegration into Jewish society.

In his book “The Marranos of Spain”, Benzion Netanyahu deals with the converso crisis in far less charitable terms than the other Jewish historians mentioned here. His very choice in naming them by the pejorative term assigned to them by their persecutors suggests to me an inflexible attitude. While most Jewish historians accepted the premise that most of the Marranos were essentially Jews, Netanyahu maintains, “the overwhelming majority of the Marranos were detached from Judaism, or… more clearly, were Christians.” Consequently, he argues that the obsessive interest of the inquisition in Marranos was based on fiction rather than hard proof and was motivated by racial hatred and political concerns. Even conceding the existence of three groups of Marranos: the outright converts, the crypto-Jews and the repentants, in all three cases he sees “no future in marranism and no return from it”. Marranism led to complete assimilation of the converts, and there was no question of a “semi Jewish” identity being played out in that historical theatre.

A finer distinction is suggested by Levine-Melamed whose view I share, that the complexity of the problems faced by conversos cannot be readily fitted into models. “There could be no single, set response” to the predicament of the New Christians, says Levine-Melamed. While some converts considered relocation and a return to their Jewish way of life, others preferred to adapt to their new realities. Yet others welcomed the new options, which their new faith opened up for them and sought to get into public office, enter the universities or join the military. Some tried and succeeded in entering monasteries and the clergy. Many, however, found it impossible to break away from either their homeland or their traditional faith.

The precision of such classifications as Faur and Gitlitz propose, or the implacability of Netanyahu’s approach fail to consider the fluidity and mutability of human identity. Levine-Melamed displays a more realistic perception of the difficulties overwhelming the conversos. In my opinion, we should look at the converso condition as a continuum, with total retention of Jewish identity on one end and total religious, economic and social integration on the other. Depending on circumstances and personal inclinations, people would find themselves traveling back and forth along this continuum, some making small movements, others making considerable shifts. I would also make a subjective suggestion that we should hold back making any extra- temporal moral judgment of the phenomenon (the way Netanyahu, notwithstanding his impressive erudition, seems unable to resist).

With the creation of mass converso communities, an unforeseen, more complicated problem emerged. Converso groups found themselves isolated and labeled in new ways. No longer part of the Jewish community, as yet rejected by the Christian majority, they formed a group unto their own. Many New Christians continued to live together and to interact on a daily basis. Their continued association with their former brethren posed mortal dangers for them, while some attempts to be integrated into the Christian mainstream were simply intolerable to many Christians. A distinction between Old and New Christians took hold in the language and minds of contemporary Spaniards, based, according to Faur who echoes Benzion Netanyahu’s thesis, on ethnic exclusion. Conversos were suspect by virtue of their Jewish origins. Even someone baptized at birth and brought up as a Christian was included in the new criteria for discrimination. Purity of blood (Limpieza de sangre) became the chief prerequisite for holding public service or to assuming other civic duties. These restrictions were later expanded with the aim of excluding New Christians from intellectual, spiritual, political and economic life.


At 6:03 AM EST, Blogger magal53 said...



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