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Notes from Limmud 2008

Volver: Modern-Day Marranos and Their Halachic Struggle When Returning to Judaism

R. Hillel Athias-Robles

When the Visigoths converted from Arian Christinity to Roman Catholicism in the sixth century, persecutions of the Jews began. Then in 711 the Moors invaded, and the Jews' situation improved considerably. In ?1148 the Almohads invaded, and forced the Jews to convert or be killed. Even the Rambam's family converted, nominally, for a time to Islam.

When the Christians started conquering back Spain, the Muslims were persecuted, and so were the Jews, until the Christians realised the Jews were more useful to them, and gave them a better status. There was even a rabbi in the king's court.

Trouble started in 1391, when massacres started happening throughout Spain. Once again, Jews started converting to Christianity to escape persecution. Some were real converts, some crypto-Jews. It was difficult to know who was what. At that time you had rabbis worried about the situation: how should they consider such people, as Jews, because they converted under duress, or not?

The Catholics weren't particularly happy either. In 1434 the Church established a commission to try and sort out the situation; in 1478 the Church established the Inquisition.

In 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon, who had been good towards the Jews before he married Queen Isabella of Seville, expelled the Jews from Spain. Don Isaac Abarbanel and Don Abaraham Señor both tried to dissuade them. Of all the Jewish population in Spain, only a third left. (Amongst those who converted was the rabbi Don Abraham Señor.)

Though some Jews emigrated to Portugal, before long they were given the choice between expulsion or conversion too. People were given the choice between leaving without their children, or converting to remain with them. In time, the Inquisition came to Portugal too.

All the Portuguese living in the Portuguese colonies were originally referred to as Jews, because so many of them were Jewish refugees. Also in the Spanish colonies in the New World. Jews intermixed in the New World with the cream of Latin-American society.

Of the Jews that stayed, a few generations later they started escaping to Antwerp and Amsterdam. These people had been living as Catholics, and now returned to Judaism. The same applied in the New World. The last Jews escaped Spain and came to Amsterdam in the 1800s. So what happened to them afterwards?

Netanyahu said the Jews became good Christians, that it was a myth that they did practice Judaism; and that those that fled did so for fear of the Inquisition.

In Costa Rica, the settlement started in the mountains of the hinterland, which was difficult to get to. When the first community there was established, the Church excommunicated the entire community because people were building houses far away from church, and using it as an excuse not to go there. So the Church burned down the houses and forced them to live closer to Church. But they still didn't.

In the twentieth century, Samuel Schwartz, a Polish businessman, doing business in the north of Portugal, in Belmonte, was told not to go to a particular shop because the owner was Jewish. So he went to talk to him, and for a while the shopkeeper wouldn't even recognise Schwartz as Jewish. Eventually, he took him to a secret room where they did their practices, and where their priestesses were—the tradition had been mainly kept by women. They [lacuna]

In 1991, eighty of them were converted by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. There are 120 of them now.

Another example was Barras Bastos, who was told at the age of nine by his father that he was Jewish. In Morocco they wouldn't give him the time of day, but he went to Tangiers and returned to Judaism, changed his name there, and started a programme of Jewish revival in Portugal. There was a Portguese community of Anusim established in Porto, Rosh Pinna, and a synagogue [lacuna].

Unfortunately, when Salazar established a dictatorship in Portugal, many Jews returned to the closet. Barras Bastos was stripped of his army title; people called it the Portuguese Dreyfus incident.

In Latin America, also, communities started up. In New Mexico in the 70s there were lots of study of people having Jewish practices. As people learned more about these practices, people with those practices started speaking up.

A seamstress from Costa Rica, from the countryside, visited the speaker [who hails from Costa Rica] during Succos; when she saw his succah, she said her grandmother made one like that. Hillel hadn't had the time to put up the sechach on his, but she said [hers was like that but with greenery on top]. In springtime they made the bread of G-d. In autumn they would kill chickens to absolve their sins, and go into the river to wash away their sins. She had no idea she was Jewish; she knew nothing about Jews. She said the practices were inherited from the Israelites of the Bible—but of course many of these practices are rabbinic.

So Hillel asked his gardener, about how he killed the animals, and he described shechita. Hillel's grandfather came from an background of Anusim. According to him, his mother would separate pieces of the bread, and play a game with the childnren in which he said they couldn't eat it.

The mother of one of his grandmother's cousins lit candles on a Friday night. One of the towns in Costa Rica was called the town of witches, because people lit candles on a Friday night.

Other customs: fasting was more easily done: it was easier to observe the Fast of "St Esther" than Purim.

Nowadays, however, lots of people come forward saying their family did this and that, but they might have read about it on the Internet. There was a great debate scholars have been having in Mexico, criticising the possibilities that there were Crypto-Jews in Mexico. For example, some claimed to have dreidels, but that was a [practice of the] Ashkenazi community! Some Indians claimed Jewish descent, but the researchers said their practices came from certain Protestant groups which have influenced them, e.g. Seventh Day Adventists. However, lighting candles, for example, is a rabbinic custom that the Protestant groups wouldn't do.

A researcher who did a methodological study of Anusim in Mexico found 50% of those claiming an Anusim origin also claimed a Native American origin.

A recent genetic study done on the Iberian population found that 20% of the Iberian population have a Jewish genetic origin.

There's a separate question as to why people are trying to identify as Jewish, For example, Native Americans may claim Jewish origin because that would make them white.

In many places, such people will find they face closed doors. So for exxample, in Costa Rica [the Jewish community] refused to perform conversions, and refused to let people [claiming crypto-Jewish origin] pray in shuls. In many places there are rogue rabbis bucking the trend, though; in some cases even saying that Bnei Anusim do not require conversion, and if people don't accept them, they should found their own synagogue.

For many years, the rabbis debated how to see the Bnei Anusim. The responsa of Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom said that even though they converted, they remain Jewish, and should not be looked down upon. R. Gershom excommunicated anyone who [called anyone who] converted back to Judaism a convert. The only thng they did say is that they are accountable for every single act they did whilst nominally Christian.

The Rambam said whoever converted under normal conditions, all their Jewish status was to be stripped from them. Though he was favourable towards forced converts under the Almohads. If people can leave the country they live in, and don't do so, even if you have to leave your wife and children, you should do so.

The Rashbash says that the marranos should be seen as 100% Jewish, even a few generations down the line. They needed no conversion, and should not be treated as second class. He composed a special blessing to be said when they returned to Judaism. He did not question people who stayed when they could have left, because he said they might have done so out of fear of the danger, or that it was a trick.

The Shulchan Aruch, in the sixteenth century, said that if someone came and said he was a cohen, we should believe him, as it was a חַזָקָה: we assume that the Marranos maintained a pure line and only married each other. This assumption remained for many years. And today many Crypto-Jews claimed as such.

Hillel's great-grandmother had to marry someone almost fifty (when she was eighteen) because he was the only Crypto-Jew in the town who she could marry.

There are a few exceptions. A few rabbis said they no longer had Jewish status. The rabbis said we left Spain and went through so many perils, whereas you stayed. They had a problem with marriages: if they divorced, it would be without a get, any further children would be seen as mamzerim, who couldn't marry Jews. The Shulchan Aruch says their marriages should be considered invalid, because the witnesses were always breaking laws, in order to solve the issue of מַמְזֵרוּת.

Should we still look upon them in the same way, after so many hundreds of years? R. Aaron Soloveitchik said they should go through a conversion process, but their certificates should be called Certificate of Return rather than Conversion Certificate, as the latter would be insulting. R. Aaron Soloveitchik says if they self-identify, that's all that's needed. Even a Chabad rabbi has done a barmitzvah for someone who hasn't converted because of these two letters.

Sadly, a lot of Messianic Jews see Crypto-Jews as fodder for their movement.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-02-26 10:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
This Rabbi Hillel (I met myself at limmudfest) forgot to tell about those forced converted Jews from Spain and Portugal today. I met them and they told me no Orthodox or Sephardi Rabbis were prepared to let them return as Jews. Rabbi Chaim Wener gave them a chance. Everything is different today returning or converting is made almost impossible if you want to be accepted by the Orthodox authorities and not just by non-Orthodox authorities like Reform and Masorti. I don't know why everybody else made it so hard even for those forced converted Jews to Christianity.

Date: 2013-02-05 06:06 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The argument is that you are supposed to sacrifice you're own life rather than convert in these situations. These forced converted Jews broke one of the three commandments (idolatry, adultery, and murder) that you may never break under any circumstance even if it means giving you're own life. So some say these Jews do not have place to convert back while others understand the difficulty of the times and maybe that some just converted publicly and still stayed Jewish behind closed doors. Each his own opinion and up for debate

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