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Notes from Limmud 2010

Big British Broigeses: David Nieto

Jonathan Wolfson

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout or to comment.]

David Nieto

Anglo-Jewry has a reputation as being one of the least academic, intellectual or scholarly communities in Western Europe, in terms of producing or welcoming scholarly leaders. One of the exceptions is Ḥaḥam David Nieto, probably the most brilliant person to hold office as Ḥaḥam, a Sephardi equivalent of Chief Rabbi. (A later example is Louis Jacobs.)

Nieto was born in 1654 in Italy. His father made stockings, eventually owning a stocking factory. When Nieto was 15, he went to live in Rome where his father opened a stocking factory. Rome was still buzzing then from the aftereffects of Sabbataeanism. Nathan of Gaza had just visited and split the community down the middle. David Nieto was struck by the heretical arguments he used, and the dangers of Sabbataeanism in splitting a community. He made it his mission to counter both.

He went to study medicine in Padua, one of the few places where Jews could study. (Most great Jewish leaders who had degrees then had medical degrees from Padua). Nieto then went to Leghorn, received semichah and became a dayan there. He made a name for himself throughout Europe as a first-rate halachic mind.

He became interested in calendar making after Pesach came after Easter—this is very rare. Wondering why, he investigated, and discovered the non-Jews were using a faulty calendar, and he wrote a famous work, using a pseudonym (soon unmasked). This was one of the leading impetuses to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. [Huh? The Gregorian calendar already existed, and this date does not seem to precede any major date of adoption of the calendar.] From then on Nieto and his family became leading calendar makers. The calendar he made was used by the Spanish and Portuguese community for nigh on two hundred years.

He was a brave man and a great polemicist. He was one of the few speaking out against the autos-da-fé then being conducted in Lisbon against New Christians. Most of Europe looked with abhorrence against this; the Archbishop of Lisbon wrote in defence of it; Nieto wrote under a pseudonym attacking this.

In 1701 he was asked to the newly established Bevis Marks synagogue as ḥaḥam. The previous ḥaḥam, Solomon Ayllon, had been accused of being a Sabbataean. The officers of the community supported him, but many in the community were against him, so he left to Amsterdam.

The community then had to find a new leader. This was only fifty years after the Jews had been readmitted to England, and after each political development—the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution—the community had to find out what their standing was.

Menashe ben Israel, the man who interceded with Cromwell to allow the Jews back, was from Amsterdam, and London looked up to Amsterdam as a mother community, and for advice. Most of the community were Spanish and Portuguese traders. This was an opportune time for people who were traders, and literate, and had financial acumen: this was the time of the coffee houses which later became the London Stock Exchange. The Sephardi community had all three of these, which is why they became prosperous.

The majority of this community were conversos—some people had fled the Inquisition and always been Jewish, but most had converted to Christianity to save their skins, until they were able to move to somewhere where they could practise Judaism. Many people found converting back difficult—the Judaism they were rejoining wasn't the Judaism they were expecting. [Presumably the Judaism they were rejoining was that their ancestors left, as in the case of Uriel da Costa cited below.]

Two themes stand out: Firstly, a predilection towards a resistance to rabbinic Judaism. They'd seen Judaism as a pure thing, untarnished by the layers on top of the Old Testament that Catholicism possessed. They were shocked to find the layers on top of the Bible that Rabbinic Judaism had too. This was exemplified by the cases of Uriel da Costa, and later Baruch Spinoza, in Amsterdam.

The second theme standing out in the converso community was a greater attraction than normal to Messianic movements. Generally amongst Ashkenazi communities there had always been messianic movements, but they were played down because they thought it was dangerous. Amongst Sephardim, messianism had a higher profile. Possibly because of their exiles: it only made sense if this was a messianic age.

The greatest messianic pretender was Shabbetai Tsevi. [A summary followed of the career of Shabbetai Tsevi; I didn't take it down as I was already very familiar with it.] Messianism was popular then; the Zohar said the Messiah would come in 1648. The Chmielnicki massacres in 1648 resulted in the rise of messianism in the Ashkenazi world too. The community which had the highest rate of messianism was actually the Amsterdam community.

Returning to Spinoza; he was one of the first Bible critics to say the Bible did not have a single author, and was written for a particular people at a particular time; that it had no eternal message, and it is of no importance to us now. He also had views on G-d. He was a pantheist: for him, G-d was abstract and impersonal, and G-d and nature are interchangeable in some ways. Most importantly, G-d was not an intervening for him. He was very much a determinist: "nothing happens by chance."

At the same time, around the turn of the eighteenth century, deism was much more prominent than pantheism. Deists also disbelieved in prophecy and an intervening G-d, but they didn't see G-d as the same as nature; they see G-d as setting up the natural order.

In 20 Nov 1703, Nieto gave a sermon on Divine Providence. The sedra that week (פַּרְשַׁת וַיֵשֵׁב) recounts the start of the Joseph story. Of all the stories in Genesis, the one in which G-d is the most intervening is the Joseph story. Nieto used the opportunity to give a big anti-deist sermon. In the Boyle lectures at the time, leading Protestant theologians were attacking deism; both the Jews and the Christians saw deism as a threat, and a slippery slope towards atheism.

Nieto said "G-d makes the wind blow, G-d makes the rain fall" [מַשִׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם]. This alarmed a number of his congregants, who accused him of being a pantheist. These were nearly the supporters of the previous ḥaḥam, Solomon Ayllon; they also had ties to leading Sabbataeans on the Continent.

For three or four months, nothing happened, but then on the sixth of Adar Sheni, he attended the wedding of [a prominent member of the community], and a wedding guest, Joshua Sepharti, said "I can't enter the same roof as a heretic." This violated a recent askama which said no one was allowed to impugn the ḥaḥam. (This ruling was brought to stop people disparaging Ayllon.) This made him liable to a fine. He was brought before the mahamad, but he refused to retract his charge. He then offered to put up £100 to anyone who could prove him wrong.

They refused to let him enter the shul; he then went to the legal authorities because he was one of the people who founded it. The mahamad told him he was no longer a member of the community. He then published an article in Spanish repeating his views, and that the rabbi was a heretic who needed to go, and should be replaced by Ayllon or a number of other people, who we now know were all Sabbataeans.

Copies of this were found as far away as Morocca. Nieto now put his case forward, in Della Divina Providentia, in dialogue form, in the form of a dispute between Reuven and Shimon. Shimon's views were pretty much the words of the leading deists views of the day, Reuven's views those of traditional Judaism. He doesn't really defend himself, though, against the charge of being pantheist! Nieto cited Psalm 147 in his support:

The coverer of the sky with clouds, the preparer of rain for the earth, who causes grass to grow upon the mountains; [...] He gives snow like wool: He scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He casts forth His ice like morsels: who can stand before His cold? He sends out His word, and melts them: He causes His wind to blow, and the waters flow. הַמְכַסֶּה שָׁמַיִם בְּעָבִים הַמֵּכִין לָאָרֶץ מָטָר הַמַּצְמִיחַ הָרִים חָצִיר׃ [...] הַנֹּתֵן שֶׁלֶג כַּצָּמֶר כְּפוֹר כָּאֵפֶר יְפַזֵּר׃ מַשְׁלִיךְ קַרְחוֹ כְפִתִּים לִפְנֵי קָרָתוֹ מִי יַעֲמֹד׃ יִשְׁלַח דְּבָרוֹ וְיַמְסֵם יַשֵּׁב רוּחוֹ יִזְּלוּ־מָיִם׃

This didn't pacify Sarfati; [must be a gap here though there's none in my notes] they were excommunicated. They went to the Attorney General to learn whether this was legal, and whether they were obligated to bury someone who was excommunicated, as one of their members had just died. The Attorney General said you have the right to excommunicate, and all of this group are buried on the other side of the wall.

Nieto had not really been exonerated. Sarfati's supporters said can we find a third party to help us out here? They sent letters to Solomon Ayllon. The mahamad sent letters to him too, trying to prevent him from getting involved. Ayllon and the Amsterdam Beth Din refused to get involved.

The next biggest community was Hamburg, but they didn't have a ḥaḥam at the time.

[Lacuna] Tudesco, the head of the Ashkenazi community, then came up with the idea of asking Ḥaḥam Tsevi Ashkenazi, the head of the Altona community (and father of R. Jacob Emden). This was a clever idea, as here was an Ashkenazi man who had been granted the ḥaḥam honorific after travelling extensively in Sephardi lands (and was proud of it and used it throughout his life).

From Nieto's perspective, this was a wonderful choice, as Ashkenazi, having encountered Sabbataeanism on his travels, was the most passionate enemy against Sabbataeanism. So Nieto wrote a letter stating his case, but pointing out that all of his enemies were Sabbataeans. (Emden later wrote that his father didn't even bother to read the papers after that.)

(The first time he sent his papers [?back], because he couldn't read Nieto's Ladino. Nieto later received papers in Yiddish, which he also couldn't read.)

He sat on the case for a year, but eventually gave a decision strongly in favour of Nieto in 5464 [1705].

This was the end of the controversy as far as Nieto was concerned, and it gave him the initiative to fight heresy more strongly, which he spent the rest of his life doing so. He fought "Kuzaris" in Mateh Dan], one of the most brilliant defences of the Oral Law and rabbinical Judaism ("Dan" being in this case an acronym for DAvid Nieto). It is also written as a dialogue, and as a sequel to the Kuzari. The fifth book of it deals with calendar making, and is even still used by non-Jews today.

In 1715 he wrote a book called אֵשְׁדָת, against Nehemiah Hayyun, a protege of Solomon Ayllon.

He had close relations with the leading churchmen of the day; they worked together in attacking deism. Many works attacking deism were written by him anonymously, or influenced by him.

If Nieto had lost the argument, it would have had serious ramifications for the Sephardi community of the time, at a time when the community had already rifted once, and they were still finding their feet. Many of the communities rifted by Sabbataeanism never recovered, or took centuries to do so. So even though the broiges didn't have many ramifications afterwards, if it had gone the other way, Anglo-Jewry might have turned out very differently afterwards.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2011-05-11 08:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I did not know that Nieto who I have never heard about made up the phrase 'who made the wind to blow and the rain to fall' which we include now in our Amidah. Did he also invented made the small phrase about the dew? Now I understand that some people don't say it. I did not know about pantheism either.
When was it officially included in our Amidah? Do the Sfardi do the same? I don't quiet understand how Nieto from Marroco ended up in an Ashkenazi Shul.

Date: 2011-05-11 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I did not know that Nieto who I have never heard about made up the phrase 'who made the wind to blow and the rain to fall' which we include now in our Amidah.

No he didn't; he was quoting from the siddur!

When was it officially included in our Amidah?

It's referred to (though not quoted) in the Mishna, so at least 1800 years ago, possibly longer ago.

I don't quiet understand how Nieto from Marroco ended up in an Ashkenazi Shul.

He didn't; I didn't say he did.

Date: 2011-05-11 08:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Why did he get kicked out then? We say it every Shabbat in Ashkenazi Shuls not sure about Sfardi and we do not get in trouble.

Date: 2011-05-11 08:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
He did not get into trouble for davening that line; he got into trouble for quoting it in a sermon in a way that he intended to use as an argument against deism but certain of his congregants interpreted as being pantheistic.

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