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Notes from New North London Learning Autumn 2005

Clive Lawton on Muslim Spain

[Actually the talk was one of a series on Great Jewish Trials, but I've incorporated my notes on the trial in question, the Disputation between Nachmanides and Pablo Christiani, into my notes on Gerona (q.v.).]

The Golden Age of Spain lasted 300 years (and gradually fizzled out over another 200).

From around 900 the Jews started to rise in Muslim Spain. The Jewish community got going with a freed slave brought across from Babylon ca. 800 to Cordoba, a great Muslim city. Having come from the great Jewish centre of Babylon, he spoke up, and the president of the community stood aside for him. He became not only the leader of the Cordoba community but started to generate a sense of feeling a successor to the Babylonian community.

The new caliphate of Spain was even more liberal than that of Babylonia. "La conviviencia"—the method of living together of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Many of the "rules", such as that Jewish buildings couldn't be taller than Muslim ones, were put aside; and it was a multicultural society.

Then came the Moorish fundamentalists: firstly, the Almoravids in 1140s,then, 30-40 years later, the Almohads. Some of the Jews fled into the Christian kingdoms in the north. Others complied with the requirement to convert... nominally. They got their heads down and tried to sit out the oppression, because it rarely lasted more than a decade. Spanish Jewry learned that nominal conversion wasn't such a bad thing. (Christian Spanish Jewry never learned that.)

Christian Spain welcomed Jewish refugees from Muslim oppression with open arms: they were highly skilled, and the Christians were mostly peasantry. King Alfonso VI was so pleased with his Jews he had 40,000 of them in his army—and when they were in battle, they postponed it until after Shabbos!

By the start of the 13th century, the balance of power was beginning to shift back towards the Christians, partially as a consequence of the First Crusade (declared, by Pope Urban, in 1096. Nearly all pogroms in mediaeval Europe [claims Clive Lawton] happened at the end of the century, due to millennial fever: in Spain in 1390, York in 1190, the expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, etc.)

The difficulty for the Jews was how to accommodate Christianity's contempt for the Jews. In 1215 the first Lateran Council resolved that while the Jews should not be killed, because they were after all chosen by G-d and a symbol of G-d's shifting attention, they should not be seen to be successful. (You don't want your peasant who hear in Church that they should do what the Church says going outside and seeing prosperous Jews!) Many programmes of oppression were instituted as a result.

There were periodic attempts too to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity, mostly unsuccessfully. This was the begining of the end of Spanish Jewry: even unconverted Jews were seen as a temptation to the conversos.

In 1390 there was a vast upheaval of Christian aggression against the Jews and terribly pressure to convert. [But Renee Melammed said 1381!]

Compare and contrast Ashkenazi and Sephardi responses to the עקדה [the Binding of Isaac]: Rashi (an Ashkenazi from France), talks about Abraham getting up early in the morning to saddle his ass as a sign of his eagerness to fulfil G-d's wishes. By contrast, the Ramban (Nachmanides, a Sephardi from Spain) says he was wrong to be so eager to do something which was so palpably wrong; he should have argued with G-d. Compare also attitudes between the two cultural spheres to forced conversion. The Jews in the north of Spain lived amongst Christians, whose ideal was to be a martyr nailed to a cross, and they martyred themselves when faced with forced conversion; those in the Muslim south did not.

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