Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jews in Iberia (1150-1500)

During the golden age of Muslim rule in Iberia (900-1150), Jews experienced their greatest communal vitality since the destruction of the Jewish community in Alexandria in 117. Their vitality ended when Berber Muslims took control of the government. After that both Jewish society and its broader Islamic context began to steadily decline.

After 1150 the Muslim government began to persecute Jews. This made a creative response vital. No such response came from the traditional but stagnate Talmudic community of rabbis. Maimonides (ca 1135-1204), greatest Jewish scholar of his age, created a response by synthesizing deep Talmudic knowledge with Aristotelian Olympianity. The Talmudic rabbis, however, rejected it. Eventually they turned to a mysticism based on The Zohar written or edited by Moses de Leon (ca 1250-1305).

For a surprising number of Iberian Jews, Latin Christianity seemed a more meaningful response to difficulties than identifying with stagnant Talmudic Judaism, rejected Jewish Aristotelianism, or Jewish mysticism. They became Christians. Indeed, by 1425 “more than half the Jewish elite and an unknown proportion of the Jewish masses—at least one hundred thousand people—had converted to Christianity” (Cantor, 187).

Political developments made an already difficult situation even more challenging. In 1480 the pope authorized an inquisition and allowed the Iberian rulers Ferdinand and Isabella to run it. Early inquisitors included a number of former Jews who then attacked their previous co-religionists with great zeal.

The Inquisition had thousands of people executed as heretics. As terrible as that was, it was not unusual. Governments in those days executed people for a remarkably broad range of offenses. Even Jewish leaders in Iberia executed people for heresy when they enjoyed good relations with Muslim rulers during their golden age.

Possibly 4,000 Jewish converts to Christianity were executed by the Inquisition between 1480 and 1700 (Cantor, 188). On one side, that’s 4,000 too many. On the other, that meant that the vast majority of Jewish converts behaved like other Christians and were understood by those others to be Christians. They blended.

Important Christian leaders of the 1500s with Jewish backgrounds included Ferdinand himself, his wife Isabella’s confessor (a Latin Christian bishop), Bartolome de Las Casas, and the saint Teresa de Avila. Up to 200,000 Jews lived in Castile and Leon in 1390. Ferdinand and Isabella exiled all Jews in 1492. In 1520, up to 160,000 former Jews still lived in Castile and Leon as New Christians (Cantor, 189).

(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 187-]).

Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.