The presence of the Portuguese Jews in the cities of Europe in the early modern period aroused curiosity mingled with enthusiasm and suspicion. For some visitors in cities like Venice and Amsterdam, these were the first flesh and blood Jews they had ever encountered. The Portuguese Jews’ splendid dress, cosmopolitan education, and excellent mastery of European languages contradicted the common stereotype of poorly spoken Jews with coarse manners. In contrast, the Portuguese Jews displayed elegance and courtesy, and the best educated among them were used to holding conversations on a broad variety of intellectual subjects. For example, Thomas Coryate, who visited Venice in 1608, wrote about the Jews he met there: “For indeed I noted some of them to be most elegant and sweete featured persons, which gave me occasion the more to lament their religion.”1 Alexandre-Toussaint Limojon de Saint Didier found there Jews of various origins, and he particularly emphasized the wealth of the Portuguese: “There are several sorts of Nations among them, Hollanders, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans and Italians, who have their particular Synagogues. But of all these different Nations, the Portuguese are counted the richest, who likewise esteem themselves to be in the highest degree above all the rest.”2
In a letter sent from Venice on March 27, 1688, the French tourist, Maximillian Misson outdid himself in describing the wealth of the Portuguese Jews: “There are some Jews at Venice who drive a great Trade, especially the Portuguese, who are very rich here, as well as at Amsterdam and elsewhere.”3 Following a visit to Amsterdam, he spoke with amazement about the political status of some of the representatives of the Portuguese social elite: “Notwithstanding the Inquisition against the Jews in Spain and Portugal, a Portuguese Jew (Don Jerome Nunez de Costa) was Agent of Portugal at Amsterdam. And another, Don Emanuel de Belmonte, Resident of Spain. This last received the Title of Count from the Emperor.”4
The Italian diplomat, Gregorio Letti, expressed himself in a similar tone and praised them extravagantly: “La sinagoga de’ Portoghesi sembra un seggio di Nobili, gente ben fatta, quasi tutta civile, ben vestita, ricca e che fa gran figura” (The synagogue of the Portuguese seems like the seat of nobles, cultivated people, almost all well-mannered, well-dressed, rich and who look impressive).5 Though he found the synagogue service repugnant, Letti was enchanted by the Portuguese social elite especially in Amsterdam, but also in Hamburg and London. Their splendid mansions attracted the attention of diplomats and even heads of states. Royalty and aristocrats were entertained there, as in the splendid home of Isaac Teixeira in Hamburg, where Queen Christina of Sweden stayed for a while (Fig 0.1). Letti wrote of Teixeira that he was a “signore cortese e civile,” and that his ornate house “seems in every respect a theater, and hostel of refinement.”6
This splendor also characterized Teixeira’s mansion in Amsterdam, where he moved in 1698. Letti spared no superlatives in praising Teixeira’s mastery of various languages and the fact that he frequently hosted “letterati,” and that his son, Don Diogo Texeira de Mattos even outdid his father in his conversational skill and ability to discuss any subject in the world. Their conduct was meant to display “gravidade,” formality, a culture of courtesy worthy of a cultured “nation,” which sought to be differentiated from other ethnic groups of Jews, whom they regarded as inferior, and especially from the “tudescos” and the “polacos,” whom they called “gente barbara.” They proudly called their own Jewish way of life “bom judesmo,” worthy Judaism, and it was supposed to stand out in the dignity of its synagogue service. It was intended to present Judaism as civilized and cultured, with features befitting the patterns of behavior that had crystallized within European courtly society and been transferred to the bourgeoisie. Strong emphasis was placed on self-control, repression of instinct, restraining anger, and education for virtue, respect, and a culture of politeness.
In the splendid home of Baron Manuel de Belmonte in Amsterdam, during the 1670s and 1680s members of two literary academies met: de los Floridos, and del Temor Divino. Along with physicians and scholars from the Sephardic community, wealthy Portuguese merchants such as Geronimo Nunes da Costa, Francisco de Lis, Manuel Levi, Moseh Machado, and Moseh Israel Pereyra took part in them. Some of these men also owned luxurious homes outside of the city on the banks of the Amstel and the Vecht, and they maintained gardens that became tourist attractions. Some of the wealthy Sephardim of London also purchased splendid houses far from the city, and the distance from London also sometimes led to distance from the community, and, ultimately, from Judaism.
The libraries of the social elite and of the educated Sephardim contained works in a variety of languages: primarily Spanish and Portuguese, but also French and Italian. The physicians among them and all those who had studied in universities (the large number of university graduates in the community was an unusual phenomenon in Jewish society at that time) also had books in Latin on theology, philosophy, and science.
The Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the cities of Western Europe, mainly beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, and especially during the seventeenth century, were New Christians, that is to say, descendants of Jews who converted to Catholicism during the time of the mass conversions that struck Iberian Jewry between the end of the fourteenth century and their expulsion at the end of the fifteenth century, especially at the time of the forced conversions of all the Jews in Portugal in 1497. The New Christians in both the Iberian monarchies were discriminated against and persecuted, as the laws or purity of blood that were applied in governmental institutions, in religious orders, and in colleges and universities prevented their acceptance. The vigorous persecutions of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal cast dread upon the New Christians, who were suspected of observing Jewish ceremonies and custom in secret. However, despite the discrimination and the regime of terror, the New Christians underwent a comprehensive process of social mobility and acculturation. Many of them, who belonged to the bourgeoisie, succeeded in amassing huge wealth by participating in the international and colonial trade of Portugal. Quite a few young people, who had received a broad Christian education, sometimes in Jesuit schools, went on to study in the Iberian universities, mainly medicine but also law. The curriculum included courses in philosophy, and thus they acquired broad knowledge of Christian theology and the trends in Catholicism that developed during the Counter Reformation. Those who later emigrated from Iberia and returned to the Jewish religion brought this intellectual heritage with them, and by means of it they formed their conceptions of Judaism.
Their expertise in Christian theology, in many of its currents and sects, was outstanding and found expression in their sharp anti-Christian polemical writings, which were circulated in many manuscript copies. Philosophia Libera by the physician Isaac Cardoso, which was printed in Venice in 1673, offers an indication of the breadth of the scientific and philosophical education of the intellectuals among them.
Joseph Attias (1672–1739), a Jewish lover of science and a citizen of the Republic of Letters who lived in Livorno, owned a collection of 1,247 volumes, as we learn from the scholarship of Francesca Bregoli, and only sixteen of these were written by Jews.7 The collection included, among other items, books of biblical criticism, which, while they remained within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, the very act of textual comparison made by their authors was sufficient to challenge scriptural authority. Even more impressive was the series of Galilean and Newtonian texts among the 270 volumes of philosophy, geometry, medicine, and natural sciences that he owned, reflecting his tendency toward Galilean experimentalism. No less surprising is the varied and eclectic collection of books owned by Rabbi David Nunes Torres (1660–1728), a contemporary of Attias.8 Nunes Torres was born in Amsterdam and educated at the Ets Haim yeshiva, and he served as the rabbi of the Portuguese Jews in The Hague in the last twenty years of his life. His book collection, which was put on sale immediately after his death, contained 2,148 volumes, not including Hebrew books. This fascinating collection reflects not only his polyglot education (books in French, Latin, Spanish, Dutch, English, Italian, and Portuguese), but mainly his breathtaking intellectual curiosity. However, in addition to the above, his library also contained a decidedly subversive element: he owned “forbidden” books, some of which had been banned by the Jewish leadership in Amsterdam, including the rare Portuguese work by Uriel da Costa against the oral law. However, it mainly contained various editions of books by Spinoza, including translations into French and Dutch, and about twenty books published between 1671 and 1727 that dealt with Spinoza’s thought, mainly in order to refute it and attack him. These books present Spinoza’s early reception in exhaustive fashion. Needless to say, this anti-Spinozan literature was one of the main channels for disseminating Spinoza’s philosophy in the days of the radical Enlightenment.
In contrast to the impressive number of books in the libraries of these Jewish intellectuals, the collection of books in Spinoza’s own library at the time of his death was quite modest: only 159 volumes. However, one of the important lessons to be drawn from it is the strong connection of Spinoza, who was born in Amsterdam, to the literature of the Golden Age of Spain, showing that this cultural bond was not weakened even among the descendants of the immigrants from Iberia who were born elsewhere.
The example of Spinoza is indicative of another phenomenon: the excellent Hebrew education that the young men of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam received in its school. It is clear beyond any doubt that he possessed thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and rabbinic sources, which he imbibed in an exceptionally good school, known for the emphasis it placed on the teaching of Hebrew and the Bible.
The rise of the Sephardic social elite was one of the most significant innovations in Jewish society in the early modern age, and the importance of this elite far exceeds that of the Court Jews, who were active among the absolutist rulers of German states. Some of them served the princes and rulers of various states, sometimes as diplomats, and sometimes as financial agents or military suppliers. The economic and political power of the Sephardic social elite played a critical role in the acceptance of the Sephardic Jews in the states of Western Europe.
Jonathan Israel has emphasized the uniqueness of the Western Sephardic diaspora in comparison to three other trade diasporas, which were active in the early modern period: the Greek, the Armenian, and the Huguenot. Of these four diasporas, only the Sephardic one was active simultaneously not only in regions under Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Muslim hegemony, but also in regions that belonged to every one of the six maritime empires of the time (the Venetian, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the English, and the French); and, as if that were not sufficient, they were also active in trans-Atlantic trade.9 At that time there was no other Jewish group with similar economic influence and such vast wealth. Only at the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate in the tenth century was there a group of Jewish merchants with a geographical range of similar extent. However, it is very doubtful that the Radanites possessed economic power similar to that of the Sephardic social elite in the early modern period.
Moreover, the Sephardic social elite played a primary role in the process of the confessionalization of the Western Sephardic diaspora. In an essay I wrote several years ago, on the way in which Sephardic centers in the West became distinctive Jewish communities, I sought to place this process in the broad European framework and to see it as consistent with the paradigm of confessionalization (Konfessionalisierung), as developed by historians Heinz Schilling and Wolfgang Reinhard.10 The communities of the Western Sephardic diaspora came into being as a result of confessional migration. However, despite the features they shared with other confessional groups in exile, such as the Puritans or the Huguenots, that which set them apart was very significant. In contrast to the other communities of belief, whose religious affiliation was uninterrupted, and no important changes took place in it during their emigration, the Sephardic Jews in Western Europe returned to Judaism after a separation of generations from the religion of their ancestors. Not all of them adopted Judaism for particularly religious reasons. Some among them joined the new Jewish communities because of family connections, or out of social considerations, or because of economic distress. Their adhesion to Judaism did not sever their ties with the larger ethnic group of the Nação, which included many New Christians who had assimilated into Iberian society and entirely cut themselves off from any connection with Judaism. The differences in religion were indeed a source of tension and conflict, but they did not dim the shared ethnic consciousness.
However, contrary to the opinion of certain historians, I do not suggest underestimating their affiliation with Judaism, which persisted for generations among a good number of the New Christians. Even if we take a skeptical view of Inquisition testimony and documents, one cannot deny that among certain concentrations of Portuguese New Christians there was some kind of loyalty to Jewish traditions, which was maintained for many generations. It is no coincidence that the rabbis in the early modern period did not relate to New Christians who wished to adhere to Judaism as Gentiles who had to be converted. They related to the Judeoconverso’s adhesion to Judaism as an act of “return to the bosom of Israel.” In the Jewish world the communities of the Sephardic diaspora were not regarded as communities of proselytes but as communities of former forced converts who returned to the fold of Judaism. In most cases, the rabbis of these communities did not carry out meticulous investigations to determine the maternal lineage of those who wished to join the Jewish religion. Indeed, in a significant portion of the cases, such an investigation would have certainly raised difficulties, in the light of the exogamous marriages of quite a few converso families. The rabbis related to the Nação as an ethnic entity with a clear connection to Judaism. Moreover, some of the new adherents even claimed to be Kohanim (priests) and Levites, and this aroused no reservations among the rabbis. The phrase, “return to Judaism,” is correct from the halakhic point of view and directly expresses the conception that was prevalent among the Sephardic communities of the early modern period.
Although the confessionalization of the Sephardic Jews could not take place in the framework of a centralized state, it was included in the construction of new communities, which projected exceptional power and imposed a strict regime of social obedience. The Sephardic social elite shaped the regime of the new communities according to a strict hierarchical conception. The Mahamad, which stood at the head of each community, had absolute and incontestable power. Like the rulers and princes in the confessional age, the parnassim of the Sephardic communities exploited to the full the authority that medieval Jewish law accorded to Jewish communities in order to consolidate a regime of Jewish autonomy that leaned upon sacral institutions, even when those who headed it were neither well versed in Jewish law nor possessed halakhic authority. But the parnassim of the communities of the Nação included the rabbis in the autocratic regime they established and used the power of halakha to accord sacrality to their regulations and resolutions. In the eyes of the social elite of the Western Sephardic communities, the function of the parnassim was viewed as analogous to that of the governors of a republic.
The Mahamad had supreme and unchallengeable power, as expressed in the regulations of almost all the Sephardic communities. In regulations approved in Amsterdam with the establishment of the united community in 1639, we find: “That the Mahamad has supreme authority in all [tera autoridade e superioridade sobre tudo], and no person may act against the decisions that the Mahamad adopts and publishes.”
The Mahamad of the Hamburg community received the same degree of authority and a regulation of May 1652 states explicitly: “The lords chosen [for the Mahamad] will have supreme power and full authority” (terão absoluto poder e autoridade plena).
The regulations of the Sha‘ar Hashamayim Sephardic community of London, adopted in 1663, repeated the ordinance of the Amsterdam community almost word for word, and there too, emphasis was placed on the absolute obligation to cleave to the instructions of the parnassim, who were the “supreme body in governing the community” (supremo no governo da nação). About sixty years later, although the actual power of the Mahamad had been weakened, the glow of authority that still radiated from it was preserved, at least on the symbolic level. The parnassim were then called “Paes da Naçâo,” the fathers of the nation.
In the Bordeaux community as well, though it began to be consolidated as a recognized Jewish community only toward the end of first quarter of the eighteenth century, things were no different. On March 25, 1723, it was formally proclaimed there that the parnassim and the gabay (treasurer), and the other members of the Mahamad who were joined with them, were “the absolute rulers in the general administration of our nation” (dueños absolutos para lo que toca al govierno del general de nuestra Nación).
Those chosen to be members of the Mahamad of the Sephardic communities had to be independent enough financially to devote their time to public concerns. The position also demanded constant attendance of the synagogue, and at least the chairman (a rotating position) had to be present in the building during prayers. Although the regular meetings of the Mahamad took place only once a week, the chairman usually summoned the other members to additional meetings when circumstances demanded them. Craftsmen and wage-earners, even small-scale merchants, were naturally unable to undertake such a responsibility. By contrast, the position suited entrepreneurial investors, who could make time for public affairs when necessary. Indeed, this is one of the main characteristics of those who wielded authority in the urban government of Europe at that time. Max Weber called this Abkömmlichkeit (availability), the possibility of setting aside one’s business at home and at work, to devote time to public affairs, and those who were chosen for administrative positions in the Sephardic communities largely belonged to the strata of independent merchants and financiers in the community. In this respect, the communities of the Western Sephardic diaspora were no different from Christian ethnic and religious diaspora communities of the time. In the Huguenot communities in Holland, Germany, and England, as well as the English Reform Church in Amsterdam, and the Dutch and Walloon Protestants who settled in London, the wealthy merchants administered the matters of their churches with a high hand.
Generally, things changed during the eighteenth century, and the power of the Sephardic leadership grew weaker. But throughout most of the seventeenth century and in the early part of the eighteenth century, these communities managed to maintain effective communal government, which was based on rather strict social discipline.
The American sociologist Phillip Gorski, in his book The Disciplinary Revolution, presented the challenging idea that the relation between disciplinary revolution and the modern state is similar to the relation between the industrial revolution and capitalism: like the industrial revolution, the disciplinary revolution transformed the material and technological bases of production; it created new mechanisms for the production of social and political order. And “like the industrial revolution, the disciplinary revolution was driven by a key technology, the technology of observation: self-observation, mutual observation, hierarchical observation. For it was observation—surveillance—that made it possible to unleash the energies of the human soul […] and harness them for the purposes of political power and domination. […] What steam did for the modern economy,” Gorski claims, “discipline did for the modern polity […] by creating more obedient and industrious subjects with less coercion and violence, discipline dramatically increased, not only the regulatory power of the state, but its extractive and coercive capacities as well.”11
Gorski attributes the main turning point to the Protestant Reformation, and especially to its Calvinist version. In his opinion, this explains why two of the least centralized and least monarchical states in the early modern world—the Netherlands and England—were also among the most orderly and powerful. And why Brandenburg-Prussia, one of the most fragmented and backward monarchies of Europe, became one of the most unified and advanced of the great powers.12
Without necessarily accepting all the details of Gorski’s historical and theological analysis but following his sociological distinctions, I can state with confidence that it is doubtful whether any Jewish communities in the early modern period maintained such a strong hierarchical structure as the Sephardic community in Amsterdam and imposed such rigorous communal discipline. Although the social control in no other Western Sephardic community was as tight and comprehensive as in Amsterdam, at the same time, it is doubtful whether in the Jewish world of that time, beyond the circle of communities of the Nação, there were any communities where mechanisms of social control were in force to an extent similar to that of the Western Sephardic diaspora. In no other Jewish communities have we found such widespread use of the punishment of excommunication as in the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg. In London, too, and even in some of the communities in the colonies in the New World, such as Curaçao and Suriname, efforts were made to install strict methods of communal discipline. These efforts did not always attain their aims, but discipline, as a supreme social goal, existed in all these communities.
The process of confessionalization in the communities of the former conversos was bound up in a general reformation: insistence on church-like discipline, the effort to create a confessional identity, and the demand for uniformity in dogma and religious practice. It would be no exaggeration to state that in Northwest Europe, the Sephardic communities were influenced by the patterns of social control practiced in the local Protestant churches. Without doubt, the Sephardic community of Amsterdam was influenced by the Dutch Calvinist church.
Confessionalization was founded upon the principle of the unity of the group and the peace prevailing among its members. As in the Calvinist church, for example, where care was taken to reconcile individuals embroiled in controversy before celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which symbolized, among other things, the unity of the denomination as a community where the sacral spirit prevailed, so, too, in the Sephardic communities, care was taken to reconcile controversies among the members, so that these would not impair the unity of the community or destroy its integrity.
A considerable number of the regulations instituted by these communities were intended to condemn any kind of behavior that was liable to infringe upon public order, not only in and around the synagogue, but everywhere within the boundaries of the city, and sometimes even beyond it. As in both Calvinist communities of belief and Catholic societies during the Counter-Reformation, in the communities of the Nação a technology of observation and surveillance, pointed out by Gorski (with the influence of Foucault) was employed as a key technology in the disciplinary revolution of the early modern period. The many examples of disciplinary affairs, which were investigated in the chambers of the Mahamad of these communities, and which were recorded in detail in the community registers, illustrate the drive to inquire into every scrap of information regarding deviant behavior, departure from religious norms, and from communal discipline. Not only incidents touching upon deviance from the tenets of faith (about which much has been written in scholarship) were investigated with inquisitorial thoroughness (as, for example, the Prado-Ribera case or the Karaite incident of 1712), but also, and mainly, deviance from religious norms that were expressed in daily life, and especially deviance in sexual behavior and morality, which were sometimes documented down to the last detail. Surveillance also played a central role in the educational institution of the community, and in Amsterdam, there is extensive documentation of this in the registers of the Ets Haim confraternity. The purpose of surveillance also lay behind the prohibition against synagogue attendance by unmarried women, except on the Day of Atonement, as well as the prohibition imposed on all women against coming to the synagogue in the evening. Public requests for forgiveness, ceremonies which were very frequent in Amsterdam, were intended, among other things, to bring out and emphasize the surveillance to which every single individual was subject. Members of the community who traveled to the “Lands of Idolatry” were also required to reveal what they had done in those forbidden places; after their return, they had to beg forgiveness from the pulpit of the synagogue, saying where they had gone, for how much time, and what religious prohibitions they had violated, and so on. The poor, about whom Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld has written outstanding research,13 were also closely supervised, and recipients of assistance who lapsed and violated communal discipline risked reduction in the relief they received from the community treasury, or even its cessation.
The Calvinist church in Amsterdam is a prime example for Gorsky of what he calls the disciplinary revolution in early modern Europe. From Herman Roodenburg’s thorough scholarship, we have learned that between 1578 and 1700, 5,754 cases of violation of discipline were adjudicated in that church, but in only thirty-three cases were the delinquents excommunicated.14 It is impossible to sum up all the instances of disciplinary infractions adjudicated in the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, but during the seventeenth century it imposed more excommunications than the Calvinist church: at least forty instances—although, during that time, the Sephardic Jews constituted less than two percent of the city’s population!15
The data about Hamburg is less complete, but the picture that emerges is even more impressive: from the establishment of the united community of Beit Israel in 1652 to the 1680s (a period from which two registers have been preserved), that is, in only three decades forty-one individuals were excommunicated in Hamburg in forty-five incidents of excommunication, a huge number for a community numbering between six hundred and eight hundred members.16
For various reasons, there were relatively few cases of excommunication in London, but, not only was the threat of excommunication a constant presence, but various other kinds of punishment were employed until the end of the eighteenth century, and the principle of surveillance guided the leadership all along the way. The case of the young Isaac Coronel, who was punished with shamta (the most severe kind of excommunication) in 1710, for abducting the young girl, Rebecca Pereyra, in order to marry her, gives us a glimpse of the efforts used by this community to obtain testimony in many places outside of London, where there were no Jews, and to gather incriminating evidence against the young delinquent, the son of one of the wealthiest families in the community.17
In Bordeaux as well as in the satellite communities of Amsterdam in Surinam and the Caribbean, efforts were made to maintain stringent surveillance mechanisms. The partial material that has come to us from Livorno in this matter also shows that the principled approach was no different there.
The communities of the Nação apparently continued to maintain their traditional organization until the time of the French Revolution, and the communal institutions ostensibly preserved their original character. Perusal of the regulations of the Amsterdam community from the eighteenth century gives one the impression that the community even became stricter in the enforcement of its regulations, the wording of which is often more severe than in the past. However, as I have noted elsewhere, this severity is an optical illusion. The Amsterdam community, as well as other Sephardic communities, underwent a most significant metamorphosis. Because many Sephardic Jews removed themselves from communal life, membership in the congregations dwindled. Those remaining were the hardcore loyalists, and the orthodox discourse found in the communal decisions reflects the new atmosphere that was created in response to the threat of assimilation into the gentile surroundings, mixed marriages, and conversions. Unlike the typical situation during the seventeenth century, when the communities were constantly absorbing new immigrants not all of whom showed a high degree of identification with Judaism, during the eighteenth century, following the departure of those with weaker links to Judaism, orthodox elements exerted a stronger influence on the community, and the strict tone of the regulations and sermons reflected this religious and cultural change.
The Amsterdam community came increasingly to resemble the Calvinist community, in the sense that in it, too, the status of the preciezen, that is to say, the “precisionists,” grew stronger, and the liefhebbers, that is, those who had a weak connection with synagogue life, were shunted to the margins. The rabbis’ status also increased, seeing that the Sephardic social elite had fallen into decline, and in large part had left the community.
Since I introduced these remarks by discussing the social elite, I will also conclude with reference to it. In Europe after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the political and diplomatic role played by court Jews declined, and the diplomats among the Sephardic social elite no longer thrived. The status of the Teixeira family of Hamburg fell, and the Amsterdam Agencies of Spain and Portugal were removed from the hands of Jewish agents, in the wake of the wave of anti-Semitism that inundated the Iberian Peninsula in the 1720s. Manuel Levi Ximenes was the last Sephardic Jew to hold the post of the Spanish residente in Amsterdam, for after 1725 only Spanish Catholics were appointed to this position. The agency of the Portuguese Crown remained in the hands of the Nunes da Costa family only until 1737, and after that, the Portuguese refused to appoint Jews to that position. The economic situation of the Sephardic communities in Venice and Hamburg weakened severely, and, although in Holland the social elite retained its economic power, it withdrew from its activity in international commerce, and the majority of the wealthy Sephardim thrived on the profits from their shares in the Dutch colonial companies. They did retain a commercial tie with Cadiz and especially with the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, but their economic impetus declined precipitously.
Moreover, with respect to the involvement of the social elite in community life, no one would deny that a highly significant withdrawal took place. The years had passed in which their representatives had served as parnassim and provided almost all the members of the Mahamad, and they, in fact, had governed community life. The registers show that many of them refused to accept the post after having been chosen, and, instead they preferred to pay the high fine, which the community imposed on those who refused. The distancing of this stratum of the society from management of communal affairs in London was even more extreme, as shown by the cases of Joseph da Costa Villa Real and Samson Gideon.
The departure of the great magnates from communal leadership brought out even further the increased presence of rabbinical figures, who progressively seized the center stage and contributed to the creation of the optical illusion of which I have spoken. Just as the monetary fine was accepted as a substitute for the actual presence of the members of the social elite in leadership, so, too, it increasingly became a substitute for the sanction of excommunication. The practice of resgate do herem (ransom from the herem) became more deeply rooted. That is to say, many of those condemned to excommunication, both those actually banned and those reprieved at the last minute, merely paid a fine to purchase either withdrawal of the decree of excommunication or its cancellation before implementation.
Indeed, significant changes took place in Western Sephardic culture and religious life during the eighteenth century. After the flow of refugees arriving from Spain in the 1720s, following the last wave of persecution by the Inquisition, which began in 1715, it dwindled toward the end of the 1720s, and almost no more New Christians joined the Sephardic communities. In all the communities of the Nação there was significant demographic stagnation, which influenced the social and cultural profile of Sephardic Jewish society in general. The Portuguese community in Amsterdam, which numbered about 4,400 toward the end of the seventeenth century, shrank toward the end of the eighteenth century to only about 2,500. In Livorno, where all the Jews of the city prayed in a single synagogue from the beginning, in the first half of the eighteenth century the city ceased to be a Sephardic citadel. The arrival of Jewish families from other parts of Italy and North Africa reduced the preponderance of the Western Sephardim even further. In consequence of these demographic changes, the attachment of the members of these communities to Iberian culture was weakened, and hardly any original literature was written in Spanish or Portuguese by the Western Sephardic Jews in the eighteenth century. Although a number of prominent and somewhat influential rabbis were active in the course of the century, such as the Hakhamim David Nieto and Moses Cohen d’Azevedo in London, or Selomoh Aylon, and especially David Israel Athias and Isaac Haim Abendana de Britto in Amsterdam, the general picture is one of cultural and religious decline. The Ets Haim yeshiva in Amsterdam was still flourishing in the first half of the century, and the publication of Peri Ets Hayim, a serial publication of halakhic rulings by teachers and advanced students of the yeshiva, testifies to its vitality. Nevertheless, everything indicates that the spiritual ferment and flourishing culture that formerly characterized the previous century had faded away. Toward the time of the Emancipation of the Jews of Europe, the Sephardic moment in Western Europe had come to an end.
The twenty-four articles in this volume are based on lectures given at the conference that took place at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from November 14 through 16, 2016. The idea for the conference emerged from the discussions of the research group under my direction on the Western Sephardic Diaspora in the Early Modern Period, which was awarded a grant from the European Research Council (ERC).
The articles cover a great variety of issues and subjects connected with the history and culture of the Sephardic diaspora in the early modern period. They present a colorful and variegated picture, not always harmonious, of a cosmopolitan and vital diaspora, whose communities were established by New Christians who returned to the Jewish religion, usually in places where there had not been a Jewish settlement before their arrival. With the assistance of veteran Sephardic communities in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, they reinvented their Sephardic-Jewish identity, while maintaining a connection with their historical and cultural roots in the Jewry of medieval Iberia. Adhesion to the Jewish religion did not erase their familial, social, and economic ties to members of the Nação who remained Christian, either in the Iberian kingdoms or in France and Italy.
The six articles in the first section of the book, Markers of Converso Identities, deal with the identity of the Judeoconversos from a variety of perspectives. David Graizbord challenges the approach that sees the Iberian New Christians as latent Jews. He regards the incidence of Judaizing among the New Christians after the beginning of the sixteenth century not as an “attenuated or a residual form of Jewish life” but as a “dissident offshoot of Iberian Christianity.” In his opinion, the members of the Nação were “a religiously diverse ethnos.” When conditions made it possible, some of them chose to be Jews and to join a Jewish community. But this should not be seen as “a natural preference.” Members of the Nação were simultaneously “potential Jews and potential Christians.”
James Nelson Novoa presents the case of Bento Teixeira, the first Portuguese poet in Brazil. By considering the story of his life and that of several of his relatives and associates, he sheds light on the familial and social connections among various branches of the Nação, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The Teixeira family was split between those who identified heart and soul with the Catholic religion and others who shed Christianity and leaned toward Judaism. But some of them also denied religious belief of any kind. The story of this family shows that many of its members preferred to remain Christian even when they could live openly as Jews in places where this was possible such as Pisa in the duchy of Tuscany.
Natalia Muchnik compares the Iberian Marranos to the Recusants, English Catholics who, beginning with the reign of Elizabeth I, refused to take part in the ceremonies of the Anglican Church and practiced Catholicism in secret. In quite similar fashion, repression and secrecy shaped the social organization of both the Marranos and the Recusants. The religiosity of both groups was highly creative and far from the syncretism and diluted spirituality and ritual attributed to them in historiography.
Claude Stuczynski analyzes the open sympathy shown toward the French Gallican confessional model by two well-known Judeoconversos of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese diplomat Manuel Fernandes Vila Real, and the author Antonio Enríquez Gómez. The French regime was characterized by political centralization, religious autonomy independent of the Pope, and by a considerable degree of freedom of conscience, although the state publicly remained Catholic. This enabled the Portuguese New Christians to maintain a crypto-Jewish style of life in the private sphere, so long as they did not observe Jewish ceremonies in public. The two authors in question sought to bring about a change in the attitude toward the New Christians in the Iberian kingdoms, in the spirit of the French approach, especially after the granting from 1550 on of lettres patentes for the Nation portugaise.
Carsten Wilke also focuses on the special status of the New Christians in France, but in his article, he presents the religious and social profile of the two thousand New Christians who lived in the French kingdom during the seventeenth century. He examines the regional differences in their status with respect to the degree of freedom they enjoyed to observe Jewish ceremonies discreetly, and sometimes even openly. Many of the Portuguese merchants in France traveled to Spain regularly for their business, stayed there for long times, and lived as Catholics in every sense. But, upon their return to France (usually in the season of the Jewish holidays), they lived as Jews, obedient to the halakha. Wilke emphasizes how the French model became an “important player in the dynamic network of the Western Sephardic diaspora.”
The Inquisitors used to introduce secret agents in the cells of those suspected of heresy. Usually these agents were prisoners themselves, sentenced for less serious crimes. Their job was to spy on the suspects, to get them to talk, and to elicit confessions of their criminal connection with Judaism. The Inquisition protocols contain detailed accounts of the conversations held in the cells of various prisoners, surprising revelations that the prisoners made to the informers, and even theological discussions that took place among them. Ronnie Perelis analyzes a number of such interactions, which took place in the prison of the Inquisition, concentrating on two figures who left behind detailed confessions: Luis de Carvajal the Younger, who was tried by the Inquisition in Mexico, and Manuel Cardoso Macedo, a Portuguese Calvinist in the Azores Islands, who, because of the influences to which he was exposed in the Inquisition prison in Lisbon, ultimately converted to Judaism in Hamburg. He settled in Amsterdam, where he wrote about the vicissitudes of his life.
The four articles in the second section of the book deal with Discipline, Conflict and Dispute Settlement in the Western Sephardic Communities. They present the means at the communities’ disposal to maintain a Jewish way of life, preserve social discipline, and settle disputes. Bernard Dov Cooperman focuses on the activities of Rabbi Raphael Meldola of Livorno (1685–1748), the author of four volumes of rabbinical responsa, Mayim Rabim, which was published in 1737. Cooperman regards this work as a profoundly “modern” book, especially because of the techniques Meldola used to defend the halakha and to disseminate it both in local communities and over a widening international circle.
Jews like the wealthy Cohen Pallache family, whose story is told by Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld, were not among those who sought the opinions of rabbis in managing their daily life. Nor did the rebellious girl, Eva Cohen from Delft, who fled to London from The Hague with the Christian servant of her brother. Against her opinionated mother’s will, she ultimately managed to marry her lover, after converting to Calvinism and a saga that continued for several years. This episode became a cause célèbre, in which wealthy Sephardic Jews from Holland and England were involved, along with the mayor of Amsterdam, and even a number of diplomats. In 1684, the couple finally won its legal battle and they were allowed to marry, despite the opposition of the Cohen family. The Portuguese community proved to be powerless in cases of this kind.
Evelyne Oliel-Grausz examines the role of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam after 1632 as a forum for dispute settlement and processes of community arbitration. By examining documents surviving from the eighteenth century, she managed to trace the development of this forum and to propose a relevant interpretative framework congruent both with Sephardic history and the Dutch legal context. Oliel-Grausz shows that the forms and scope of the functions of the kehilla in dispute settlement in Amsterdam testify to mechanisms of social discipline that, while rooted in Jewish traditions of mediation and arbitration, are best explained within the general context of Dutch self-ruled churches.
In the Sephardic community of London, a similar mechanism for resolving conflicts existed as well. Alex Kerner examines the subject on the basis of archival material that had not been examined previously. Before bringing their claims before external courts, the disputing parties were required to present them to the Mahamad, so that it would appoint arbitrators. Only if the arbitrators failed to bring the parties to a compromise were they permitted to address any external tribunal they wished. The power of this mechanism was rather limited, because in nearly a third of the cases, the plaintiffs refused to appear before the Mahamad.
The articles in the third section deal with topics connected with Economy and Community among Italian Sephardim. The Jewish settlements in Italy played a central role in the history of the Sephardic diaspora. Hundreds of those driven out of Spain fled to the Papal States immediately after the expulsion in 1492, where they encountered a quite tolerant attitude. This was also true of the refugees who left Spain and Portugal after forced baptism. The turn for the worse took place under Pope Paul IV, who, in 1555, published the bull Cum nimis absurdum, which imposed severe religious and economic restrictions on the Jews in the Papal States. At that time, the Jews of Rome were consigned to a ghetto based on the model of the ghetto of Venice. The rather tolerant policy came to a gruesome end with the burning at the stake of twenty-four Jews in Ancona, former Marranos who returned to Judaism. Serena Di Nepi discusses a wide-ranging court case that was heard between 1555 and 1563 before the regular Christian magistracy, in which Jews, apostates, and Christians were involved. This trial took place following the breaking of an engagement that was celebrated in the winter of 1555 in Ancona between Sarah, the daughter of Yacob Belcayro and Emanuel Montolmo. The proceedings of this trial show that the walls of the ghetto did not separate the Jews of Ancona from those of Italy or beyond or from economic and social contacts with the Christian population. Despite the ghetto walls, the Sephardic networks continued to play a role in the Papal States and in Italy exactly as they did in the rest of the Jewish world.
From the end of the sixteenth century, Livorno became one of the most prosperous centers of the Sephardic diaspora. The Jewish community developed following the issue of charters, known as the Livornine of 1591 and 1593, issued by Ferdinand I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to the Jewish merchants, inviting them to settle in the port city and develop its commerce. Within a few years the Sephardic community of Livorno was flourishing. According to the historian, Francesca Trivellato, “it began to occupy important niches in the competitive trade encompassing the Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe.”18 Mauricio Dimant relates to the harsh criticism written by Yehiel Nissim da Pisa in his Hayye Olam (Eternal Life, 1559), of the social implications of money practices on Jewish life, especially the uses of interest in the circuit of payment. His article argues that the success of the Livornine in encouraging the immigration of members of the Nação was related to their capacity to resolve the challenges of their participation in the circuit of payment, which allowed articulation of economic and Jewish practices in a context of socio-economic change.
In 1644, the Sephardic Jews of Livorno established a confraternity intended to provide dowries for orphaned and virtuous Jewish girls. Nourit Melcer-Padon presents the social and economic functions filled by this confraternity over the generations. It was the most important and wealthiest among the sixty confraternities founded by the Jews of Livorno, and its members were among the most highly respected in the community. Like other confraternities of this type in the general Italian society, it served as an instrument for maintaining the governing class. The regulations of the confraternity were based on the model of confraternities with the same purpose established by the Sephardic Jews in Venice (1613) and Amsterdam (1615).
The fourth section containing three articles is entitled The Boundaries of Rabbinical Authority. In the communities of the Nação the rabbis were subject to the Mahamad. The authority to excommunicate was placed in the hands of the parnassim alone, and there were very few instances in which a rabbi expressed indignation about this situation. The first rabbis of these communities came from the Near East, North Africa, or the veteran communities in Italy. But with the establishment of the Ets Haim yeshiva in Amsterdam, it became the main supplier of rabbis for the Sephardic diaspora in Western Europe and the New World. Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, about whom Yaacob Dweck has written, was one of the most important Talmudic scholars who were active in the Western Sephardic communities. He was born in Oran, Algeria, and after serving as rabbi in Tlemcen and Salé, he arrived in Amsterdam for the first time in 1653. He served, by turns, as the rabbi of the Sephardim in London, Hamburg, and Livorno, and toward the end of his life, he was appointed the Hakham of the Amsterdam community. At the peak of the Sabbatean messianic ferment, he waged a determined struggle against the believers in Sabbetai Zevi. Dweck analyzes Sasportas’s response to the rebellion of students that took place in the Ets Haim yeshiva while he was teaching there. His vigorous response is typical of the assertive way in which he defended the honor of rabbis.
David Sclar focuses on a halakhic decision by Moses Israel, a veteran scholar who was active in Amsterdam, which was published in the community’s Hebrew periodical Peri Ets Hayim, the serial publication of halakhic rulings by teachers and advanced students of the yeshiva. In a learned ruling, Israel relates to the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the spelling of (Daka(h) [Deut. 23:2], and the question of whether an Ashkenazic Jew was permitted to read from the congregation’s Torah scrolls, where the word is written
The three articles in the fifth section treat the Varieties of Cultural Creativity of the members of the Nação. Quite conspicuously, not only were they polyglot and capable of reading and expressing themselves in a number of languages, but their original literary productions, in various genres, were also written in several languages. Although Portuguese was their spoken language in daily use, and the language they used (in most cases) in the community registers, and despite the strong attachment they displayed to Spanish literature of the Golden Age, they stood out especially in fostering use of the Hebrew language and in teaching it to the younger generation. In the educational institutions of their communities, and especially in the school of the Amsterdam community, they insisted strongly on systematic instruction in Hebrew, emphasizing correct pronunciation and good knowledge of grammar and syntax. It is no coincidence that several rabbis in the Amsterdam community wrote books on Hebrew grammar, usually in Portuguese, which they used for teaching. Moisés Orfali writes about the character and function of several of these grammar books. The two examples about which he writes at length are the grammar book written by Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca in Hebrew, while he was living in Pernambuco, Brazil. The work was intended for his use in teaching Hebrew, for the benefit of pupils in the study of Torah; and the grammar written by Baruch Spinoza in Latin, by means of which he sought to separate Hebrew from the Bible and to teach the language independently, for its own sake.
In the early modern period, a series of halakhic manuals were written in Spanish and Portuguese, which were intended to serve the members of the Nação who returned to Judaism and needed books of instruction for maintaining a Jewish way of life according to halakha. After the publication of the Shulhan Arukh by Rabbi Joseph Karo, these works of popular instruction, which were mainly written in Italy and Holland, were based on it. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt writes about Thesouro dos Dinim, a halakhic instruction manual in Portuguese, which was mainly based on the Shulhan Arukh. Her article points out the way in which the work dealt with the most pressing issues for the Judeoconversos who returned to the Jewish religion.
Einat Davidi examines the work of Joseph Penso de la Vega, one of the most gifted writers of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, who wrote works in prose and poetry, both in Spanish and in Hebrew. Although the Baroque is identified with seventeenth-century Iberian Catholicism, Davidi demonstrates Penso’s unequivocal attachment to this style, by examining three of his works: the Hebrew play that he wrote in his youth, Asirei ha-Tikva (Prisoners of Hope); Rumbos Peligrosos (Dangerous Paths), a collection of short fiction that he wrote in Spanish; and his best known work, a three-way conversation about the activities of the Bourse in Amsterdam, Confusión de confusiones (Confusion of Confusions).
The history of the Sephardic communities in Western Europe is connected with the colonial enterprises initiated by the European powers during the early modern period. The five articles in the final section of the book Crossing the Atlantic—Sephardic Communities in the New World discuss various aspects of the Nação across the Atlantic, especially in the Caribbean. The article by Michael Studemund Halévy offers a panoramic survey of the possibilities inherent in systematic analysis of the information provided by the ten thousand gravestones in the Jewish cemeteries in the Caribbean region. The sample of findings presented in the article are part of a comprehensive project that seeks to form a detailed data base of all the men and women buried in these cemeteries, with a systematic analysis of the inscriptions and decorations on the gravestones. Jonathan Schorsch discusses the attitude of the Jews in the Caribbean colonies to the black population. He criticizes the tendency that exists, in his opinion, among some of the Jewish historians who tend to emphasize “inclusion” and “coexistence,” while in fact the attitude of the Jews toward the blacks was discriminatory and conflictual. Black and mixed-race Jews were not seen as equal. In the Jewish communities across the Atlantic, most of them were relegated to second-class status, and Jews who owned slaves did not convert most of them. The black Jews were a very small minority among the blacks and mixed-race slaves belonging to Sephardic Jews.
Jessica Vance Roitman relates to the phenomenon of abandoned wives. Men who sailed to the colonies in the New World in search of economic gain often left their wives behind. Many of these women were abandoned without being divorced, and some of them became involved in extra-marital relationships and gave birth to children who were regarded as mamzerim (children of incestuous or adulterous unions). This phenomenon gave rise to moral panic in Sephardic Jewish society.
The Sephardic Jews in the colonies were mainly traders in merchandise and slaves. However, Stanley Mirvis reminds us that there were also many poor people among them, Jews who were regarded as a financial burden on the community back in Amsterdam and were sent overseas as despachados, in order to be rid of them. While the Jews did not stand out among the owners of sugar plantations, Mirvis seeks to contradict the “port Jew model,” which emphasizes the connection of the Jews of the Caribbean to commerce, and especially to international trade. The Gabay family in Jamaica, for example, which he presents, was involved in sugar plantations for several generations. This example clarifies the influences of this phenomenon on the “creolization” of the plantation Jews.
Sina Rauschenbach, in the article that concludes the volume, focuses on David de Isaac Cohen Nassy’s Lettre theologico-politico morale sur les Juifs, which was written in 1795. Nassy, who was born in Suriname, was a pharmacist and physician, who was taken with Enlightenment philosophy. Not only did he defend the right of the Jews to emancipation, he also expressed discontent with the decadence of the Dutch Sephardim, in that they imported practices of intolerance from Iberia and used them against their most honorable community members. His writing contained more than a hint of criticism of the excommunication of Spinoza, Uriel da Costa, and other Sephardic free-thinkers.
David Nassy was a central and leading figure in one of the most fascinating phenomena in the history of the Nação: the Suriname Jewish Enlightenment. In Paramaribo, far from the intellectual centers of Europe, a group of young Sephardic Jews initiated a daring cultural project, in the spirit of the ideas of the philosophical Enlightenment. They established a Jewish literary and learned society called Docendo docemur (By Teaching We are Taught), which met twice a week in the home of the Portuguese Jew Salomon de Montel, for philosophical and literary discussions. Montel was in contact with a publisher and bookseller in Amsterdam, from whom he imported dozens of books for his library, which was open to the public. In the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, about a dozen literary societies were active in Suriname, and Jewish intellectuals participated in several of them. According to the late Robert Cohen, the influence of these Sephardic intellectuals on the cultural ferment in Paramaribo was decisive, though it was nipped in the bud: “When they died Surinam quickly regressed to the intellectual wasteland of earlier times.”19 Thus, one of the most significant cultural transformations in the Western Sephardic diaspora took place “at the end of the West,” in Suriname, a Dutch colony where about a thousand Jews were living by the end of the eighteenth century. This revolutionary development emerged in a short period of time, about a generation before the Jews of Suriname were given equal rights, in 1825. But by then, the Jewish settlement in Suriname was already receding economically and demographically, like most of the other centers of the Western Sephardic diaspora.
KaplanYosef. “Between Christianity and Judaism in Early Modern Europe: The Confessionalization Process of the Western Sephardi Diaspora.” In Judaism Christianity and Islam in the Course of History: Exchange and Conflicts. Edited by Lothar Gall and Dietmar Willoweit307–341. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag2011.
KaplanYosef. “Spinoza in the Library of an Early Modern Dutch Sephardic Rabbi.” In La centralità del dubbio. Un progetto di Antonio Rotond. Edited by Camilla Hermanin and Luisa Simonutti2: 639–662. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore2011.
KaplanYosef. “The Abduction of a Girl in Order to Marry Her and Other Clandestine Marriages in the Sephardic Community of London in the Early Eighteenth Century.” In Portuguese Jews New Christians and New Jews. A Tribute to Roberto Bachman. Edited by Claude Stuczynski and Bruno Feitler385–398. Leiden and Boston: Brill2018.
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. “ Kaplan, Yosef The Abduction of a Girl in Order to Marry Her and Other Clandestine Marriages in the Sephardic Community of London in the Early Eighteenth Century.” In . Edited by , and Claude Stuczynski Bruno Feitler 385– 398. Leiden and Boston: Brill, . 2018
Levie BernfeldTirtsah. Poverty and Welfare among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam. Oxford-Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization2012.
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TrivellatoFrancesca. The Familiarity of Strangers. The Sephardic Diaspora Livorno and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period. New Haven and London: Yale University Press2012.