- Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition
There is increasing scholarly and popular interest in the phenomenon of Crypto-Judaism among the descendants of Spanish Jews. Not the least of the reasons for this has been the surge of intense personal and communal interest in the phenomenon among Jews and non-Jews, scholars and popularizers. For U.S. Hispanos, Crypto-Judaism and the Inquisition came to the fore in a generation that remembered its grandparents’ villages as they themselves came to live in larger cities. Assimilation, multiculturalism, and various other trends forced rethinking of personal identities. In Spain and Portugal, a cultural and religious openness, based in part on the demise of dictators, allowed for a rethinking of the role of the Jewish and Islamic heritage in the national narrative and in some cases of personal narratives. Especially vibrant have been these questions in which scholarship deals with key components of “Jewish Continuity”—combating anti-semitism, preventing disappearance through assimilation, and responding to the Holocaust.
Until fairly recently, there were relatively few discussions about the practice of Crypto-Judaism after the early 17th century. Few imagined that any meaningful observance of Judaism had survived beyond the deaths of, say, the fourth or fifth [End Page 167] generation after 1492—after there were no longer any Crypto-Jews who had been born before the Expulsion or even any who had been trained by that first generation.
For the past twenty years, however, there has been increasing evidence that Jewish practices and identity survived intact in meaningful ways even into the 20th century, when some individuals or communities “returned” to open practice of Judaism. The persistence of Crypto-Judaism among the descendants of the original conversos has meanwhile been demonstrated for much later periods than before, particularly because of increased accessibility of Inquisition archives and the growth in the number of scholars willing to undertake the painstaking research.
But often discourses of almost ideological nature drive the research agendas. Some researchers seem out to prove that the Conversos by and large left Judaism and became meshumadim, “apostates,” or, indeed that the converso should be (and was) considered goy gamur, “non-Jewish” in every respect. Benzion Netanyahu is perhaps most closely associated with this school of thought, and with the perception of the role of the Inquisition and Spanish attitudes towards limpieza de sangre, “purity of blood,” as precursors of the racial policies of the Nazis. In contrast, others may want to stress the degree to which both Jews and Old Christians considered conversos and Jews to be one nation. Another approach stresses “modernity”: Yirmiyahu Yovel’s biography of Benedict Spinoza, one volume of which is subtitled The Marrano of Reason (Princeton University Press, 1989), depicts Spinoza as heir to a Marrano Judaism which lacked access to Rabbinic tradition. Such scholarship cites Marrano loyalty to a Judaism without the yoke of tradition as a powerful force for reform, change, and secularization in the early modern world, among Jews and even among Western civilization in general; Karen Armstrong cites Yovel’s idea in The Battle for God. Still another strand stresses the role of women, whose loyalty to Judaism and ritual knowledge was paramount or in any case equal to that of the men.
Alpert’s work is pathbreaking in terms of illuminating the ongoing Jewish identity and practice of crypto-Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries, eight generations and more after the establishment of the Inquisition, with an important chapter on the Marranos in France. Alpert’s work focuses on a time period later than most of the revisionist and highly interpretive histories, but argues strongly against some of their excesses.
The Inquisition as painted by Alpert is not a benevolent institution by any means. Judaizers were not the majority of its caseload, but the Inquisition was tougher on Judaizing than on any other class of heresy. It resorted to torture, used secrecy, and set members of families and communities against each other. It was not supposed to put people to death, but some...