Christian Spain

In the middle of the 12th Century, fanatical Almohad Muslims overran Southern Spain, causing a massive Jewish exodus to the Christian North. At first, the Christians proved to be as tolerant to Jews as were the Muslim rulers of the Golden Age. However, in the 13th Century matters began to deteriorate. By the mid 1200s, the Christians had nearly completed the reconquista, with only Granada and its environs in Southern Spain remaining in Muslim hands. As a result, the Christians felt that the Jews were not as important to their cause as previously. In the 1300s, the situation worsened drastically. The Black Death struck Spain, and rumors of Jewish responsibility spread through the country. In response to the disaster, bothRumors of Jewish responsibility spread through the country Christian religious consciousness and open anti-Semitism increased. Spaniards also increasingly resented Jewish financial success. In addition, there was a power struggle between two contestants for the Spanish throne, and the Jews backed the losing side. By 1391, the atmosphere was so tense that even a tiny spark could have set off a major conflagration. Tragically, that is what happened.

The Pogroms of 1391

Ferrand Martinez, a vicious, Jew-hating priest, traveled throughout the country, calling on Christians to attack the Jews. Although the Pope and the king tried to restrain him, Martinez’ popularity only increased. In June 1391, riots broke out in Seville, rapidly spreading through the country. In Valencia, a pogrom began when Christian youths entered the Jewish quarter to taunt Jews. During the ensuing scuffle, a Christian child was accidentally killed, bringing the entire Christian population in a frenzied rage into the Jewish streets. By the time the riots died down – a full two months later — 50,000 Jews were dead, and numerous, ancient communities were completely destroyed. It was a blow from which Spanish Jewry would never recover.

Mass Conversion

During the riots, Jews were offered the option of conversion to Christianity or death. Sadly, for the first time in Jewish history, large numbers of Jews converted, both under immediate coercion and in fear of future pressure. In 1411, a priest, Vincente Ferrer, later to become St. Vincent, embarked on a major mission to secure even more Jewish converts. He traversed all of Spain, preaching in synagogues, holding a Torah scroll in one hand and a cross in the other, while a howling mob stood outside. His glib style and facile theological arguments attracted thousands of converts in each place. Estimates put the number of Jews who converted during these two great waves, 1391 and 1412, as high as 400,000.

There are several reasons why Spanish Jews became Christians in such large numbers. First, many Jews did not want to give up their comfortable lifestyles and prestigious positions in Spanish society. Second, the Jews felt that because Spain, the last bastion of the Jewish world, had turned so inhospitable, that there was no hope for the future of the Jewish people. Shattering the illusion "it can't happen here" simply crushed the Spanish Jews. Third, there was the widespread feeling that insincere conversion to Christianity was not such a bad thing, and that the Jews would revert to Jewish practice as soon as the pressure was off. Alas, the Jews did not realize that after conversion there would be no turning back.

Prominent Jewish Apostates

A shocking phenomenon occurred in Spain — the conversion to Christianity of prominent Torah scholars. The most infamous of these was the rabbi of Burgos, Solomon HaLevi, who became Pablo de Santa Maria. Rising to the position ofHe persecuted Jews with fiery zeal bishop in the Catholic Church, he persecuted Jews with fiery zeal. Playing a major role in enacting decrees that degraded unconverted Jews, such as forcing them to wear coarse sackcloth upon which was sewn a red badge of shame, Santa Maria also forbade Jewish men to trim their beards. Another scholarly convert was Joshua HaLorki, who became Maestre Geronimo de Santa Fe. Faithful Jews disparagingly called him the Megadef, the blasphemer, an acronym of his Christian name. He forced Jews to debate Christians under circumstances extremely disadvantageous to the Jews.

The Disputation at Tortosa

In 1413, the Pope ordered the Jews of Spain to send representatives to the Spanish city of Tortosa for a religious disputation. The Pope personally attended, along with cardinals and bishops and the Jewish apostate Joshua HaLorki. Thirteen rabbis represented the Jews, most notably Rabbi Joseph Albo, who wrote the important book on Jewish belief called Sefer HaIkkarim. HaLorki, who personally knew all the rabbis, informed them that the debate would center on one point only: whether Yeshu fulfilled the prophecies ascribed by the Tanach regarding the Messiah. To bolster his false arguments, HaLorki falsified Talmudic texts, and tried to apply literal logic to Aggadic statements of the Talmud that Jewish tradition states can only be understood on a deeper level. Since the Jewish delegates were not permitted to offer any replies that the Christians could find offensive, which included virtually anything, the Jews rapidly lost heart. After close to two years, the Christians closed the debate, claiming victory.

Meanwhile, while the rabbis were at Tortosa, Vincente Ferrer moved through their leaderless communities, gaining many converts. Angry at the rabbis who refused to concede his so-called victory, the Pope enacted severe restrictions against the Jews. Among these were prohibitions to study the Talmud, the exclusion of Jews from almost all professions, and a requirement that Jews attend sermons given by Christian priests. Despite being ostracized from society and reduced to utter poverty, many Jews courageously held steadfast in their beliefs. Yeshivas and Torah scholars existed in Spain up to the time of the Expulsion of 1492.

The Converts' Dilemma

After the fury of the pogroms and anti-Jewish decrees abated, many converts desired to return to Judaism. Alas, this was not possible according to Christian law. The Pope ruled that only those Jews who were dragged to the baptismal font vehemently protesting their opposition were permitted to rejoin the Jewish faith. Anyone who converted under threat of harm, and surely those who accepted baptism in anticipation of threats, were considered by the Church to be full-fledged Christians. Reversion to Jewish practice was considered heresy, which was punishable by death. These conversos lived in limbo, despised by both Jews and Christians. Jews looked down on them for forsaking Judaism, and Christians saw them as insincere, which many were.

Even while outwardly professing Christian belief, many conversos retained Jewish laws, privately mocking the Christian religion. However, Jewish religious observance gradually faded. For example, it was impossible for conversos to circumcise their sons; if the heretical act were discovered, it would lead to death. Similarly, since these Jews were unable to provide their children with a Torah education, their children grew up with just a smattering of Jewish knowledge. By 1492, the third generation conversos were overwhelmingly Christian, with lingering traces of Judaism. Faithful Jews attempted to bring the conversos back to Torah observance, but the Jews’ efforts were stymied by the Church's ruling that anyone causing a Christian to leave the fold would incur the death penalty. Nevertheless, many conversos did not sever all links to Judaism, and observed some mitzvahs, despite the dangers involved. Often, the InquisitionMany conversos did not sever all links to Judaism caught them, and they died Al Kiddush HaShem saying Shema Yisrael.

Many halachic responsa were written regarding the Jewish status of the conversos, an issue that became pertinent when a number of them managed to leave Spain and join Jewish communities elsewhere. Eventually, those who remained behind assimilated into the Spanish people and became full-fledged gentiles. However, even today there are people in both Spain and South America who light candles in a hidden room on Friday night, ascribing it to an ancient family custom.

Among the Jews, these converts and their descendants were known by the name of Anusim, the forced ones, for many of them had adopted Christianity under duress. The general Spanish population was less charitable, using the pejorative term Marranos to describe them. In the words of a prominent historian: "The word Marrano is an old Spanish term dating back to the early Middle Ages and meaning swine. The word expresses succinctly and unmistakably all the depth of hatred and contempt which the ordinary Spaniard felt for the insincere neophytes by whom he was now surrounded." As on so many occasions throughout Jewish history, assimilation proved not to be the answer to the Jews' problems.

The Conversos Gain Power

Under Spanish law, the conversos, as full-fledged Christians, were subject to none of the discrimination professing Jews faced. The conversos intermarried with the noblest Christian families, including the royal house. Eventually, it became difficult to find a Spanish family without converso blood, a situation that still exists today. The conversos rapidly occupied the top jobs in the country. Conversos and their children became integral to the government, judiciary, army, universities, even the Church itself. They held all the financial levers of power, from administering the treasury to tax collection, and greatly dominated Spanish life.

Resentment Toward The Conversos

In 1449, in Toledo, riots broke out against converso tax collectors, which soon spread to other cities. Laws were promulgated barring conversos from all prominent positions, despite the fact that such a ban was contrary to Christian teachings prohibiting discrimination against any adherent of the faith. At that point, Spaniards were divided into two groups: Old Christians, who were untainted with Jewish blood, and New Christians, which included conversos and anyone with converso lineage. Spaniards began priding themselves on their limpiezza de sangre, or pure gentile blood, as opposed to the mala sangre, the bad blood of the conversos. Proof of pure ancestry was required of one aspiring to any prestigious post. Anti-Semitism then took a new historical twist — changing from a religious hatred to a racial one. Thus, this new hatred prepared the ground for the secular racism of modern anti-Semitism.

Ferdinand and Isabella

Spain's various provinces were riven by lawlessness and ethnic tensions that threatened to tear the country apart. In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon (who had converso ancestry ) married Isabella of Castille, uniting the two most powerful Spanish regions under one royal family. The couple became known as los reyos catholicos, the Catholic Sovereigns. While Ferdinand was driven by love of money, Isabella was motivated by religious fanaticism, having been raised in a convent as a pious Catholic. The royal couple restored law and order, uniting Spain, making it a powerful country. Two major problems remained — the converso issue and the completion of the reconquista. Despite Ferdinand’s power and lineage, anti-converso feelings remained at a fever pitch, with the people demanding a resolution of the issue.