Chapter 7: Mingle Bells
To Be Jewish, or Not to Be Jewish—That Is the Question
Spain, the Tragic Love Story
Josephus Flavius wrote of the warm welcome with which the expatriates from Judea were received in Syria and Antioch after their expulsion by the Romans. Jews were “very much intermingled,” he wrote, and lived “with the most undisturbed tranquility.”[i] He also wrote about how the Roman Emperor, Titus Flavius, “expelled them out of all Syria.”[ii] In Antiquities of the Jews, he quoted Greek geographer Strabo as saying, “This people has already made its way into every city, and it is not easy to find any place in the habitable world which has not received this nation and in which it has not made its power felt.”[iii]
The vacillating manner in which Jews are first warmly welcomed, then rejected, then welcomed again, then repelled once more, if not altogether destroyed, has repeated itself numerous times since the ruin of the First Temple.[iv] As just pointed out above, the exiled Jews of the First Temple who chose to spread out of Babylon, once given freedom, managed to assimilate to the point of disappearance. However, many, if not most of the Jews who were exiled after the ruin of the Second Temple are still recognized as such, at least by heritage if not by some level of practice.
There have been many attempts to convert Jews into Islam or Christianity, and they themselves often wished to, and actively attempted to convert. And yet, for the most part, those attempts either failed or were only marginally successful.
Professor and researcher of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Norman Roth, details both the en-masse attempts of Jews to convert, and the tragic consequences that resulted from those attempts. In Jews, Visigoths, and Muslims in Medieval Spain: cooperation and conflict, he writes, “In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, thousands of Jews converted, chiefly of their own free will and not under any duress, to Christianity. The role of these conversos [Jews who converted to Christianity] in society led to fierce hostility against them in the fifteenth century, finally resulting in actual warfare. Racial anti-Semitism emerged, for the first time in history of a large scale, and the limpieza de sangre [purity of blood] statutes were enacted [distinguishing ‘pure’ Old Christians from those with Muslim or Jewish ancestors]. Finally, the Inquisition was revived amidst false charges of the ‘insincerity’ of the conversos, and many were burned. None of this, however, had anything to do with the Jews, who for the most part continued their lives, and their normal relations with Christians, as before.”[v]
Indeed, not only were the Jews who maintained their faith not harmed, but they even nurtured a unique bond with their Spaniard hosts. According to Roth, “So unusual, one may say unique, was the nature of that relationship [between Jews and Christians] that a special term is used in Spanish for it, a term which has no precise translation in other languages, convivencia [roughly meaning, “living together in affinity”]. In truth, the real extent of convivencia in medieval Christian Spain has not yet been fully revealed.”[vi]
Roth’s study stresses that as long as Jews remained loyal to their heritage and did not try to assimilate in foreign cultures, they were welcome to stay, or were at least left in peace. And specifically in Spain, at times the warmth and intensity of the relationship truly resembled a love story, complete with all the trials and tribulations that great love stories exhibit. However, when Jews tried to mingle with other nations and become like them, those nations would reject them and force them back into Judaism, or force them to convert, but in a derogatory and coercive manner.
Jane S. Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York, eloquently details the extent to which Spain’s Jews and conversos immersed themselves in Spain’s secular and cultural life (emphases are the editor’s). “Deeply rooted in the Iberian peninsula since the dawn of their dispersion,” writes Gerber, “these Jews had fervently nurtured a love for Spain and felt a deep loyalty to her language, regions, and traditions (…) In fact, Spain had been considered a second Jerusalem.
“When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s decree of expulsion was promulgated on March 31,  ordering the 300,000 Jews of Spain to leave within four months, the Sephardim reacted with shock and disbelief. Surely, they felt, the prominence of their people in all walks of life, the sheer longevity of their communities (…) and the presence of so many Jews and Christians of Jewish ancestry (conversos) in the inner circles of the court, municipalities, and even the Catholic church could provide protection and avert the decree.
“…Spanish Jews were especially proud of their long line of poets, whose … songs continued to be recited. Their philosophers had been influential even among the scholars of the West, their innovative grammarians had earned a lasting place as pioneers of the Hebrew language, and their mathematicians, scientists, and innumerable physicians had won acclaim. The resourcefulness and public service of Sephardic diplomats also filled the annals of many Muslim kingdoms. In fact, they had not just resided in Spain; they had co-existed side by side with Muslims and Christians, taking the notion of living together (la convivencia) with utmost seriousness.
“The experience of Sephardim raises the issue of acculturation and assimilation as no other Jewish community has. For many centuries, Jewish civilization borrowed freely from the surrounding Muslim culture. …When persecutions overwhelmed the Sephardim in 1391 and they were offered the choice of conversion or death, the numbers of converts outnumbered the considerable number of martyrs. The very novelty of this mass conversion, unique to Jewish experience, has induced scholars to seek causality in the high degree of acculturation attained by the Sephardim.”[vii]
And yet, it was not the acculturation that caused the Spaniards to turn against the Jews. It was rather the Jews’ abandonment of social cohesion and mutual guarantee, traits that had (for the most part) won them the unconscious esteem of their host nations. “Medieval commentators especially,” continues Gerber, “were fond of placing the blame for the breakdown of communal discipline upon Jewish acculturation, and some of the greatest modern Jewish historians, such as Itzhak Baer, have cited in addition the corrosive impact of Averroist philosophy and the cynicism of Spain’s assimilated Jewish courtier class. But in the wave of mass conversions and the sharp communal conflicts, it was not just the philosophers who succumbed in the face of persecution.”[viii] Rather, the entire community suffered.
Thus, conscious or not, the Jews were afflicted, and were eventually expelled from Spain because they had become too disunited, forgetting about the powers and benefit that unity can bring them, and which our sages have taught our forefathers for generations. The Book of Zohar wrote about the panacea of unity: “Because they are of one heart and one mind … they will not fail in doing that which they purport to do, and there is no one who can stop them.”[ix]
But The Book of Zohar, which resurfaced in Spain just a few centuries prior to the expulsion, could not save the Jews. They were simply too spiritually and culturally assimilated to unite, and carry out their intended role of being a light to the nations. And since they would not adjust their course of their own accord, Nature’s Law of Bestowal, the Creator, did it through their surroundings, the Christian Spaniards, to whom the Jews looked up.
English classicist, author, and professor at Cambridge University, Michael Grant, observed the Jews’ inability to mingle: “The Jews proved not only unassimilated, but inassimilable. …The demonstration that this was so proved one of the most significant turning points in Greek history, owing to the gigantic influence exerted throughout subsequent ages by their religion, which not only survived intact, but subsequently gave birth to Christianity.”[x]
Similarly, 18th century bishop, Thomas Newton, wrote about the Jews: “The preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of divine Providence… and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved. Nor is the providence of God less remarkable in the destruction of their enemies, than in their preservation… We see that the great empires, which in their turn subdued and oppressed the people of God, are all come to ruin… And if such hath been the fatal end of the enemies and oppressors of the Jews, let it serve as a warning to all those, who at any time or upon any occasion are for raising a clamor and persecution against them.”[xi]
Because, as mentioned in Chapter 4, Jews represent in our world the part of Adam’s soul that achieved unity of hearts and thus connection with the Creator, and because their spiritual role is to spread that unity and resulting connection to the rest of the nations, the nations reject the Jews’ attempts to become like them. It is not a conscious act of choice, but a compulsive drive that comes upon them from the very thought of Creation. This only rarely surfaces to the awareness of the perpetrators of affliction, but they unfailingly execute it.
One remarkable incident of the thought of Creation rising to the perpetrator’s awareness took place on a fateful and tragic night in 1492. In The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook: 315-1791, scholar of Jewish history, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus details the events he discovered had taken place. “The agreement permitting them [Jews] to remain in the country [Spain] on the payment of a large sum of money was almost completed when it was frustrated by the interference of a prior who was called the Prior of Santa Cruz. [Legend relates that Torquemada, Prior of the convent of Santa Cruz, thundered, with crucifix aloft, to the King and Queen: ‘Judas Iscariot sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Your Highness would sell him anew for thirty thousand. Here he is, take him, and barter him away.’]”[xii] What happened next illustrates that whatever happens, the Jews are obliged to be what they are, and do what they must. “Then the Queen gave an answer to the representatives of the Jews, similar to the saying of King Solomon [Proverbs 21:1]: ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will.’ She said furthermore: ‘Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king.’”[xiii]
Indeed, the Jews were expelled not because they had stopped being of economic value to the Spaniards. Jews had been recognized as an economic asset for centuries. In fact, when they were forced out of Spain, many of them fled to Turkey, who welcomed them precisely because of their contribution to the economy of their hosting country. Accordingly, the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid II, was so delighted at the Jews’ expulsion from Spain and their arrival in Turkey that it is reported that he “sarcastically thanked Ferdinand for sending him some of his best subjects, thus impoverishing his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid’s).”[xiv] Another source reports that “when King Ferdinand who expelled the Jews from Spain was mentioned in [Bayezid’s] presence, he said: ‘How can you consider King Ferdinand a wise ruler when he impoverished his own land and enriched ours?’”[xv]
Time and again, we find that it is not our astuteness that grants us the nations’ favor. Rather, it is our unity, for our unity projects on them the light, or rather the delight that they were intended to receive through us in the thought of Creation. In the words of the writer and thinker, Rabbi Hillel Tzaitlin, “If Israel is the one true redeemer of the entire world, it must be fit for that redemption. Israel must first redeem its own soul … But how will it redeem its soul? …Will the nation, which is in ruins both in matter and in spirit, become a nation made entirely of redeemers? …For that purpose, I wish to establish with this book the ‘unity of Israel’ … If founded, the unification of individuals will be for the purpose of internal ascension and an invocation for corrections for all the ills of the nation and the world.”[xvi]
Indeed, even if we claim every Nobel Prize from here till Doomsday, for all the benefit that scientific achievements bring to humanity, we will not gain credit, but aversion. We may produce the finest physicians, the most illustrious economists, the most brilliant scientists, and the most innovative entrepreneurs, but until we produce the light, the power we elicit through unity, the nations will never accept us, and we will never justify our existence on this planet.
[i] William Whiston, The Works of Flavius Josephus, 565.
[iii] Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, 115.
[iv] “Diaspora,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, url: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5169-diaspora.
[v] Norman Roth, Jews, Visigoths, and Muslims in Medieval Spain: cooperation and conflict (The Netherlands, E.J. Brill, 1994), 2.
[vii] Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York, Free Press; November 2, 1992), Kindle edition.
[ix] Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), The Book of Zohar (with the Sulam [Ladder] Commentary by Baal HaSulam, Noah, vol. 3, item 385 (Jerusalem), 132.
[x] Michael Grant, From Alexander to Cleopatra: the Hellenistic World (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1982), 75.
[xi] Quoted in The Treasury of Religious and Spiritual Quotations (US, Readers Digest, January 1, 1994), 280.
[xii] Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook: 315-1791, (US: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999), 60-61.
[xiv] Dr. Erwin W Lutzer with Steve Miller, The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent: An Informed Response to Islam’s War with Christianity (Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, 2013), 65.
[xv] Israel Zinberg, History of Jewish Literature: The Jewish Center of Culture in the Ottoman Empire, Vol 5 (New York, Ktav Pub. House, 1974), 17 .
[xvi] Hillel Tzaitlin, The Book of a Few (Jerusalem, 1979), 5.