Tuesday, 30 October 2012

First Jewish book in English? 1706

This is the cover page of what might be the first Jewish book published in English, Discourses of the Ecclesiastical and Civil Polity of the Jews by Isaac Abendana, published in 1706. Abendana was Haham in London, having succeeded his brother Jacob. Possibly this is how he was able to publish a book not under the auspicises of the Mahamad.

Uriel Acosta questions Religion, 1617-1624

Uriel Acosta (AKA Uriel da Costa, AKA Gabriel da Costa) was born in Porto to a successful and religiously Catholic New Christian family. He was profoundly Catholic, but his religious studies eventually persuaded him that the New Testament and Catholic practice was wrong, and he decided to adhere to the Old Testament.

He reports that “my Mother, Brothers, and myself embarked on Board a Ship, though at a very great hazard (it not being lawful for those that are descended from the Jews, to depart the Kingdom without the King’s special Licence.)”. Arriving in Amsterdam he immediately had himself circumcised as a Jew.
Acosta, having grown up in a Catholic country, had read the Written Law (the five Books of Moses) but knew nothing of the existence of the Oral Law (written down and codified in the Talmud) and did not accept it. The rabbi – who may have been Saul Levi Morteira or Isaac Uzziel of Fez – demanded strict adherence to a set of rules that were meaningless to Acosta. Heavy-handed self-regarding rabbis are not unknown in the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish community even today. Acosta had abandoned a position of wealth, risked his life and that of his family, and then had a delicate operation. He reacted badly to a rabbi demanding conformity and threatening Excommunication. In his own words:

“But as it was unworthy of him, who so lately left his native Country, and been content to forego many other temporal Advantages for Liberty of Conscience, to be overaw’d and forced to submit to Men, who had no right to such a Power; besides, I thought it both sinful and beneath a Man to be a Slave in things pertaining to Conscience; therefore I resolved rather to suffer the worst they could inflict rather than recants: Accordingly they excommunicated me from their Society, insomuch that my own Brothers , who before took me for their teacher, in spiritual Things, durst not take any Notice of me as they passed by me in the Street for fear of the Rabbins.”

Acosta wrote a pamphlet attacking what he saw as the Pharisee-ic position of the rabbis, which had the effect of also alienating Christians. Children threw stones at his front door (which, compared to what would have happened to him in Portugal, was nothing). The Mahamad reported him to the secular magistrates as someone who attacked all religion. He was imprisoned for eight or ten days.

His experiences led Acosta to question all religion but, not being able to cope with the social isolation of being excommunicated, he recanted. He was quickly denounced by his nephew for not keeping properly kosher. His wife having died, he was prevented from remarrying. His brother froze his business activities. Acosta felt pressured on all sides, from his family’s “domestick War” and the pressure from the rabbis and the community. 

When two men (I suspect New Christians) asked his advice on converting to Judaism, he told them not to bother. This infuriated the synagogue authorities. They demanded a recantation or that he would be excommunicated for a second time. They demanded what I can only describe as a Jewish auto-da-fé:
“that I must make my entrance into the Synagogue dressed in a mourning Vestment, holding a black Wax taper in my Hand, and there to read distinctly before the whole Congregation in a Form of Recantation penned by them, in which they had described in black and odious Colours, the great Enormity of my Crimes: Then I was to submit to be whipt in the same publick Manner, with a Scourge made of leather Thongs: After that to prostrate myself at the Door or the Synagogue, that they might all pass over me, and moreover to fast certain Days.”

He refused, was again excommunicated and – for seven years – had to experience being spat at in the street. He felt pressured by both his family and the synagogue authorities. Eventually, unable to withstand the social ostracism any more he submitted to the synagogue authorities, while privately hating them even more than previously. He was stripped to the waist and given forty three lashed of the whip by the shamas while everyone else sang a Psalm.

“I was ordered to sit down on the Ground, and then the Doctor came to me and absolved me from my Excommunication; so now the Gate of Heaven, which was doubly lock’d and bar’d against me before, was flung open all of a sudden. O the ridiculous Notions and Conceits of Mortals! After this I put on my Cloaths, and went to the Door of the Synagogue, where I prostrated myself, the Door-keeper holding up my Head, whilst all both old and young passed over me, stepping with one Foot on the lower Part of my Legs, and behaving with ridiculous and foolish Gestures, more like Monkeys than human Creatures. When they had all done, I got up, and being washed and made clean by the Man who stood by me for that Purpose, I went home.”

Acosta concluded that everything good in religion already existed in the Law of Nature. Everything religious denominations add on is worthless. “How much happier would it have been, if Men had kept within those Bounds which Nature had set, and not given themselves up to such abominable Inventions! Why need I mention the Horrors and Anxieties, with which some superstitious Men have filled the Minds of their fellow Creatures, and which had they observed only the Dictates of Nature, they would have been entirely free from.” He felt that people should “lay aside those Impositions, which are only fit to frighten Children and simple Folk”. This is incendiary stuff to be saying in the mid-17th Century, a generation before Spinoza. As Catholicism and Protestantism were battling for supremacy, and Judaism struggling for survival, Acosta is saying that it is all nonsense. One can almost hear scandalised people all over Europe reaching for their smelling salts.

Acosta’s diatribe was published in English with a refutation by the eminent Dutch theologian, Philip a Limborch, who has interesting things to say. Limborch feels that Acosta is involved in a private fight with the Amsterdam Mahamad and should not include Christians. In so far as Acosta anticipates atheism (once Darwin has removed the need for God as a prime mover), Limborch anticipates the evils of social Darwinism. “The Law of Nature does not enjoin us to love an Enemy, or declare it unlawful to return his Hatred, or to revenge an Injury; but rather seems to allow a Kind of Right in Vengeance, and to return like for like, by doing to others as they have done by us.” I am not sure that Limborch draws the correct inferences, but am impressed by the man. Of course, Acosta’s main gripe was with the Catholics and Jews. Limborch and Amsterdam were Protestant. One wonders if they would have been quite as tolerant of Acosta if he had specifically taken shots at the Protestant religion.

While Acosta clearly had a bit of a martyrdom complex, he was one of those rare people able to step outside his culture and see a bigger picture. He suffered considerable psychological abuse from those who might have been expected to care for him. Maybe he had the misfortune of being born a hundred or two hundred years too early. Considering what would have been done to Acosta in Portugal, Limborch comes across as a thoughtful and good man.

Acosta was the subject of a play the German playwrite Karl Gutzkow. It was later translated into Yiddish and became well-known in Ashkenazi eastern Europe. Acosta is sometimes seem as an intellectual 'grandfather' to Spinoza, who in turn is seen as an intellectual grandfather to Karl Marx. A fanciful 1901 painting by Samuel Hirszenberg is of a very Ashkenazi-looking Acosta with a long beard and Medieval-looking clothes, showing a book to the young Spinoza.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Secret Jews in the Spanish Church and Nobility

"But then he [a learned Jew] returns upon the Christians, and says, that since the Idolatry of the Church of Rome , multitudes of the Jews have, to avoid Persecution, embrac’d the Popish Idolatry in divers Countries: And even in our own times (says he) we have fresh experiences of it: He names the whole Neapolitan Synagogue of Barcelona, and all the others in Catalonia, who turn’d to the Church of Rome: And in Spain and Portugal they have turn’d so fast, that he says, Ex Judæis apostatis fere omnes & Principes, Nobiles, & Populares, originem ducunt: Quod in iis Regionibus adeo notum, ut nemo dubitaverit; i.e. that almost all of them, Princes, Nobles, and Commons, are sprung from apostate Jews: Which is so well known in those Countries, as that none doubt of it: Notwithstanding (as he says) for the obtaining of great places and honours, especially ecclesiastical, they are oblig’d to renounce Judaism, and to bring certificates that they are not descended of the Jews: Which (as we may easily believe him) are attainable at that as well as other Courts, where Money is not wanting. This indeed does plainly shew the suspicion, at least, that they are descended of the Jewish race. He says moreover, that many of their Clergy, Bishops, and even of the Inquisitors themselves, are Jews in their hearts; and dissemble Christianity for the avoiding of Persecution, and to gain Honours and Preferments; of whom (he says) some do repent and fly, as they can: And that there are in Spain both Bishops and the gravest of their Monks, whose Parents, Brothers, and Sisters, do fly into this Countreys (that is, into Holland) that they may freely profess Judaism. That many of the Fryars, Augustins, Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, have there, and in several other Countries, renounc’d their Idolatry, i.e. of the Church of Rome."

Charles Leslie. The Theological Works: In Two Volumes, Volume 1. 1721.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Description of Inquisition torture, 1660s

Below is a description of the torture experienced by the eminent doctor and philosopher Isaac Orobio de Castro, also known as Balthasar Orobio de Castro. He later escaped to France where he became a professor at the University of Toulouse and medical consultant to Louis XIV. He eventually settled in Amsterdam where he openly embraced Judaism.

"The Method of Torturing, and the Degree of Tortures now used in the Spanish Inquisition, will be well understood from the History of Isaac Orobio, a Jew, and Doctor of Physick, who was accused to the Inquisition as a Jew, by a certain Moor his Servant, who had by his Order before this been whipped for Thieving; and four Years after this was again accused be a certain Enemy of his for another Fact, whoch would have proved him a Jew. But Orobio obstinately denied that he was one. I will here give the Account of his Torture, as I had it from his own Mouth. After three whole Years which he has been in Jail, and several Examinations, and the Discovery of the Crimes to him of which he was accused, in order to his Confession, and his constant Denial of them, he was at length carried out of his Jail, and thro’ several Turnings brought to the Place of Torture.  This was towards the Evening. It was a large under-ground Room, arched, and the Walls covered with black Hangings. The Candlesticks were fastened to the Wall, and the whole Room enlightened with Candles placed in them. At one End of it there was an inclosed Place like a Closet, where the Inquisitor and Notary sat at a Table; so that the Place seemed to him as the very Mansion of Death, every Thing appearing so terrible and awful. Here the Inquisitor again admonished him to confess the Truth, before his Torments began. When he answered he had told the Truth, the Inquisitor gravely protested, that since he was so obstinate as to suffer the Torture, the holy Office would be innocent, if he should shed his Blood, or even expire in his Torments. When he had said this, they put a Linnen Garment over his Body, and drew it so very close on each Side, as almost squeezed him to Death. When he  was almost dying, they slackned at once the Sides of the Garment; and after he began to breathe again, the sudden Alteration put him to the most grievous Anguish and Pain. When he had overcome this Torture the same Admonition was repeated, that he would confess the Truth, in order to prevent farther Torment . And as he persisted in his Denial, they tied his Thumbs so very tite with small Cords, as made the Extremities of them greatly swell, and caused the Blood to spurt out from under his Nails. After this he was placed with his Back against the Wall, and fixed upon a little Bench. Into the Wall were fastened little Iron Pullies, thro’ which there were Ropes drawn, and tied round his Body in several Places, and especially his Arms and Legs. The Executioner drawing these Ropes with great Violence, fastened his Body with them to the Wall; so that his Hands and Feet, and especially his Fingers and Toes being bound so straitly with them, put him to the most exquisite Pain, and seem to him just as though he had been dissolving in Flames. In the midst of these Torments the Torturer, of a sudden, drew the Bench from under him, so that the miserable Wretch hung by the Cords without the any Thing to support him, and but the Weight of his Body drew the Knots yet much closer. After this a new kind of Torture succeeded.  There was an Instrument like a small Ladder, made up of two upright Pieces of Wood, and five cross ones sharpned before. This the Torturer placed over against him, and by a certain proper Motion struck it with great Violence against both his Shins; so that he received upon each of them at once five violent Strokes, which put him to such intolerable Anguish that he fainted away. After he came to himself, they inflicted on him the last Torture. The Torturer tied Ropes about Orobio’s Wrists, and then put those Ropes about his own Back, which was covered with Leather, to prevent his hurting himself. Then falling backwards, and putting his Feet up against the Wall, he drew them with all his Might, till they cut thro’ Orobio’s Flesh, even to the very Bones, and this Torture was repeated thrice, the Ropes being tied about his Arms about the Distance of two Fingers Breadth from the former Wound, and drawn with the same Violence. But it happen’d that as the Ropes were drawing the second Time, they slid into the first Wound; which caused so great an Effusion of Blood, that he seemed to be dying. Upon this the Physician and Surgeon, who are always ready, were sent for out of a neighbouring Apartment, to ask their Advice, whether the Torture could be continued without danger of Death, lest the Ecclesiastical Judges should be guilty of an Irregularity, if the Criminal should die in his Torments. They, who were far from being Enemies to Orobio, answered, that he had Strength enough to endure the rest of the Torture, and hereby preserved him from having the Tortures he had already endured repeated on him, because his Sentence was, that he should suffer them all at one Time, one after another. So that if at any time they are forced to leave off thro’ fear of Death, all the Tortures, even those already suffered, must be successively inflicted, to satisfy the Sentence. Upon this the Torture was repeated the third Time, and then it ended. After this he was bound up in his own Clothes, and carried back to his Prison and was scarce healed of his Wounds in seventy Days. And inasmuch as he made no Confession under his Torture, but he was condemned, not as one convicted, but suspected of Judaism, to wear for two whole Years the infamous Habit called Sambenito, and after that Term to perpetual Banishment from the Kingdom of Seville."

Samuel Chandler. The History of Persecution. 1736. Page 242-246

An engagement announcement in London, 1757

How things changed in the hundred years since Admission. A 1757 English announcement of a Jewish couple’s engagement

 June 3 [1757]. Mr. Ossoro [Osorio?], an eminent Jew Merchant, to Miss Nunes, of St. Mary Axe.

Miscellaneous Correspondence, Volume 2.  Page 577. 1759

Successful, modern Jews in the Hague, 1743

The paragraph below is from the description of the Hague published in 1743. I suspect the author is not as cultured as he may wish us to believe. He was probably presented with a prayerbook, as would happen today. I suspect that a lot of the apparently learned digressions into matters of religion in books of this period is simply a way of showing off ones alleged superior intellect and sensibility, just as one might create a blog today.

The author(s) also mentions that Mr. Swartzo [Suasso?] the Jew has the nicest house in the area. Elsewhere we hear that the “opulent and magnificent M. Lopez, a Jew” organised a kind of opera in the city, including foreign artistes. We get the impression that – at the same time that New Christians were being persecuted by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, some of their relatives in the Hague were living wealthy, sophisticated and integrated lives in the Netherlands.

“The Jewish Synagogue stands here [in New Voorhout, The Hague], which has not been long built, and does not front the Street. It is very neat and fine within, and is well worth being seen by the curious Traveller; which Pleasure he may have every Saturday, the Sabbath of the Jews. One may understand the Worship of the Old Testament, and the Jewish Rites and Antiquities better by seeing a Synagogue, and being present in Time of Worship, than by the tedious dry Study of all the Books in the World: The Method of acquiring Knowledge by the Eye is easy and pleasant. The Jews in their Synagogues are civil enough to Strangers, if they behave with any Degree of Decency: They present them with an Hebrew Bible to read in, and accommodate them in other Respects.”

A Description of Holland: or, The present state of the United Provinces. 1743. Pages 26-27