Conversos in the Responsa of Sephardic Halakhic Authorities in the 15th Century
(Perspectives on Society and Culture 1)
By Dora Zsom

Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2014. 262 pp. Print.

Reviewed by Andrew Apostolou

Dedicated to the memory of Isaac Nehama z"l.

In 1391, gangs of Iberian Christians attacked Jews across Castile and Aragon. They slaughtered hundreds of Jews, if not more, and forced thousands of the survivors to convert to Christianity. These acts of violence led to emigration and created a new social group, the conversos [converted Jews], also known as 'new Christians'. Caught between the majority Christian population and the battered Jewish minority, the conversos were, at the very least, nominally Christian but remained, to various degrees, Jews. What made them different from those who had left Judaism previously was that many of them continued to live in the same areas as their Jewish relatives and friends, in some cases in the same homes.

Dora Zsom has written a useful and detailed book about how rabbis dealt with the inevitable problems this new social group created for the observance of halacha [Jewish law]. She has examined rabbinic responsa [answers to questions about Jewish law, teshuvot in Hebrew] about these converted Jews from 1391 until 1492, when Castile and Aragon expelled the Jews. The book covers 49 surviving responsa from five rabbis, four of whom were from the Duran family. The most important figures were Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (also known by his Hebrew acronym, the Ribash) and Simeon ben Semah Duran (also known as the Rashbatz or the Tashbetz), who between them wrote 36 of the responsa. The Ribash and the Tashbetz set the main parameters of the decisions that would follow (page 213). Indeed, the remaining 13 were from the Tashbetz's son, Solomon ben Simeon Duran (also known as the Rashbash), and his sons, Semah ben Solomon Duran and Simeon ben Solomon Duran. The Ribash was born in Barcelona and eventually settled in Algiers. There is slight evidence, according to Jaume Riera i Sans, a historian of Catalan Jewry, that the Ribash was baptized and lived briefly as a Christian (page 16). The Tashbetz, a rival of the Ribash, was born in Majorca and settled in Algiers. His son and grandsons spent most of their lives in Algiers.  

Zsom groups the responsa by seven main chapters: marriage, levirate marriage, divorce, dietary laws, death (which is very short), inheritance, and return to Judaism. The emergence of the new social group, and an atmosphere where people did not practice Jewish customs or had forgotten them, led to unusual arrangements and strains within families. The discussion of levirate marriage, for example, deals in detail with whether a convert to Christianity was still the brother of a Jew. Marriage was particularly complex. Conversos could have Christian and Jewish weddings, or just a Christian marriage followed by cohabitation between two people who were nominally Christian but behind closed doors were Jews.

Zsom avoids drawing grand conclusions from limited evidence. She is careful to explain what we know about the circumstances that led to each rabbinic decision. In some cases, for example, the only traces we have of the original question are in the rabbi's answer. Moreover, some of those asking for rabbinic guidance did not know how to formulate their questions. The rabbis had to explain at length on the difference between proselytes [converts to Judaism, gerim in Hebrew] and baalei teshuva (repentant Jews, page 80). Although it was assumed that the first generation of conversos remained Jews, this did not necessarily apply to subsequent generations.

Zsom makes the important observation that the rabbis also did not provide uniform answers that formed a coherent body of work. Contrary to popular legend, there is no converso halacha. The rabbis did not issue a single statement that the conversos were all Jews. Indeed, the rabbis were unclear if the conversos were forced or voluntary apostates from Judaism. Instead, as Zsom explains, the rabbis had to formulate a hazakah [legal presumption], but dealt with every case as it came. Such an approach may sound alien to modern ears, accustomed as we have become to centralized and bureaucratized rabbinic decision-making.

Zsom has organized her work according to the halachic issues that shaped the rabbis' answers. She therefore classifies the conversos as mumarim, anusim, or meshummadim. The mumarim were those who do not observe one or more mitzvah[(commandment], irrespective of their motivation and the number of their transgressions. The anusim were forced not to observe the mitzvot (commandments). The meshummadim were outright apostates.

Although this was how the rabbis saw the conversos, this was not how they approached their residual Jewish identity, nor how they behaved. By contrast, Rabbi José Faur, whose wide expertise includes Sephardic history, has classified conversos in four different ways: those who wanted to be Christians and have no contacts with other Jews; those who wished to remain Jews and were willing to pay a high price to do so; those who wanted to have Jewish and Christian identities simultaneously; and those who wanted neither. The utility of Faur's approach is evident when Zsom discusses a responsum in which conversos asked the Rashbash how they could covertly observe Passover. Here were nominal Christians seeking to be Jews. Interestingly, their Christian neighbors would know that the conversos were secretly observing Judaism if they saw them only eat rice (a Sephardic Passover custom) and similar foods (page 132).

Although Zsom's focus is on the responsa, the impact of violence on Jewish lives is a recurrent, if insufficiently explored, theme. The Ribash, for example, was asked to rule on the bethrothal of an underage girl during the pogrom in Majorca in 1391. Fortunately for the girl, he cited three reasons to annul the bethrothal. These were the lack of paternal consent, that the witnesses were disqualified as they were her relatives, and that the witnesses were conversos whose violations of the Sabbath and the dietary laws were deemed to be voluntary (pages 52-53).

Similarly, Simeon ben Solomon Duran had to rule on whether men who were at least a third generation converso could be a kohen [priestly caste] and whose own fathers were not circumcised. He formulated a hazakah (a legal presumption that holds unless it is falsified) that most conversos had married other Jews (pages 73-77, also pages 96-97). He argued that the instances of intermarriage were so few that he discounted them. To support this position he cited a Talmudic argument that if meat was found in a place where nine of out of ten stalls sold properly slaughtered meat, then that majority could be used to determine its status (Hullin 95b).

One young man asked if he could marry despite being the issue of an adulterous relationship. His wealthy converso father had lived in Algiers with a Jewish woman who was married (her husband had been gone for many years. His fate was unknown at the time of her affair). The couple moved to the island of Majorca, where the father was originally from. The woman and the children from the adultery were baptized. Their son grew up and rejected Christianity. He returned to North Africa to live as a Jew, and to marry. Rabbi Semah ben Solomon Duran ruled that the young man was a mamzer (bastard, an issue of an illicit relationship), because his converso father was considered to have been a Jew. The young man was told to either marry a convert to Judaism of Gentile origin or a maidservant who had been to a mikveh (ritual bath, pages 67-70). We do not know who the young man eventually married. Indeed, it is unclear how much impact these rabbinic decisions had. For example, Zsom provides considerable details of a contested inheritance in which the rabbi's opinions proved to be irrelevant (pages 177-187).

Although Zsom is careful not to extrapolate too much from this limited body of evidence, she concludes that as the number of responsa diminishes over time, so the halachic issues surrounding the conversos "became less and less controversial" (page 213). Indeed, she observes that the later responsa very often are about people seeking to become Jews again, trying to return to the faith of their ancestors.

That Zsom deliberately avoids generalizing on the basis of the responsa is a strength and a frustration. A strength, because she gets into the heart of the rabbinic logic by stressing the importance of individual circumstances. Zsom is correct that we cannot reduce the complexity of the responsa to simple historical lessons.

For example, the rabbis were able to treat the conversos simultaneously as Jews and Gentiles in terms of halacha. According to the Tashbetz, a converso could be an agent for heirs to an inherited asset, in this case money owed to a deceased man. The reasoning is that a converso, although sinning against Jewish law, remains a Jew according to the Talmud. At the same time, the problem with having a converso as an agent was that this person is like a Gentile who has sway with the non-Jewish authorities that Jews do not have (page 188). This approach leads Zsom to criticize how the late Benzion Netanyahu interpreted the responsa, although her remarks are confined too often to footnotes. For example, the Tashbetz wrote that one should mourn a deceased converso child, but not a converso adult who voluntarily became a Christian. The exception was a converso who secretly kept Jewish law. Netanyahu, however, ignored this last element and instead took this responsum as evidence that the Tashbetz took a tough stand against the conversos. Zsom calls Netanyahu's approach "tendentious" (pages 170-172).

It is, however, a frustration because the responsa are of contemporary relevance. Zsom treats the halacha as an artefact. She does not hint at its continuing relevance, which was Netanyahu's point. The question of how we deal with estranged Jews turns out to be an enduring one. Similar groups to the conversos emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in such different societies as Germany, the Soviet Union, and now the United States. The debate over how to define Jewish identity in the new state of Israel, for example, led Ben Gurion in 1958 to write to rabbis across the world to seek their opinion on "who is a Jew?" Most of the replies were collected in Jewish Identity — Modern Responsa and Opinions (edited by Baruch Litvin and Sidney B. Hoenig, Philip Feldheim, New York, 1965).

These contemporary concerns bring us back to the question of how much impact the rabbis had. Zsom's narrow focus means that she cannot draw out the effect of their decisions. What we know, according to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in his classic entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica on "Jewish Identity" (2nd edition, Vol. 11, page 295, also available here), is that those conversos who wanted to become Jews often forced the gates open: "the determining act was their [i.e. the conversos'] willingness to become part of the Jewish community, and all the halakhic doubts of rabbinic authorities remained theoretical in the face of acts of return."

Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust in Greece and a writer on contemporary Jewish affairs.

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