Since the 19th century, it has become a truism among many Jews that the principal if not the only determinant of Jewish identity is Jews’ relationship to a “religion” called “Judaism.” Corollaries to this truism abound. For instance, practically since the establishment of the State of Israel it has been common for the country’s citizens, notably its elites—government officials, university scholars, and journalists—to refer to the “religious” and “secular” “sectors” of Israeli Jewish society. Correspondingly, many Jewish Israelis view themselves as either “religious” or “secular.” Many other Israeli citizens, particularly among those of Mizrahi and/or Sephardi background, carve out what they perceive to be a middle ground between religion and secularity by referring to themselves as “traditional”—that is, neither ultra-secular (that is to say, anti-religious in principle), nor ultra-observant of Halakhah. In all cases, Jews’ approach toward to their ancient “religion” is what supposedly defines the type of Jewishness that they embody.

The emphasis on the binary of Jewish “religion” and irreligion is especially pronounced in the United States, where national censuses have typically categorized Jewish identity in terms of “religion,” but never “ethnicity” or “nationality.” A particularly striking finding of a much-discussed 2013 Pew study of American Jews is that a vast majority of respondents whom the researchers categorize as “Jews of no religion” are married to non-Jews, and in over half of those cases are raising either non-Jewish children (37%) or children who partake of both Christian and Jewish religious celebrations (18%), evidently without a sense of contradiction.

This wide-open, seemingly relativistic approach toward Christian and Jewish self-identities flies in the face of much sociological and historical experience. For centuries, people of Jewish origin who have assimilated fully into larger, non-Jewish communities and have ceased to have meaningful contact with real or imaginary Jews have been, in effect, non-Jews except in the most technical, halakhic sense, as well as in the eyes of anti-Jewish bigots for whom Jewishness is essential and indelible. To cite but one example, a colleague recently shared with me that her father had raised her as a member of the Methodist Church, never divulging that he was a Jew whose first language was Yiddish. The man had never converted to Christianity yet never mentioned, much less cultivated Jewish connections. She only discovered his Jewish origins after a relative conducted genealogical research long after the man’s death.

The above observations concerning Israeli and American Jews would have little or nothing to do with the work of Yosef Kaplan, an early modernist historian, if the unique historical experiences of judeoconversos and “New Jews” (judíos nuevos) of the Western Sephardi Diaspora of the 1600s and 1700s did not already adumbrate the important polarity of “religion” and “ethnicity” that informs modern definitions of Jewishness in Israel, in the United States, and probably elsewhere. In this brief essay, I would like to consider the historical development of that polarity, especially as it entrenched itself early on in the experience of judeoconversos and “New Jews, ”also known collectively as the nação/nación. As Kaplan’s work has proven, during the early modern centuries these subjects often assumed the polarity and used it to build their concepts of personal and group selfhood.

It bears mentioning that none of the historical terrain I will survey is uncharted, and none of my insights are particularly inaccessible. The facts are well known. What I wish to do is put them together in a way that allows me to reflect on them in ways that defy facile characterizations of Jews’ difference and that of many New Christians as a matter of “religion,” as distinct from a comprehensive way of life. The point is to de-naturalize the idea of “Judaism” that has long been entrenched as a descriptor of Jews and of many of their Christianized descendants. As I will explain, that concept and all it conveyed are things that Iberian Jews adopted and their New Christian and New Jewish descendants internalized over centuries as Ibero-Christian culture encroached upon, and in the case of judeoconversos, enveloped their lives. I am interested in noting the sometimes subtle, sometimes accretive, and sometimes sudden shifts in imagination and discourse that resulted in Jews and conversos’ changed assumptions about the nature and meaning of Jewish identity. Specifically, I wish to provide a few snapshots of the process by which the concept of “Judaism,” also called “The Law of Moses” as a “religious” marker of judeoconverso and New Jewish identities took shape, came to prominence in Jewish-Christian polemics in Iberia, and then became central to the lives of judeoconversos and New Jews. In the sections that follow I will show how this long-term process effectuated the fateful, perceptual fracture of Jewish identity into “religious” and “ethnic” components.

As scholars of the ancient world know, “Judaism” is not a Jewish term, but a Greek one: Iudaismos. The word emerged from within a Hellenic cultural matrix to designate the laws and customs of the people of the Israelite state of Judah. For that people, however, there was no “Jewish religion,” in the Western sense of a systematic, much less creedal theology and associated rituals of God-worship, all anchored in private belief as the sine qua non of identity and community. It is telling that the pre-modern Hebrew language had no word for “religion,” yet included several terms that designated what the Greeks themselves recognized as the Judahite ethnos.

As the Greek empire-builders of the ancient world understood, Judahites (or Judeans) were characterized by their way of life. Judeans lived as they did not because they had evaluated, as if in a laboratory, all available ways of life and determined theirs to be the most cogent, truthful, aesthetically appealing, spiritually uplifting, or philosophically elegant, but simply because they were Judeans and they perceived their distinctive way of life to be their ancestral inheritance. In the traditional terms of the writers and editors of the Tanakh, the way of life of the Judahites had originated in the commands of their national God. That deity had freed the Israelites and had forged a covenant with them as the extended family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that is to say, as an ethnic collectivity. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel, including those of the Tribe of Judah, had promised to observe, not to “believe” in or to assess the validity of the terms of that covenant; in the famous words of Exodus 24:7, na’aseh ve-nishmah.

To be sure, Judeans’ lives entailed behaviors and ideas that modern social science would classify as “religious” in the sense that they expressed an idealized relationship between humans and the transcendent; sought to enact that relationship; and conveyed an understanding of the proper order of the universe. However, ancient Judahites did not distinguish between realms of “religion” and the “secular” (as distinct from the holy and the profane) much less between social and political life on one hand, and theology and worship on the other. Indeed, the perceived coextension of kinship, politics, economy, theology, cosmology, worship, law, and social customs was part and parcel of many ancient cultures. Thus, for instance, ancient Egyptian heads of state were considered to be “High Priests of Every Temple” as well as Gods. By the same token, for Judeans of the First and Second Temple Periods, the core “religious” act of Temple pilgrimage was a way of following national law, and thus affirming loyalty to the divine sovereign, a figure the Hebrew Bible depicts as the true head of the Israelite polity (e.g., Sam. 8:7). Offering sacrificial animals and agricultural products at the Temple was as much a matter of paying taxes to the state, specifically to the governing priestly class, as it was a matter of expiating sin and articulating any inner “spiritual” convictions. Arguably, the latter understanding of religion as an essentially “confessional” matter of private conscience would only become dominant in the West under the impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.

Just as Judeans did not approach their Temple as a “religious” shrine (let alone a “house of prayer”), so too generations of Tanna’im, and Amora’im after the destruction of the Second Temple did not approach being Judean as a matter of “spirituality” and upholding “religious” obligations. Indeed, these men were not engaged in the construction of anything they called a Jewish “religion,” much less “Judaism.” The Mishnah, the Gemaras, and associated rabbinic texts present a host of theological ideas, but they formulate no systematic theology. Classic rabbinic texts assign a positive value to the concept of emunah (faith, loyalty, trust), but stress neither it, nor persuasion, as necessary to Jewish identity.

By the same token, Rabbinic norms concerning “religious conversion” are nothing of the kind; they are procedures for giyur, a noun denoting a process of adoption or, to borrow a modern term, naturalization whereby non-Judeans are integrated with the Jewish nation—the extended Jewish family—and socialized as Jews, specifically, as gerim, meaning “those [strangers] who dwell with” Jews. Notably, Rabbinic texts generally do not speak of “[the] Jews” ([ha-]Yehudim) but rather, of the collective “Israel,” whose redemption would be communal and occur in history, in the world, not in an ethereal and timeless realm. Because Jewish tradition has it that the Torah was revealed to the entire community at Sinai, divine guidance, and hence redemption itself, is assumed to be public and collective, not private and individual.

Halakhah and Aggadah were both intended primarily to fashion and to explain the national way of life of Israel, a complex of law and lore the rabbis sometimes called “The Life of Torah.”  The sages configured the latter as an all-encompassing cultural system of and for Israel. By contrast, the conceptual organization of reality into two realms, the abstract and the concrete—in Aristotelian terms, “form” and “matter”—was basically foreign to that way of life. Greek philosophical dualism influenced the rabbis, to be sure, as it did many other Judeans in the homeland and in the Diaspora. As Erich Gruen observes, the relationship between “Hellenism” and “Judaism” was not one of zero-sum opposition; and inasmuch as Jews became Hellenized to some extent, this generally did not result in “syncretism.” Rather, Jews reexamined their traditions in light of the Greek culture(s) they encountered throughout the Mediterranean, yet they endeavored to express and thus ultimately retained their cultural distinctiveness. Notably, pagan Hellenism did not overthrow the monistic assumptions of rabbinic discourse, which became normative among Jews by the Middle Ages.

However, Hellenic dualism did become a primary, shaping component of Christianity—and hence of Christian understandings of Jews. According to the Pauline letters, for instance, non-Judeans’ adoption of the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah signaled that the Old Israel “of the Flesh,” had been superseded by a New, multinational, indeed un-national “Israel of the Spirit.” Paul had it that a majority of the “Carnal Israel” had forsaken God and thus ensured the Judean People’s perdition, at least until the emergence from within its ranks of a “saving remnant” (Rom. 11:5). In Pauline Christianity, not only could one be “Israel” and not a Judean, then, but membership in the spiritual Israel, the verus Israel, effaced all national distinctions to forge a single, undifferentiated body of believers (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11).

Fatefully, Christian theology for the most part followed Paul’s disapproving, if somewhat ambiguous conception of the genealogical Israel of his day. Though Christianity eventually developed variants that closely associated the ethnicity and religion of discrete groups of believers—witness the emergence of ethnically-specific churches such as the Armenian—Christianity as a transnational cultural system consistently divorced the “spiritual,” namely the “religious,” from the “temporal,” including kinship and its corollary, nationality.

By the Middle Ages, entire Christian civilizations had developed in accordance with this dualistic worldview. Christian social institutions assumed a sharp contrast between the secular and the religious—or as Jesus and his disciples had allegedly put it, the world and heaven, Caesar and God, and body and spirit. Jews were central to this imaginary system, both as tolerated inferiors who were integral parts of Christians’ economic and social life (per Augustine of Hippo), and as symbols of carnality, often demonized, persecuted, and humiliated. At any rate, Jews’ imputed “blindness” to the spiritual message of God, and their “obstinacy” in continuing to live in accordance with their supposedly earth-bound character, became axioms of Christian theology. As David Nirenberg has recently argued, Jews and Judaism were correspondingly central to the self-definition of Christianity.


With the consolidation of the Christian Reconquista, anti-Judaism took the form of a centuries-long series of missionary campaigns. Unprecedented fiscal and political pressure upon Iberian kehillot accompanied these polemical assaults. The Jews’ sense of their unprecedented vulnerability and of the relative futility of rhetorical counterattacks is already palpable in the words of Yaakov ben Reuven of Huesca (12th century), author of the anti-conversionist treatise, Milchamot ha-Shem: “What should the afflicted reply to he who afflicts him? … How can we be declared innocent by judges who are both princes and judges? Oh, the muzzle is upon our mouths and our tongue. … Are we not stricken and broken in our time more so than in previous times? We are an exiled and captive nation, beaten and afflicted by the enemy.”

Led mainly by local clergymen, theologians and preachers, the Hispano-Christian crusade against Judaism led to the near-destruction of Castilian and Aragonese kehillot from 1391 to 1415, and to the concomitant problem of judeconversos. The outlines of the story are well known: By the end of the Tortosa Disputation in 1414-1415, some half to two-thirds of Castilian and Aragonese Jews had become titular Christians. Irrespective of their Christian sincerity or lack thereof, in many if not most cases the converts and their immediate (baptized) descendants still lived among or relatively close to Jews and had extensive social, economic, and familial relations with them. This meant that for the first time, the religion and the ethnicity of tens of thousands of people once known and still widely regarded as “Jews” were at odds: New Christians were “Jewish” as concerned their social and economic relations, their ethnic culture, and their social reputation, yet their religious identity was at least theoretically identical to that of the majority population.

The massive scale of this phenomenon obligated rabbis, clergymen, and local and state officials to struggle like never before to disentangle the Jews from the former Jews both conceptually and in practical terms. In effect, these authorities had to redefine the meaning of Jewishness and Christianness given the ambiguities in the social status and behavior of judeoconversos. Two questions delineated the challenge: Were these New Christians still Jews? If so, of what did their Jewishness consist?

Canon law and rabbinic law, each in its own way, provided reasonably clear answers to these questions. Christian norms had it that a Christian was a person whose baptism was valid in the eyes of the Church. (In acceding to the establishment of a Holy Office effectively controlled by the crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1478-80, Pope Sixtus IV legitimated the earlier mass conversions of Iberian Jews as “not absolutely forced.”) Halakhah, for its part, had it that Jews who turned away from God by joining a non-Jewish community, were but sinning Jews, and thus still part of kehillat Israel. My impression is that this legal principle was generally upheld in the medieval Jewish Diaspora notwithstanding differences of opinion between various poskim.

Yet, the complexity and fluidity of the new social and cultural landscape in the crowns of Castile and Aragon generated doubts that checkmated these hard-and-fast definitions. For instance, Iberian rabbis faced the legal dilemma of having to determine the fate of wives or husbands whose spouses had converted to Christianity before undergoing halakhic divorces. Similarly, Christian city councilmen, regional parliaments, and royal officials had to resolve a host of unprecedented legal and fiscal matters. To mention but one bone of contention: Were judeoconversos responsible for paying “Jewish” taxes they had incurred before their conversion to Christianity? For the most part, governmental bodies answered in the affirmative, thereby branding as quasi-Jewish the Christian population that they ostensibly sought to assimilate.

As time passed, however, the original converts and their descendants became partially of fully integrated with the larger Christian community of faith. From 1391 to 1492, the center of gravity of Jewish life in Castile and Aragon shifted to rural areas. This outcome owed much to segregationist legislation, as well as to the fact that from 1478 to about 1530, inquisitorial tribunals controlled by the Castilian and Aragonese crowns succeeded in violently suppressing real and alleged “Judaizing” among New Christians. Most of the practices of fraternization between Jews and New Christians that had alarmed Christian observers in the cities, where the tribunals were most active, subsided. Significantly, new definitions of Jewishness born of the original crisis of cultural classification acquired an unprecedented social force.

Of particular interest in this connection is the promulgation as early as 1436 of private and municipal statutes of “Cleanness of Blood.” The latter concept formally recast and stigmatized Jewishness as a matter of descent rather than of official religious status, much less of demonstrable belief and behavior. Equipped with this new notion of purity, “Old Christians” began to treat questions of morality and religious fealty as matters of familial heredity.

For their part, Jews acquired a correspondingly acute consciousness of their genealogy. In this they echoed some of their ancestors’ earlier fixation with the (allegedly) “noble” Judean pedigree of the Judeo-Andalusi group.  Eleazar Gutwirth has found evidence of a new genealogical turn in Jewish letters of introduction from the late 1300s and early 1400s. These letters differ from older ones in explicitly distinguishing between “good” Jewish families—that is to say, families whose members had not converted—and families sullied by Christianization.  A fateful message of the letters was that while Iberian Jews may share ethnicity, their differing fealty to God rendered them essentially separate. What now mattered for purposes of determining a Jew’s character as a Jew, was not only the quality of his or her behavior as an observer of mitzvot, but the caliber of his or her yichus.

Paradoxically, the highly-charged environment of religious propaganda that preceded and accompanied the mass conversions, and continued until the final expulsion of Iberian Jews in 1492-1498, pulled Jewish discourse on identity in a non-genealogical direction as well: Jewish intellectuals echoed the terms in which the Christian debate against “Judaism” painted Jewish culture. Specifically, whether for purposes of debate or true conviction, or both, some Jewish intellectuals tacitly adopted the Christian definition of the Jews’ way of life as a “faith” founded on theological propositions, and hence analogous to Christianity. Evidence of this internalization includes subtle rhetorical turns whereby Jewish polemicists conveyed that Jewish culture is a kind of faith-based theology defensible via rational argument or intuition, and in that sense a sort of inverted mirror-image of Christianity, rather than the self-evidently valid and exclusive way of life of a people per se. In this understanding, Jewish “faith” did not follow solely from the prior existence of a people subject for centuries to a legal covenant with God, but from the absolute “Truth” of Judaic theology, especially the revelation at Sinai and the prophetic messages of the Hebrew Bible.

In one respect, this shift in emphasis was to be expected. Anti-Jewish polemics, riots, and the resulting mass conversions of Iberian Jews radically restructured relations between Jews and Christians in the Spain of the late Reconquista. Explicitly defending Jewish culture against the claims of an ascendant Christianity was now an existential priority for Jews. Relativistic arguments along the lines of “Each person may be saved in his or her own [religious] law” could scarcely withstand Anti-Judaism’s aggressive, zero-sum approach.

Francisco de Goya, ‘Escena de Inquisición,’ 1812-1819 (Photo: Wikipedia)

We must also consider that Sephardi Jews’ portrayal of their culture as a theologically-grounded and logically validated “faith” was nothing new. In fact, the portrayal far antedated the persecutions of the late Middle Ages. Arguably, the rabbis of the Mishnah and both Gemaras had already configured “the Life of Torah” as a kind of philosophy, albeit far from a systematic one. At any rate, modern scholarship has frequently noted affinities between the Tannaitic and Amoraic groups on one hand, and Hellenic philosophical schools, especially the Stoics, on the other. Greek philosophy likewise shaped the thought of Philo, Sa’adia Gaon, and several other important late antique and early medieval Jewish writers. More significant from the standpoint of this essay is that Greco-Arabic thought had a shaping influence on Sephardi intellectuals of the Middle Ages. We may view the long-running struggle between Maimonideans and traditionalists in high medieval Provençe and the Iberian Peninsula in this light. One of the main foci of the Maimonidean controversy was, to greatly simplify, whether Jews’ faith should be anchored primarily on an intuitive apprehension of an abstract, divine Truth via the traditional study of holy texts and halakhic performance, or on the rationalistic study of both nature and Jewish traditions.

On one extreme of the philosophical spectrum, some Sephardi and Judeo-Provençal thinkers argued for a sharp differentiation between the spirit of Halakhah, which they accepted, and halakhic practice, which they allegedly neglected and ridiculed. This distinction approximated the dualism and the repudiation of Jewish law that still undergird Christianity. Among the claims characteristic of this tendency among Jewish intellectuals were that the Torah should not be read literally, as its true meaning was allegorical; thus, for instance, the patriarchs Abraham and Sarah should be read as the Aristotelian categories of form and matter; the twelve tribes of Israel as the signs of the zodiac; and the four kings mentioned in Genesis 14:1 as the four elements.

In order to fully understand how and why dualistic notions of “Judaism” implicated themselves into the discourse of Jews and judeoconversos in the late Reconquista, it is useful keep in mind the intellectual precedents just surveyed. However, we must also return to the fact that the perceptual shifts in question took place in the context of a bitter confrontation with Christianity throughout the realms of Castile and Aragon. A poignant illustration of this phenomenon is a letter that the Aragonese scholar Yehoshua ha-Lorki sent circa 1400 to his erstwhile teacher, the former Shlomo ha-Levi, who had by then become the prominent cleric Pablo de Santa María.

In his letter, ha-Lorki considers several of his teacher’s possible motives for converting, including greed, hedonism, despair at the continued misery of the Jewish people in exile, and openness to the seductive appeal of pure philosophical rationalism. After examining and discounting these motives one by one, ha-Lorki concludes that his former master must instead have become convinced of the truth of the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, “and that all the prophecies that speak of the Messiah and the redemption fully conform with his particulars; that is to say with his birth, death, and his resurrection.”In other words, ha-Lorki calculated that the sagacious ha-Levi had become intellectually persuaded by Christian exegesis and theology—the very foundations of anti-Jewish polemics.

That a wise man of Israel had accepted Christians’ allegorical reading of the Tanakh filled ha-Lorki with “surging doubts” and “horror.” And yet ha-Lorki was ideologically closer to Christianity than he cared to admit. We know this because, as Benjamin Gampel has noted, the author described his wayward teacher as a master of “two Torahs.” By this the pupil did not mean torah she bi-ktav and torah she be-al peh. Rather, ha-Lorki meant the Torah and the Christians’ holy scriptures. In a word, ha-Lorki had internalized the standard Christian understanding of divine revelation, according to which God had given humanity two “laws,” the Old Testament and the New. Notice also that ha-Lorki made reference to Jesus’ “resurrection” without qualification, as if tacitly assenting to the claim that Jesus had indeed conquered death.

It may well be the case that ha-Lorki was the same man who later converted to Christianity and became the anti-Jewish activist Gerónimo de Santa Fe. If so, we can surmise that the psychological pressure of his master’s defection—and Christian aggression and political success in general—weighed heavily on ha-Lorki’s understanding of Jewish culture. But even if we were to prove conclusively that the letter writer was not the person who became Gerónimo de Santa Fe, his anguished letter is nonetheless a significant sign of change in the way that at least some learned Iberian Jews understood their identity. Simply put, the writer implied that Jewish culture was founded upon an “old” revelation, one threatened by the intellectual force and evident worldly success of a “new” and possibly “true” dispensation.

Ha-Lorki’s tacit adoption of this premise represents a critical concession to anti-Judaism. To put it simply, Jews could look around them, survey the ruin of Jewish life in the Hispano-Christian realms, and find in the zero-sum relationship between the “old” and the “new” religions a compelling description of reality. No appeal to Jews’ collective memory—to their ancestral inheritance, to God’s exclusive promises to the Jewish nation—and to evidence of Jewish wellbeing outside of Castile and Aragon could then fully allay such an apprehension. By the very terms of the debate that their Christian assailants had forced Jews to join, Judaism must therefore be invalid. Articulate converts such as Pablo de Santa María and Gerónimo de Santa Fe often argued as much. To them, baptism was a politically obvious choice. The wide disparity of coercive power between a persecuting faith-community par excellence, and their ethno-religious community of origin, was blatant. By joining the Christian body of believers, these men partook of the latter’s full control over the agenda of inter-group relations.

Sophisticated turncoats, though, were far from the only ones who adopted the language of “religion,” “truth,” and “belief” to describe Jewish culture. Jewish intellectuals who imperiled their lives by defending their community publicly did so as well. Let us look for example at the delegation of rabbis who participated under duress in the Tortosa Disputation (1413-1414). Shlomo ibn Verga’s idealized account of the event has the Jewish representatives addressing to (Anti-)Pope Benedict XIII the following rebuke of their Christian counterpart, none other than Gerónimo de Santa Fe:

Does [Friar Gerónimo] believe that we stubbornly adhere to our religion [dateynu—literally, “our decree”] because of the successes and royal dignity that is due to us by upholding it today? Government, power, and honor are yours, as we have seen today; and from the day we came [here], your greatness and importance we have seen. We have not held on to this Torah but because our Torah was given to us in the presence of 600,000, with great miracles and the revelation of the glory of God, and we think [lit. thought] that we do not have the authority to abandon it [latzet mimena], except when He who gave it will come Himself and say to us: ‘Believe in so-and-so!’ And not when Gerónimo will come to us and say: ‘Abandon it!’

It is noteworthy that before issuing the above-quoted response, the members of the Jewish delegation at Tortosa had allegedly appealed to the Pope’s forbearance with a different complaint: As Jews, they argued, they were not accustomed to debating Christians; they did not occupy themselves with the “syllogism and logic” that Gerónimo was now employing against them, but rather relied on their “tradition” for guidance. All the same, the coercive framework of the disputation forced them to construct a counter-polemic comprehensible to their hostile interlocutors. In doing so they translated and thus reconfigured aspects of their culture into non-Jewish terms.


In 1492, the expulsion of Jews from Castile and Aragon brought to an end a century of acrimony between Jews and Christians in those realms. New Christians were left radically isolated from their Jewish relatives, indeed from any other living source of Jewish culture. Even if judeconversos wished to cultivate some secret identity worthy of the name “Jewish,” the difficulty of doing so was nearly insurmountable.

As the 16th century progressed, these conditions did not change substantially. A few Jewish texts were available to educated conversos, as were a few scraps of practical Jewish knowledge that handfuls of Jewish travelers managed to bring into the peninsula. Ultimately, however, Spanish conversos had no choice but to become deeply Christianized and Hispanicized. Those among them who had not been reared as openly-professing Jews could scarcely develop anything more than vague and distorted notions of Jewish life. This is not to say that some conversos did not exhibit patterns of dissidence as well as a sense of alienation. But as regards nonconformity, many if not most instances of “Judaizing” discovered after the brutal inquisitorial purges of 1480-1530 appear to be little more than figments of a quasi-Jewish anti-Christianity, so to speak. Much of the concrete substance of “Judaizing” consisted of ideas and practices derived from the “Old Testament” (not the Hebrew Bible), anti-Jewish works, and inquisitorial and other Christian religious propaganda, including some propaganda that preserved ethnological traces of Hispano-Jewish life. In several cases inquisitorial persecution itself, and not the burning embers of a “remembered faith,” was what suscitated the practice of various forms of religious heterodoxy among judeoconversos.

One does not need to accept the position that the Holy Office perpetrated a grand, centuries-long hoax to see that many if not most specific accusations of “Jewish” ritual performance leveled against New Christians focused on mere ethnological details, such as avoiding pork, that are neither violations of Canon Law nor make anyone a Jew in halakhic or even biblical terms. New Christians’ real or alleged theological violations, by contrast, go to the heart of our problem. The language that Old and New Christians employed to describe these latter infringements is not only reminiscent of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the period of the mass conversions. The language also underscores the fact that toward the 16th century, the concept of a soul-saving Jewish “faith” in the Christian mold became fully ingrained as the chief marker of real and imagined judeoconverso difference in a society that had entirely rid itself of Jews.

Historians have treated the phenomenon of anti-converso rhetoric from the 15th to the 17th centuries at length. Suffice it here to note that the focal point of the opprobrium was the “vomit of Judaism” (cf. II Pet. 2:22) to which judeoconversos were allegedly wont to return.  For instance, in 1449, the New Christian Bishop Alonso de Cartagena (1384-1456) wrote:

As one must proceed … against those who wish to break the unity of the Church and reintroduce the differences of carnal origin that Christ annulled, in the same way one must suppress very energetically those who, purified by the water of baptism, return to the vomit of Judaism, because the purity of the Christian religion, and the ultra-pure novelty of the evangelical law does not tolerate any rust, dregs, and bad customs of the old Judaism…; on the contrary, it detests all Judaization…

As the above quotation suggests, Bishop Cartagena, the son of Pablo de Santa María, vehemently opposed legislation that barred New Christians from public office and other honors on the basis of their Jewish ancestry. His point here was that Jewish blood and impure religion—by implication, Judaism—should not be conflated (yet notice that the Bishop conflates “Judaism” and “Judaizing,” thereby indicating his internalization of a Christian idea of Jewishness). To avoid this error, the Bishop proposed that Christians disassociate Jewish kinship and ethnicity from Jews’ socio-religious identity.

An interesting antipode to this position is the following fragment of a poem entitled “Comparison of the Old Law.” Its author was Cartagena’s allegedly New Christian contemporary, Juan de Mena (1411-1456). Here the poet presents Jewish kinship—symbolized by the motif of Jewish marriage—and a pure, sanctifying Jewish law, as coterminous:

Primero siendo cortadas
las uñas y los cabellos,
podían casar entre ellos
sus cativas aforradas
los judíos; y linpiadas,
fazer las ysraelitas
puras, linpias y benditas,
a su ley consagradas.

First the nails and hair
being cut,
the Jews could marry
their swathed captives amongst themselves;
and, [once] cleansed,
make the Israelite women
pure, clean, and blessed,
unto their law consecrated.

Mena’s poem paints Jewish endogamy, and by extension trans-generational Jewish identity, as a corollary of observing the physical minutiae of Jewish law. In this respect he captures something of the traditional interconnection between Jewish kinship and Jewish legal and behavioral norms. However, Mena departs from anti-Jewish rhetoric by not condemning those norms and attendant rituals as means to attaining holiness. Paradoxically, in this he echoes Cartagena’s understanding of Christianity as a law that served to cleanse the individual Jew of impurity and thus bring him or her to an elevated existential state.

This underlying similarity between the Bishop’s concept of Christianity and the poet’s view of Jewish law anticipates yet another shift in judeoconversos’ conception of Jewish culture, irrespective of whether they viewed it through hostile lenses, as Cartagena did, or relatively benign lenses, as Mena did. Where we encounter it in New Christian writing of the late 15th and 16th centuries, Jews’ distinctiveness now usually appears as the symbolic entity, “Judaism”—a “Law of Moses” parallel and opposite to the “Law of Grace” (or “The Law of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” or “The Law of Our Holy Mother, the Church”). In this understanding, Judaism’s function is identical to that of Christianity, namely to purify and thus save the individual souls of believers.

Inquisitorial edicts of faith painted precisely that “Law of Moses” in bright, didactic colors. Yet, several of the confessions from that period still carry a considerable verisimilitude, for they depict in spontaneous-sounding language ethnological practices that baptism by itself could scarcely eliminate. In any case, the defendants could still witness or remember Jews’ performance of these practices, and so could confess, sincerely or otherwise, to having undertaken the practices themselves. For instance, in April of 1486, Constanza Nuñez begged forgiveness from inquisitors for, among other things, preparing tables for mourners, ritually bathing the bodies of deceased household members, and donating oil to a synagogue. Yet, she declared that she had done these things “in recognition of the Law of Moses, thinking that doing them would help me to be saved” (emphasis added). Inquisitorial rhetoric had left its mark.

The stress of early testimony such as Nuñez’s usually fell on behavior, not on inner convictions per se. This is logical given that the testimony concerned a population of recent converts whose lives before baptism had been characterized by an all-encompassing way of life anchored in the practice of law, consonant with the phrase, na’aseh ve-nishma. The idea of individual soul-salvation by means of the Law of Moses, however, was a new element in the denunciations and confessions alike. In time, that element became the ideological focus of edicts of faith as well as of countless accusations and admissions of crypto-“Judaism.” Inquisitors focused on the theological aspect with persistence, and obtained the hackneyed and monotonous responses they sought. Here is one from 1590:

Mari Lopes told [the defendant, Isabel de la Vega while] in her house to keep the Law of Moses … and that she should abandon the Law of Jesus Christ and keep the Law of Moses, which was good for saving the soul …

Asked if [she] held the Law of Moses as good for [purposes of] saving one’s soul … She said that since …Mari Lopes told her it was good, this confessant held the Law of Moses to be good, and believed that she would be saved in said Law of Moses …

Not that all the confessions were entirely formulaic (the rest of Isabel de la Vega’s was not). Some were trustworthy, some were not; some were ambiguous, and many more defy easy characterization. What interests me here, though, is their increasing focus on a concept of the “Law of Moses” as the dark, decrepit correspondent of Christianity.

By the 16th century and well into the 17th, Old and New Christians had become accustomed to relying heavily on that concept. They spoke of “Judaism” and “Judaizing” as though they were synonymous, and often described both as a matter of faith in a few theological propositions accompanied by the performance of simple rites, such as fasting and omitting the names of Jesus, the Saints, and the Holy Spirit while praying. A pivotal implication of this view was that a person who merits the title “Jew” is not only someone who belongs to the Jewish ethnos per se, but someone of any background who believes in “Judaism” therefore “Judaizes” by practicing “ceremonies of the Jews” as the Inquisition understood them.

A societal fixation on tainted lineage as the determinant of Jewishness does not seem to have unsettled the hegemonic understanding of Jewishness in the Iberian Peninsula as a matter of internal, personal faith distinct from ethnicity. A telling example is that of the Holy Office. The Spanish tribunals adopted blood-cleanliness as a requirement of entry for all its functionaries in the 16th century, thereby excluding potential recruits who could not prove that their lineage was free of Jews or Moors. Inquisitorial protocols themselves were designed to extract extensive genealogical information from detainees. One of the first things that suspects had to state under interrogation was their “stock and origin.” If the suspects admitted that they were New Christians, this reinforced an inquisitorial presumption of Judaizing. All the same, the Holy Office prosecuted and convicted several alleged Judaizers who declared that they were Old Christians. In other words, the conceptual separation of kinship and religion held firm. What mattered is what a defendant believed—or was “found” to believe—about God and salvation.

Portuguese and, to a lesser extent, Spanish New Christians established themselves across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as a highly successful trading nation in the mid-17th century. Those among them who became Jews in exile from the Peninsula articulated variants of the idea that the Law of Moses is a saving faith distinct from ethnicity, and enshrined that idea as the theological crown of their newly Judaicized ethno-polities, namely, the kehillot of New Jews in the Western Diaspora. Civic leaders and cultural luminaries of New Jewish cohort were especially instrumental in defining, propagating, and glorifying this notion. With such titles as Israel Avenged  and The Excellences of the Hebrews, the works of newly Judaicized polemicists of the 1600s may be viewed as attempts by their authors to repudiate their earlier Christian educations. Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, these writers transvalued and exalted precisely the Christian concept of the Law of Moses that was an ideological and social taboo in their native lands. Hence, for example, Isaac Orobio de Castro’s La observancia de La divina Ley de Mosseh (mid-17th century) devoted much attention to the question of soul-salvation through divine law and not divine grace. In Orobio’s words, “Christianity is not the means that God proposed to Israel in order to save it”; rather, “This is the true means for salvation: to return to God” by observing the Law of Moses, “for which He helps us with internal inspirations, or with holy persuasions. …” Orobio’s diction, like that of other New Jewish polemicists who responded to Christian provocations or wished to preempt them was but a token of the relatively novel idea that “Judaism” is the Jews’ salvific “religion,” a “faith” commensal, yet ultimately distinct from their overarching nationality.

In keeping with the ingrained dualism under discussion, the Hebrews of the Portuguese and Spanish Nation, as the New Jews styled themselves, understood their ethnicity as commensal with the Law of Moses, yet unique and independent from it. Hence, they considered New Christians who professed Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Old Christians who married New Christians, or who participated in the nação’s trading networks, as members of the national collective. The bottom line is that white adult men of Iberian origin could at least aspire to become part of the Nation irrespective of their internal convictions and public religious profession. The key was forging a social, economic, and/or familial connection to the ethnic collective. Yet, by the same token, Old Christians who died at the stake professing their “Judaism” became heroic symbols of the “Judaism” to which New Jews of the Nation committed themselves publicly. Ethnicity and religion, then, had become parallel and competing elements of identity thanks to the judeoconversos’ internalization of Ibero-Christian models.

About a century after the publication of Orobio, Moses Mendelssohn configured a new model of Jewish identity in terms similar to those that undergirded the Nation’s self-understanding. Mendelsohn’s “Judaism” was akin to the official faith of the Judeo-Portuguese and Judeo-Spanish Nation outside the “lands of Idolatry” in that it was a “religion” of internal conviction and reason of and for a specific ethnos. Mendelssohn was confident that Jews would freely embrace their heritage once freed from the bonds of a halakhically-configured and politically autonomous community. Later still, advocates of Reform(ed) Judaism would argue explicitly that they had evolved out of Jewish peoplehood and now comprised a religious group alone.

Needless to say, the historical conditions that gave rise to these outcomes varied radically from those that challenged and shaped the lives of peninsular New Christians and of the New Jews of the Western Sephardi Diaspora. The outcomes themselves varied dramatically as well. While proponents of Jewish Enlightenment at the dawning Modern Period sought to subsume Jewish nationality or even disown it under the banner of religion, the Men of the Nation built and zealously maintained their communal institutions and their ethno-political autonomy as a framework for their nationality, sometimes essentializing the latter to such an extent that they treated Judeo-Portuguese and Judeo-Spanish nationhood as an innate bodily inheritance.

The historical terrain I have skimmed here brings the reasons for this into focus. For centuries, metaphysical dualism had encroached upon and made inroads in Hispano-Jewish intellectual life; then the Iberian churches, supported by the laity and by the Spanish and Portuguese monarchical states, had forcibly imposed that dualism upon judeoconversos. The nação grappled with this situation as best it could. Ultimately, the Men (and Women) of the Nation opted to exalt their ethnicity and clothe loosely it in religious garb. A lasting irony of this approach is that it failed to reknit together the qualities of kinship and religion quite as its most pious proponents desired. The nação’s circumscribed Law of Moses was never a sufficient social cement. As an imagined community, the Judeo-Portuguese and Judeo-Spanish Nation officially brandished its Bom Judesmo, or good (or proper) Judaism, yet in reality it always transcended religion, and comprised numerous genuine Christians, cultural commuters, skeptics, and simply undisciplined individuals. In this sense at least, the New Jews and their children were, as Yosef Kaplan’s work suggests, like modern Jews, secularists included, who feel their Jewish ethnicity in their bones, but who still regard “religion” in the narrow, Christian sense, as the distinctive Jewish trait and central point of reference, even in the breach.


This article is adapted from “The Fracturing of Jewish Identity in the Early Modern Jewish Diaspora: The Case of Judeoconversos,” as published in Paths to Modernity: A Tribute to Yosef Kaplan, edited by Avriel Bar-Levav, Claude B. Stuczynski, and Michael Heyd. Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher, Shazar.