Sephardic Conversion in 1492: Myth and Reality

 Solomon bar Samson, writing in about 1140, describes in graphic detail, the martyrdom of the Jews of the Rhineland in the First Crusade in 1096. Rather than submit to forced conversion to Christianity, the Jews of Ashkenaz are portrayed killing their children and themselves. They are zealous to die sanctifying God’s name. The Jewish martyrdom of the First Crusade became the stuff of legend, memory, and inspiration in the Ashkenazic world. The refusal to abandon Judaism in 1096 became a template for future responses to persecutions that the Jews endured.

Yitzhak Fritz Baer (1888-1980), the greatest historian of the Jews of Christian Spain and a professor at Hebrew University with roots in Germany, contrasted the folk piety of the Askenazic martyrs to the response of the Jews of Spain in 1492. While 100,000 Jews left Spain rather than convert to Catholicism by command of the monarchy, 50,000 Jews submitted to baptism. Baer believed that this was a sign of weakness and lack of faith brought on by the Sephardic Jewish heritage of the study of philosophy. The more insular Ashkenazim were far more faithful than the Jews of Spain.

But is this an accurate assessment? First, Solomon bar Samson’s account of Ashkenazic martyrdom was composed more than a generation after the events he describes. There is no doubt that he exaggerated the “folk piety” of martyrdom in the name of inspiring Jews to stand up for their faith—not to hand down an accurate historical account of the events as they occurred. While the Crusader slaughter of Rhineland Jews was brutal, most Jews did not die sanctifying God’s name. We know that Mainz, Speyer and Worms continued as viable communities for Jews and were not wiped out by murder or by martyrdom. With the continuing reality of persecution in the world of Ashkenaz, the legend of martyrdom in 1096 played an important role in communal memory and communal responses to persecution.

As for the Sephardic Jews, the argument that philosophy weakened their faith predates the historian Baer by a millennium. Judah Halevi (c.1075-1141) offered an insider’s critique of the Sephardic elite’s study of Aristotle in the Kuzari. The Poet of Zion believed that there was no need to reconcile Torah with philosophy since the Torah was divinely revealed by God at Mount Sinai. Judah Halevi’s was a minority opinion in the world in which he lived. The reality is that beginning in 1391, Christian Spain began a century-long campaign to convert Jews to Catholicism. While Jews did convert out of their own free will, friars with the support of the monarchy also pressured Jews into conversion against their will. It was this century-long campaign—not the study of Aristotle—that led to the mass conversion to Christianity in 1492. As well, there is no way Baer could ignore the reality that 100,000 Jews chose to leave Spain despite the dangers that it entailed.

Most troubling about Baer’s position is its implication for Jews today. Many Jews seem to think that the insularity of “folk piety” is the only true Judaism. The reality is far more complicated. Whether Philo or Saadya or Maimonides—Jewish thinkers have always been willing to face the philosophy and science of the day without sacrificing their faith. While there is much to admire in the zealotry for martyrdom described by Solomon bar Samson, defying the enemy can no longer be carried out by self-destruction. We must fight back. We must face the world. And we must embrace life and sanctify it.