His Story/ Her Story: To ban or not to ban?

Yosef Kaplan has written extensively about the Portugese Jewish world and explains that the governing board, or mahmad, was rather powerful and sought to regulate the behavior of its members.

Yosef Kaplan has written extensively about the Portugese Jewish community (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yosef Kaplan has written extensively about the Portugese Jewish community
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Leaving Iberia presented numerous problems for the conversos. After all, they had been baptized and had been living there as Catholics.
After the Expulsion of 1492 and the forced conversions of Portugal in 1497, the Peninsula no longer had a Jewish community. As as result, the generations of conversos to follow never experienced normative Jewish life. Those conversos who chose to leave their homeland had to make some difficult decisions.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Portuguese conversos began to appear in the city of Amsterdam, an attractive port for merchants and bankers. Once Holland gained its independence from Spain, it became a Protestant country devoid of a Jewish presence or any policy regarding the newcomers from Iberia.
These conversos were not returning to Judaism, but rather learning how to be Jews, turning to Venice and Salonikan leaders and rabbis for guidance in the early years. By the beginning of the 17th century, synagogues were established, although no official policy had been made; essentially, a de facto recognition of them had taken place.
Yosef Kaplan has written extensively about this community and explains that the governing board, or mahmad, was rather powerful and sought to regulate the behavior of its members. (See The Social Functions of the Herem in the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam in the 17th Century, Dutch Jewish History, 1984.) In 1622, a committee was established to deal with, among other things, possible excommunication for sins of a religious or moral nature.
Some men delayed undergoing circumcision in order to enable them to return to Iberia, most likely for business purposes. These journeys were deemed unacceptable; those returning from these “lands of idolatry” would be punished and forbidden to be called to the Torah in the synagogue for three years.
Some of these men did not have strong ties to the community, and did not seem to be dismayed at being excommunicated.
Kaplan informs us that one would be threatened with a ban for organizing a breakaway minyan or leaving one’s community to join a new one; for rejecting decisions made by the governing board; or for denigrating fellow members of the community. At the same time, the board controlled the kosher meat market as well as the publication of books. Kaplan discovered that there was pressure to shorten these bans, as well as to cancel them relatively quickly. Needless to say, there were the well-known cases of Baruch Spinoza and Juan de Prado, among the few to experience permanent bans, along with Uriel da Costa, who was excommunicated twice.
In addition, the board attempted to regulate family and sexual behavior.
Because so many of the males in this community were merchants, their businesses often required a considerable amount of travel. Cases were recorded of untoward visits by men to the homes of married women when their husbands were absent. In 1654, the visitor as well as the woman and her absentee husband were all excommunicated. Despite the negative reaction of the community, these visits continued; only 10 years later did this husband make an effort to have the ban removed.
A number of women seem to have been abandoned by their husbands, especially during the 18th century. Some of them became involved in scandalous behavior, which the leaders sought to control. One woman, whose husband had been forced to marry her while pregnant (although it seems the child was not his), was abandoned by him only to give birth to a son fathered by a married man – who also left her. Another’s husband went off to Suriname.
In addition to adultery, there seemed to have been clandestine marriages taking place without the required parental permission. Some were cases of seduction of poor girls; the very thought of premarital sex was shocking. Upon occasion, the groom was asked to take an oath stating that this was not the case, although an honest response was not always provided.
This community sought to regulate the behavior of its members to the best of its ability. Gambling was forbidden, as well as frequenting the stock market on Shabbat and other inappropriate behavior. The ban was used fairly freely by its leaders, but often for rather short periods of time.
The very threat of a ban may have deterred some of the Portuguese to reconsider their actions and recant – but quite a few, both men and women, did not seem to be fazed by these threats or by the bans themselves. ■ The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.