By Rabbi J. Bejarano-Gutierrez
Whether or not Conversos were actually sincere converts to Christianity or in fact crypto Jews appears to have not been a consideration in the attitude of Don Isaac Abravanel regarding the eschatological place and role of the former. While rabbinic responsa is key to understanding the halakhic decisions that were given in relation to a whole host of issues including the obligation of Conversos to levirate marriage, their eligibility to serve as witnesses, the kosher status of food handled by them, etc., the works of Abravanel provide a review of how Conversos could be perceived and how they may have seen themselves theologically. The writings of Abravanel regarding Conversos have often been interpreted as ambivalent at best or espousing the view that Conversos were in fact sincere converts. Whatever view is taken regarding the ultimate rationale behind the Conversos’ conversion to Christianity, their importance to Abravanel was anything but insignificant. Regarding this, Ram Ben Shalom boldly notes: “Abravanel assigns the conversos a central role in the Redemption.”
As an avid messianist, Abravanel interpreted Obadiah 1:20 to refer to the continued presence of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. The expulsion of Jews in 1492 complicated his views. The presence of Conversos in the Peninsula and the phenomena of crypto-Judaism provided a means of potentially resolving the theological complications resulting from the two expulsions. Abravanel posits regarding the passages in Obadiah that they “perhaps were also written about the sons of Israel who no longer practiced their religion as a result of the persecutions and destructions, and who stayed in France and Spain in the thousands and constituted large communities there. They would return to worship their G-d, as some are doing today, and by doing so the prophecy will be fulfilled.”
Yitzhak Baer believed that Abravanel’s writings were written to strengthen Jews and Conversos alike in their expectation of the messianic redemption. For Netanyahu, Abravanel’s writings at best referred to a small minority of Conversos who continued to practice Judaism clandestinely and hence Abravanel’s views on Conversos are irrelevant the realities of Converso life and adherence to Judaism. Abravanel certainly understood that Conversos could not be universally categorized as either sincere Christians as Netanyahu and Roth argue for, or as complete adherents to Jewish practice as depicted by Yitzhak Baer. He did however understand the underlying motivations for most conversions. Don Isaac Abravanel states:
“Because of the miseries, the condemnations, and the massacres by the enemies, they left the totality of the Law, and they thought to become like one of the people of the land.”
Conversos with regards to religious practice represented the full array from continued Jewish practice to a sincere adoption of Christianity. Nevertheless, Abravanel did understand that neither “class” was safe from Inquisitional scrutiny. “Those who believe in their faith, like those without belief, both are burned.”
Faur has designated four primary types of Conversos: the sincere convert to Christianity, the convert who remained faithful to Judaism, the individual who desired to partake of both identities, and those individuals who abandoned belief in either religious system and adopted for lack of a better term, philosophical inclinations that were largely anti-religious. I would argue there was a fifth category consisting of Conversos who simply did not know what do to in the midst of the circumstances they found themselves in and simply cobbled together a life from the circumstances they now faced. While Abravanel saw the last category of Conversos as minim for their abandonment of Jewish belief and theology, he also believed that these Averroistic Conversos served as subversive role which would undermine the foundations of Christian theology and in fact promote Jewish monotheism. In his Yeshuot Meshiho, Abravanel stated:
“When a man subscribes to no faith, when he is void of religion, he will more easily accept the true religion than will someone else who follows a rival faith. Thus, it was G-d’s wisdom that before the arrival of the messiah and the revelation of G-d’s faith, the entire Kingdom will be afflicted with heresy.”
Many Conversos then resigned themselves to their status as “New Christians,” and they abandoned Jewish praxis for practical reasons. Again Don Isaac Abarbanel states:
“They don’t observe G-d’s laws, rituals, and commandments for fear of the Gentiles. Lest they [the Christians] should say that since now they form part of them and their society, if they observe the laws of Israel they would be killed as sectarians and heretics.”
Yet their attachment to their new faith was often empty as well. Abarbanel relates: “And they don’t observe the religion of the Gentiles, because they don’t believe in their religion.”  For those that remained in the realm of Christian belief, the questions raised by Conversos about Christian doctrines such as image worship, the cult of saints, and classical Christian approaches to interpreting Scripture heralded the very same issues that were brought to the forefront of the Protestant Reformation.
These Conversos were players in a cosmic play ultimately determined by G-d. The play according to Ben-Shalom was the ongoing development of civilization in its understanding of the Divine and in the ultimate acknowledgment of the G-d of Israel. Even false religions played a part in this process. For Abravanel, the then current state of religious affairs, among Jews as well as among Christians and Muslims pointed to a growing theological crisis. The Talmud noted that the “son of David will not come until the entire Kingdom is afflicted with heresy.” For Abravanel, the process was unfolding before his very eyes and in a rather strange observation he points to the corruption of the Christian priesthood as evidence of heresy spreading.
“The perfect one [Rabbi Yitzhak] said that until the entire kingdom shall be inflicted with heresy, meaning all the nations of the world, in general, and in particular the wicked kingdom. He is possibly speaking of Rome [all of Christianity] as where the number of heretics will increase, as we see happening today in the kingdom of Spain [Sepharad] where the heretics and apostates in their various countries have increased, and where they are burned in the many thousands because of their heresy, and when all the priests and archbishops of Rome seek to enrich themselves and take bribes, and are not concerned with the fate of their religion for they too are branded with heresy. It is also possible that he meant here the Ishmaelite nation…”
The role assigned by Abravanel to the Conversos was long term and could be related to the role that Queen Esther had filled. But Queen Esther was not the only example that the Bible offered with respect to dissimulation. The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac had both been deceptive regarding their marital status for fear that the Egyptians and Philistines would kill them to take their wives. In doing so they had gained favor for themselves and saved themselves and their households. In another example often forgotten, the newly healed Assyrian officer Naaman acknowledged the G-d of Israel as the one true G-d and nevertheless asked Elisha the prophet for permission to “bow” while entering the temple of his master in what would appear to be an idolatrous act for the sake of his position in his master’s court.
But it is in the key players of early Christianity that Conversos may have actually found the most amazing examples of subversion, self sacrifice, and divine purpose. Jewish tradition first rooted in the polemical work Toldot Yeshu and thereafter supported by a number rabbis saw individuals such as Peter and Paul, the early founders of Christianity as having lived double lives. On the surface these individuals had clearly abandoned Judaism and had founded a movement that while based on Jewish ideas had quickly veered from its Jewish origins. Their purpose, in sacrificing their identity as Jews, was to insure that the new movement was sufficiently distinct from Judaism and insure the welfare and continued existence of the Jewish people. While there are many examples a few should suffice should the depth of the views on the matter. Simon Peter was in fact Rabbi Simon Kaipha who had only feigned conversion to Christianity for the purpose of rising to its leadership. As leader he replicated the miracles of Jesus and used his power to insure that a clear separation between Judaism and Christianity would arise, since in its early days the distinctions were not so clear. In addition, he converted and gained reigns of the movement to insure that Jews would not be murdered by Christians. According to one source, another key objective of the dissimulating Peter was to insure that forced conversions would not be enacted.
“From now on, you shall not force [one] to adopt your faith and be coerced to undergo baptism, unless he does so voluntarily. If you would force the Jews to convert to your religion, they might understand that your religion is not good. Thus, each one who converts should do so by his free will. And even if he says that he comes of his own will, he will only be accepted after he has sat for thirty days in the home of good people; and any child younger than nine years of age you shall not receive since he cannot understand what it is he does.”
Ben-Shalom notes that Simon Peter appears to be the first figure in Jewish sources serving as a false convert. His actions embody the idea of mitzvah habah b’averah, the view that a commandment can be fulfilled through a transgression. According to these legendary sources, while Simon Peter acted as pope of Christianity, he clandestinely maintained his links to the Jewish community and even authored several liturgical poems that are part of the synagogue liturgy. In what appears to be a counter-story to a passage in the Pauline epistle to the Romans in which he declares his willingness to lose his own soul ‘that Israel might be saved,’ one version of the Toldot Yeshu it is said “It is preferable to lose Shimon and one hundred others like him than to lose one Jewish soul.” A parallel story can also be found for Paul under an individual named Eliyahu.
Perhaps the most striking example of a covert emissary is the mystical story of a Jewish pope which perhaps more than the examples of Peter or Paul appear much more connected to the Converso experience. The story appears likely based on the actual case of Pope Anacletus II (1130-1138) whose parents were Jewish converts to Christianity. Despite their conversion and his studies, accusations were levied against him that he stole from the Church and distributed holy vessels to Jews. According to the story, a child named Elchanan was kidnapped by a Christian servant. Elchanan was the son of Rabbi Simon the Great of Mainz. The story relates that Elchanan was raised by nuns and grew up to become a great scholar until he was elected as Pope. Despite his rearing, Elchanan was cognizant of his Jewish background and believed he was fulfilling some kind of Divine mission. Unbeknownst to him the mission was to protect Jews from Christian oppression. Elchanan surrounded himself with Jewish advisors and his beneficence towards Jews was unequaled. Like many Conversos, Elchanan remained Christian because of his important position and his property. When, according to the story, Elchanan met his father he asked the following:
“Father, can you tell me if there is hope for me after this life? Will G-d have mercy on me? Rabbi Shimon answered: ‘My dear son! Purge this concern from your heart for you were a forced convert [anus], and while still a boy you were taken from your father and your faith.’ ‘But father!’ his son continued, ‘I have long known that I was born a Jew and in spite of this I have continued to live among the gentiles to this very day. The comforts I had were what kept me from returning to the true G-d. Will G-d forgive me?’ Simon answered: ‘Nothing stands in the way of repentance [teshuba].’”
There are various alternate endings to the story. One version has Elchanan returning to Mainz and living openly as a Jew. Before doing so he writes a polemical work undermining Christianity and orders that all successors to the papacy read this work. Another version ends with Elchanan committing an act of suicide right after declaring his rejection of Christianity.
Conversos knowingly or unknowingly had examples they could draw on some measure of comfort in. But the weight of their conversions would nevertheless weigh heavy on many and hence we find the Converso Fernando de Madrid relating to a Jew close to 1481 that the messiah would not appear until forced converts atoned for their sin. When the messiah did appear, he would appear in Seville, the initial center of Inquisitional activity and severely hit with executions and punishments.
The philosophical leanings of many Conversos and the spread of Averroism subversively were to some extent buttressed by the work of Alonso de Espina who authored Alborayque. The book was a reference to the mythical mount of Mohammed which was a hybrid of various creatures. The Conversos as far as de Espina and other Spaniards were concerned, were nothing more than subversive hybrids that did not adhere to Catholic teaching or observe Catholic practices, with the possible exceptions of birth and death rituals. The seditious aims were evident de Espina argued in their acquiring public offices and most seriously their entrance into the priesthood with the intent of learning the secrets of Christianity. Conversos becoming doctors were also positioned to murder Christians, sully pure Spanish blood by marrying Christian women, and inheriting Old Christian fortunes. Oddly enough then, Christian notions of a Converso conspiracy may have only served to justify in the minds of many Conversos their nominal lives as Christians.
The complicated nature of Abravanel’s view of Conversos was most certainly formed through his intimate contact with various Conversos at court. During his tenure as head accountant for Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, the second duke of the Infantado and during his support in financing the final military campaign against Granada, Abravanel interacted with a number of prominent Conversos. This interaction may have possibly led to the very unique perspective regarding both the situations that Conversos faced as well as the underlying hope and assumption that many in fact remained aligned with and united with the Jewish people.
To highlight this, Ben-Shalom points to Abravanel’s interpretation of a biblical passage dealing with the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah as related in II Kings 18 and in a second passage Isaiah 45:15. In the first passage an Assyrian emissary named Rabshakeh approached Jerusalem in an attempt to persuade the city to surrender. Rabshakeh began his entreaty by noting that G-d Himself, had ordained Sennacherib’s conquest. Most significant is his address in Hebrew, to the dismay of Hezekiah’s courtiers, and not in Aramaic. The ministers pleaded with Rabshakeh to converse with them in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. Rabshakeh ignored their request and now changed his tone by claiming that just as the gods of other peoples had abandoned them, so too would the G-d of Israel. Ben-Shalom notes that the Talmud first posits the view that Rabshakeh was in fact an apostate Israelite (yisrael mumar). Rashi also added to this view in stating that Rabshakeh was a deserter to Judaism as is evident in his acknowledgement of the G-d of Israel, but nevertheless promoted idolatry. What is most significant however with regards to the connection to Conversos is Rashi’s further elaboration on the story. According to Rashi, Hezekiah’s ministers Eliakim, Sebna, Joah while asking Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic and not in Hebrew, nevertheless did not believe that as a deserter that he meant to induce fear among the populace. The three ministers, Rashi posited, believed that his familial ties would prove strong enough to convince him of agreeing to their request. Abravanel however, believed that the reason for the minister’s request was not related to the fear it would induce. It was instead related to concern for Rabshakeh’s own precarious situation which was eerily and most certainly not coincidental comparison to the plight of Conversos in his own day.
“It was not appropriate to see Rabshakeh speaking in the Jewish language, for he would appear to them as a Jew, especially because of what he spoke for he spoke of the shrines out of respect for G-d, and also said that G-d had told him to go up and destroy [Jerusalem]. All this shows that while he was a convert, he was [still] a believer in the L-RD our G-d, who shall be blessed. And this is not appropriate [behavior] for someone who has left [his] religion, since he acted like an Aramean [but] spoke in the language of the Jews, and the convert in appearing before the gentiles should protect himself from suspicion. And they hinted at this saying, ‘do not speak with us in a Jewish [language] within earshot of the people on the city wall,’ [Kings 2, 18, 26], as if they were concerned for his reputation.”
Abravanel’s unique interpretation placed concern for the convert’s safety as paramount important. While Abravanel did not explicitly reference Conversos, the connection is clear and examples comparable to the situation above. Two individuals stand out as examples. Diego Arias Davila and Pedro de la Caballeria were both victims of the Inquisition. Davila had been financier and counsel to the King of Castile. Davila was accused posthumously of having been conversant in Hebrew and of reading the Book of Psalms in Hebrew with other Jews. He was also accused of meeting Jews regularly in the street and meeting with them in their homes and singing in Hebrew.
In the case of Pedro de la Caballeria who had converted in 1414 in the aftermath of the great Tortosa debate appeared as both an advocate of the Jewish people as well as an adversary. In a case that undermines the contention that the Inquisition did not exert jurisdiction over Jews, Caballeria was accused of participating in Shabbat dinners in the homes of Jews. In them he was able to participate actively in the associated blessings and also conversed in Hebrew on various biblical topics. When one of the persons present confronted Caballeria over his rush to convert, Caballeria purported retorted that as a Jew he could only have achieved the office of rabbi, but now as a Converso, he was one of the leading advisors to the city. Caballeria credited his success to the “little crucified one” and noted that no one could protest against his observance of the Yom Kippur fast or of all the holidays if he chose. Ben-Shalom notes that since the episode is based upon Inquisitional records. Nevertheless, proficiency in Hebrew as a continued sign of allegiance to the Jewish people was apparently perceived by Inquisitional authorities as a viable evidence. Abravanel in contrast to Rabbi David Kimchi and Gersonides also presented an arguable favorable explanation regarding Rabshakeh’s closing derogatory comments regarding G-d.
“Take note that in the first words which Rabshakeh spoke to Eliakim and his friend, nothing was said against G-d, the Blessed One, and he [Rabshakeh] showed in his remarks that because he was of Jewish seed, he spoke out of respect for G-d…And so “Eliakim kept him to his word and told him not to speak with us in the Jewish language in earshot of the people, which meant that for the sake of his reputation they advised him not speak the Jewish language for fear that he would be suspected of being a son of Israel in his faith. [Thus] in order to remove suspicion, Rabshakeh stood and railed against the people with the other words, which did not respect G-d as did the first things he had said. Instead, he cursed G-d and blasphemed him saying that his concerns and his power were like those of the gods of the idolaters; all this in order to remove suspicion from himself, because he was a Jewish convert.”
In the case of Caballeria’s father, this story may have been a striking comparison though it is unclear. His father authored a polemical work against Judaism, Islam, and heresy. Alfonso was ultimately accused of assassinating an Inquisitor, and charge which he was eventually absolved from by the pope. At his trial he was accused of holding favorable views towards Jews and providing them with assistance clandestinely. He was said to have an ongoing relationship with Rabbi Isaac de Leon and also was said to possess Jewish books. Caballeria was also accused by a Jew of possessing a charm given to him by a Sicilian rabbi, while another Jewish witness testified he had successfully dissuaded him from converting to Christianity. While caution regarding Inquisitional records should be noted, the fact that Jewish witnesses attested to several incriminating instances is quite compelling as to some continued connection on the part of Caballeria.
Whether or not Abravanel’s interpretation of Rabshakeh was influenced by his knowledge of Alfonso de la Caballeria and others is unclear as Ben-Shalom notes. But assuming that Abravanel simply wanted to believe that many Conversos were in fact uniquely positioned to help the Jewish people as a consequence of their or their parents’ conversion or that many of them actively retained Jewish practices to the best of their ability is refutable. A letter written by the Jewish community of Saragossa in the first half of the 15the century refers to Converso serving as the ambassador of the King of Aragon in foreign territory. The individual had undergone baptism as a child during the mass conversions of 1391. The Jewish community’s clear support for this Converso is quite clear and eerily similar to Abravanel’s characterization of Rabshakeh.
“And in order to be liked by all who see him and achieve the goal of his mission, he would give expression to his wisdom, would speak [and] publish pronouncements before the gentiles in accordance to their ways, and would sometimes ask Jewish scholars to come hear his preaching. He is nimble [Heb. Zariz] and very careful not to speak anything negative about the seed of Jacob. On the contrary, he will bring them to love us, and no strengthen those who strike us illegally, because he is a wise and, smart man. And if sometimes speaks a few [harsh] words, they do not hurt or destroy; he says them only to flatter publicly. And because some if the less regarded [class] of our time think that this commandment [of helping the Jews] is fulfilled by a transgression, and it would not be right to assist them in any way, we write these words of ours to you as a legal precedent: our opinion is that we are commanded to satisfy their [the converts’] wishes [in order] to guard the derelict, broken, remaining remnants that are dispersed among the –Christian]. A little here, a little there…and so do well by him, for that is what we do.”
In this most striking passage, the mitzvah of assisting and protecting Jews is applied to this Converso despite the complicated actions of the individual. Abravanel’s positions are reflective of his eschatological view that the Conversos would one day return openly to Judaism. In the mean time, their precarious position, caught between two worlds even after conversion pointed to the emptiness of Christianity. The peculiar dilemma of the Conversos can be further related in the story presented by Abravanel.
“And there was a wise man of our people who changed his religion; overcome by seething waters, he became a Christian. After his conversion those who loved him, and were his friends asked him, what do you think of these religions, all of whose ways you have experienced, and he replied to them: I have truly seen a world turned upside down, because as a Jew, I did not see G-d, for no mortal man may see him and live [Exodus 33:20]. However, he always sees me, as it is said: can a man hide in any secret place and I not see him? [Jeremiah 23:24]. After I converted to Christianity, it was the opposite, because I see G-d many times each day, yet he does not see me, for he has eyes, but does not see. And I think this is what the prophet meant in saying: verily thou art a G-d that hidest thyself.”
The Conversos as Ben-Shalom notes is an expert witness who can testify to the veracity of or lack there of Christianity. Once again, Abravanel’s portrayal of the realization that some Conversos faced can be corroborated in Inquisitional documents which reveal subtle references by Conversos to the Catholic paraphernalia that would be perceived as idolatrous by the average Jew. In the end the role that Conversos played was a complicated one, but a Jewish one. As Ben-Shalom summarizes:
“The Conversos had not gone over to the other side. Their world had not truly turned-or been turned-upside down. Their ambivalence had a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective. As such, Abravanel as his exegetical remarks reveal, could integrate Conversos into the Jewish world and assign them an important role in the
 The Converso as Subversive: Jewish Traditions or Christian Libel? The Open University of Israel. 1999.
 Isaac Abravanel, Commentary on Obadiah 1, 20 in Commentary on the Prophets (Tel Aviv, 1960), p 117. See also Ram Ben-Shalom, The Converso as Subversive: Jewish Traditions or Christian Libel? The Open University of Israel. 1999.
 Ram Ben-Shalom, The Converso as Subversive: Jewish Traditions or Christian Libel? The Open University of Israel. 1999.
 Cited in Jose Faur, Four Classes of Conversos: A Typological Study, Revue des Etudes Juives, CXLIX (1-3), Janiver-Juin 1990, pp. 113-124. While these were immediate reasons, scholars look to understand why Spanish Jews converted in such large numbers in contrast to other Jewish communities faced with desperate circumstances. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes the following: “Will we ever know how many Jews were lost over the years? Amongst the Jews who were lost must be counted not only those who were the victims of massacres and martyrdoms, but equally those who went over to the other side or converted. And these Jews were lost not because- as the most simplistic explanation would have it- they were seduced by purely secular ambitions or material benefits; they were conquered by a real, a genuine despair; they feared that the Jewish people had no future.” Yerushalmi quoted in Pierre Birnbaum, “Exile, Assimilation, and Identity: from Moses to Joseph,” in Carlebach, et al. Jewish History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, 1998.
 Isaac Abravanel, Ma’ayannei ha-Yeshu-ah (Wells of Salvation) (Stettin, 1860), 12, 5, p. 57b. See Ram Ben-Shalom, The Typology of the Converso in Isaac Abravanel’s Biblical Exegesis. Jewish History 2009, 23:290.
 Jose Faur, Four Classes of Conversos: A Typological Study, Revue des Etudes Juives, CXLIX (1-3), Janiver-Juin 1990, pp. 113-124.
 Isaac Abravanel, Yeshuot Meshiho (Salvations of his Anointed) (Koenisgsberg, 1861), 34b, 23:290. See Ram Ben-Shalom, The Typology of the Converso in Isaac Abravanel’s Biblical Exegesis. Jewish History 2009,
 Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p. 50.
 Ibid. 50.
 Ibid. 40.
 Sanhedrin 97a.
 Yeshuot Meshiho, 34a
 A. Jellinek, Beit Ha-Midrash, Vol. 6. (Jerusalem: Bamberger et Vahrman, 1938), p. 10. See also Greenstone, ‘Jewish Legends” pp. 97-98.
 A. Jellinek, Beit Ha-Midrash, Vol. 6. (Jerusalem: Bamberger et Vahrman, 1938), p. 9.
 See Kraus, Leben Jesu, pp. 176-17; Greenstone ‘Jewish Legends,’ pp 95-96. Legasse, ‘La Legende’, pp 104-106.
 A. Jellinek, Beit Ha-Midrash, Vol. 5. (Jerusalem: Bamberger et Vahrman, 1938), p. xxxviii.
 A. Jellinek, Beit Ha-Midrash, vol. 5. (Jerusalem: Bamberger et Vahrman, 1938), p 151.
 Ram Ben-Shalom, The Converso as Subversive: Jewish Traditions or Christian Libel? The Open University of Israel. 1999.
 Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain: Volume II, (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1961), p. 352.
 Ram Ben-Shalom, The Converso as Subversive: Jewish Traditions or Christian Libel? The Open University of Israel. 1999.
 Abravanel, Interpretation of II Kings 18:26, Interpretation of the Former Prophets, p. 656.Cited in Ram Ben-Shalom, The Typology of the Converso in Isaac Abravanel’s Biblical Exegesis. Jewish History 2009, 23:281-291.
 Abravanel, Interpretation of II Kings 18:26, Interpretation of the Former Prophets, p. 657. See Ram Ben-Shalom, The Typology of the Converso in Isaac Abravanel’s Biblical Exegesis. Jewish History 2009, 23:281-291.
 Fritz Baer, Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien, I (Berlin 1929), pp. 757-758.
 Abravanel, Commentary to Isaiah 45: 15, p.222
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez, the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education, and author of What is Kosher?