Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pre-Expulsion Spain - Christian vs Islam society

Guest Post: Jersey Girl's comment to "Evangelicals & Hedonistic Secularism vs. Judaism":
I urge everyone to study the history of Pre Expulsion Spain, which sadly, is no longer taught in our day schools.

In Spain, Jews enjoyed social freedoms and economic prosperity similar to that enjoyed by Jews in the US today. Because of the status enjoyed by Spanish Jewry, thousands of converts were drawn to join the Jewish nation.

The Iberian peninsula was marked by a battle between Christianity and Islam for about 500 years before the completion of the Christian conquest in 1492. Many Jews under the influence of the Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel 1250-1328 who felt that Sephardic philosophy was too entrenched is Islamic thought)felt it better for Jews to live under Christian rule than the more open and permissive Moorish society.

As the Christians gained in power, their intensive outreach efforts convinced hundreds of thousands of Jews to convert. There was no Reform or Conservative in Spain nor was any Jew "assimilated" out from the Jewish community.

Many Rabbis and community leaders converted to Christianity (including the father and brother of Don Isaac Abarbanel). On the eve of the Expulsion, the vast majority of Spanish Jewry chose conversion to Christianity over exile. And the vast majority of those who converted fully and willingly assimilated to Christianity, lost to the Jewish people forever.

Our family is fortunate to have access to letters and documents authored by my ancestors in pre Expulsion Spain (they are now in the museum of Bevis Marks, London). The words written then, ring timely and true to us today, as observant Jews in the US.

For example, mentioned in one of the letters which was written by a father to his grown daughters (Naomi Ragen adapted the actual letter in the "Ghost of Hannah Mendes") is the influence of Catholic maids on children and the potential socialization to Christianity.

We may "say it isn't so", but how can we deny the growing numbers of "kids at risk" emerging from frum homes? Ask any Rabbi who works with these kids and he will tell you that many of them harbor a skepticism towards Judaism that they say was instilled by their Gentile maids or secular studies teachers, etc. (One of the anti Missionary orgs, had a copy of a letter that was sent by a Protestant pastor to the women of his middle class congregations telling them to take jobs as maids in Orthodox Jewish homes in order to influence the children).

Those who have studied the Kuzari know that Judah HaLevi regarded the influx of converts, along with many of "the proselyte's pious saint-like sub-prophetic inspirations" as a dire threat to the character of the Jewish people as a whole.
(Introduction Daniel J. Lasker "Proselyte Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Thought of Judah HaLevi").

Reflecting upon some of the changes in the norms and mores of Orthodox Judaism over the past decades (ie marked increase in rulings on tznius, bans of music, chumros etc etc) Halevi's admonitions seem to read current rather than past tense.

There is no question that freedom and enlightenment is destructive to the Jewish people, (ie Emancipation of the Jews 1849 which began Haskala and birthed a 50% intermarriage rate in Pre WWII Germany by the 1920s) but we should examine why Jews in historically liberal Ottoman society, did not assimilate as have Jews emancipated in Europe and the US. I do not believe that we can discount the evangelical component of Christianity even as a factor in secular assimilation.


  1. According to Shlomo Grayzel's "A History of the Jews", the golden age of Spanish Jewry ended with the expulsion of the Moors from Iberia.
    Yes, they were relatively well-treated but compared to the way Jews are integrated into Western society today, they were still cleaerly second class citizens. The expulsion in 1492 was preceded by decades of increasing persection and community decline as a result.

  2. This is comparing apples and oranges. Jews will continue to assimilate in the US however the amount of Jews who become born again Christians as a result is fairly insignificant.

    Now as far as comparing Jews in Germany as well as in other places that the enlightenment (secular culture) was spreading to the Ottoman's will bring misleading conclusions. This a few reasons. The first being a general rule that applies (in my opinion) universally at all times and in any culture. This is the when in Rome principal. As segments in German society became cosmopolitan so did the Jews. As the gentiles in much of Europe were rejecting the church because they felt that it was a throwback of medieval dogma, these sentiments were reflected into the Jewish population regarding their own religion. This simply was not happening in Turkey.

    Also for instance in the US intermarriage in the Jewish community was relatively very low before what the late sixties. This was a reflection of the attitudes of the surrounding population. Before this time Catholics did not marry Protestants, Lutherins did not marry Methodists, blacks did not marry whites etc… Now intermarriage is common in the US between groups and we have joined in the game.

    Another reason is that before the enlightenment Jews felt pretty good about themselves in that they were generally better off educationally and economically than most gentiles with the exception of the noble class. However they still felt culturally superior. I will grant that many times they probably felt vulnerable and feared violence from their host population but this may have helped to reinforce their sense of moral and cultural superiority.

    This stopped with the enlightenment because they were then projected into a world with new opportunities and a culture that must have seemed more sophisticated than the one that they came from. There was nothing sophisticated going on in the Ottoman empire. If anything the Ottoman aristocrats were sending their children to Europe to learn sophistication and not vice versa.

    I do not want to discuss pre expulsion Spain because I admittedly lack the knowledge to do so. However I do not see Christianity today being a factor in assimulation from either frum or secular Jews.

    Sorry when transferring what I wrote from Word I made a mistake.

  3. ". As the gentiles in much of Europe were rejecting the church because they felt that it was a throwback of medieval dogma, these sentiments were reflected into the Jewish population regarding their own religion. This simply was not happening in Turkey."

    Please read about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the social reforms in Turkey that led up to the 1920 National Assembly.

    Here is a start:

    During the Tanzimat period (1839–1876), a series of constitutional reforms led to a modern conscripted army, banking system reforms, and the replacement of guilds with modern factories. In 1856, the Hatt-ı Hümayun promised equality for all Ottoman citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. The reformist period peaked with the Constitution, called the Kanûn-ı Esâsî (meaning "Basic Law"), written by members of the Young Ottomans, which was promulgated on November 23, 1876. It established freedom of belief and equality of all citizens before the law.

    One of the successes of the social structure of the Ottoman Empire was the unity that it brought about among its highly varied populations through an organization named as millets. The Millets were the major religious groups that were allowed to establish their own communities under Ottoman rule. The Millets were established by retaining their own religious laws, traditions, and language under the general protection of the sultan. Plurality was the key to the longevity of the Empire.

    The lifestyle in the Ottoman court in many aspects assembled ancient traditions of the Persian Shahs, but also had Greek and European influences. There were large metropolitan centers where the Ottoman influence expressed itself with a diversity similar to metropolises of today, ie. Sarajevo, Skopje, Thessaloniki, Dimashq, Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Makkah and Algiers.

    In the 19th century, French and English emerged as popular languages, while the use of Turkish also grew steadily, along with Persian, which served as the main literary language along with Arabic. During this time, many famous Persian poets emerged. (This explains why few Westerners are aware of the rich cultural and literary tradition of the Near East as few read either Persian or Arabic).

    A number of the Ottoman sultans were also accomplished musicians and composers, whose compositions are still frequently performed today. Ottoman classical music arose largely from a confluence of Byzantine music, Arabic music, and Persian music.

    It pains me when American Jews know no so little about world culture as to state: "There was nothing sophisticated going on in the Ottoman empire."

    With regard to the perceived ignorance of the Levantine world in comparison to the more enlightened Europe, I refer you to the works of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), one of the most celebrated scholars in history. Al-Ghazali was responsible for formulating the Ash'ari school of atomism. He argued that atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental” meaning something that lasts for only an instant.In atomic theory, al-Ghazali alluded to the possibility of dividing an atom.

    In psychology, al-Ghazali discussed the concept of the self and the causes of its misery and happiness.Al-Ghazali was one of the first to divide the sensory motives (apprehension) into five external senses (the classical senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch) and five internal senses: common sense (Hiss Mushtarik) which synthesizes sensuous impressions carried to the brain while giving meaning to them; imagination (Takhayyul) which enables someone to retain mental images from experience; reflection (Tafakkur) which brings together relevant thoughts and associates or dissociates them as it considers fit but has no power to create anything new which is not already present in the mind; recollection (Tadhakkur) which remembers the outer form of objects in memory and recollects the meaning; and the memory (Hafiza) where impressions received through the senses are stored.

    Al-Ghazali's writings encouraged the study of medicine and anatomy.
    (The Rambam was an avid student of Al-Ghazali).

    Beginning with the gift of land to Jews fleeing the Inquisition, (Ramban, was the first in Acco in 1267), Turkey has provided haven to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, (including hundreds of thousands during WWII).

    Turkey's sultan issued a formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, and it is undeniable that the tolerance Jews enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years was unprecedented.

    Some examples of Jews who reached high positions in the Ottoman court and administration include Mehmed II's minister of Finance ("defterdar") Hekim Yakup Pasa, his Portuguese physician Moses Hamon, Murad II's physician Ishak Pasha, and Abraham de Castro, the master of the mint in Egypt.

    Daniel de Fonseca, who was chief court physician and played a certain political role is mentioned by Voltaire, who speaks of him as an acquaintance whom he esteemed highly. Fonseca was involved in negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden.

    By 1887, there were five Jewish members of the Ottoman parliament.

    Emanuel Karasu of Salonika, was a founding member of the Young Turks.

    Turkey was one of the first countries to formally recognize the State of Israel and Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically.
    Israel and Turkey have signed a multi-billion dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel.


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