By Yehonatán Ele‘azar de Mota
Many a time within the contemporary Sephardic Jewish community, much is said about women’s issues. The reality is that there is a conflict between traditional Middle-Eastern patriarchal values and post-modernist values from the West. These two opposing sides are clashing more often within the Jewish community and are evoking women to either revolt by creating their own version of the Jewish tradition, become apathetic, or to alienate it altogether. James Baldwin said, “Know whence you came; if you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” Hence, it would be befitting for the contemporary Sephardic community to delve into its history, from the Jewish Golden Age in Spain, to its demise, and survival via the crypto-Jewish networks. This paper will include a sociological and historical analysis in order to answer the question: What effect did gender role shifts within the Sephardic converso communities have on later gender roles within the tradition, and what effects of contemporary stress of them have on Sephardic communities today. The experience of the conversas will serve as an ardent testimony to the male elite, that Jewesses are not “lightheaded,” incapable of learning the intricacies of Jewish law, nor functioning in the capacity as religious leaders. Thus, by fully including women, the Sephardic tradition will become “engendered.”
TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF JEWISH WOMEN
One of the limitations that are placed on women in contemporary Sephardic communities is that they are not allowed to study in male seminaries for the purpose of learning Talmud. Apart from the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud is the basis for all Jewish law and jurisprudence. The origin of this limitation comes from the Talmudic opinion of Rabbi Eli’ezer, who says, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her obscenity” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 21b). The great 13th century Sephardic sage, Moshe ben Maimon, codified this as law in the Mishneh Torah, as follows, “The Sages legislated that a man should not teach his daughter Torah, since the majority of women cannot focus their minds in learning, and incapable of making deductions due to their poor mental states. The Sages said, he who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her uselessness.” He continues explaining that by “Torah,” it is meant the oral body of Law, not the written Law. He concludes that section by stating that a father should not even teach the written Law a priori (Laws of Torah Study 1:13).
Education In Medieval Spain. It is interesting to note that this law is based on a majority of women within a specific cultural and social context. In Medieval Spain, girls practically did not receive any formal education and were married off at young ages. Abraham Neuman lends insight on this context:
“In the case of the daughter, on the other hand, the condition was totally different. The Talmudic teachers recognized the earlier biblical law which invested the father with the right to give his daughter in marriage during her minority to any candidate of his own choice, even against her own expressed desire and protest.” (21)
He also states, “Certainly in Spain, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, child marriages were matters of everyday occurrence and excited no comment” (22). If daughters were married off at early ages, and then given to their future husbands upon reaching physical maturity, one can infer that their education was limited to domestic responsibilities. Moreover, Yom Tov Assis states:
“The community did not create a public educational system open to all boys; as for girls, no formal education was provided for them practically anywhere in the Jewish world. The rich and members of the middle class provided private tuition for their children by engaging teachers who came to their house to teach the boys of the family.” (327)
Hence, since Jewish education in Medieval Spain was a privilege of the rich and middle class, it is of no wonder why a majority of women were considered incapable of performing deductive analyses of legal texts.
21st Century Women. Evidently, this is not the case in contemporary times. One of the positive effects of democratization of learning is that, overall, education has been granted to both males and females. As a result, women have reached high positions as grammarians, poets, mathematicians, novelists, scientists, and more, in addition to their roles as wives and mothers. Thus, when a contemporary Sephardic Jewess is discriminated against, based on the laws of nature in her body, it challenges her existential and sociological importance within the Jewish community. In fact, many of them have been alienated from the community because they wanted to study Talmud at the local Beth Midrash (house of study). Rachel Adler questions, “Why do women talk during the synagogue service? Why do they seem so not interested in the service?” She also adds that, “Real inclusion can occur only when women cease to be invisible as women” (63).
Prohibition of Public Torah Reading For Women. Moreover, it is virtually unheard of in the Sephardic communities that women are called to the public reading of the Torah. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander explains, “Since the rabbis claimed to know from elsewhere that women are exempt from Torah study, they concluded that women are also exempt from the rituals that are the functional equivalent to Torah study” (137). Sephardic authorities in Israel and abroad believe that by calling women to the public Torah reading, it is equated with “Reform Judaism,” thereby a distortion of the Law. In addition, the Sephardic Sage par excellence, codified that “Women do not read in public because of the honor due to the congregation” (laws of prayers, 12:17). This “congregation” refers to the males 13 years of age and older. Interestingly, it is understood and taught that a woman cannot participate in this regards because she may embarrass those men that do not know how to read. Importantly, during the Talmudic times, everyone called to the Torah read his own portion. Today however, due to the lack of preparation and education, the ba’al qor’e (reader) reads in the place of the person called to the Torah. If that is the case, then no one will be embarrassed since no one reads his own portion. Strikingly, in an educated community where all of the men can read for themselves, a woman would pose no threat to their honor. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander explains how the biblical community evolved into the rabbinic elite community in that:
“Torah study was a central ritual of the nascent rabbinic movement. Through Torah study, rabbinic disciples crafted a covenantal community in relationship with God. Torah study was a ritual means of re-experiencing Sinaitic revelation. It also provided a social forum through which disciples established relationships horizontally with their peers and vertically with their masters. The social makeup of the informal rabbinic disciple circles was almost certainly exclusively male.” (178)
As a result, women were excluded from the ritual which connects the Jews with the prophetic experience at Sinai and which also established them as a nation.
Lack of Agency for Jewish Women. Another aspect within traditional Sephardic circles is that women are not trained to be ritual slaughterers, circumcisers, nor teachers of Jewish law. Once again, they are left out of being active agents as Jewesses. Both in the Mishneh Torah and Shulḥan ‘Arukh, it states that women can perform the ritual slaughter of animals (Laws of Ritual Slaughter 4:4; Caro 1:1). The halakhah states that women can become experts by being tested on the laws and performing satisfactorily before a Sage. Also, in regards to the circumcision, Maimonides codified that in the case that the father did not circumcise his child on the 8th day after birth, he can perform it afterwards. If he neglected this precept, it behooves the community to do so, lest an Israelite male is left with his foreskin (laws of circumcision 1:1). Neither the Bible nor the Talmud limits the function of mohel (circumciser) to a male. Traditionally, it is a masculine task because of the learning involved, from which women were excluded. Consequently, since Sephardic women did not have access to Jewish education, they would never become teachers of Jewish law. In the Kingdom of 13th century Aragon:
“The number of the students in the yeshibah was usually around 24. Students came from various communities and from both neighboring and distant lands. The duration of studies varied from one student to another: some studied for a limited period of one year or so, while others studied for longer periods. Studies were often held in the house of the head of the yeshibah or in a building that belonged to the heqdesh (property donated to the community).” (Assis 331)
It would have been in the yeshibah (seminary) that women would have acquired those skills, thereby enabling them to be active agents of their social-ethno-religious tradition. To their surprise, the dawn of a dark era in Spain would pose a challenge to the traditional lifestyle within the alḥama (Jewish quarter).
FORCED CONVERSIONS IN SPAIN
The end of the 14th century witnessed the demise of the Golden Age of Sephardic Jewry. Yitzchak Baer vividly describes the tragedies that took place all over Spain during this time:
“In 1378, the archdeacon of Ecija, Ferrant Martínez urged that their twenty-three synagogues should be “razed to the ground, and that they should be confined to their own quarter so as to prevent them from having any intercourse with Christians…He also enjoined the rural population of Andalusia not to allow Jews to live in their midst.” (95)
According to Martínez, it was a “Christian duty” to convert all of the synagogues to churches and to settle the Jewish quarters. Riots broke out in the following regions: Andalusia, Castile, Aragon, Cataluña, and Extremadura. There were many martyrs, including the rabbinic family of R’ Asher ben Yeḥiel. Baer explains that, “In Madrid most of the Jews were killed or baptized…some of the Jews of Burgos were baptized, and a whole quarter inhabited by conversos soon sprang up” (99). The forced conversions of Jews continued through 1391 and spread to the Balearic Islands. While there were many who fought to death, “So many Jews sought baptism that the supply of holy anointing oil in the church soon gave out” (101). Some Jews voluntarily converted in order to save their lives, with the hope of sailing to other lands in the near future. To their dismay, laws were established forbidding conversos from bearing arms and from sailing to Moslem lands. Baer adds that in Tortosa, Jews were forcibly removed one by one from their homes to the homes of Christians in order to be baptized. Some apostate Jews also forced their wives, mothers, and children to convert (109). As a result, whole communities were scattered and disintegrated due solely to conversions (131).
NEW CHRISTIAN ENCOUNTERS WITH JEWS
Many enactments by the Church and crown were put in place in order to prevent the “New Christians” from returning to Judaism, albeit creating the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism. In 1393, John I forbade the conversos, henceforth, anusim, from living and eating together with their Jewish brethren. The King enforced these rules by obligating the Jews to dress differently than Christians (125). Many of the anusim continued to practice Jewish rituals in secret, albeit living as outward Christians. Even though the crown forbade the anusim from Judaizing, they had contact with their Jewish brethren throughout the 15th century. Baer describes their activity as such:
“Not only did actual anusim try with all their might to live as Jews, but even the children and the grandchildren of apostates who had forsaken Judaism of their own free will and choice were now inclined to retrace their steps. The anusim secretly visited their Jewish brethren in order to join them in celebrating the Jewish festivals, attended the synagogues, listened to sermons, and discussed points of religion. They did no work on the Sabbath, observed the laws of mourning and the dietary laws, and fasted on Yom Kippur and even women observed the Fast of Esther. They had Jewish prayer books and engaged their own Hebrew teachers and ritual slaughterers.” (273)
Haim Beinart explains that the anusim were considered part of the Jewish community, despite their conversion:
“In those places where there were Jewish communities, the anusim were integrated in them in order to fulfill the precepts that required a minimum of persons, such as the prayers that required a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish males), since they were considered Jews and were permitted to participate in the gatherings…Sometimes, relatives or known Jews would attend the [secret] meetings [of the anusim], which demonstrates to what extent the anusim were considered part of the Jewish community.” (Beinart 207)
The descendants of the anusim continued to practice Jewish rituals for the next 100 years, in opposition to the Church, as Baer states:
“As late as 1486, anusim of Valencia, like their brethren in Andalusia, were able to find refuge on the estates of the nobility. Anusim gathered in groups at the port of Valencia, sailing from there to the countries of the Orient, where they could live freely and openly as Jews.” (Baer 359)
Apparently, the enactments of the crown proved to be futile against the fervent practitioners of the ancestral faith, and harbored the inevitable crypto-Jewish phenomenon.
THE SPANISH INQUISITION
Ten years before the Expulsion of 1492, the infamous inquisitor, Torquemada, fervently persecuted the Judaizing New Christians, branding many as heretics, and leading them to the stake as auto de fe’s (acts of faith). Upon surveying the inquisitorial records, there is overwhelming evidence that the women were at the forefront of the Judaizing. The account of Juana Desfar reads as follows:
“Juana Desfar came four times, ostensibly of her own free will, to confess to her judges. Nevertheless, in June 1492, the prosecutor-general demanded her arrest on the ground that her confessions were inadequate and deficient, and that, despite her oath, she had continued to practice the Jewish religion. While her first husband, a merchant from Barcelona, and her second husband, a notary from Valencia, were alive, she had conducted herself as a Jewess. She had fasted on Yom Kippur and induced others to do so, read to other anusim from her prayer book in the Valencian dialect and in the Hebrew language, and so forth.” (359)
Haim Beinart states that the “elderly women explained the rites and precepts to the young women of their families” (Beinart 208). Renée Levine Melammed asserts that “The family played a crucial role in many conversas’ lives, and, not surprisingly, particularly in those of the younger ones” (63). In the year 1500, a conversa by the name of Elvira Rodríguez was investigated by the Inquisition. Melammed states that:
“This trial was by far the lengthiest of those under discussion; it lasted seventeen years, yet in the end the defendant prevailed and was released by the court. Although there is no reference to a Judaizing past on the part of Elvira, one wonders how she knew so many Jewish rituals.” (65)
Moreover, she states:
“The Inquisition was well aware of their [conversas] active and central role in perpetuating these acts of apostasy and heresy. The inquisitors realized the unusual importance of the home in crypto-Judaism and understood that the women willy-nilly became the carriers of the tradition that they viewed as inimical…As they themselves explained, although the mother might be burned at the stake, she would leave behind her children to carry on her teachings.” (15)
Consequently, the Church and the crown worked together to devise a plan that would devastate the Sephardic community even more—the Expulsion of the Jews and the Moors.
THE EXPULSION OF THE JEWS
On March 31, 1492, the Catholic kings issued the Alhambra decree, also known as the “Edict of Expulsion.” At that time, Jews were given four months to either convert or abandon the land that they had known for over a thousand years. Those that did not comply with this decree suffered death without trial. Baer explains that the reason for this decree was to purify the Christian faith, in response to the previous failures of the kings to segregate the anusim from the Jews in the Kingdom of Granada. Furthermore, he also states:
“According to Jewish and Christian sources, the majority of the exiles, numbering between 100,000 and 120,000, emigrated to Portugal…thereafter the illegal immigrants fell into the clutches of the Portuguese government officials, who devised all kinds of cruelties to force them to either leave the country or to embrace Christianity.” (Baer 438)
Melammed relates that once the Jewish community was banished, the anusim that stayed behind had no access to certain supplies, such as, books, wine, and food. The most detrimental result was the lack of examples as to how to live as Jews. She further explains that since the Jewish tradition is a “male-dominated” religion, the men were mostly affected, whereas the women continued to dominate in the domestic realm (31).
Although there “were no more ordained rabbis, teachers, judges, ritual slaughterers, circumcisers, butcher shop owners, and the like, the women did not have to undergo a major change (32). Paradoxically, the expulsion provided the crypto-Jewish women the opportunity to become the leaders that they would never have become within the traditional Sephardic community.
FORCED CONVERSIONS IN PORTUGAL
After having been expelled from Spain, the tens of thousands of Jews that left to Portugal would later be faced with forced conversions. King Manuel I wanted to marry the daughter of the Isabella, the Queen of Asturias. However, the Church and the Christian people pressured the Portuguese monarch to “get rid of the Jews.” In December 1496, he decree that all be expelled from Portugal. Nevertheless, by 1497 he had changed his mind and decreed that all of the Jews of Portugal be converted to Christianity or leave the country without their children (Lowenstein 36). That same year, a week before Easter, Jewish children were taken from their parents and baptized. Amazingly, their parents held steadfast. It wasn’t until they were lured to Lisbon, in hope of seeing their children again, that they would be forcibly converted. To their dismay, they were dragged to the churches for baptism. Many committed suicide, while others were condemned to be burnt as autos da fe (acts of faith). Just as the Jews that were converted on Spanish soil in 1391, they were called “New Christians.” To the consternation of the Church and the Portuguese monarchy, those New Christians would later prove to be heretical, due to their crypto-Jewish activities.
It has been demonstrated throughout history that crypto-Jewish women preserved and transmitted their heritage through song and prayer. Norman Toby Simms states that women engaged in a “choric mode of education,” replacing the male rituals of prayer, study, and debate (Simms 81). Throughout the world of the anusim, these women were known as rezadeiras. Amazingly, even though their knowledge of the Hebrew language was minimal to none, they managed to preserve the use of the divine name of God. David Gitlitz records one such prayer from Almagro:
“May Adonai come, all-encompassing, greatly enlightened, well-provisioned. With You, worthy Lord, I take shelter, for You placed Your house on high so that neither harm, nor malice, nor hurt should come to Your tents which the Kings entrusted You.” (200)
Upon receiving a newborn child, some women would recite the following prayer:
“O great God, I offer you this little angel. Take note of him; do not forsake him; shield him with Your divine arm of blessing, filled with grace and mercy. Then the baby was held to the breast and this prayer was said: ‘This be the blessing of Adonai, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Moses and of Aaron. May the blessing of the Lord cover him.’” (200)
María Gómez, a martyr, confessed to the inquisitors of trying to “make her children perfect in that which their father and grandmother taught them and she did not care that they did not learn Catholic prayers. She taught them only Judaic prayers” (227).
Also, the late minister of Shearith Israel, the United States’ first Jewish congregation stated:
“One of the reasons why the important Greek-speaking Jewry of Alexandria of olden days died out was because they forgot their Hebrew. On the other hand, it is strangely moving to find that a password among the anusim, the secret Jews who attempted to escape persecution by the Spanish Inquisition, was the inviolately preserved Hebrew name for the Lord. This one Hebrew word which they held in common with free Jews led to the final dramatic recognition of this Jewish remnant which had survived five centuries of duress.” (De Sola Pool 109)
Apparently, the knowledge of the rezadeiras (female prayer leaders) was one of the means by which the anusim maintained connected with their brothers in the lands free of persecution.
Crypto-Jewish Education. Since the crypto-Jewish tradition was limited to the domestic realm, women were in charge of instructing their children in all of the aspects of Jewish practices. Most important was to keep a kasher kitchen. No shellfish, pork, or other “unclean” foods would be found in their homes (Leviticus 11). However, many families had pieces of pork stored in the drawers of their dinner tables in order to ward off inquisitors or curious neighbors. Moreover, mothers taught their daughters about the laws of ritual purity in relationship to menstruation. In addition, they were taught how to “purify” themselves in a body of water before resuming sexual relations with their husbands. Another important tradition was to practice fasting. The most important fast was that of “Santa Esterica,” that is St. Esther. The life of Queen Esther served as the matron for the anusim since she had to hide her Jewish identity, as they too had to live clandestinely. Also, the fast of Yom Kippur, known as Kippur or Día del Perdón (Day of Forgiveness), was essential to their faith, since this was the day in which they would be absolved from their sins. Furthermore, the women had extensive knowledge on the laws and customs of ritual slaughter. In fact, the crypto-Jewish women knew how to inspect the knife, slit the neck, and even check the organs of the animals to check for validity or the lack thereof. Doña Blanca Enríquez confessed of teaching the fundamentals of crypto-Judaism to “her sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, and all the rest of her kin. She asserted that it was the obligation of the Jews to teach the law to their children and to the children of their children” (Gitlitz 219). Interestingly, mothers taught their daughters to light the Sabbath candles either in the cupboard or at the local church. Upon entering a church, mothers taught their children to say, “I enter this building, but do not worship gods made of wood or stone.” In contrast to the tradition before the forced conversions in 1391, crypto-Jewish mothers were in charge of arranging marriages for their children with cousins or other anusim. When the unfortunate reality of death came upon the family, it was the women that washed the bodies and prepared them for burial. Overall, women played a considerable role in preserving and spreading Judaizing practices” (Yovel 83).
THE RETURN TO NORMATIVE JEWISH COMMUNITIES
In every generation after the Edict of Expulsion, anusim were able to escape the clutches of the Holy Office by reaching one of the Jewish havens throughout Protestant Europe or the Ottoman Empire. The return and reintegration of the anusim to the normative Jewish community posed some conflicts, more for the women than for the men. Julia Rebollo Lieberman states:
“The passages from the secrecy of crypto-Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula and the Hispanic New World to the public practice of normative Judaism in Livorno, Pisa, and other “lands of Judaism” resulted in the restructuring of boundaries between the sacred/public/male sphere and the private/domestic/female one. The home and the family, the domestic sphere where crypto-Jewish women had been in charge, and the only place where anusim could secretly practice Judaism, was replaced by the synagogue, the religious schools, the confraternities, and other spaces and institutions that were subject to community control…Women who reverted to Judaism continued to perform the same functions they had performed for generations, but these practices and functions lost the centrality ascribed to them by their former crypto-Jewish life. The institutionalization of religious life, the return of men to the public religious arena, and the regulation of domestic religiosity led the New Christian women who reverted to Judaism to again respect orthodoxy and to definitively abandon the crypto-Jewish experience of which they had been the protagonists.” (114)
Ḥakham Dr. Isaac Sassoon states that the “halakhah’s classification of people by gender for religious purpose rubs against the grain of our collective psyche” (viii). Today, it is difficult enough for them to prove Jewishness and to be accepted within the Jewish community, let alone the challenge of conforming to the patriarchal, and sometimes oppressiveness of the rabbinic authorities.
Sephardic Jews have historically been known for their progressiveness, in contrast to their Ashkenazi brethren. Their progressive world vision stemmed from the emphasis on not only religious studies, but also philosophy and the sciences. Sometime in the mid-20th century, Sephardic Jewry began shifting toward fundamentalism, as a response to post-war religious apathy, secularism, and the hijacking of the tradition by the influx of Jews from the Arab lands. A result of this shift is that Sephardic Jewry is suffering from lack of knowledgeable leaders, in the place of misogynistic attitudes toward women. As a result, Sephardic Jewry has come down to two forms: American and European vs the Israeli communities and their daughters abroad. While the world is becoming more globalized, and women are gaining more respect and visibility in society, unfortunately, the same cannot be said with the overall Sephardic community.
Possible Solutions. What solutions can be proposed for this social conflict? Foremost, both men and women should be trained in Biblical and Talmudic scholarship. The Biblical tradition already recognizes the leadership of women, especially in the case of Deborah the judge and prophetess (Judges 4:4). Also, the inclusion of women in the legislative process of the establishment of halakhah is suggested in order to prevent contemporary abuses of the Law, such as in the realm of divorce law and levirate marriage. Consequently, the inclusion of women implies that they should be counted upon gathering for the purposes of saying qaddish and other benedictions. If the problem is that women are exempt by precepts that depend on time, neither does the same law imply a prohibition. Where it is argued that only men were counted in ancient Israel, it can be refuted that it only applied to soldiers, whereas today, both men and women defend the State of Israel (Numbers 1:3). Moreover, ceremonial impurity of women cannot be placed on them as an exclusion, since the Biblical form of these laws have not been in effect since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (Leviticus 15:19). Rachel Adler points out:
“Yet after deriving so many norms about the spirit and decorum of communal prayer from the private prayer of Hannah, no rabbinic exegete attempts to draw the logical conclusion that women ought to be included in communal prayer. Although the interpreters can all imagine themselves as Hannah, they cannot see the Hannahs all around them.” (65)
Ultimately, Adler states, “Real inclusion can occur only when women cease to be invisible as women” (63). In times when immediate action has been required, the Rabbis have said, “In the place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Babylonian Talmud, Abot 2:1). In the case of the contemporary Sephardic Jewesses, the inverse can also be true—in the place where there are no women, strive to be a woman.
Haham Yehonatan Elazar-DeMota began his rabbinical training with Haham Yosef Benarroch for a period of 3 years, studying Shulkhan Arukh and Talmud Babli. Then he studied the laws of shehitáh (Jewish ritual slaughter) with Haham Abraham Bitton, and was certified by Haham Israeli haLevy Tytell. In 2007, he continued with advanced studies in Talmud Yerushalmi and Babli with Haham Mordekhai Levi de Lopes. Currently he is pursuing a MA in Religious Studies at Florida International University, with a concentration on Iberian Anusim in the Caribbean. The present work is a paper submittal for one of his assignments.
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