By David Ramírez
In his ongoing self-promotion cycle, recently we learned of Freund’s discovery of Abarbanel’s “prophecies” in a Jerusalem Post article titled “The Abarbanel and the return of the Bnei Anusim.” In this article Freund recounts the bitter story Hakham Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508), perhaps one of the most lucid Biblical commentators in Jewish tradition, and his positive redemptive message for those Jewish victims of forced conversion engendered by the Catholic Church in the Iberian kingdoms during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
Isaac Abarbanel was a Sephardic scholar from a long-line of an illustrious Jewish family from Castile, who–thanks to the environment of religious intolerance created by an ever-zealous Christianity–had to flee and resettle to several parts in Europe. Important to note for Freund’s fascistic-Zionist-kingdom-come worldview, unlike his contemporary Yosef Karo who moved to the Land of Israel following the Expulsion, Abarbanel settled in Venice, where he served its well-established Sephardic community.
In Freund’s typical shtetl worldview afforded by his Ashkenazi upbringing, he presents Abarbanel as a heroic figure, who in hindsight Abarbanel did not act any different from the traditional Sephardic modus operandi that was informed in the Religious Humanism of his Sephardic forebearers, of which Freund has no knowledge, much less understanding.
Freund is impressed by Abarbanel’s intellectual curriculum and his diplomatic ventures, which for us Sephardim is really business as usual for our Sephardic Hakhamim following in Maimonides’ tradition of old-Sepharad.
Then we have Freund approving Abarbanel’s commentary on the book of Ezekiel, where Abarbanel mentions that the ingathering of Exiles will not only include the Jews within the fold, but also those,
“’compelled to leave the faith, for all of God’s sheep ‘shall return to the flock.’
‘In the End of Days,” he wrote, “the prophet foresaw that G-d would awaken in the hearts of the Anusim a desire to return to Him.’”
Reinforcing this notion on another of Abarbanel’s commentary on Deuteronomy,
“the Anusim ‘will return to G-d in their heart… And when they return to G-d and follow Him… everyone according to his status and his ability, he promises that the exalted God will bring them close to Him.'”
Abarbanel’s words require some historical and halakhic context.
First, in Biblical, Talmudic and Sephardic tradition the return of those who separate from and return to the fold–whatever their circumstances might have been–is constantly being mentioned. Maimonides uncannily exposes what the Prophets have to say on the matter in his Iggeret haShemad, or Letter on Martyrdom.
Second, it was the consensus of the Sages of the Talmud that the ingathering of the Exiles and the determination of their pedigrees will be something of which the Jewish messiah will be taking care. In Sephardic tradition this has been interpreted to include apparent non-Jewish individuals who have no knowledge of being halakhically Jewish by descent.
Third, Abarbanel’s words were written in an era of great messianic expectations due to the very tumultuous and trying times Sephardim were living through. For many of them, the coming of the Jewish messiah felt near and imminent. Abarbanel lived through a period when the Jews who had been forcibly converted (’anusím), or even the descendants of those Jews who had voluntarily converted, kept trying to return to the Jewish fold. The very reason given by the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand to expel the Jews from their realms was to physically separate the conversos from their Jewish brethren who reminded them of Jewish practices.
For Abarbanel, this issue of returning ’anusím was not something projected in some far out future, but it is something that was happening during his lifetime. It also served to reinforce a classic Talmudic and Sephardic posture that ’anusím were not only those recently forcibly converted and were trying to keep Jewish Law to the best of their abilities, but were also the children of the voluntarily converted (meshumadím and miním), as explained in Maimonides’ summary of Talmudic dicta:
“But their children and grandchildren [of Jewish rebels], who, misguided by their parents . . . and trained in their views, are like children taken captive by the gentiles and raised in their laws and customs (weghidelúhu haGoyím `al dathám), whose status is that of an ’anús [one who abjures Jewish law under duress], who, although he later learns that he is a Jew, meets Jews, observes them practice their laws, is nevertheless to be regarded as an ’anús, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of his parents . . . Therefore efforts should be made to bring them back in repentance (LeFikakh rawí leHah zirán biTeshubáh), to draw them near by friendly relations, so that they may return to the strength-giving source, i.e., the Toráh.”
Before, during and many centuries after the Expulsion, Sephardic conversos kept returning to the Jewish fold, as excellently studied by scholars such as Yosef Yerushalmi, Miriam Bodian, and more recently exemplified by the events in Oporto, Portugal, where Rev. David de Sola Pool (1885–1970) of Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel (New York) played a key role in the return of Portuguese ’anusím. Nothing new there or amazingly prophetic.Six centuries later and the Jewish messiah still has not come.
Abarbanel’s words, in my humble opinion, were meant to keep a positive spin on an issue that was affecting some Sephardic communities in the Diaspora.
Sepharad, Jewish Spain and Portugal, was a house divided during Abarbanel’s lifetime. This division was spearheaded by anti-Maimonidean rabbis trained in Ashkenazi yeshivot, as expertly described by Rabbinic scholar José Faur in his article “Anti-Maimonidean Demons.” The anti-Maimonideans held in contempt the traditions and teachings of the Talmudic Sages, as maintained by the Sephardic Hakhamim in Andalusia and their predecessors the Geonim, direct heirs of the Talmudic academies in Babylonia.
This contempt for Jewish tradition affected central stances in Jewish Law, as it was well noticed by the anti-Sephardic historian Benzion Netanyahu (1910-2012), father of the current Israeli PM, the vile Benjamin Netanyahu, Freund’s former boss.
In what is perhaps professor Netanyahu’s cruelest attack on the Sephardic tradition and the Sephardim, he explains in his The Marranos of Spain that the Spanish rabbis were divided by the opinions of the “Franco-German” school (i.e. Ashkenaz) and those of Maimonides and the Talmudic Sages.
In the Ashkenazi stance, who according to Netanyahu was best expressed by Asher ben Yehiel (circa 1250-1327)–a prime Ashkenazi anti-Maimonidean who got installed as the Chief Rabbi of Toledo (Castile)–the forced convert is,
“nevertheless a cowardly deserter; he should realize that he has committed a disgraceful act and his bearing should be one of shame and humiliation; only a long process of repentance through sufferance could obliterate his shame and sin.”
Whereas for Maimonides and his Talmudic predecessors, Netanyahu continues to tell us,
“the wrongdoer is free from any penalty because he is free from any guilt; and, indeed, nowhere in tannaitic or amoraic literature, he says. is the forced convert called ‘sinner, or wicked, or unqualified to serve as witness.’ On the contrary, what the tradition of the Sages indicates is that people of this category were regarded as ‘most righteous’.”
Actually, Maimonides own basic position was very nominal and no different from the ruling of the Talmudic Sages as formulated in his Mishneh Torah (quoted above), as he himself expressed towards the end of his Iggeret haShemad:
“It is not right to alienate, scorn, and hate people who desecrate the Sabbath. It is our duty to befriend them, and to encourage them to fulfill the commandments. The rabbis regulate explicitly that when an evildoer who sinned by choice comes to the synagogue, he is to be welcomed and not insulted. In this ruling they relied on Solomon’s counsel: A thief should not be despised for stealing to appease his hunger [Prov. 6:30]. It means not to despise the evildoer in Israel when he comes secretly to ‘steal’ some observance.”
Though thanks to the negative views of the anti-Maimonideans there was definitely a division of opinions on how to treat returning ’anusím, who by Abarbanel’s time there were already 3 or 4 generations of them since 1391, most of those opinions had to do more with at what level of ritual trustworthiness they could be held, and not a sliding rule of whether they were more or less Jewish until finally, as Netanyahu’s end-analysis would like us to believe, that they were complete non-Jews.
Mind you, this coming from the pen of a Jew (Benzion Netanyahu) whose own commitment to and practice of Jewish Law was perhaps not better (if present at all) than that of those unfortunate souls who had to face the wrath of the Church, and whom he criticizes with gusto.
The overall concern of Sephardic Hakhamim such as Abarbanel was to keep the memory of the cross-generational ’anusím as Jews, against the anti-Maimonidean vein of seeing them as traitors, apostates or complete non-Jews. This concern is reflected by another of Abarbanel’s contemporary, Hakham Benjamin Seeb (1470-1540) who in one of his responsa, he indicated:
“Through our sins the Jews who lived peacefully in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Kalabrien and Apulien were forced into baptism by those kings, the villains. The Jews remained true believers.The king ordered some murdered, some were drowned, many of them were forced into baptism.They fled those countries and came here to return to Judaism. If we do not punish those who accuse them of sins, they will no longer come.”
This is the background from which Abarbanel’s commentary springs from, which by no means was way out of the ordinary or “prophetic.”
Another thing we should take notice is Abarbanel’s use of the word ’anusím versus Freund’s use of the compound “Bnei Anusim.”
Nominally, the term ’anús denotes just a Jew who was forced to do something against Jewish Law. His/her status of having being born from an Israelite mother is not affected. Literally, such person is a Jew for all ritual purposes.
The Sages of the Talmud, as Maimonides formulates, extend this term to the child of an apostate Jew (meshumad or min) because “is nevertheless to be regarded as an ’anús, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of his parents;” the prior implication here being “like children taken captive by the gentiles and raised in their laws and customs,” in other words “captivity” is an implication of being in a situation of coercion.
Therefore, the children of ’anusím are not only ’anusím as well, but also the children of voluntary apostates are ’anusím. This is the reason why the term “Bnei Anusim,” which means the children of the forced ones, does not appear too often in the Sephardic responsa, as it was well understood by the rabbis that the Iberian ’anusím were not only those Jews who directly suffered the forced conversion by the Catholic priests and their attacking mobs, but also their children, children’s children, etc., who either lived in a condition of secret Jewish practice or complete assimilation to the norms of Christian society.
The continuous use of the term ’anús/’anusím by the Sephardic Hakhamím therefore tries to do two things: One, it maintains the notion of such a Jew being coerced; and two, it recognized the halakhic-birth status of such a Jew.
On the other hand, the term “Bnei Anusim” as continuously used today by self-important organizations or individuals–and the ignorant, such as Freund’s Shavei Israel and Freund himself, has an intentional malicious intent beneath it. By constantly deploying such terminology, it does not recognize directly the birth-halakhic status of those who claim to be ’anusím, in other words it does not recognize them ipso facto as Jews. Second, since the term children of the coerced ones can be either the children of either the father or mother, it dislodges the user from any responsibility from directly recognizing any given individual as a Jew. The use of the term “Bnei Anusim’ dissipates the term ’anús/’anusím from its traditional understanding that such term cannot only be applied to those initial forced converts, but also their children across the generations.
Freund knows all too well that the rabbinic authorities he works with will not recognize these people he pretends to “rescue” as ipso facto halakhic-Jews, so the term “Bnei Anusim” is a convenient one which appeases both ends. It does not compromise him before his religious peers, and on the other he gives his victims what they want, a lollipop to keep them happy under an aura of pseudo-acceptance.
To appreciate the invictiveness of such a move, explained in political-Zionist terms Freund could easily understand, imagine the world telling the people of Israel that from now on their Holy Land will be in Madagascar or Patagonia, and not in the Biblical designation for the Land of Israel. Jews could settle on either territory and call it the Jewish State, Israel, Judea and Samaria, etc.; but still it is not the Land of Israel. There would not be any historic recognition of any kind.
This puts the following Freund statement into sharp focus,
“Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has worked with the Bnei Anusim for nearly 15 years, and I believe we have a historical responsibility to reach out to them and to facilitate their return.”
Really? What return? Return to what? To Freund’s apocalyptic vision of the end of days? To the final realization of the Spanish Inquisition to make the Jewish conversos complete gentiles, stamped with rabbinical approval? To rear them in the Ashkenazi ways that spearheaded the destruction of their Sephardic forebears?
Besides his most hidden hatred of Sephardim (for treating modern-day ’anusím as non-Jews) and Sephardic tradition (for ignoring 600-year of ’anusím-related Sephardic responsa), as we have noted, we also see his complete contempt for modern Sephardic history by stating the following:
“Although the great man did not live to see his prognostication come to fruition, as he passed away in Venice just 16 years after leaving Spain, his predictions are now coming true, as growing numbers of Bnei Anusim throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world are returning to their roots.”
This is a dire insult to the droves former-’anusím who settled throughout the Levant, Africa, India, northern and southern Europe and the Americas, and were to form the most prestigious, successful and enduring Jewish communities worldwide, known as the Spanish & Portuguese communities.
This man knows no bounds, who besides usurping the memory of such historic figure as Isaac Abarbanel, he will do the same to the living, as excellently exposed by Judy Maltz in her Haaretz article “How a Former Netanyahu Aide Is Boosting Israel’s Jewish Majority, One ‘Lost Tribe’ at a Time.”
In this article Maltz not only shows how Freund has misrepresented the posture of the Chief Sephardic rabbis in regards to his 15-year-old pet project the Bene Menashé, which clearly states they cannot be considered zera Israel (children of Jewish fathers), but also describes how Freund has coopted the Israeli government to funnel money to his organization.
The lines are now clearly drawn. Camp Freund hates Sephardim and Jewish tradition. More worrying than this kafkaesque figure, it is the number of people who are willing to support him, even when knowing how deceitfully manipulative he can be.
“When hedonists multiplied, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated and there is no satisfaction [to God] in the world… Their heart goeth after their gain, there multiplied they who call evil good and good evil… When there multiplied [judges] who said ‘I accept your favour’ and ‘I shall appreciate your favour’, there was an Increase of Every man did that which was right in his own eyes;”
– TB Sotáh 47b
 Freund Michael. “The Abarbanel and the Return of the Bnei Anusim.” Breakingisraelnews.com. October 15 2015. Web. October 18 2015.
 MT Sefer Shofetím, Hilekhót Mamrím 3:3
 Faur, José. “Anti-Maimonidean Demons,” The Review of Rabbinic Judaism Vol 6.1, pp. 3-52.
 Netanyahu, Benzion. The Marranos of Spain. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press (1999), p. 13.
 Ibidem, p. 14.
 Maimonides, Moses. “The Epistle on Martyrdom.” Epistles of Maimonides: Crisis and Leadership. Trans. Abraham Halkin. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America (1985), p. 33.
 Responsa No. 284.
 Maltz, Judy. “How a Former Netanyahu Aide Is Boosting Israel’s Jewish Majority, One ‘Lost Tribe’ at a Time.” Haaretz.com. February 19 2015. Web. October 19 2015.