Sephardi Iberian Heritage

‘Sepharad’ is the Hebrew word for Spain, although there are other viewpoints about its origins. In the Old Testament Book of Obadiah (1:20), the word appears for the first time as a place of unknown location. Persian inscriptions also refer to two places called Sparda. One is in Media and the second in Sardia, once the capital of Lydia, in Asia Minor. Some scholars argue that the biblical Sepharad may be situated in modern Libya.

Living under Romans, Visigoths and Muslims
While the word itself is open to interpretation through multiple meanings, the history we are examining has clear roots. There is evidence that Jews lived in Iberia during the Roman Empire.  After the departure of the Romans, Iberia fell under the control of the initially pagan Visigoths but, when their rulers converted to Catholicism in 587, living openly as a Jew suddenly became dangerous. Over the following 130 years or so, Jews faced successive waves of brutal persecution and a choice between conversion and expulsion. Many of those early conversos maintained their Jewish practices secretly.

Not surprisingly, when the Muslim Moors conquered almost all of Iberia between 711 and 718, re-naming it Al-Andalus, the Jewish population welcomed them, in some places, as liberators. They even provided aid to the invaders.  For three and a half centuries, the Jews lived under the Umayyad Caliphate and both Jews and Christians benefitted from tolerance. Prominent Jews participated in civic and intellectual life, sharing science, medicine and astronomy with Muslim elites. Arabic became the common language. Under various Muslim rulers, taboo subjects, such as the love of wine and erotic love, reveal the intersections of freer Christian, Jewish and Muslim influences. 

A Golden Age?
For Jews, this period became known as the Golden Age, sometimes referred to as convivencia, or co-existence. But some historians have disputed the extent of the harmony, pointing to the limits of Moorish benevolence and to their deployment of violence to control their domains.  During the Caliphate, even though Jews and Christians were accepted, they were treated as second-class subjects. In 1066, a large-scale massacre of Jews took place in Granada. In 1098, Al-Andalus was overrun by a puritanical Muslim sect from Morocco, the Almoravids, whose attitudes to Jews were far more hostile. The famed Jewish scholar Maimonides was forced into exile. By 1173, the Almoravids had been replaced by the even more fundamentalist and intolerant Almohads. At the same time, the Christian Reconquista (re-conquest) was gradually wresting most of the Peninsula from Moorish control and large Jewish communities found themselves transferred from Muslim to Catholic rule.

History repeated in reverse
Initially, Jews found themselves tolerated and protected by the new Catholic rulers. However, this was not sustained.  Castilian gradually replaced Arabic as the principal spoken language. Catholic antisemitism during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to the 1492 expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Castile and Aragon, and to their forced mass conversion in Portugal five years later.  Expulsion resulted in a scattering of Jews throughout the Mediterranean basin. A large number chose to live in the Ottoman Empire, while smaller numbers settled in England, France, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands.

Sephardi heroes
The Sephardi spirit and heritage, born out of the turbulent history of Iberia, under both Muslim and Christian control, is exemplified by two great thinkers: Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza. Both were influenced by the overlapping scholarship of  Christian and Muslim worlds.

Maimonides was born Moshe ben Maimon in Cordoba in 1135 or 1138. He was also known as Rambam. His genius as a scholar of Judaism, Islam, astronomy and medicine marks him as out as a towering figure in Jewish history.  He codified Jewish law in 14 volumes and his Guide for the Perplexed, a treatise aimed at reconciling Judaism with the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, provoked controversy among Jews and even resulted in book-burning. At the end of his life he was Sultan Saladin’s physician in Egypt, which is where he died in 1204.

Dutch philosopher, Baruch or Benedict Spinoza, was born in 1632. He descended from a family of Portuguese Marranos (Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism) and worked as a lens grinder. His father and grandfather returned to Judaism.  Baruch Spinoza is recognised as one of the first Rationalist philosophers and is a leading figure of the Enlightenment.  In 1656, he was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Sephardic community for his radical views but, even after excommunication, Spinoza still remained close to many in the community. His wider network included Quakers and Mennonites. Shortly after his death in 1677, his treatise Ethics was published. Spinoza never renounced his Jewish identity but was buried in a Christian graveyard in The Hague. He is widely recognised as the first secular Jewish European philosopher.

Menasseh ben Israel
Dutch rabbi Manoel Dias Soeiro, better known as Menasseh ben Israel, a leading figure for Anglo-Jewry, was born in Portugal in 1604.   He was not as intellectually influential as Maimonides and Spinoza but was a major player in the re-establishment of a Jewish community in England in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1655, he famously petitioned Oliver Cromwell for Jewish return to England.  While hosting William of Orange in the Amsterdam Sephardi synagogue, he said: ‘Our fatherland is no longer Portugal or Spain.’  This became a prophetic declaration of what we would now call multiculturalism. He described himself as being Portuguese with a Batavian (Dutch) soul. A shift in political allegiance from the Iberian Catholic aristocracy to the new Protestant order of Holland and England was seen as expedient.

The burden of multiple identities
Juggling multiple identities produced some contradictions.  Though Sephardi Jews had every reason to fear Spanish or Portuguese monarchical and Catholic persecution, they remained proud of their Iberian culture.  Archives reveal that Castilian, and especially Portuguese, continued to be spoken and written by English Sephardim. At Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, official business was conducted and sermons delivered in Portuguese until well into the nineteenth century.  However, the Sephardi philosophical or radical culture failed to permeate the host country. Sephardim did not broadcast their Iberian legacy: rather there was a desire to keep a low profile and to assimilate.

Contemporary scholars have questioned whether this complex Sephardi multiple identity was rooted in a fascination with Iberian aristocratic values, expressed through a notion of ‘racial’ purity. Or, they ask, was it a search for common roots or an open-minded cultural mixing? The Sephardi Jews’ loss of land, language, culture and safety was a form of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Inquisition. This loss is still apparent within the part of English Sephardi society that traces its origins to Spain and Portugal. Somewhere within this small community exists an inchoate memory of a distant land, embodied in culture, language, food, entertainment and literature.

The expulsion of Jews from the Iberian world at the end of the fifteenth century was a catastrophe that still needs examination.