The Rabbi and the Rebels: A Pamphlet on the Herem by Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca


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Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the head rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, published a pamphlet in 1680 that addressed the laws of the herem. This Exhortation, as he called it, urged his readers to restore a general sense of
  The Rabbi and the Rebels: A Pamphlet on the erem by RabbiIsaac Aboab da Fonseca Anne Oravetz Albert Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 104, Number 2, Spring 2014, pp.171-191 (Article) Published by University of Pennsylvania Press DOI: 10.1353/jqr.2014.0011 For additional information about this article  Access provided by University Of Pennsylvania (11 Apr 2014 10:59 GMT)  T HE   J EWISH  Q  UARTERLY   R  EVIEW  , Vol. 104, No. 2 (Spring 2014) 171–191      A     R     T     I     C     L     E     S The Rabbi and the Rebels: A Pamphleton the  H  . erem  by Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca  ANNE ORAVETZ ALBERT  W  IDESPREAD CHANGES  in the role and conception of rabbinic author-ity, and the related development of new forms of communal organization,are among the defining characteristics of the early modern period in Jew-ish history. Many have noted the creation of new, stronger, and more tightly organized Jewish communities with predominantly lay leadershipacross Europe. 1  At the same time, the ‘‘professionalization’’ of the rabbin-ate and the ‘‘laicization’’ of Jewish society, 2 combined with a steep declinein rabbinic authority in an intellectual and spiritual sense, 3 adds up toan impression of a marginalized and disempowered rabbinate, doing the 1. David Ruderman has elevated communal cohesion to the status of one fac- tor of the five he sees as essential to a definition of the early modern periodof Jewish history. David Ruderman,  Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History (Princeton, N.J., 2010), 57–98. In another pan-European treatment, JonathanIsrael posited an apex of Jewish self-government between 1650 and 1713. Jona- than I. Israel,  European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750   (London, 1998),151–69. See both of these for references to the many studies of governmentalinstitutions in specific regions and communities.2. See especially Robert Bonfil,  Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy , trans. J. Chipman (Oxford, 1990), esp. 100–86; Adam Teller, ‘‘Rabbis with-out a Function? The Polish Rabbinate and the Council of Four Lands in theSixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,’’ in  Jewish Religious Leadership: Image and Real-ity , ed. J. Wertheimer (New York, 2004), 371–400; and Teller, ‘‘The Laicizationof Early Modern Jewish Society: The Development of the Polish CommunalRabbinate in the 16  th Century,’’ in  Schoepferische Momente Des Europaischen Juden-tums in Der Fruhen Neuzeit  , ed. M. Graetz (Heidelberg, 2000), 333–49.3. Although the decline or crisis of rabbinic authority is widely accepted as anearly modern phenomenon, the concept requires some refining since it is too broad to be helpful in dealing with a very large set of issues. See Jacob Katz,‘‘The Changing Position and Outlook of Halakhists in Early Modernity,’’ in Scholars and Scholarship: The Interaction between Judaism and Other Cultures , ed. L. The Jewish Quarterly Review  (Spring 2014)Copyright  2014 Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.  172 JQR 104.2 (2014)  bidding of increasingly confident and powerful lay employers, as congre-gants turned to other sources of knowledge and leadership.Lay control over the  h . erem , or ban of excommunication, is sometimesseen as exemplary of this trend, and nowhere has the ban been morecentral to the historical understanding of a community than in the Span-ish and Portuguese congregation of Amsterdam, from which Spinoza was banned. The  h . erem  was the main tool of the lay leadership council, called the Mahamad,  4 as they tried to impose order on this rather unusual,fledgling community of former conversos and cosmopolitan merchants.The first Jewish immigrants to the city, around the turn of the seven- teenth century, sought a commercially advantageous locale in which theycould openly practice Judaism after living for generations as Catholicsunder the Inquisition; Amsterdam fit the bill, though it had virtually nohistory of Jewish life. The newcomers built several separate congrega- tions from scratch; these eventually merged in 1638 to form a single com-munity. At that time, a set of bylaws established the procedures and powers of the new Mahamad and secondary authorities such as the sala-ried rabbis and various charitable associations. Despite its unique back-ground, the community in some ways reflects trends typical of the earlymodern period in its move toward strong lay government, and in therelatively low institutional status of its rabbis. A previously unnoticed text written by the head rabbi of this commu-nity, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605–93), problematizes the narrative of rabbinic decline in interesting and counterintuitive ways. The work, a pamphlet urging communal members to respect the  h . erem , bears theunwieldy title  Exortac ¸ ao˜  , paraque os tementes do Senhor na observanc ¸ a dos pre- ceitos de sua Sancta Ley, nao˜  cayao˜  em peccado por falta da conviniente inteligen- cia , or, ‘‘An Exhortation to God-Fearers who Observe the Holy Law ThatThey Should Not Sin for Lack of Proper Information.’’ 5 The impassioned Landman (New York, 1990), 93–106; Shalom Rosenberg, ‘‘Emunat Hakhamim,’’in  Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century , ed. I. Twersky and B. Septimus (Cam- bridge, Mass., 1987), 285–341; and in general, the bibliography regarding the‘‘crisis of rabbinic authority’’ and ‘‘knowledge explosion’’ among early modernJews especially in terms of the rise of print, the Sabbatian messianic movement,and new skeptical and critical approaches to the bible, listed in Ruderman,  Early Modern Jewry , 252–69. 4. ‘‘Mahamad’’ is the usual Sephardi transliteration of the Hebrew  ma   amad .Below, in direct translations of Aboab’s Portuguese text, his rendition of theHebrew terms  h . erem, h . akham , and  kahal   (usually as ‘‘herem,’’ ‘‘Haham,’’ and‘‘Kahal’’) is also preserved, though the standard transliteration of the Hebrew isused otherwise.5. Henceforth  Exhortation . (Amsterdam, 1680). The pamphlet was mistakenlyattributed to Matathia Aboab in Meyer Kayserling,  Biblioteca espan˜  ola-portugueza-  RABBI ISAAC ABOAB DA FONSECA—ALBERT 173  pleas for communal unity—and extensive rabbinic argumentation—found therein shed considerable light on the context of both communalaffairs and lay-rabbinic relations in Amsterdam’s Sephardi community.They help us better understand a series of conflicts that had disturbed the community for a decade prior to its publication.In the  Exhortation , Aboab responds to the claims of an unnamed groupof rebels who argued in various ways that individuals or small groupscould legally secede from the community, and that the rule of the Maha-mad then held no jurisdiction over them. Their arguments, which must be reconstructed from Aboab’s response, apparently complain of a lackof rabbinic oversight of the Mahamad, the lay leaders’ noncompliance with certain communal bylaws, and generally debate how one ought toconceive of membership in the community—contractual or consensual.In response, Aboab presents a striking argument that the Mahamad’sauthority to govern was absolute and inviolable and could stand alone,requiring neither a rabbi nor anyone else to validate its ordinances. As a rabbinic justification for exclusively lay communal governance—for the position of the pamphlet essentially cut Aboab himself out of the picture—Aboab’s treatise may be seen as an extreme example of the mar-ginalization, or at least formal subservience, of the early modern rabbi. Yet no such simple conclusions can be reached when it comes to rabbinicauthority understood more broadly in this Jewish community, and per-haps also when it comes to lay dominance. A close reading of the  Exhorta-tion  reveals that many of the arguments put forward by Aboab’sopponents are drawn from rabbinic sources and presume an essentiallyhalakhic view of the nature of the community. They also preserve the voices of a group or groups invested in reducing or eliminating the powerof lay leaders in favor of more rabbinic power, or in favor of a loosercongregation of Jews that does not necessarily require formal leadershipat all. Apparently there was less than unanimous support for the new layascendancy. THE   H  . EREM   DEBATED  Although rabbis were usually not the primary decision makers in earlymodern communal governments, it is not clear what their formal rolesactually were. The standards for determining which matters would be   judaica  (Strasbourg, 1890), on which most subsequent bibliographies of Aboab’s work were based. This mistake was corrected in J. S. da Silva Rosa,  Die spani- schen und portugiesischeen gedruckten Judaica in der Bibliothek des Ju¨  d. Portug. Seminars‘‘Ets Haim’’ in Amsterdam: Eine Erga¨nzung zu Kayserlings ‘‘Biblioteca espan˜  ola- portugueza-judaica’’   (Amsterdam, 1933), and the book is properly listed in  Spanish  174 JQR 104.2 (2014) handled by rabbinic courts (  bate din ) or with the consultation of rabbis,and which would fall under the purview of lay leaders alone, seem tohave varied from community to community and were rarely laid outexplicitly. In Amsterdam, the bylaws indicated that questions of   din torah  would be decided by a board of four communal (‘‘salaried’’) rabbis, and, perhaps significantly, that the Mahamad would rule (only) in case of a tie 6 —yet there is no indication of which cases constituted  din torah , andno records of a  bet din  survive. 7  A closer look at the situation in Amsterdam reveals even more com- plexity. Clearly, decisions regarding the  h . erem  were under the purview of  the Mahamad’s governmental activities. The first article of the bylawsgrants the Mahamad the authority to impose a  h . erem , without mention of a rabbi; 8  the minute-book entries recording decisions about bans confirm this, stating in almost every case that the decision was made unequivo-cally by the Mahamad. A  h . erem  or its revocation is usually noted with dryand formulaic wording that makes the ban seem rather bureaucratic.(The dramatic ban of Spinoza, containing curses against his soul,diverged from the norm. 9 ) On the other hand, these statements often  and Portuguese Printing in the Northern Netherlands, 1584–1825   (CD-ROM), ed. H.den Boer (Leiden, 2003).6. The bylaws are located in Gemeente Archief Amsterdam (GAA) 334, 19,1–5 and 21–27. An interpretive summary is given in Arnold Wiznitzer, ‘‘TheMerger Agreement and Regulations of Congregation Talmud Torah of Amster-dam (1638–9),’’  Revue des E ´ tudes Juives  20 (1958): 109–32, along with references to the partial versions that have been published. The bylaws of the Sephardicommunity of London, modeled after those of Amsterdam, were published inMiriam Bodian, ‘‘The Escamot of the Spanish-Portuguese Community of Lon-don, 1664,’’  Michael   9 (1985): 9–26.7. In Livorno, the Mahamad tried to regulate precisely this issue and was met with active, public dissent on the part of Rabbi Jacob Sasportas. That acrimoni-ous dispute was ongoing at the time of Aboab’s treatise, and Sasportas spent partof this period in Amsterdam. On this chapter in Livorno’s history, see ShabbetaiToaff, ‘‘The Argument between Rabbi Jacob Sasportas and the Parnassim of Livorno about the Autonomous Governance of the ‘Jewish Nation’ in Livorno in1681’’ (Hebrew),  Sefunot   9 (1964): 169–91; and Isaiah Tishby, ‘‘The Letters of Rabbi Jacob Sasportas against the Parnassim of Livorno in 1681’’ (Hebrew), in  H  . ikre kabalah u-sheluh . otehah: Meh . karim u-makorot  , ed. I. Tishby (Jerusalem, 1993), 460–74. Parts of some of the relevant texts are published in translation in ‘‘Dis- pute over Separation of Civil and Religious Law: Ordinances of the LivornoCommunity with Letters and a Critical Circular by Jacob Sasportas,’’ in  The Jewish Political Tradition , vol. 1,  Authority , ed. M. Walzer, M. Lorberbaum, and N.Zohar (New Haven, Conn., 2000), 424–29.8. GAA 334, 19, f. 219. Indications of greater involvement of on the part of the  h . akhamim  in hiscase, as well as in dealings with those accused of heresy like Uriel da Costa,
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