While most of us have heard of the Spanish Inquisition, few are aware of what it was or the unbelievable events that led up to it.

Spanish historians use the word Convivencia to describe the communication and sharing of ideas that went on in Spain during the eighth and ninth centuries. Muslims, Christians, and Jews were sharing ideas and modes of expression in a way unparalleled until modern times. This time of close interaction did not disappear all at once and continued for hundreds of years. Those alive at this time surely expected the World to Come to arrive at any moment.

An example is found in the Torah commentary of Yitzhak Abarbanel (Abravanel). The former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Shlomo Gaon (z “l), argued clearly that Abarbanel, who was alive at the time of the Inquisition, not only learned Christian commentaries but also was deeply influenced by commentary written by the Catholic bishop and radical thinker, Alfonso Tostado. He writes:

A more thorough examination of their works led me to the conclusion that Abravanel, far from being only superficially influenced by Tostado, used the works of the latter as a constant reference.[1]

While assuring his readers that Abarbanel can be trusted in matters of Jewish law and citing Yosef Caro to validate the claim, Rabbi Gaon explains that Abarbanel sided, at times, with the opinion of Father Alfonso even over talmudic sages. [2]Abarbanel, who, as Rabbi Gaon argued, viewed Christians and Muslims as brothers of Israel,[3] left Spain at the time of the expulsion to live in Italy where non-Jews were learning Hebrew from rabbis. While most of us know that the Inquisition was something driven by absolute evil, involving torture chambers, strange costumes, and public executions, few realize that this was an internal investigation and purging of the church by its leadership. Said more clearly, the Inquisition was not aimed at Jews in general but was an investigation into the lives of Jews who had been baptized—Jewish Christians.

You’re going to have a hard time finding those two words merged together in academic papers written on the subject; it’s an anomaly that should be explained; Dr. Roger L. Martinez-Davila [4] of the University of Colorado speaks to the issue:

One of the prominent outcomes of this debate is the disjointed problematic and polemical tone of scholarship that has evolved from the 1800s to the 2000s. It is as if the 15th-century and 16th-century souls inhabit and possess modern scholarship and remain unwilling to concede or acknowledge the complexity of history.

In a roundtable discussion broadcast out of New Mexico for PBS, Dr. Martinez-Davila was continually interrupted as he described the difficulties of attempting to fit the victims of the Inquisition into easier categories:

Conversos essentially are Jewish converts to Christianity. They converted by force—well, and this is the really challenging piece—we know that some Jews were converting by force because of extreme violence against them by Christian populations. Some are choosing to convert, they are adopting Catholicism at that time, and others are just—they are trying to find a middle way. [5]

Three hundred thousand Jews converted to Christianity, not only the common folk but also great rabbinic minds among them. Some converted during times of persecution, some with horrible motivation, and some to avoid the expulsion in 1492. This wicked violence did not create the original community of Jewish Christians but was rather a reaction to it. This was a malicious attempt by the church to keep the many thousands of Jews who had been baptized during more peaceful times from their continued communication with rabbinic Jews. These “new Christians” were baptized Jews who continued to practice the Torah and had been doing so for generations as Conversos or Marranos with the help of the broader Jewish population. Many of these Jews who had willingly been baptized later died refusing to let go of the Torah. It is difficult to describe them as insincere in either a Jewish or a Christian context.

Those Jews and Conversos of the middle way are the ones who interest me. Their children continued to be hunted by the Inquisition until 1826. These are unsung heroes yet to be eulogized. Dr. Martinez-Davila isn’t the only one to notice them. Extant scholarship sees these masses only in a blur. In her comprehensive book on Spanish Jewry, Jane S. Gerber asks a question left unanswered:

Were most of the Conversos reluctant Christians, but Christians nonetheless, quite prepared to assimilate if they were not constantly reminded of their origins by an anti-Semitic population? Or were most really Jews? At what point did a Converso stop thinking of himself as a Jew? [6]

The challenge for modern thinkers is one of definition. While some today might ask which Jews were authentic believers in Jesus to determine who was a Jew and who was not, neither Jews nor Catholics were asking that question at the time. Rabbinic bodies of the day wanted to know which baptized Jews were actively observing the Torah. The church understood this criterion as well. Our modern tendencies toward belief and creedal statements are useless here. It is glaringly obvious that there were Jews who could agree with certain statements of faith while continuing to observe Jewish law. Gerber writes,

Significantly, these secret Jews often found it necessary to enlist the active cooperation of Jewish authorities in the observance of such customs as circumcision, bar mitzvah, and other life-cycle events. Rabbis would officiate at a marrano couple’s wedding or at a burial after the “public” church rites had been performed. Naturally, even though the Jewish ceremonies were clandestine, rumors about secret marrano observances circulated widely. [7]

Ours is a generation where lines are easily crossed. Borders are re-drawn and sometimes smudged out of existence—for the good and the bad. The same qualities that allow our open acceptance of “otherness” have a darker side that is pure confusion. It is said that Mashiach will come for a generation that is, at the same time, the lowest and yet the most elevated of history. If the King arrives in our generation, this paradox will have been explained. If the polemical scholarship is possessed by the souls of the Inquisition-era clergy, the spirit of those they murdered is active only within the most recent movement to re-discover Yeshua within a Torah framework. The most heroic of the Inquisition are our saints and martyrs.

  1. Solomon Gaon, The Influence of the Catholic Theologian Alfonso Tostado on the Pentateuch Commentary of Isaac Abravanel, Preface ix. (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc. In Association with Sephardic House NY, NY, 1993).
  2. Ibid., 35-36.
  3. Ibid., 70.
  4. https://www.uc3m.es/ss/Satellite/UC3MInstitucional/en/FormularioTextoDosColumnas/1371215847808/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRM82TxDcmU
  6. Jane S. Gerber, A History of the Sephardic Experience, (Ontario, Canada: Maxwell Macmillan), 123.
  7. Ibid., 122.