Seventeenth Century Jewish essay

Submitted By quinn253
Words: 1574
Pages: 7

Seventeenth Century Jewish Individualism

The seventeenth century not only marks an important era in Jewish history, the arrival of Jews in the New World, but it marks a shift in Jewish ideology as well. Traditionally, in the Old World prior to the Inquisition, Jews did not live as individuals but rather as a part of a social network or community that worshipped together, studied together, at times lived together, and had the same set of beliefs. During, and for sometime after the Inquisition, some secret Jews were part of an underground community but other secret Jews chose not to be part of any Jewish community, secret or not, out of fear. It was not until the seventeenth century that there was a conscious break in the tradition of being part of a community and some Jews chose the path of individualism, because they were dissatisfied with the confines of their current Jewish community or they were forced to abandon their community and worship individually. When Jews began to move from the Old World to the New World they were forced with the challenge of figuring out how they were supposed to practice Judaism when there was no current Jewish framework in place. When Portuguese Jews arrived in the New World they were forced to live outside of the traditional community because there was no Jewish community to greet them in New Amsterdam. In the seventeenth century, it was not the norm for a Jew to live outside of the Jewish community, but it was possible; one’s willingness or necessity to live outside of the community depended upon one’s geographical location, fear, or personal convictions.

In fear of being persecuted for their faith during and after the Inquisition, many Jews took on secret identities and were referred to as “Crypto-Jews (Gerber 121).” In an effort to escape persecution or murder many Crypto-Jews kept themselves isolated from the openly Jewish community; it was not until many generations after the Inquisition that numerous Crypto-Jews who moved north to The Netherlands were introduced to other Jews and even, “… a random encounter with a Jew visiting from abroad could inspire the Iberian converso to reconsider his identity (Gerber 187).” Before rediscovering his true identity as a Jew, the Crypto-Jew was not a part of an open community, nor did he have any concept of what it was like to be a member of an openly Jewish Community. Although these secret Jews were not part of an openly Jewish community, many were part of Jewish secret societies that kept them connected to their Jewish roots while they were parading in public as New Christians (Gerber 187.) On the other hand, some Crypto-Jews who stayed in Spain or Portugal disguised themselves as New Christians and, “preferred to remain secret Jews or ‘unaffiliated’ [with the Jewish Community], feeling sufficiently insecure about openly proclaiming themselves to be Jewish (Gerber 192).” It was not that the overly secretive Crypto-Jews did not want to be part of the Jewish community, but rather that they were so concerned with what would happen to them if they were open about their religion, they chose the lifestyle of Jewish isolation and felt they were better off wearing the mask of a New Christian.
In stark contrast with the former Crypto-Jews who were happy to finally be a part of an openly Jewish community, there were some Jews, namely Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, who chose to denounce traditional Judaism, and in Spinoza’s case, were excommunicated from the Jewish community. Although Spinoza was the son of conversos, he grew up in the Jewish community in Amsterdam and was well versed in the teachings of Judaism as well as in philosophy (Gerber 201.) For Spinoza, reason was more important that faith and he felt that the framework of Judaism could not be explained by reason and therefore he was against the traditional Judaism of the time. In a letter written to Albert Burgh in 1675, nineteen years after his excommunication, Spinoza asks, “Have you examined…