BEFORE THE DELUGE: THE JEWS OF SPAIN (PART III)

After 1391 the Jews in Spain were a particularly impoverished element of the population, who in great portion occupied themselves as itinerant peddlers, shopkeepers, and in a few restricted crafts. The Jewish upper stratum at this time appears to have left Judaism. The Marranos had renounced their faith but Spanish gentiles still regarded them as Jews. The clergy suspected they still adhered to the old faith of their brothers. It was obvious they were still bound to other Jews in a thousand ways.

The inability to assimilate the Marranos led to the struggle to exterminate those Jews who remained. Because of their connections with other Jews, the Marranos, the “new Christians,” bore the burden of “bad blood,” for it seemed to the clergy to be a severe threat against the Christians “of pure blood.” The concept of “limpezza,” racial purity, was something that was carefully defined and recorded for several generations so as to determine degree of nobility “as a weapon for Christian children of Germanic and Roman ancestry against descendants of Jews and Moors.”
Under the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, the struggle against the new Christians acquired a special motive. In Aragon, where the Jews still had some economic and commercial influence, they attempted to defend themselves. The Inquisitor Pedro Arbues was murdered while reciting evening prayers in the Cathedral of Saragossa. This desperate act, as well as the rebellion of the conversos in Seville, was unable to stop the activities of the Inquisition. After the reconquest of Granada, Torquemada beseeched Queen Isabella to expel the Jews from Spanish lands.
From the 9th through the 13th century, Spain was the spiritual center of the Jewish world. The Spanish schools of learning were found by Babylonian doctors of law, who guaranteed a continuation with the old spiritual centers. In Spain the Jewish horizon was widely enhanced. The secular sciences, medicine and astronomy, experienced a great expansion. Chasdai ibn Schaprut translated theDioscorides into Arabic. Hebrew grammatical investigations received a broad foundation via similar studies of other Semitic languages. The Jewish scientific study of languages extended itself also to the languages of the Iberian peninsula.
On Spanish soil Judaism produced creative talents – for example, poets such as ibn Gabirol, Yehuda ha-Levi and Moses ibn Ezra. The relationship to the culture of the country reflected itself in the very use of languages. In Saragossa the Jews spoke partially Romanish [Translator’s Note: neither Latin nor modern nor Castillian Spanish, but related to all of these] and partially Arabic. Bachja ibn Pakuda of Saragossa, the author of the tract of ethics Obligations of the Heart, wrote in Arabic, though he was less than wholly fluent. In the other provinces, Arabic was generally the lingua franca.
The Arab influence revealed itself in the religious-philosophical contemplations in Spanish-Jewish theology, in the presentation of dogmas, and in the formation of everyday learning. In contrast to this, the Zerfatim (Jews of northern France) and the Ashkenazi [Wischnitzer probably means German Jews specifically] stood for a more traditional Orthodox position in Talmud and biblical exegesis and systematically attempted to place themselves in a stark contrast to Maimonides.
In northern Spain, a place that had a Provencal [Mediterranean south France] influence, Salomo ben Adret represented a conservative approach. He received support from Yakov ben Asher, who had come from Germany to Toledo. His son became the rabbi in Toledo after 1305, and in his “Turim” created a foundation for the Shulchan Aruch of Josef Karo.
The removal of the Jewish spiritual centers to the north, the result of the political displacement of the Arabs by the Christian powers of the North, aided the rise of a particular kind of Jewish spiritual leadership in Catalonia, Aragon, and Leon which was far more closely related to Jewish thought in Provence and Italy than it was to the same in southern Spain. This position, which went up against the rationalism of Maimonides, was strongly colored by a new kind of mysticism, and was represented in Barcelona by Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman – the Ramban).
The Jewish-Christian cultural exchange, coming to full bloom in the 13th and 14th centuries, had a profound impact on the Spanish language, just as the earlier interaction between Jews and Moors strongly affected and changed the language of the Arabs. Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula carried Spanish throughout the world, and back in Spain itself the cadences of Spanish poetry, el canzioneros, bore the resonance and rhythm of Hebrew poetry. Jews composed poetry in the Castillian dialect [which eventually became the official, standardized form of Spanish] and Moses Arragel of Guadalajara translated and commented on the Old Testament for the Castillian clergy, who wished to become acquainted with Jewish exegesis as an authentic source of learning.

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