An article I wrote for Sephardic Heritage Update 520 published March 11, 2012

Shame on You, My Dearest Co-Religionist

By: Hayyim Harlow

Recently I was reminded of an article from roughly three years ago written by Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a member of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. The title of the article is “Burned Alive at the Stake”. Dr. Levine’s article, written in 2007, is a commentary, on commentary, originally written in 1962 by Arnold Wiznitzer.

It’s a story about a Sephardic Jew Senor Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte, a Converso burned alive at the stake after watching his family executed by the Spanish Inquisition on April 11, 1649, in Guaxaca, Virreinato de Nueva España [Oaxaca which was the part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain].

Senor Trebino de Sobremonte was a very wealthy, educated, and politically influential man in New Spain (Mexico). He was a Converso. He conducted all of his business affairs in Spanish while also conversant in the indigenous Aztec Language (Nahuatl); he received news of his impending arrest for “Judaizing” from his Converso friends Lasaro Lopes and Pedro Lopes. He engaged in trade with the Northern New Spain Mining Regions bringing clothing and other mercantile wares to the miners. Senor Trebino de Sobremonte is a man whose good name has been disparaged – covertly if not overtly.

In his preamble to the article, Dr. Levine emphasizes:

This article is based on “CryptoJews in Mexico During the Seventeenth Century”
by Arnold Wiznitzer,
American Jewish Historical Quarterly. 51, 1962
All quotes are from this article.”

For the record – there are eight (8) quotes from the Wiznitzer article – none of which support the commentary and conclusions of Dr. Levine. The Wiznitzer article, coupled with texts that rely upon Wiznitzer’s conclusions are an early attempt at casting Conversos and Sephardim as something other than Jews who observe Halacha, Kashrut, perform Mitzvot and undertake contemporary chumrot; wholly ignoring events of that time that stimulated survival behaviors.

The article begins by stipulating:

During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even into the eighteenth century, the Catholic Church, in its attempts to root out every vestige of Judaism in countries controlled by Spain and Portugal, was responsible for more than its share of spilled Jewish blood through the practices of the feared Inquisition”.

There are many important historical facts wholly overlooked by both Mr. Wiznitzer and Dr. Levine; though each succeeding royal from the Habsburg dynasty had its own Inquisitors, courts and executioners – there was no uniform pursuit of Jews in Habsburg Empire’s other colonial possessions. Make no mistake, the Roman Catholic Church, in partnership with the House of Habsburg Royal Families, were the explicitly involved in torturing and killing Jews. It is not surprise, then, that both Mr. Wiznitzer and Dr. Levine neglect to inform the reader that the charter of the Spanish Inquisition only allowed arrest, trial and punishment for those Jews who had converted to Christianity (and their descendants); in other words, the Inquisitors only pursued Jews who reverted, after conversion, while ignoring Jews who never converted to Christianity at all.

There was a spike in Spanish Inquisitorial activity in 1640’s due to the separation of Portugal from the Spanish Crown. This led to persecution of Portuguese Conversos who 1) had active trade through the Atlantic via Seville, and 2) probably represented a threat to Spanish commercial interests. As the local Catholic Bishopric could grant clemency, it also sanctioned executions and bestial tortures. That Dr. Levine fails to recognize the distinctions between the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions is noteworthy.

By the time of Senor Trebino de Sobremonte‘s execution, the Spanish Inquisition had slowed its pace in the New World, in comparison to its activity during the 16th century. It was the Portuguese Inquisition that had escalated to a frenetic pace in its colonies and the “New World.” When the Spanish Crown discovered the success of Inquisitorial conquests by Portugal in Brazil, the Spanish Habsburgs escalated their complicity with the Catholic Church in both flushing out Judaizing Spanish Conversos and forcibly converting indigenous communities, thriving within the Viceroyalty of New Spain, at the edge of a sword.

In the 4th paragraph Dr. Levine suggests, anecdotally:

The death sentence was not carried out by the Church. Indeed, the [Catholic] Church itself never actually killed anyone” The Inquisitional Court turned the heretic over to the secular authorities with the request that he or she be treated “mercifully.”.

But then Dr. Levine takes a hard left turn “off the ranch” in the third paragraph of the introduction:

 These Marranos knew very little about Judaism. It was impossible for them to have any real Jewish education. They could not read Hebrew, did not have access to a Jewish calendar, and knew only a smattering of halacha”.

 To be clear, there is ample evidence that “These Marranos” knew about Judaism of their Sephardic Rite – in fact I offer that “these Marranos”, especially Senor Trebine de Sobremonte, knew more thatDr.Levine will give credit. As demonstrated by professor Yosef Yerushalmi in his article “The Re-Education of the Marranos in the Seventeenth Century” (1980), “Conversos were quite conversant with halakhic Judaism thanks to the printing activities of their Sephardim brethren in the Old World, with whom they kept commercial ties during the early modern period”.

Converso intellectuals gleaned a mass of Jewish information from the works of Christian scholars. Converso businessmen brought back information on Jewish life from their trips abroad. The Iberian Peninsula, in the seventeenth century, was not hermetically sealed to Jewish information, nor was it closed to occasional visits by professing Jews”. More to the point, Spanish Galleons and Portuguese Caravel’s (sailing ships) employed Jews, onboard, who did not convert to Christianity. Even the Habsburg royals knew that Jews in foreign lands would not communicate with potential infiltrators who pretended to be enslaved Conversos – free Jews would only communicate with other free Jews.

To suggest that Conversos, particularly Senor Sobremonte, knew nothing of Judaism is not sensible in light of evidence which existed at the time of Dr. Levine’s writing – it is rhetorical commentary which is not corroborated by historical fact. The truth of the matter is that the destruction of Jewish texts in Habsburg lands was so rampant that Conversos were reduced to a Jewish education based upon a patch-work of fragments inherited from parents, gleaned haphazardly from books, disorganized, with significant gaps, sometimes distorted. There was an obvious need for systematic instruction. In Venice, Samuel Aboab called for a special brotherhood (hebrah) that would devote itself to this task. Many Spanish Jews were not conversant in Hebrew – they were, however, conversant in Djudeo-Espanol “Ladino”; a hybrid of Hebrew and Spanish. When printers in Vienna, Salonika, Constantinople (and eslewhere) began printing books for Spanish Jews the texts are printed using “Ladino” in Latin characters and later adopted the convention of using Ladino in Rashi-script.

In light of five years of imprisonment, torture, starvation and finally immolation, we find the preserved notes of Senor Sobremonte‘s Inquisitors informing us that he never claimed to be a Converso who reverted to Judaizing. In fact, it was not until he was sentenced to death that he defiantly chose to die as a Jew.

I argue that Senor Trebino de Sobremonte possessed something that Dr. Levine wholly ignores: Senor Trebino de Sobremonte possessed a Jewish identity resulting from his education provided via family members and texts, delivered over long distances, from his Sephardi brethren. We find later, in Dr. Levine’s article, that after having been caught “Judaizing” early in his adulthood (and cautioned against it), Senor Trebino de Sobremonte returns to “Judaizing,” a religious endeavor, which according to Dr.Levine, Senor Trebino de Sobremonte knew little if anything at all; herein Dr. Levine self-contradicts himself.

Dr. Levine’s anecdotal commentary, and vague recollection of history, is emblematic of the overall ignorance in regards to Sephardi history. Dr. Levine goes on in an attempt to supplant it with a Judaism framed in an Ashkenazic dialectic. This is demonstrably an early, and still common, attempt at casting Sephardim as less than literate in a Jewish educational facet. The story of Senor Trebino de Sobremonte is a sad tale, but a vitally important one in that time relative to the Spinoza and Shabtai Tzvi controversies. As Yerushalmi expertly shows, there was no good reason to cast Senor Trebino de Sobremonte as an ill-educated, religiously illiterate “Marrano” and it should have been a perfect opportunity to recall history as it truthfully evolved; a righteous Sephardic Jew, with steel resolve, resisted five years of torture and watching his family killed before his eyes, vowing never to convert to Christianity.

 In some ways, Senor Trebino de Sobremonte was a victim of his times. The Shabtai Tzvi Controversy was in full bloom, the Spinoza Controversy was getting lots of attention in Amsterdam and abroad, Portuguese troops and the Portuguese Inquisition had re-taken Brazil from the Dutch. This was a time of major geopolitical changes that had the Habsburg Spanish and Portuguese realms worried.

 Dr. Levine is not to be solely blamed for casting aspersions upon Sephardim. Wiznitzer and many others, who are coincidentally graduates of Yeshiva University, have published a great many books and articles in the last 40 years denigrating, and marginalizing, Conversos and displacing it with the concept that “Yiddishkeit” a concept that has no place, or reference point, in the Sephardic experience is lacking in all references to Conversos and Marranos.

 Sadly, both Dr. Wiznitzer and Dr. Levine make the mistake of exposing their fundamental lack of historical understanding and context. Peru was Spain’s major silver mining province; Spanish Royalty used Converso tradesman and bankers to keep track of gold and silver production, shipping, and transport across the Panama Isthmus. As Senor Sobremonte demonstrates, Conversos inherited their ancestral affinity for learning languages… especially the languages of the Maya, Inca and Aztecs. At the same as the royals had great dependence upon Conversos, they also had to be wary of Sephardic pirates (plying under “Privateer” flags of Netherlands, England, and Portugal) praying on Spanish Galleons full of gold and silver, many of whose pirates were former Conversos now living in England and the Netherlands; for example, the notorious collaboration of the Cohen-Henriques brothers with Captain Henry Morgan. Nowhere does Dr. Levine inform the readers of important historical contexts.

History tells us that Habsburg Spanish Royalty protected the Jews of Peru from the Inquisitors so as to keep open shipping lanes for silver shipments and avoid piracy at the hands of Sephardic Pirates led by Moses Cohen-Henriques private “Piracy” it was the best paying Job in the “New World” at that time and the Habsburgs did not want to aggravate trade in other areas of their realm. Nowhere does Dr. Levine inform the reader of the prominent Nueva Espana family from which Senor Trebino de Sobremonte descends.

Further, it was around 1630s that the Portuguese pursued the Inquisition, and used the “auto de fe” with more regularity. At the time, zealots being targeted were mostly Portuguese Conversos attempting to win a higher social status by demonstrating full support of the Inquisition. In the end, the real story of Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte is one of an educated, religious, Sephardi who engaged in disputation with the Spanish Inquisitors for five years while imprisoned, tortured, starved and finally burned alive, refusing to accept an alternative esoteric trinitarian doctrine as a replacement for his ancestral ancient faith, even as his own family is executed before his eyes.

The last paragraph of Dr. Levine’s article is especially vexing:

 “The thirteen others who were also executed on this terrible day “chose” to be garroted rather than be burned alive. Among them were Sobremonte’s mother-in-law Leonor Gomez Nunez, his wife Maria Gomez Sobremonte, and his sister-in-law Ana Gomez. Not Thomas Trebino de Sobremonte. He endured the horrible death of actually being burned alive at the stake when he died ‘a1 Kiddush Hashem’. Despite the fact that his knowledge of Yiddishkeit was limited. and he had never seen Judaism practiced fully, his commitment to the faith of his ancestors knew no bounds.”

 Yiddishkeit? The conflict among Vilna Gaon’s Mitnagdim and Baal Shem Tob’s Chassidim had not yet occurred in 1649; Yiddishkeit, an Eastern European Jewish view of what it means to be a Jew, is wholly unknown in the middle of the 17th century. Concomitant with this Eastern European Jewish view of Yiddishkeit comes an Eastern European Jewish definition of “who is a Jew?”. In that context, Dr. Levine has backhandedly appended the question of “is Senor Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte a Jew?” to this important historical figure using the Eastern European concept of Yiddishkeit.

If the articles written by Mr. Wiznitzer and Dr. Levine do not leave you chagrined, then I recommend a book titled “Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews” by Janet Liebman Jacobs. This book makes ample use of Mr. Wizniter’s views and amplifies them; leaving the reader to conclude that there were no Jews in New Spain, the Viceroyalty of Spain or Mexico, post-expulsion, in the “New World” because they lacked “Yiddishkeit” and failed to observe contemporary Ashkenazic strictures.

Rather than continue to breathlessly express my deepest disappointment at the treatment of the good name of Senor Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte, I want to illustrate my disagreement with what Dr. Levine and Mr Wiznitzer have undertaken – albeit in a Jewish context. Some things are forbidden to be said or written because they are Avak Lashon Hara (traces of Lashon Hara which incite speaking of Lashon Hara). According to eighth chapter of sefer Chafetz Chaim, the prohibition of Lashon Hara applies when the speaker/writer disparages the subject before a Jew; all the more severe is his transgression if he disparages the speaker before gentiles.

Gaonim and Rishonim, alike, write that an ancient decree was enacted against speaking derogatorily about the dead. This applies to speaking about an “am ha’aretz” (simple person); all the more severe is the transgression if the deceased individual is a Torah scholar: the speaker is deserving of excommunication as stated in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 243:7. What are we to make of Avak Lashon Hara, and Lashon Hara expressed by seemingly well-meaning Jews in regards to a man who knew more suffering in 5 years, and in death, than any human endured in a Nazi Death Camp? Need one fit within the confines of Yiddishkeit in order to be a Torah Scholar? Is Senor Trebino de Sobremonte a martyr in a Sephardic context only and Ger Tosahv in an Ashkenazic context? Both Dr. Levine and Mr. Wiznitzer leave the reader with doubts about Senor Trebino de Sobremonte’s status as a Halachic Jew in a contemporary framework.

Some will argue that I have engaged in Lashon Hara by writing this article as I have. The last chapter of the section Hilchot Lashon Hara in sefer Chafetz Chaim, has 17 numbered paragraphs discussing situations when speaking Lashon Hara for a constructive purpose would be permitted. The second paragraph enumerates seven conditions required to speak Lashon Hara. Specifically, the fifth condition for speaking Lashon Hara, that one should have pure “constructive” intentions, is as follows.

Proper intentions include any of the following:

 1.To help the wronged party. This is indicated by an audience which is capable of helping him,

 2. Certainly if the people he tells can help the wronged party, it is proper to tell them, and,

 3. Even if that purpose won’t be achieved, but he wants others to avoid evil ways when they learn that people criticize those who commit such sins, and,

 4. Perhaps the sinner himself will repent from their evil ways and make up for their actions when they hear people disparage them for such behavior.

In closing, I would like to say “Shame on you Mr Wiznitzer and Dr.Levine for denigrating a dead man, who has no advocate in death, by not understanding his life and telling the truth of it” – we pray others treat your legacy, 450 years on, better than you treated ‘Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte’; he was a good man. Both Dr. Levine and Mr. Wiznitzer provide evidence that some of our co-religionists, in positions of scholarly influence, are gravely distorting how Sephardim are to be viewed in the Galut. I have heard many arguments to the contrary, and I can only opine that our co-religionists are too smart to believe that what they type is not without an underlying motive to distort history: To dis-inform as much as mis-inform.

I propose that we Sephardim clench our fists and refuse to accept this. We must take notes, write our thoughts down, confront these assassins of the good names of our dead brothers, and our Sephardic heritage, head-on. Detractors of Sephardi heritage can be given the benefit of the doubt as ‘ignorant’ but we have no excuse for being lazy. We must confront, aspersion half-truths and distortions with truth and learn to get out in front of our detractors. We do this by understanding the truth for what it is, and responding accordingly…Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte is owed this as much as we owe this to our ancestors and our descendants.

 ‘Let every man remind their descendants that they also are soldiers who must not desert the ranks of their ancestors, or from cowardice fall behind’ – Plato

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One response

  1. Brilliantly tied up! The main reason these “scholars” write about Sepharaddim and their history, through Ashkenazi memorabilia, is to tell how evil were/are the Gentile. It’s pretty much a projection of their own conditions at others.

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