Friday, 04 Sep 2009

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein


והפיצך יהוה בכל העמים מקצה הארץ ועד קצה הארץ, ועבדת שם אלהים אחרים אשר לא ידעת אתה ואבותיך, עץ ואבן

The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced (Deut. 28:64).

This verse comes near the conclusion of a seemingly endless series of hair-raising afflictions promised by God as the deadly consequences of failure to live up to our obligations under the covenant. Most of these verses are so appalling that we have no inclination to linger over them. Indeed, the sixth aliyah of this parashah, containing all the curses in Deut. 28:15–69), is traditionally chanted or read at break-neck speed, in a soft undertone, in order to be done with them as soon as possible. But verse 64 has two elements of surprising historical significance.

The first has important relevance to our communities in England. As is well known, in 1655 Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel undertook a mission from Holland to convince Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament during the Protectorate to revoke the Expulsion of 1290 and allow Jews to return to live in England. In his “Humble Addresses”, he used an array of arguments, intended to re-spond to the strong resistance against inviting Jews back. Prominent among them was the utilitarian argument that, with their international commercial networks, Jews bring economic prosperity to every land where they are welcomed, benefiting the native inhabitants as well as themselves.

But this was a society that took religion seriously, and not a few religious leaders held that allowing Judaism to be publicly observed in their Christian country was tantamount to blasphemy. Manasseh therefore turned to our verse for help. God had foretold that Jews would be scattered “to the end of the earth” (ad ketseh ha-arets), which could also be translated “to the end of the land”. That phrase was rendered by the French Angle-terre, equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon Eng-land. Manasseh’s conclusion: God’s word in this verse had to be fulfilled; so long as Jews were being kept out of Eng-land, they were defying God’s word, and thereby preventing the advent of a messianic age that both Jews and Christians anticipated. Thus re-admission to England was indeed in accordance with God’s will, mandated by this verse. The argument was plausible enough to have convinced some, but it was not decisive. Manasseh left England in September 1657, to die two months later, convinced that his mission had ended in dismal failure.

The second phrase addresses the religious experience of Jews in their exile: “there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. . . .” In the year 1497, King Manuel of Portugal made a fateful decision. Desiring to eliminate the public observance of Judaism from his realm, but not wanting to lose through expulsion the role played by Jews in international commerce, he ordered a universal mass forced conversion of all Jews on Portuguese soil, both native Portuguese and refugees from the Spanish expulsion five years earlier. While some were able to escape by ship, most of the Jewish popula-tion—including the most learned rabbis and the most devoted Jewish women – were caught, compelled to accept baptism, and to live openly as Christians.

In their anguish over this fate, some of the conversos turned to this verse and understood it as being fulfilled in their own tragic experience. The “other gods” in the verse referred to the worship of Jesus and the saints, depicted in sculptures of wood and stone, a worship they believed to be tantamount to idolatry. It was of course a terrible punishment for their sins. But it was a punishment not just predicted but mandated in the Torah. Once all the specified punishments had been fulfilled, once the last arrow in the quiver of retribution had inflicted pain upon its target, the penitential suf-fering would come to an end, and the messianic redemption would come. This verse gave the conversos who still nourished a Jewish identity a way of understanding and coping with their own experience of living as Christians: it was not a betrayal, but a necessary process of atonement in accordance with God’s will.

It also gave Jews who had escaped from the Iberian peninsula but left loved ones behind living as Christians a source of reassurance. For the passage continues, Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace (Deut. 28:65). This led those who had escaped to conclude that the mass conver-sion of Jews in Spain and Portugal was not to be not the end of their role in Jewish history. Many of the conversos would not be fully integrated into the Christian society. Many would continue to feel as aliens, and eventually they might return. This expectation was indeed fulfilled as throughout the six-teenth and well into the seventeenth centuries, Portuguese “New Chris-tians” continued to leave their homes and join Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire (including the Land of Israel), in Italy, and in the new community of Amsterdam, where Manassseh ben Israel was educated and served as rabbi, before his mission to England.

Despite its context of one of the most troubling chapters of the Bible, this biblical verses played an unexpectedly powerful and constructive role in critical periods of our history.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
September 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.