Unrenounceable Core

David Nirenberg

  • The Other Within The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity by Yirmiyahu Yovel
    Princeton, 490 pp, £24.95, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 13571 7

Shortly before Holy Week in 1391, a crowd of armed Christians gathered outside the Jewish quarter of Seville. They were dispersed by hired guards and government officials, but encouraged by a local archdeacon called Ferrán Martínez, the mob gathered again on 6 June. This time the quarter was destroyed, and most of its inhabitants killed or, at the least, forced to convert to Christianity. By the end of August, Jews had been attacked in more than 70 Iberian towns and cities, and eliminated by conversion or massacre from many of them. One survivor described what had happened in the margins of a Torah scroll he rescued from the ruins of his father’s synagogue:

Wail, holy and glorious Torah, and put on black raiment, for the expounders of your lucid words perished in the flames. For three months the conflagration spread through the holy congregations of the exile of Israel in Sepharad. The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah overtook the holy communities … The sword, slaughter, destruction, forced conversions, captivity and spoliation were the order of the day. Many were sold as slaves to the Ishmaelites; 140,000 were unable to resist those who so barbarously forced them and gave themselves up to impurity.

Few modern scholars believe there were so many converts. But whatever the real figure, it soon increased. These converts, along with their descendants, came to be known as ‘the Marranos’.

Though the origins of the word are obscure, its meaning is clear. It was an insult – ‘dirty pig Jew’ – applied by Christians in what we now call Spain to other Christians who were suspected of being converts from Judaism or descended from converts. The term first appears several generations after 1391, but in The Other Within Yirmiyahu Yovel uses it to describe a ‘subjectivity’ that he believes emerged with the first converts to Catholicism. According to Yovel, these converts couldn’t commit themselves wholeheartedly to any religion. Those who wanted to be Christians could not achieve ‘a natural integration into Catholicism’, since their belief was ‘an act of the will, which is often severed from the person’s actual life’. As for those who yearned for Judaism, they could not return to it openly without risking death or going into exile.

The result was that all these converts and their descendants – from the most fervent crypto-Jew, secretly keeping kosher and circumcising his sons, to the most zealous convert cheering on the Inquisition – developed split personalities, even if externally they seemed to be conforming to the demands of the religious authorities. This Marrano subjectivity, incapable of submitting uncritically to any religion, tradition or law, ‘prefigures’ modernity, according to Yovel. In fact, Marrano split identity played an important role in ‘generating’ that modernity: it was ‘a prodding, a temptation’, that pushed Europe into its future. Yovel is well known for his work on the most famous of these ‘prodding’ Marranos, Spinoza. But in this book he suggests that all ‘the creators of modernity’ – even the overwhelming majority who were not Marranos – ‘often had to act like quasi-Marranos.’ In his view, we are all Marranos: ‘Marranism in a more metaphoric or analogous way exists today everywhere in the world – everywhere, that is, where old compact identities collapse. The reason can be immigration, urbanisation, globalisation and any other pertinent “-ation”.’

These claims are ambitious, amounting to an alternative account of what Charles Taylor calls the ‘sources of the self’. Like Taylor, Yovel is a philosophy professor, and his starting point is a philosophical account of modernity:

Hegel, the philosopher of modernity par excellence, placed the gist of the modern era in the rise of the principle of subjectivity (the subjective mind discovering and asserting itself as the source of value … ) rather than depending on a … non-reflective tradition … or on God’s external revelation. And he saw this shift prefigured in religion – specifically, in the Lutheran Reformation, which had been, he believed, the first to recognise the value of the interior, subjective mind. I think we can identify an earlier and more distinctive source in the Marranos … Hegel, however, understood the modern subject … as potentially harmonious, capable of being reconciled to itself and achieving a higher unified identity; whereas the Marrano subject arose from the start as fissured in its very identity and incapable of fully repairing it. Thus an unsatisfied, split, yet creative modern Self was constituted, which is closer to the unsettled realities of our late modern experience than to Hegel’s reconciliatory expectations (and illusions) of modernity.

Hegel, in other words, was right about the ‘principle of subjectivity’, but wrong about its history and its future. The origins of this worldly modernity can be found in the events of 1391 and not – as works like Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would have it – in the Reformation. Marranism provides the best genealogy for our ‘modern selves’, one that makes sense both of our early modern origins and our postmodern ends.

Despite the scale of Yovel’s argument, his method is very simple. First, he looks for Marranos in the historical record, and identifies aspects of their life that seem uncharacteristic both of the Catholicism they adopted and the Judaism they abandoned. Then he compares these to what he sees as characteristic aspects of modernity, including interiority, irony, secularism, mysticism, private devotion, atheism, careerism, tolerance, curiosity and intellectualism, the notion of the self, capitalism, rationality. Wherever there is a match between the Marrano and modernity, he believes he has found a precursor of ourselves.

Diego Arias of Avila, for example, was converted as a child around 1412, during the great preaching campaigns of St Vincent Ferrer, whose strategy of isolating Jews in ghettoes and forcing them to listen to preachers created a wave of conversions as great as that of 1391. Arias eventually became Castile’s most important financial official and his son became a bishop. He died in 1466, well before the Inquisition was launched in 1481, but around 1486 the inquisitors posthumously put Arias and his first wife on trial, in an attempt to discredit their powerful descendants, particularly their son Juan, bishop of Segovia. The trial dragged on for years, and produced voluminous testimony. One witness recalled that Arias had built a chapel on one of his estates, for the use of the tenants cultivating the land. As he rode to inspect the building, Arias was caught in a hailstorm so fierce that he feared for his life. When he finally reached the chapel he insisted that the saint to whom it had been dedicated be replaced: ‘This old whore made me think I was going to die! … Get her the hell out of here, and put a male saint in her place!’

Yovel tells us that Arias’s treatment of saints as ‘utilitarian devices, to be discarded when dysfunctional’, ‘is very un-Catholic, but far from being Jewish. It expresses the self-confidence … of one who affirms himself in this world’ and ‘prostrates himself before no church’. If his behaviour isn’t Catholic or Jewish it must be secular and modern. Thus he pronounces Arias a ‘confident man sure of his professional powers, worldly knowledge and career: a Spanish renaissance man tracing the horizon of modernity’. But what if Yovel is wrong in his classifications of Catholic and Jewish? Medieval and early modern Catholics were not slavish in their devotions. They kept track of their saintly patrons’ efforts on their behalf, devised rituals with which to humiliate and threaten those who failed to protect them, and were not shy about transferring their devotions from one heavenly advocate to another. If Diego’s actions are not ‘very un-Catholic’, perhaps they are also not very ‘split’, ‘estranged’ or ‘modern’.

A method that claims to discover modernity in the space between religious cultures is only effective if there is a proper knowledge of those cultures, but at times Yovel’s representation of Catholicism is more like a polemical parody drawn from Luther, Voltaire or Hegel than a historical account: Spanish Catholicism, he says, ‘was based on external ritual, church power, coercive scholasticism and rigid hierarchy; and it suffered from extreme clerical abuses.’ One would not guess from this description that Spain, like the rest of Europe in the late Middle Ages, was swept by waves of mysticism and messianism and by the introduction of new devotional practices (including the movement called the devotio moderna, the ‘modern devotion’). Would a richer picture of late medieval Catholicism still yield the conclusion that any signs of internal piety, mysticism or spiritual reform in Spain were symptoms of the ‘injection into Catholic Spain of ex-Jewish elements’?

Judaism and ‘Jewish elements’ do not fare much better. We are often told that something is ‘incongruent with Judaism’ or ‘has a foreign ring to Jewish ears’ when there are well-known historical examples to the contrary. A Marrano fast for Yom Kippur is apparently un-Jewish because it begins with the words: ‘this blood which I deprive of my body, I offer to you, so that my soul will be saved.’ According to Yovel, ‘this is unknown in Judaism, where human blood does not save.’ But if you open an Orthodox prayerbook for Yom Kippur, whether at Musaf, the final part of the morning prayer service, or the liturgical poems, or the silently recited Amida, you will find references to redemptive blood. There are more in depictions of the circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac, the paschal lamb and the deaths of martyrs. Even the rain prayer for Shemini Atzeret invokes the idea. And from the massacre of Jews in 1096 during the First Crusade to the industrialised killing of the Holocaust, there have always been rabbis who emphasised the redemptive power of spilling one’s own blood in ‘sanctification of God’s name’.

The things presented here as quintessentially Jewish – ‘the positive Jewish outlook on work, personal effort, learning and money’, ‘sober logic’, ‘rough Jewish common sense’, ‘a prodigal drive for achievement and success, an emphasis on learning and research … and a striving to excel in everything that matters to the host society’ – seem to owe more to modern stereotypes than to knowledge of the past. As a result, Yovel’s findings sometimes unintentionally resonate with the claims made by early 20th-century anti-semitic critics of modernity such as the sociologist Werner Sombart, who also argued – against Weber – that capitalism, calculating reason and hyper-rationality were Jewish contributions to the Christian West.

Another difficulty is Yovel’s choice of examples. A scholar who reads only Chaucer, Petrarch or Meister Eckhart might well discover the roots of interiority and modern consciousness in late medieval England, Italy or Germany. Similarly, if we look at history exclusively from the viewpoint of converts from Judaism and their descendants, everything begins to look Marrano. When Yovel finds a priest called Juan Rodrigues declaring that ‘God created three religions, and no one can tell which is the best,’ or Friar Alonso de Nogales exhorting Christians to love Muslims and Jews, he thinks he has discovered a ‘Marrano dictum’ that points to the Marrano origins of tolerance, secularism and atheism. But according to Stuart Schwartz’s All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World the archives of the Inquisition contain many examples of Old Christians saying similar things.[*] And to Bernardo Pérez de Chinchón, writing in 1535, such tolerance seemed a Muslim characteristic: ‘Some of the learned men among the Moors say that each can be saved in his own law: the Jew in his, the Christian in his, the Moor in his.’

Yovel has very little to say about Islam in Spain, which is fair enough: no author can do everything. But there are interesting parallels in the ways that Moriscos – converts from Islam and their descendants – and Marranos dealt with forced conversion and acculturation. As early as the 12th century the eminent jurist Ibn Rushd of Cordoba gave believers permission to pretend to be Christian in times of persecution. In 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabel conquered the last Muslim territories on Iberian soil, the chief qadi of Granada told the city’s inhabitants that they could no longer look to religious authorities for guidance, and that each Muslim would have to be ‘a judge for himself’. Throughout the 16th century, as the Inquisition put ever heavier pressure on them, the Moriscos developed highly idiosyncratic forms of messianism, mysticism and devotion, producing such oddities as a Morisco prayerbook, in Arabic script, containing long passages cribbed from Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, but attributed to a Muslim sage. A Morisco woman was even accused of Judaism by the Inquisition. (She was charged with lighting Sabbath candles, and testified that she did not know what they meant, but lit them because she knew it was a practice prohibited to Christians.) By 1609, Spain had given up on assimilation and expelled 400,000 Moriscos to North Africa, where thousands of Marranos had taken refuge in the previous century. If forced conversion leads to split identity, and split identity to secularism, we might ask why these migrations did not prod Morocco into precocious modernity.

But the greatest difficulties with Yovel’s arguments stem from his dependence on genealogical methods very similar to those practised by the Inquisition. The first thing in a standard Inquisition trial record for Judaising – after the defendant’s name and sentence on the cover – is a family tree. Did a witness claim that the defendant wore clean clothes on a Friday evening, refused to buy an apple on a Saturday morning, was seen looking at the floor during the elevation of the host, or didn’t keep any paintings of saints in her bedroom? Without a Jew as an ancestor such behaviour was meaningless, but with one it could constitute proof of Judaising. The problem with this approach, as Fernán Díaz noted when the 1449 ‘statutes of purity of blood’ of Toledo were decreed, was that Jews had married into so many elite families that no one was above suspicion. As a result, the inquisitional method could also work in reverse. Once the Inquisition associated an activity – such as worrying about the Hebrew meaning of a biblical word, praying before an unadorned crucifix or reading Erasmus – with Judaising, anyone engaging in that activity became vulnerable to the accusation, and subject to genealogical investigation.

Yovel begins by criticising a previous generation of Jewish historians – the so-called Jerusalem School – who adopted this method of genealogical inquiry in order to argue that the converts and their descendants remained Jews: ‘The irony of this school,’ Yovel argues, ‘is that it shares the same conceptual attitude, and fallacy, as the Inquisition. Both tend to see a Jew in anyone whose mixed or dual mind manifests a few remaining Jewish habits and/ or beliefs.’ The irony is well spotted, but it also applies to Yovel, who insists on mapping every hint of interiority, rationality or critical consciousness onto Jewish lineage, however remote.

This allows him to assert that ‘Conversos played a far greater role in the rise of Castilian proto-capitalism … than did the Old Christians,’ and that Marranos were ‘predominant in sheer numbers and in creative innovation’ among Spanish writers and mystics. He can even suggest – overlooking the medieval inquisitions that pioneered its techniques of accusation, interrogation and record-keeping – that the Inquisition was itself a Marrano institution. It is unlike other ‘Catholic life-forms’, ‘a protomodern phenomenon’ that ‘embodied a highly self-alienated spirit’. This alone would make the institution Marrano by Yovel’s logic, but there is more: Tomás de Torquemada, the inquisitor general from 1483 to 1498, was ‘almost certainly … a self-denying descendant’ of Jews, displaying the ‘classic insecurity of a Converso who over-affirms his Christian identity by persecuting those who digress from it’. Almost certainly? All we know is that one near contemporary asserted that Tomás’s uncle – Cardinal Juan de Torquemada – had an ancestor who married a convert.

Rodrigo Manrique, himself the son of an inquisitor general, described the consequences of this type of logic in a letter he wrote in 1533 to the Marrano humanist Luis Vives: ‘You are right. Our country is a land of envy, pride and … barbarism. For now it is clear that no one can possess a smattering of letters without being suspect of heresy, error and Judaism.’ Yovel is far from the first modern author to adopt this style of reasoning. He acknowledges his debt to the genealogical research of earlier scholars who haunted the archives in the 1960s and 1970s looking for evidence of ‘Jewish’ elements in the families of famous contributors to Castilian culture. His only criticism of them is that they did not go far enough: these scholars tended to treat the figures they were studying as fully ‘Spanish’, whereas Yovel insists that the ‘irremediable duality’ of the Marranos and the suspicions of Old Christians meant that descendants of Jews would always retain an ‘existential Jewishness’, which could not be denied ‘without self-negation and self-deception’.

As early as the 15th century, Spain had a name for this ‘existential’ identity; raza, from which we derive the word ‘race’. Yovel seems aware of the resonance between race and ‘existential Jewishness’: in fact he calls racist Jew-hatred ‘existential anti-semitism’, and sees it as the modern twin of the Marranos’ ‘existential Jewishness’. But although he deplores ‘existential anti-semitism’ (which he seems to think of as inevitable), he endorses ‘existential Jewishness’, viewing it as the model for modern Jewish identity, an unrenounceable core that leaves the subject free to accept or reject other ‘more saturated Jewish forms’.

The person may choose to give it further attributes – religious, nationalist, communitarian, cultural and so on. But none of these Jewish shapes – which depend on basic choices since they can be assumed or renounced – can rightfully claim the allegiance of an existential Jew who refuses any further qualification … none of these has a right to impose its ‘we’ on him or her or recruit him or her to its cause.

This is the most startling, albeit implicit, claim of The Other Within: that a racial, genealogical, existential Judaism is the best guarantor of a modern Jewish subjectivity that is liberal, secular and free.

The implication is so striking that it demands explanation. It is not merely an unintended consequence of the genealogical method the author uses to establish the Marrano origins of modernity. It points rather to another of Yovel’s fundamental concerns, the politics of Israel. This is not the first time that the history of late medieval Spain has served as a vehicle for a vision of Israel. Benzion Netanyahu, Binyamin’s father, published a massive study on The Origins of the Inquisition in 1995. In it he argued that the vast majority of Marranos had been sincere converts, but that anti-semitic Christians had insisted on their segregation and stigmatisation. Netanyahu cited the Marrano experience as evidence of an eternal anti-semitism that has frustrated and will frustrate every attempt at Jewish assimilation, and constitutes the strongest argument for a Jewish state.

Yovel’s politics are very different from Netanyahu’s. He is an outspoken advocate of a liberal, secular state and of the separation of politics from religion in Israel. But he ends up making a claim that is structurally very similar to Netanyahu’s. He too finds in the Marranos the best example of the inescapability of Judaism. He too argues that this example represents a transhistorical truth. Indeed, for Yovel, Marrano identity not only prefigures modern secular Judaism, but constitutes a return to the original forms of Judaism – repressed first by Ezra the Scribe and then by the rabbis – in which identity was not tied to religion. And like Netanyahu, Yovel puts something that looks a great deal like racism at the centre of his explanation for the historical fate of Judaism, with this difference: where Netanyahu found that racism outside Judaism, in the anti-semitism of non-Jews, Yovel places it at the heart of Jewish identity, in the form of ‘existential Jewishness’.

In May 1968, when the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit – French-born but the son of German refugees – was sentenced by the government to deportation, the rallying cry along the Paris barricades was: ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!’ To the protesters, ‘German Jew’ represented a collective identity without coercive power, enabling it to be used to criticise the racism, colonialism and nationalism of the state. As Derrida later put it, ‘The attribute “Jewish”, the qualities of “Jewish” and “Judaism” are caught up in a bidding war … Everyone would like to be the best example of identity as non-self-identity and so an exemplary Jew.’

That logic is out of date. Far from representing statelessness or powerlessness, the word ‘Jew’ today more often serves global political discourse as the best example of identity as hyper-identity, a shorthand for racism, colonialism and nationalism, rather than a slogan of protest against it. There are many reasons for this change, including some that are related to Yovel’s worries about the tilting balance of power between secularism and religiosity in Israel (and indeed the wider world). We do not have to agree about the causes of this shift in order to sympathise with Yovel’s desire to discover new histories of exemplary Jews. But the one he proposes will not do.

[*] Yale, 352 pp., £25, July 2008, 978 0 300 12580 1.