Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS



Project ID: 295352
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Israel

Final Report Summary - DIASPORAINTRANSITION (A Diaspora in Transition - Cultural and Religious Changes in Western Sephardic Communities in the Early Modern Period)

The Western Sephardic community was established in Italy and Northwest Europe, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, and mainly during the seventeenth century, by the descendants of Jews who had been baptized, mainly in Portugal, during the time of the great forced conversions of 1497. The RG (research group) focused on the main communities of this diaspora, those of Amsterdam, Livorno, Hamburg, and London, as well as on communities established later in the Dutch and English colonies in the Americas. The RG also studied the communities of Bayonne and Bordeaux, which were not consolidated in the seventeenth century, and they functioned simply as concentrations of Portuguese New Christians. Outwardly they maintained the appearance of Catholicism, observing Jewish ceremonies only in their homes. They were not permitted to practice Judaism in public until the eighteenth century. The RG studied the characteristics of the New Christians’ return to Judaism in Western Europe, the disciplinary mechanisms employed to control their Jewish way of life and ethics, the institutions they established, the management of their communities, and the special character of their synagogue rituals, the main content of their education and pedagogical methods, and the like. The group also studied their literary production, which was mainly tri-lingual (Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish).
Each of these communities was governed by a Mahamad, a board of governors, consisting of affluent men of the community, who generally served for a year. A number of wealthy Sephardic magnates were involved in colonial trade, and, because of their wide-ranging economic connections, they served as diplomatic representatives, especially of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns (at a time when it was forbidden for Jews to live in those countries). The RG studied the systems of social control practiced in these communities, the excommunications and the public contrition ceremonies the delinquents were obliged to undergo in the synagogue. The RG noted that in all these communities, the right to excommunicate belonged to the Mahamad, who consulted the rabbis with respect to Jewish law but remained the sole arbiter.
While the rabbis received special honor, and some of them enjoyed a high status and exerted strong influence, they were subservient to the Mahamad, from whom they received their salaries. The RG examined the activities of the rabbis and compared the development of the sanction of excommunication to other Jewish groups and to the practice in Christian communities in their near vicinity (such as the Calvinist church in Amsterdam). Indeed, the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg imposed far more excommunications than the local churches. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, but especially in the eighteenth century, excommunication tended to be replaced by a monetary fine known as resgate do herem [redemption of the excommunication].
Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the influence of the Sephardic social elite declined, and because of the anti-Jewish atmosphere prevailing in Spain and Portugal, Jews were no longer appointed to serve as diplomatic agents. The RG also dealt with the influence of the Iberian baroque on Jewish authors and poets in works in Hebrew and Spanish, which were intended to strengthen commitment to the Jewish religion. The RG also related to anti-Christian polemical works, written by authors of these communities and circulated in dozens of manuscripts.
Toward the mid-eighteenth century, the power of these communities to impose discipline on those who chose to detach themselves from the control of the Jewish religion began to decline. Punishments ceased to deter, and a significant percentage of the Sephardic Jews abandoned their communities and sometimes also their Jewish identity.

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