Celebrating Jewish Literature: Converts, returnees and the Inquisition

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When most people think of the Inquisition, they think of the Spanish Inquisition, which was established by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1478. However, the Inquisition began more than 200 years before and understanding its development is important to understanding Jewish history of that time period. That’s one of the reasons behind Paola Tartafkoff’s “Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391” (University of Pennsylvania Press). Tartafkoff – a professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey – picked 1391 as her end date because the lives of the Jewish population changed greatly that year: the Massacre of 1391, one of the worst antisemitic attacks to take place during the Middle Ages, occurred then. It’s estimated that 100,000 of Jews were murdered and another 100,000 forced to convert. Framed by a case of a convert who sought to return to Judaism in 1341, her work focuses on Jewish apostates, the attempts to re-Judaize them and how they were treated by both Christians and Jews. 

The Inquisition was originally set up in 1231 to fight against Christian heretics. During that time period, the Jews of Aragon were considered the king’s personal property – “his treasure” – and could be punished by no one else. However, that protection changed when a Jew converted to Christianity. Conversions were considered a prize by the Church, which saw converts as the proof its religion had supplanted Judaism. It was, therefore, considered worse for a former Jew to return to Judaism than for a “cradle” Christian to convert. 

However, conversion did not mean automatic acceptance by the convert’s Christian neighbors. First, many were suspicious of the person’s motivation. Tartafkoff shows how many Jews left the Jewish community because they were in herem (banned from the community) or sought to escape other punishments. She writes, “The realities of Jewish conversions fell short of Christian ideals. Many Jews who sought baptism were marginalized individuals who hoped, first and foremost, to extricate themselves from personal difficulties. They were baptized in haste and possessed only superficial knowledge of Christianity.” These converts often kept in touch with their families and did business with other Jews, which made Christians suspicious as to whether they were still following Jewish customs and performing Jewish rituals.

An additional problem was that many Christians saw Judaism as more than a religion. They believed Jews were a people, meaning that their Jewishness was part of their essential nature and could be passed to the next generation. The author notes, “Christians [who believed this] must have wondered whether conversion could truly trump ethnicity and whether Jewishness could really be left behind.” This often meant that these converts were not welcomed by Christians and even the second generation of those who had converted were sometimes looked at with suspicion. Not being accepted by Christian communities may have left converts wondering if they should return to Judaism. However, the Jewish community was also not fond of these converts. They didn’t trust them and often made their lives difficult.

Tartafkoff notes this left several options for converts moving forward with their lives. Some became wandering beggars; their poverty was considered proof that they had given up Judaism, because they no longer owned any worldly goods. Others became preachers and tried to convince other Jews that they, too, should convert. Some sought ways to harm the Jewish community. One final option was returning to Judaism, although that put them in danger with the Inquisition because they would now be considered heretics for leaving the Christian faith. 

The author notes similarities between the rituals used to convert someone to Christianity or to return them to Judaism. Both include washing or immersing in water. (For Christians, it was baptism. For Jews, it was use of the mikvah, the ritual bath.) Jewish names were changed to Christian ones and changed back if someone returned to Judaism. New Christians were given new clothes as part of their conversion. Re-Judaizing meant returning to clothing worn by members of the Jewish community.

“Between Christian and Jew” offers a fascinating look at the borderline between Judaism and Christianity at the time. Tartafkoff suggests that there is more work to be done, but her book is an excellent beginning. Anyone interested in Jewish history will find it well worth reading.