The Expulsion from Spain is said to have occurred on the 9th of Ab. While it may have actually transpired a couple of days beforehand, the association is still apt. According to Jewish tradition the 9th of Ab is the day designated for Jewish mourning. The sages in their great wisdom directed that all national mournings for Jewish suffering should take place on that day. On the one hand it is because they saw all Diaspora persecutions as being connected to the destruction of the Temple and to the ensuing exile. One the other hand, I think they realised that if a day was designated for every expulsion, pogrom or anti-semitic edict, there likely would not be a week on the Jewish calendar without such a memorial. Better than spending our entires lives reliving tragedy, we should pour out all of our pain into one day so that we can live happier lives the rest of the year.
This coalescence of memorials also draws attention to similarities between other periods of persecution. I refer specifically to the parallels between the Holocaust and the Spanish Expulsion. The events themselves are in many ways different, in that one involved the wholesale slaughter of our people across international borders, whilst the other resulted in mass migration and conversion. The result of these events, however, are quite similar. Both removed a major percentage of Jews from what in their times were the largest Jewish communities in the world. Consequently the practical outcomes of these events are comparable. In fact, several features of post Expulsion Judaism are also manifest in post Holocaust Jewish life.
Of most immediate concern was the plight of the aguna. The chaotic movement of people split apart families with little access to concrete information as to their whereabouts. There are a plethora of rabbinic responsa following the Expulsion that relate to this question, as well as to the issue of Yibum, leverite marriage. What does a woman do when her husband dies childless, and her brother in law remains in Spain, now living as a Christian? Questions of Aguna were prominent following the Holocaust, too, with no concrete evidence of a husband’s murder despite the assumption that he had been killed in a gas chamber.
Further parallels can be drawn to the disruption of communal life. Prior to the Holocaust, Jews in Europe lived in distinct communities, each with different traditions and cultures. Following the Holocaust, survivors found themselves trying to rebuild alongside Jews from other places, whether in America or in Israel where most (90%) Jews now live. A similar occurrence occurred following the Expulsion. Jews from Catalonia, Castile, Aragon and Portugal found themselves living in the same towns as one another, trying to preserve their distinct communities but bumping up against each other. Jonathan Ray writes that it took nearly a century for these communities to coalesce into what we call today ‘Sephardic Judaism.’ The Sephardi attempt to homogenise found its greatest expression in the legal code Shulhan Arukh, written by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a child refugee of Spain. A similar phenomenon is now occurring in Ashkenazi communities under the banner of Artscroll which attempts to blend together variant Ashkenazi traditions into one pan prayer book.
Another interesting similarity is the pivotal place of Israel in the Jewish world. Following the Expulsion, many Jews found their way to the Ottoman Empire. Shortly thereafter the Ottoman Empire captured the territory of ancient Israel. This enabled Sephardic Jews to migrate to cities like Safed and Jerusalem and to establish there thriving Jewish communities. This is turn led to the rise of Messianic hopes. This found expression in Rabbi Isaac Luria’s kabbalah which emphasised the practical role we can each play in bringing the world to ‘perfection.’ Jews in our times understandably see the founding of the State of Israel and the effervescence of Jewish life there in similar terms, as evidence of G-d’s Hand in history and to our inevitable redemption. The dashed hopes of Sephardic Jewry as redemption eluded them led to the advent of a false messiah Shabbetai Zevi. That should act as a cautionary tale to us as we await a tarrying redemption once again.
As a result of the tremendous dislocation that these two seminal events triggered, Jewish life, too, suffered in the aftermath. In the case of the Expulsion, not all Jews remained Jews. A large percentage remained behind in Spain and Portugal where they were converted to Christianity. There they struggled to maintain their Jewish identity in a variety of forms. Over time, many of these ‘conversos’ made their way out of the Iberian peninsula and returned to the Jewish fold. Raised largely on a Catholic education they lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to live a Jewish life. Therefore the rabbis of their time expended great effort to reeducate or rejudaize them. They wrote Spanish translations of the Torah and the Prayer book, as well as vernacular guides to Jewish law and belief. One could call it the first ‘ba’al Teshuba’ movement, one which preceded our contemporary phenomenon by hundreds of years. In the post-Holocaust era we, too, strive to attract Jews back to the Jewish fold with similar translations and vernacular guides.
There are likely many other similarities which can be drawn between these two calamities. To me the most significant point to make is that the aftereffects of the Expulsion lasted for more than 150 years. We are currently only 75 years after the Holocaust. As a Jewish community we are still in the midst of the reorganisation of Jewish life. This is playing out in interesting ways in Israel today as Sephardim and Ashkenazim now find themselves living amongst one another. Many religious Sephardim are adopting the outer trappings of Eastern European Ashkenazi dress, while some Modern Orthodox Israelis are adopting certain Sephardic practices such as the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.
The full effects of the Holocaust, and what Judaism will look like in the future, are still unfolding. We are still in a great period of creativity and flux that follows a rupture of such magnitude. I think this perspective is important, because it means that we must still actively engage in determining what that Jewish future will look like. We cannot be complacent and allow things to simply work themselves out. We must proactively participate in crafting how we wish Judaism and Jewish life to look like at the end of the twenty first century. The Expulsion took place a very long time ago, but the lessons to be learned from it are still with us for generations to come.