From Heresy to Heresy – The Case of Uriel da Costa
Portugal, along with a whole host of sister counties in Christendom, was not an easy place to be Jewish in the late Middle Ages. As the Inquisition spread throughout Europe, Jews were faced with the binary option to be banished or forcibly convert to Christianity.
Given this choice, many Jews did perhaps the most Jewish thing possible and created a third, unoffered option. A group of Jews, known as crypto-Jews or pejoratively as Marranos, would come to publicly accept Christianity while secretly believing in, identifying as, and attempting to practice Judaism.
Being a secret Jew was no easy task. Constantly under watch by the Inquisition, anything “Jewish” they did would be at risk of torture or death. Unsurprisingly, many Jews who publicly converted to Christianity with an intent to covertly continue their Judaism, eventually came to forget Judaism and completely assimilate into the mainstream culture.
Uriel da Costa was born in Portugal in the late 16th century to one of these families. As his family was quite wealthy, he was enrolled in one of the top Christian universities and eventually took ecclesiastical office. However, as a Christian scholar of the Bible, da Costa would soon begin to doubt the validity of the New Testament and subsequently the authority of the Catholic establishment. He felt that the New Testament was riddled with internal contradictions and that Christianity as a whole departed from what he considered to be the true religion of the Bible.
Of course, this was not a view that could be safely held in public. The entire Inquisition arose from an attempt to systematically eradicate all iconoclastic views, and da Costa was forced to keep his views to himself. That is, at least until his father died and the family decided to flee North to the Jewish community of Amsterdam, a community that, in a generation’s time, would produce a young philosopher known as Baruch Spinoza.
In Amsterdam, da Costa and his family were free to openly practice and declare their allegiance to Judaism, an apparently rare happy ending in an era full of lachrymosity and suffering.
Only it wasn’t.
Da Costa soon became disenchanted and frustrated with the Jewish community in Amsterdam. This was not the same religion as the Hebrew Bible delineates, but rather a religion centered around the Talmud and rabbinic authority, not unlike the Catholic Church. Da Costa strived for the pure Mosaic religion that he had fallen in love with during his education, and would soon become vocal in his opposition to the way that Judaism was currently being practiced.
After he published his views in a short array of treaties, the leaders of the Jewish community swiftly excommunicated da Costa. Disheartened but not defeated, da Costa traveled around in search of a more open Jewish community. Eventually, da Costa landed in Hamburg.
Well, the Hamburg community was no more accepting, immediately excommunicating da Costa when he arrived. Word of his excommunication was spread around and da Costa was alone, accepted by no community, whether Jewish or Christian. A grueling 15 years of solitude followed for da Costa; his mother was the only person to remain by his side. When she died in 1628, da Costa had no choice but to begin to make amends with the Jewish community.
Publicly denouncing his views, da Costa was accepted into the community a few years later as a closet heretic, only to be re-excommunicated due to a private conversation where he dissuaded two Christian men who were potential converts to Judaism. Once more, da Costa would attempt to rejoin the community, but the rabbis would make him go through public humiliation before even considering opening the doors.
In 1640, da Costa committed suicide in the middle of the street, after being publicly lashed and subsequently trampled by young and old members of the Jewish community. We know much about his life from a long autobiography that he left, which may have been one of the oldest suicide notes on record.
The dark irony of the situation is that the Jewish community that excommunicated and tortured da Costa had themselves spent hundreds of years at the mercy of the Christian religious hegemony. Da Costa’s experience as a heretic largely reflects the Jewish experience as a different type of heretic throughout Christendom.
It is important to understand that being excommunicated in pre-Enlightenment times was much harsher than it sounds. In the early 17th century, there was no such thing as a non-religious community. Any type of socialized institution, including medical care, a legal system, and other basic human needs were largely fulfilled by religious communal leadership. Being excommunicated was more or less the equivalent of being an unaccepted refugee in today’s world, oftentimes without even the support of one’s own family.
The case of Uriel da Costa and his geographical successor, Spinoza, open our eyes to a whole new tragic section of Jewish history. As hard as it was to be a Jew through a history replete with pogroms, persecution, and all around Jew-hatred, it was that much harder to deal with all that plus an internal heresy. For every da Costa and Spinoza, there were probably thousands of individuals throughout pre-Enlightenment Jewish history who were forced to conceal their internal thoughts and opinions at risk of losing everything.
Today, a time where our society is hyper-focused on eradicating any type of prejudice, it would serve us well to remember the case of Uriel da Costa. Throughout history, it was not only various religious and ethnic groups that have been persecuted, but intellectual groups as well. In order to truly have a free and just society, we have to work together to make sure that no one can be harmed due to their thoughts and views.
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