Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Rabbi and the Rebels: A Pamphlet on the Herem by Rabbi Isaac Aboab Da Fonseca

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Rabbi and the Rebels: A Pamphlet on the Herem by Rabbi Isaac Aboab Da Fonseca

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Widespread CHANGES in the role and conception of rabbinic authority, and the related development of new forms of communal organization, are among the defining characteristics of the early modem period in Jewish histoiy. Many have noted the creation of new, stronger, and more tightly organized Jewish communities with predominantly lay leadership across Europe.1 At the same time, the "professionalization" of the rabbinate and the "laicization" of Jewish society,2 combined with a steep decline in rabbinic authority in an intellectual and spiritual sense,3 adds up to an impression of a marginalized and disempowered rabbinate, doing the bidding of increasingly confident and powerful lay employers, as congregants turned to other sources of knowledge and leadership.

Lay control over the herem, or ban of excommunication, is sometimes seen as exemplary of this trend, and nowhere has the ban been more central to the historical understanding of a community than in the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of Amsterdam, from which Spinoza was banned. The herem was the main tool of the lay leadership council, called the Mahamad,* * * 4 as they tried to impose order on this rather unusual, fledgling community of former conversos and cosmopolitan merchants. The first Jewish immigrants to the city, around the turn of the seventeenth centuiy, sought a commercially advantageous locale in which they could openly practice Judaism after living for generations as Catholics under the Inquisition; Amsterdam fit the bill, though it had virtually no history of Jewish life. The newcomers built several separate congregations from scratch; these eventually merged in 1638 to form a single community. At that time, a set of bylaws established the procedures and powers of the new Mahamad and secondaiy authorities such as the salaried rabbis and various charitable associations. Despite its unique background, the community in some ways reflects trends typical of the early modem period in its move toward strong lay government, and in the relatively low institutional status of its rabbis.

A previously unnoticed text written by the head rabbi of this community, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-93), problematizes the narrative of rabbinic decline in interesting and counterintuitive ways. The work, a pamphlet urging communal members to respect the herem, bears the unwieldy title Exortaçad, paraque od temented do Senhor na obdervança dod preceitod de dua Sancta Ley, nao cayad em peccado por falta da conviniente inteligencia, or, "An Exhortation to God-Fearers who Observe the Holy Law That They Should Not Sin for Lack of Proper Information."5 The impassioned pleas for communal unity-and extensive rabbinic argumentationfound therein shed considerable light on the context of both communal affairs and lay-rabbinic relations in Amsterdam's Sephardi community. They help us better understand a series of conflicts that had disturbed the community for a decade prior to its publication.

In the Exhortation, Aboab responds to the claims of an unnamed group of rebels who argued in various ways that individuals or small groups could legally secede from the community, and that the rule of the Mahamad then held no jurisdiction over them. Their arguments, which must be reconstructed from Aboab's response, apparently complain of a lack of rabbinic oversight of the Mahamad, the lay leaders' noncompliance with certain communal bylaws, and generally debate how one ought to conceive of membership in the community-contractual or consensual. In response, Aboab presents a striking argument that the Mahamad's authority to govern was absolute and inviolable and could stand alone, requiring neither a rabbi nor anyone else to validate its ordinances.

As a rabbinic justification for exclusively lay communal governance - for the position of the pamphlet essentially cut Aboab himself out of the picture-Aboab's treatise may be seen as an extreme example of the marginalization, or at least formal subservience, of the early modem rabbi. …

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