Of rabbis and rivals, part 1

In the early 1600s, wave after wave of Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain arrived at the docks of Amsterdam looking for a safe place to build a community. After enduring generations of paranoia, violence, torture and death in the Inquisitions there, these new arrivals wanted three simple things: A secure home for raising a family, a welcoming place offering economic opportunity and a land allowing them to return to their practice of Judaism openly and in peace.

In Amsterdam, they’d found all three. Not only did their arrival coincide with the boom of the Dutch Golden Age, but the Dutch had decided to allow everyone to follow their consciences when it came to G-d. Everyone, that is, except for Catholics, who the reform-minded Dutch weren’t quite certain could be trusted.

Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira

This newfound freedom must have been a stunning turn of fortune for the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. But like many people facing freedom for the first time, it was also dizzyingly bewildering. Being Jewish, in the traditional sense, is so much more than just showing up to the synagogue once a week. It is a lifestyle based on 613 commandments and a cascading system of delineated laws covering everything from food (what to eat and how to eat it) to how to interact with non-Jews and the minutia of how every holiday should be celebrated. And having been disconnected from these traditions for decades, if not centuries, the refugees knew little of it.

Free at last, but now what?

Finding a safe haven to be Jews was one thing. But actually acting like Jews? That was an entirely different matter. After having to confine any Jewish practice to secrecy — or deny their Jewishness completely for generations — the Jewishness of these renewed Jews was in a sorry state. So sorry that the first order of business for many of the newly arrived male adult refugees was to arrange for a circumcision, something that should normally be done on a baby boy’s eighth day.

The Portuguese community quickly worked to set up Jewish institutions in their new home. These included houses of worship, ritual butchers, religious schools and institutions for orphans and the poor. But all of these also required rabbis — men of advanced religious training — in order for the community to truly function.

The first rabbi to answer the call was Rabbi Uri Ha-Levi who came from Emden, Germany, in 1602. Along with his son, Aaron, who acted as a hazan (cantor), Ha-Levi is said to have overseen the circumcision and rejudaization of 2,500 men. 

But as the Jewish joke goes, wherever there is one Jew, there will always be at least two synagogues: the one he attends, and the one he will never set foot in. It didn’t take long for the fledgling Sephardic community to fracture into smaller divisions. More synagogues were set up, each needing its own rabbinical leaders. 

The names of those first rabbis of Amsterdam have become legendary over time. The venerable Saul Levi Morteira, who came from Venice was not a Sephardic Jew himself, but found himself becoming the de facto leader of a community that prided itself in its hereditary purity — eventually, the Sephardic schools would be closed to Jews not of Spanish or Portuguese heritage and buying meat from German Jews could get you banned from the community, yet Morteira was accepted as the wisest man among them. He led the Beth Jacob congregation, the community’s first synagogue.

Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonesca

There was Isaac Aboab de Fonesca, an ambitious rabbi who holds the twin distinctions of being the first rabbi in the Americas and the rabbi to read Baruch Spinoza’s excommunication. De Fonesca was the lead rabbi of the Beth Israel congregation in Amsterdam, but when it consolidated with the Beth Jacob and Neve Shalom congregations in 1638, his ambition led him to look for greater opportunity. He left Amsterdam for Recife, Brazil, in 1642 where he is believed to have been the first rabbi in the New World. When Portugal retook the city in 1654, he fled back to Amsterdam to escape the ongoing Portuguese Inquisition, arriving in time to deliver the coup de grace to Spinoza.

 Then there was the wildly eccentric Menasseh ben Israel, a thorn in the side to many in the Jewish community but oddly adored by the gentiles who considered him to be the most famous Jew in Europe at that time. His hobby was lobbying leaders of every nation to open their doors to Jews to become citizens. His reasoning was that in order for the end times to begin, G-d would have to gather Jews from every nation an return them to Israel. And that could only happen if Jews were in those nations to begin with. He was simply trying to help the end of the world along, and many apocalyptic-minded Christians were glad to help. Ben Israel’s other pastime was publishing, and he both wrote and published other people’s material on his own printing press. But his tendencies to literally break bread and drink wine in gentile houses and to openly debate the merits of Judaism against Christianity put him out the outs with many leaders of the Jewish community, so when his Neve Shalom was consolidated with the other two Sephardic congregations, he was awarded the smallest annual salary of all three rabbis.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

As someone who has worked in a building filled with strong personalities, I can tell you that concentrating so much charisma in one place is both a good and bad thing. And in the case of the three illustrious rabbis of Amsterdam, each of these men was a genius in their own way to boot.

Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, engraving by Rembrandt van Rjn

It didn’t help matters that the ma’amad, the governing council of the Portuguese community, saw fit to create widely divergent wages for the three men. And it didn’t make it any easier that there were significant theological differences between all three of them. Some of these disagreements were so severe that it took letters sent to rabbinical referees in Venice to settle the matter — and even then, differences of opinion stubbornly hung on.

But these powerful personalities were also strong enough to shape a growing community that knew who it wanted to be, but didn’t know how to be it. Through their guidance, Amsterdam’s first Jews learned to be Jews again, even if they sometimes differed on the hows and whats of it all.

In the upcoming posts in this series, I’ll introduce you to each of these men in detail and explain how their backgrounds and interests affected the community they served.

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