Of rabbis and rivals, pt. 2: Saul Levi Morteira

When I imagine how Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the first intellectual powerhouse in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Sephardic community, must have felt about himself and his job, I imagine he compared himself to Moses.

Like Moses, he was charged with reorienting a troublesome people who came from a history of bondage, torture and despair to a promised land. And like Moses, he was not entirely of the same background as the people he led. Sometimes he succeeded. But sometimes, even though his community venerated him, his cantankerous charges insisted on doing their own thing. But through it all, Morteira knew it was largely on his shoulders to draw the boundaries around the community they were trying to build – to define its rules and ethics, its practices and taboos, and it was a task he strove to fulfill to the best of his considerable talents for nearly 45 years.

Love him or hate him — and there were people in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewish community who seemed to have done both — Mortiera’s impact on this new community was immense.

For the people, but not of the people

Saul Levi Morteira (sometimes spelled “Mortera”), who one day would become the leader of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, was not himself Sephardic. He was born in Venice to and spent time in Paris before winding his way up to Amsterdam in 1616, where he was eagerly received by the newly founded Nação Portuguesa.

Rembrandt: Portrait of an Old Man. Some say the old man is Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira. Others, no.

The Portuguese immigrants were in a quandary. They’d just arrived in a city where they were free to return to their ancestral faith, Judaism. But after generations of persecution in the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions — during which some families limited what religious practices they could to the secrecy of their home while other families underwent conversion to Christianity — no one was really sure how to go about it. They might be Jewish, but no one was sure how to be a Jew.

A promising young scholar like Morteira who arrived from the well-established Jewish community in Venice was exactly who they needed. And it seems the prospect of being a big fish in a little (but important) pond appealed to Morteira as well.

When Morteira arrived, he was offered leadership of the Beth Jacob congregation, the community’s first. He also founded Keter Torah, the community’s religious school, and taught the upper grade there. When Beth Jacob, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel consolidated into one congregation in 1639, Morteira was named its chief rabbi.

The blessing and the curse

After growing up in Venice’s infamous ghetto (it’s where the word originated) and having to get special dispensation from the king to exist in France, Amsterdam’s freedom must have seemed bewildering to Morteira. He reminded his congregation of their good fortune regularly. In one sermon, he compared their easy life to the restrictions and violence Jews in other places endured:

“Where are the taxes of Venice? The censorship of books that exists throughout Italy? The seizing of children for forced conversion? The sign of the [Jewish] hat? The ghettos? The need to request permission [to remain]? Being shut away at the evil time [Holy Week]? Where is the derision shown towards Jews in Rome, [forced to] go out naked on their holiday, forced to attend their [Christian] services, forced to bow down to the Pope? Where are the blood libels of Poland? Where are the humiliations of Germany? Where are the hours when they prevent us from attending the [commercial] fairs? The entrances through which we may not walk, the wells from which we may not drink? Where is the harsh oppression of Turkey? The poll tax that is levied there? The cruelty of the gentiles? The fire thrown into houses? The deadly tortures connected with the manufacturing of their clothes? Where is the degradation of Barbary? Where is the youngster who will strike an old man? Where are the animal carcasses which they compel us to remove form their paths? And much more of the same, that our brothers, the entire house of Israel, suffer throughout their dispersion in exile. But God has brought us out from there.”

But if the freedom of Amsterdam came as a great relief to both Morteira and his congregation, it was in another way a great challenge to the rabbi. Because, without the ghetto, the requirement to wear distinctive clothing and the social ostracization, Amsterdam’s Jews found it suddenly much easier to assimilate than ever before. And that was something Morteira desperately wanted to stop.

Hundreds of Morteira’s pieces of writing survive, from drashas (sermons) to allegorical stories to letters. And many of them serve as warnings or admonishments against flirting (or more) with gentiles or against Jewish men shaving too much of their beard or allowing themselves to grow lax on their observance of kosher dietary laws.

Like Moses, he is ever striving to bring down the law on his people and keep them in line, to ensure they don’t stray from the path he is laying before them. Which is to say, he comes across as very passionate but very serious. You could even say cranky.

Deeper divides

But sometimes, Morteira disagreed on things that carried more weight than, say, taking care that the clothes you wear don’t contain both cotton and wool.

A rustic image of Rabbi Saul Levi Mortiera

Sometimes, the issues at hand were so important that they threatened to divide the entire community.

While the Sephardic community in Amsterdam was busy establishing itself, it couldn’t forget the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles it had left behind in Portugal. The kingdom of Portugal had decreed that on Dec. 5, 1496, all Jews in its lands had to either convert or leave. That meant that all of the family members the left behind were, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Christian.

More than that, these “New Christians” were under intense scrutiny by a society that (surprise) doubted the sincerity of their conversion. It wasn’t enough to declare yourself a Christian. Outward proof was needed. Did you show up at church regularly? Go to confession? Would you eat pork? Some of these converts were whole-heartedly on board the Jesus train. Others were going through the motions to save their skins.

Meanwhile, Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam feared for the souls of their relatives back in the homeland. Would G-d be forgiving of people who went through a conversion under duress and would they be allowed into the world-to-be (עולם הבא)? Many of these new returnees to Judaism said yes.

Morteira, however, was incensed. Under no circumstances, he said. To renounce the faith was to renounce one’s connection to both the people and to its G-d — forever. No matter how painful that might be to hear. That upset people. So much so that it’s said (by Morteira) that certain ruffians from the Beth Israel congregation came to Mortiera’s Beth Jacob to heckle him during services over the issue.

Those who objected, led by Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonesca, protested all the way to a beit din (rabbinic panel) in Venice, who issued its own ruling: Moteira got it right. It was a bitter defeat for de Fonesca, made worse by the fact that when his Beth Israel consolidated with Morteira’s Beth Jacob in 1639, de Fonesca was named the most junior of its three rabbis.

Gone too soon

Like Moses, Morteira left before he could see the full blossoming of the people he struggled to lead for so long. He died in 1660 at the age of about 64.

Rembrandt engraving: Jews at the synagogue

While he got to see the community in Amsterdam grow from its founding to a prosperous one that had established its own institutions, he didn’t get to see the construction of the great Esnoga, one of the world’s oldest still-operating synagogues, which opened in 1674. He didn’t see how large and self-sufficient the Amsterdam community would become, or that members of it would survive the devastation of the Holocaust and return to the city to rebuild it.

But the Portuguese Jews of his time, though the sometimes chaffed under his heavy demands, carried fond affections for their leader. The Nação Portuguesa maintained strict rules about who could and could not be a member of its community, and those not descended from Spanish or Portuguese families weren’t invited. But for Morteira, they made an exception.

It was, perhaps, the highest honor the Sephardic community in Amsterdam could pay the man who dedicated his entire career to serving them.

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