Of rabbis and rivals, pt. 3: Isaac Aboab da Fonesca

Pity poor Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca. If his life was a monument to any one thing, it would be to this: being in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. Over and over again, this by all accounts gifted and dedicated man fell victim to being in the wrong place, being overshadowed by men even more luminous than he, by zigging when he should have zagged and making choices that would land him on the losing side of history.

That’s what would happen if his life could be a monument to anything.

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca

Thankfully, though, there is a monument to his life that is much greater and much more worthy of a man who served the Sephardic community for 70 years, both in Amsterdam and as the first rabbi in the Americas. It’s a monument that is revered to this day as one of the largest and oldest still-operating synagogues in the world: the great Esnoga of Amsterdam. And Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca is the driving force that led to its creation.

Never where he should have been

Isaac Aboab da Fonesca’s problems began the day he was born as Simao da Fonesca in Castro Daire, Portugal, on Feb. 1, 1605. It was exactly the wrong time and place to be born a Jew. Which the little Simao wasn’t, technically. His parents had converted from Judaism to Catholicism as all Portuguese Jews had to do in 1496 if they wanted to stay Portuguese.

Aboab da Fonesca as an old man

Many Jewish families, naturally, did convert. But as with anything done under duress, the sincerity wasn’t there. Judaism is hard to squash. It’s a stubborn thing that won’t be smothered, though many have tried. So when Baby Simao came along, in truth, his family was Catholic on paper only. When they got the chance to go somewhere they could be Jews again, they were out of there.

At the age of 7, first Simao and his family went to France. It’s likely there that he changed his name to Isaac. Shortly thereafter, they made their way to Amsterdam, which was quickly making a name for itself as a safe haven for Iberian Jews.

Little Isaac started learning from renown scholar Isaac Uziel alongside future famous rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. Both students would become rabbis themselves by the age of 18: ben Israel leading the Neve Shalom congregation and Aboab de Fonesca leading Beth Israel.

Illusory and elusive esteem

Leading a congregation at the tender age of 18 sounds like it should have been a great accomplishment — and it was. If only it was so simple, and if only it could have lasted.

Aboab da Fonesca’s flavor of theology was decidedly mystic. He was a kabbalist, like his teacher, Uziel. But Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the older, more established and, frankly, more respected rabbi of the community was not a mystic. And this brought them into conflict. Often.

A key point of contention was whether Jews who had converted to Christianity, often under extreme duress, had forever forsaken their place as Jws in the world-to-be. Aboab da Fonesca, himself born as one of these “marranos,” said no — a Jewish soul could not be lost because of what someone was forced to do by the Inquisition. Morteira argued that apostasy marked a clear and final break between a person and the Jewish community and their G-d. The argument raged for years and had to be settled by a panel of rabbis from Venice, who sided with Morteira.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a worse insult lay ahead.

The Sephardic community in Amsterdam had come to realize that it made no sense to support three different congregations when one work as well, and made plans to consolidate the three into one. When all was said and done in 1639, Aboab da Fonesca found himself the most junior rabbi, beneath even Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. If there was any consolation, it was that his salary was twice tat of ben Israel’s, but still. Having led his own congregation, this smarted.

Big fish, small pond

So I’m not really surprised that Aboab da Fonesca took the next big opportunity that came his way to get out of the situation in Amsterdam, which must have grated on his pride. The fact that the next opportunity took him so very far from home might have even felt like relief.

A re-creation of Kahal Zur Israel synagogue in Recife, Brazil

And that’s how Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca found himself on a ship in 1642 headed for Recife, in what is now Brazil, but was then a Dutch sugar colony. Much of Recife was Sephardic, and he was to be their spiritual leader. The first rabbi the New World had ever known.

Again, for a time, there was success. The Jewish community there thrived. Besides a synagogue, they had a school, a mikveh (ritual bath) and other basic communal necessities. At its height, it was home to some 1,600 Jews. But it wouldn’t last.

The Portuguese, already active in Brazil, had their eyes on Recife. And for the Jews there, this meant trouble Big trouble. Many of the colonists or their families had escaped the Portuguese once already.

Kahal Zur Israel

As the conflict between the Dutch and Portuguese wore on for years, Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca sought to make spiritual penance for his community. He penned a vidui (communal confession) that still exists. He wrote of the Jews who lived in Brazil as being “Dwellers in the shadows of the universe.” Speaking on behalf of his community, he accused them of being too materialistic: ” I have coveted … all of man’s pleasures at all times.”

Recife in 1665

The confession wasn’t enough to save them. As the colony fell in to Portuguese hands in 1654, they fled. Most made it back to Amsterdam, but one ship of refugees was captured by the Portuguese. After negotiations with a French vessel, they were transported to New Amsterdam, where they became the first Jews in what is now the United States.

The more things change

Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca may have gone through life-changing experiences in Brazil, but he returned to Amsterdam to find things much as he had left them. He was offered his old job back, but Rabbi Morteira still ruled the roost at the Talmud Torah synagogue.

Things may have gotten a smidge better when Rabbi ben Israel took off for England on a mission to get that country to open its borers to Jews in January 1656. That departure brought extra work detail to Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca, but it also brought a substantial pay raise and a move up the seniority ladder.

And by some accounts, it was Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca who read aloud the writ of excommunication against that troublesome philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, on July 27, 1656 — though Rabbi Morteira was there as well. While it may have seem like a sensible thing to do at the time, the move carries with it a measure of infamy today.

Only when Rabbi Morteira died in 1660 did Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca find himself the undisputed leader of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam.

The shame and the legacy

But simply being a leader doesn’t mean all your decisions are wise ones. Some of Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca’s choices were great ones that stood as a testament to is leadership and became a symbol of his community that endures to this day.

Other choices of his? Well …

Nice turban, Sabbatai!

In 1666, a charlatan appeared in declared to the Sephardic community that he was he promised Messiah. This Sabbtai Zvi must have been one convincing con man, because anyone from the most downtrodden to people in the highest echelons of society was taken in by his act.

And what an act it was. Sabbatai Zvi  held a wedding ceremony in which he wed himself to a torah scroll, a blasphemy. He then actually married a former prostitute, claiming this is what was prophesied. Heresy. One one Passover, he ate the fat of the paschal lamb in direct contradiction to kosher laws. Madness!

Yet for all this, Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca was a true believer.

And so, it must have crushed him when he learned what Sabbatai Zvi had done. The phony was imprisoned in Turkey when the sultan gave him a choice: prove his divinity by surviving a hail of arrows, be impaled or convert to Islam.

Esnoga Interior by Jean-Baptist Tetar Van Elven

Sabbatai Zvi took the night to think it over and came back the next day wearing the turban that signified he was now a Muslim. His Jewish followers everywhere, including Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca, were mortified.

But the rabbi was about to get his come-uppance.

By the late 1660s, it had become apparent that the Sephardic community was outgrowing its synagogue and needed a new, larger home. Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca, now the community’s spiritual leader, spearheaded this project. The community acquired first the right from the city to build a synagogue, and then the land. And then the construction began.

Some bad luck for the Dutch Republic delayed the opening of the synagogue, known as the great Esnoga, beyond its intended 1672 opening day. It opened in 1675 instead, but it was worth the wait.

The Esnoga today

Massive in size and constructed to recall the great temple of Solomon, the Esnoga is one of the oldest and one of the largest synagogues to be still in continual operation. It survived the nazi occupation and endures today not just as a tourist site but as the spiritual home to Amsterdam’s Sephardic community.

And that’s not a bad legacy for a rabbi like Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who worked 70 years for his people, through thick and thin, who made good decisions and bad, but whose heart seemed to have always been in the right place at the right time, even if the rest of his wasn’t.

3 thoughts on “Of rabbis and rivals, pt. 3: Isaac Aboab da Fonesca

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