Of rabbis and rivals, pt. 4: Menasseh ben Israel

So far in this series, I’ve profiled Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the venerable leader of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Sephardic community in the early- to mid-1600s, and I’ve introduced you to Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who for a short while became the first rabbi in the Americas before going on to become the leader of the Amsterdam Sephardic community responsible for the creation for the landmark esnoga that still exists.

Now, I want you to meet the rabbi who served at the same time as these other two men who, in my opinion, takes the cake. His name is Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, and even though the community in Amsterdam may not have considered him to be their chief leader, he was considered the most famous Jew in all Europe in his day. That’s because he was something of a Renaissance man.

Copper etching by Rembrandt. Traditionally, the sitter is said to be Menasseh ben Israel, though some scholars dispute this.

So what made him so notable, you may wonder? For one, he was as busy at the printer as he was at the pulpit. He instituted the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam and kept it humming with his own books and the tomes of others. And he wrote by hand, too — letters he sent to many of the monarchs, dignitaries and philosophers of his day, including England’s Oliver Cromwell, Queen Christina of Sweden and the philosopher Hugo Grotius, a Remonstrant considered to be the father of international law. He’s believed by some to have been a friend of Rembrandt, who may have (or not) etched his portrait (some scholars dispute that it’s ben Israel’s face depicted). And if that wasn’t enough, it was ben Israel who is credited with convincing England to allow Jews to legally settle in that nation once again.

Yet for all those accolades, ben Israel struggled to find the level of respect in his own community that he felt he deserved. And it was this lack of respect that drove much of what he did.

Auspicious beginnings

Like so many in Amsterdam’s Portuguese community, ben Israel was a refugee. He was born Manoel Dias Soiero in 1604 on the island of Madeira. His family had moved there from the mainland of Portugal trying to escape the inquisition there, but it became obvious that the island wouldn’t be a refuge. So in 1610, the family packed up and headed for Amsterdam.

An undisputed portrait of Menasseh ben Israel. The figure in the upper left is his printer’s mark.

Once established in the safety of the city, Manoel was renamed Menasseh ben Israel, and he became a serious student. He advanced in his studies so quickly that by the time he was 18, he was ready to become a rabbi himself. He became the leader of the Neve Shalom congregation, one of three Sephardic congregations in the rapidly growing Portuguese community.

Interestingly, at the same time, Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, born one year after ben Israel, also became a rabbi at 18 and became the leader of the Beth Israel congregation. It’s interesting to imagine these two eager, young upstarts, both new to Amsterdam, new to living their Judaism as redeemed conversos, but both dedicated to helping their community find its footing and thrive in its new home.

If only it had been so idyllic.

A man of letters

Menasseh ben Israel married Rachel Abarbanel a year after becoming a rabbi, and they had three children. But there was a problem: being a rabbi wasn’t paying the bills.

A second job running a yeshiva, or talmud school, still didn’t bring in enough income for the young family. Luckily, ben Israel had another marketable skill. By the age of 17, he’d written and published a book on Hebrew grammar. So with money tight, he decided to get a printing press and a set of Hebrew characters and set up the Netherlands first Hebrew press, on which he would print his own and others’ works.

The title page of Menasseh ben Israel’s Nishmat Hayyim.

Because of him, Amsterdam’s community got its own siddur, or daily prayer book as well as an edition of the mishnah (study on Jewish law) and midrash (non-canonical stories of the Torah). He also created a four-volume El Conciliador, his attempt to resolve apparent conflicts that exist within the Torah.

One of his most popular works would be the Nishmat Hayim, a work in which he lays out his argument for the reincarnation of souls. Many Jews today might be surprised to learn that an Orthodox rabbi in the 17th Century argued strongly for the transmigration of souls, but that’s just how ben Israel rolled. He tended to the esoteric side of things. He was known to be a kabbalist, a follower of Jewish mystical teachings, which sometimes put him on the outs with the more staid ruling elements of his community.

Another of his key works was the Hope of Israel, a booklet he wrote for the leaders of England. In it, he argues several things, among them: the Native Americans were lost Israelites, and Jews had to be let back into England so that Jews could be there to be “gathered in” from all corners of the earth to usher in the end times. Outlandish to modern ears? Maybe. But it worked. As a result of his lobbying, England changed course and allowed Jews back in.

Ecumenical emperor

As the Hope of Israel indicates, ben Israel wasn’t someone shy about talking religion with Christians. That might not sound like much today, but back in the 1600s Amsterdam, Jews were under orders NOT to talk religion with the Christian neighbors, and more specifically, not to argue the merits of Judaism vs. Christianity with them. It wasn’t just impolite; it was against the law.

Menasseh ben Israel didn’t care. He’d talk up Judaism all day with all comers. He loved to explain why Judaism was every bit as worthy, as moral and as true (if not more) than Christianity. He taught Hebrew to anyone who wanted to learn it — no matter why they wanted to learn it.

In fact, many of the people who came to ben Israel for tutoring weren’t Jewish at all, but Christian. Some of them were blatantly antagonistic about their motivation. They wanted to learn Hebrew so that they could hone their arguments against Jews and Judaism in order to win more converts to the church. Ben Israel didn’t mind; he taught them anyway.

He was perhaps among the first religious leaders of the modern era to realize that, at least as far as group-to-group relations go, familiarity does not breed contempt. It does the opposite. It leads to understanding. Simply put: it’s a lot harder to hate a group of people once you start to know some people from it. You come around to seeing that they are people remarkably similar to you , despite different faiths, languages, customs and traditions.

Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt is said to have sought the help of Menasseh ben Israel to correctly draw the Hebrew characters, though he oddly chose to write top to bottom instead of right to left.

Of course, some of the Christians who wanted to know Hebrew had more benevolent motivations. Some also wanted to foster warmer relations between Jewish and Christian communities. Some merely wanted to be able to read source texts in their original language. Some, like Rembrandt, just wanted to be able to paint Hebrew characters accurately. Whatever. Ben Israel welcomed them all.

And if they actually wanted to argue about the differences in their religions? Well, he was prepared for that, too. Remember, this was the man who had written the four-volume Conciliador. He was aware of all the contradictions within the Torah, and he knew the arguments to refute them. He was up to the challenge and he relished it.

It was this willingness to engage with the Christian community that made ben Israel the most famous Jew in Europe of his generation.

Unfortunately, it also made him a thorn in the side of his own community.

A recipe for rivalry

All this carrying on with Christians might have made ben Israel a marquis name among the goyyim, but it didn’t win friends back home. Remember, the Portuguese community was a community of refugees, a community that desperately wanted its host country to like it. It didn’t want to make waves. It certainly didn’t want to throw metaphorical stones at their church windows. It wished Menasseh ben Israel would just sit down and shut up already.

Exactly how the community felt about things was made clear in 1639, when the three Sephardic congregations merged into one. Four rabbis were retained to lead the community: Morteira, David Pardo, ben Israel and Aboab da Fonesca. And in that order, they were ranked. Morteira was to be the lead rabbi, offer three sermons a month and head the talmud school; his salary was 600 guilder a year. Pardo, second in command, administered the cemetery and was paid 500 guilder. Ben Israel, the third in rank, was given one sermon a month and paid 150 guilder a year. Last in rank was Aboab da Fonesca, yet he was paid 450 guilder and ran the elementary school.

Menasseh ben Israel’s printer mark. He would eventually become the traveler depicted here, spending his last years in England making the case for Jewish settlement there.

I mean, what did the parnassim, the community elders, think was going to happen? It was a recipe for dissatisfaction, resentment and bitterness.

The results weren’t surprising. Ben Israel continued to struggle on his meager salary, which meant he continued to rely on his publishing and fame for income. And that only deepened the reservations some had about him.

And Aboab da Fonesca? Well, we already know about him. He took off for South America for several years, until the Portuguese ruined that and he had to come back home.

Eventually, ben Israel left Amsterdam, too. He had sent his son ahead to London to press the case for the Jews’ return to England. Things weren’t going well. Cromwell himself was sympathetic, but there was a core contingent of anti-semites against the proposition. Menasseh ben Israel’s son pleaded with his father to made the journey to try and close the deal himself.

Ben Israel arrived in London in 1655 and stayed there for two years as he negotiated a legal status for Jews in England. While no written permission for Jews to return to England was made, it was decided that it was not illegal for them to be there, either. This hair-splitting decision, while disappointing for ben Israel, was enough to open the doors of England to Jews seeking another safe haven.

But tragedy stole the victory from ben Israel. Soon after the decision was rendered, his son, Samuel, died in London. Grief-struck, he returned with his body back to the Netherlands. On the way back to Amsterdam, Menasseh ben Israel died in the Zeeland city of Middleberg on Nov. 20, 1657.

It’s sad for me to think that this fascinating man who involved himself in so much, accomplished so many things and was famous throughout Europe, but never got the dignity and respect he sought from his own neighbors. Many of us try to carry on his spirit of building goodwill interfaith relationships, even in an age when that can be contentious, and sometimes even hazardous.

In many ways, Menasseh ben Israel was simply the most forward-looking rabbi of his time in Amsterdam. The admiration he yearned for may have eluded him in life, but he has mine now.

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