The figure of Menasseh ben Israel holds a special place in the hearts of many British Jews. He is regarded as the central advocate in pleading the case to the leaders of the English republic in 1656 to readmit the Jews into the country.
A leading Sephardi rabbi in Amsterdam, he spent two frustrating years in London despite Oliver Cromwell’s determined support, before returning to Holland. Yet his efforts led a group of Jews who clandestinely lived and prayed in London to purchase a building in Creechurch Lane, and this subsequently became the first open synagogue in England since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 by Edward I.
Menasseh died shortly after his return to Holland at the age of 53. His body was taken along the Amstel River and buried in the Sephardi cemetery. Yet few know the background of this remarkable man. This first-class biography, Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam by Steven Nadler, a philosopher professor in the US who has previously written on Rembrandt’s Jewish connections and on Baruch Spinoza, is highly revelatory about the rabbi’s odyssey before the English episode.
He was born Manoel Dias Soeiro in Lisbon in 1604 to seemingly conventional Catholic parents. His father, a seller of nails, however, had spent four years in prison, frequently tortured by the zealous practitioners of the Inquisition. His offense? Being a Jew. Released to house arrest, all his property was confiscated, and he was required to attend mass regularly. The Inquisition had literally left its mark – Menasseh’s father suffered from physical infirmities for the rest of his life. His first
wife, who had also been arrested, lost her mind and died shortly afterward. Menasseh was the child of his second marriage.
Like many other conversos from the Iberian Peninsula, the family relocated to Amsterdam, whose House of Orange was conducting a struggle against Catholic Spain for independence. In Holland the family returned to Judaism, embracing new Hebrew names while using the old ones for business.
As Nadler records in detail, Menasseh enthusiastically immersed himself in his new identity, becoming a teacher and then a rabbi within a few years. One central task was to educate the returnees in the ways of Jewish tradition. Ben Israel’s involvement came at a time when there was an explosion in Hebrew scholarship and the publication of Hebrew texts. Hebrew grammars and dictionaries were freely published by university presses in Leiden and Utrecht. Menasseh emerged as both a serious writer and a well-known publisher. His first book in 1627 was A Book of Prayers According to
His approach to Judaism and Jewishness was universalist and not particularist. This brought him into the circle of Dutch
Christian theologians, while his works sought to explain and justify Judaism to them and to the wider world. He wrote The
Conciliator in Spanish which sought “the reconciliation of places in the Holy Scripture that appear to contradict each other.”
His intellectual endeavors and growing fame brought him into conflict not only with Christian antisemites, such as Gisbertus
Voetius, but also with the conservative communal leadership and his fellow rabbis.
Nadler documents the danger to which Menasseh was exposed by recalling the case of Uriel Da Costa, who had suggested that the immortality of the soul was not rooted in biblical Judaism and only much later was transformed into an article of faith. Da Costa was first ostracized and then expelled by the communal leadership. Isolated and dejected, he took the decision to repent. The price exacted by the Amsterdam elders to take him back was 39 lashes, carried out in the synagogue itself. This was followed by instructing the congregation to walk over his prostrate body. Humiliated and deeply depressed, he took his own life. Clearly, the habits of the Catholic Inquisition died hard among those liberated from it.
The diplomatic acumen of Menasseh was on display when he welcomed Henrietta Maria, the wife of England’s Charles I, to the Amsterdam synagogue. He compared the liberation of Holland from Catholic Spain to the freedom won by the Maccabees
in opposing Hellenism.
The fear of the Inquisition returned when the Portuguese reconquered Pernambuco province in northern Brazil from the Dutch in 1654, catalyzing a flight of 600 Jews to Amsterdam. Alleviating the subsequent overcrowding was, as Nadler suggests, a factor in petitioning Cromwell to allow Jews into England.
Menasseh’s plea to the English Puritans included a biblical reference that the Jews would be scattered to “the corner” or “angle of the earth.” And what was England if not “Angleterre”!
Nadler’s exceptional reclaiming of the life and times of Menasseh ben Israel – a 17th-century equivalent of Herzl for
British Jews – is published in Yale University’s excellent Jewish Lives series.
Jerusalem Post 30 November 2018