The New Mexico History Museum and its Fractured Faiths exhibit, which I wrote about in my last blog, made it into the Times of Israel this week. An article entitled “When the Spanish Inquisition expanded to the New World” covers the fascinating, and troubling, history behind the exhibit, and inspires me to make a return visit.
It’s an excellent article, but I’d suggest a couple of corrections, one in particular.The article recounts the story of Dona Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, wife of a 17th century governor of New Mexico. It says, “In the 1660s, the possibility of being Jewish placed her in an Inquisition prison.” But that’s not quite right. The Inquisition wasn’t directly concerned with whether a Catholic might have Jewish ancestry, or might “be Jewish.” Rather, its concern was with Catholics, or ostensible Catholics, with Jewish ancestry, Conversos, who “did Jewish”—Jews who had yielded to the ferocious pressure to convert, but then maintained secret Jewish practices to preserve their identity.
It wasn’t like the Spanish Catholic Church totally accepted the Jews that it had forced into its fold. Authorities still worried about limpieza de sangre, or “blood purity,” a ghoulish preview of laws and terminology to come under the Nazis. In the days of the Spanish Empire, only “Old Christians” from families without Muslim or Jewish ancestry were qualified for the highest offices. The Fractured Faiths exhibits includes a display of documentation of ancestry for Don Juan de Onate y Salazar, the first Spanish governor of New Mexico (1598-1608). The documentation is massive, pages upon pages demonstrating Don Juan’s limpieza de sangre, but it’s entirely on his father’s side. It conveniently leaves out his maternal descent, which was from the Ha-Levi family, who were prominent Conversos. That information would have kept Don Juan from the governorship, but it wouldn’t have directly brought him under the wrath of the Church. Rather, as the Times of Israel article states, “Anyone suspected of practicing Judaism risked the wrath of a new, terrifying organization: the Spanish Inquisition” (emphasis added). In Dona Teresa’s case, says former museum director Frances Levine,
The crimes she was accused of were failures of religious practice. Changing linens in her house on Friday as preparation for the Sabbath. [Using] onion skins on her feet seems to her maid [like a] ritual. She was accused of being harsh with her maids when they go to church, speaking ill of the friars, and accused of being a Jew.
Such accusations parallel in an extreme form what Jews have always faced when they profess faith in Jesus whether out of conviction or convenience. They’ve been expected to abandon Jewish practice and Jewish identity. But of course, this gets at the heart of Messianic Jewish life as we understand it today. We embrace Yeshua as Lord and Messiah of Israel, and we embrace Jewish practice and identity. Ironically, the Inquisition made a valid point—being Jewish in itself doesn’t have a lot of impact apart from doing Jewish.
The late Michael Wyschogrod, z”l, who had a deep friendship with a number of Messianic Jewish leaders, once wrote an amazing letter to Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, who was born as a Jew. Cardinal Lustiger claimed, “In becoming a Christian, I not intend to cease being the Jew I was then. I was not running away from the Jewish condition. I have that from my parents and I can never lose it. I have it from God and he will never let me lose it.” (Cited in “A Letter to Cardinal Lustiger,” in Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004] 204.) Wyschogrod agrees with Lustiger’s premise, and goes on to argue—largely from the New Testament!—that as a Jew the Cardinal is still obligated to the Mosaic covenant, is still “under the yoke of the commandments.” Wyschogrod concludes, “[I]f I am right, are you not, from the Christian point of view, obligated to lead a Torah-observant life because you are a Jew? Are you not obligated to obey the dietary laws, the sabbath, the Jewish festivals, etc.?” (Ibid. 206, 210).
In an amazing reversal, much of the church world today, explicitly including the Catholic Church, affirms an ongoing Jewish identity for Jews who believe in Jesus. Michael Wyschogrod acknowledges that for the Cardinal to fulfill his Jewish identity with Jewish practice might “cause problems both for the Church and for Jews,” but insists it’s the right thing to do anyway. Since the letter was written, in 1989, church leadership, including Catholic leadership, has cautiously begun to affirm Jewish practice as well as Jewish identity. Regardless of the outcome of that affirmation, Jewish Yeshua-followers don’t have to worry about the Inquisition! If some of our ancient landsmen (fellow Jews) were willing to pay the ultimate price for practicing Judaism in forced secrecy, we should be diligent to practice it openly when we have the freedom to do so.
‘A Hearing Before the Inquisition,’ engraving by Mexican artist Constantino Escalante. (Public domain)