Launching the Age of Jewish Messianism

By

Mor Altshuler

"Don Yitzhak Abravanel: Medinai Vehogeh De'ot" (Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher,) Cornell University Press, 5th edition, 1998, by Benzion Netanyahu, translated into Hebrew by Aharon Amir, Schocken, 380 pages

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in 1437 to a wealthy and influential Jewish family in Spain that traced its ancestry back to King David. Abravanel was a courtier, diplomat and treasurer for Alfonso V of Portugal. He also served Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Aragon and Castile. When he was exiled to Italy, he quickly rose from refugee to right-hand man of Ferrante I, king of Naples, and advisor to the Senate in Venice. He lost everything he had three times in a row - once when he fled to Portugal after his father converted to Christianity and the family went bankrupt; a second time in 1482, when he was accused of participating in a conspiracy of Portuguese nobles seeking to overthrow Juan II and was forced to take refuge in Spain; and a third time, in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Thanks to his diplomatic and financial skills, he managed to recover each time.

Latin, Portuguese, Castilian and Hebrew - he spoke them all fluently. He was a Jewish scholar, an expert in philosophy, including the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina - and knowledgeable in the sciences of his time - magic, medicine and astrology. His biblical exegesis put him on par with Rashi and the Ramban. His ability to spot contradictions in the writings of Maimonides led Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto to describe him as the conqueror of the Jewish Aristotelians.

As the author of a messianic trilogy, the historian Zeev Aescoly called him the greatest codifier of messianism in his day. If there was any Jew toward the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period who deserved a royal title, it was Don Isaac Abravanel.

Jewish historical research is short on biographies despite their importance for understanding the spirit of the times, possibly because shifting attention from a person's work to his private life was perceived as presumptuous in Jewish tradition. Source material from which one can assemble a solid picture of the lives of great Jews is rare.

Benzion Netanyahu grappled with this paucity of Jewish sources by plumbing the archives of the European monarchies under which Abravanel lived, from documents on the Inquisition to the correspondence of Christian scholars. The outcome is a comprehensive, two-part biography divided into sections on Abravanel's life with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the annihilation of Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula, and the evolution of Abravanel's thinking. Combining these elements in one book allows Netanyahu to examine the relationship between the events of the time and Abravanel's spiritual outlook.

The conclusion he comes to is that Abravanel, in the face of this cruel and senseless expulsion, began to despair whether the world would ever operate in a logical and just manner. This despair led him to give up his rationalist approach to history and to base his political theories on messianic theocracy, launching the age of Jewish messianism and heralding European utopianism.

Useless fire and brimstone
In the same way that Don Isaac Abravanel was an admirer of Maimonides, but had no qualms about exposing flaws in his thinking, Netanyahu lauds Abravanel's greatness but is not afraid to point out his weaknesses. As a leader of Spanish Jewry, he failed in his primary mission: alerting the Jews to the fact that expulsion was imminent and that a safe haven should be sought elsewhere, perhaps in the Ottoman Empire, which Abravanel, as a diplomat, knew was more tolerant. Abravanel's nonchalance proved tragic. The bribe offered to King Ferdinand at the last minute - a payment of 300,000 ducats - did not help, nor did his fire and brimstone speeches to Queen Isabella.

Many of the Jews of Spain fled to Portugal, falling into a trap: Juan II closed the borders and forced them to convert. Others were herded onto ships bound for the Mediterranean. Plague epidemics broke out on the overcrowded vessels, which were then refused entry to the ports of Italy. Only in Genoa were the passengers allowed to disembark for a short time, on a dock surrounded by water on three sides. "One might have mistaken them for ghosts," an eyewitness wrote. "So emaciated they were, so funereal, their eyes sunken in their sockets. They could be taken for dead, if not for the fact that they were still able to move."

By the summer of 1492, in less than three months, the Jews of Spain, whose cultural achievements had been a beacon to the Jewish world for hundreds of years, were wiped out. In a leitmotif that runs throughout the book, the destruction of Spanish Jewry at the end of the 15th century is compared to the genocide of the Jews of Europe in the mid-20th century.

Spain, writes Netanyahu, was the first country in Europe that allowed the mighty forces of racial hatred to rise above the surface. He reaches this conclusion by analyzing the goal of the Inquisition. Contrary to belief, this brutal institution was not established to force Christianity on the Jews, but to expose and denounce the treachery of the "New Christians," as the Crypto-Jews and their offspring were officially known. Unofficially, they were called Marranos, Spanish for swine. The Crypto-Jews were persecuted because it was believed that their "tainted blood" was polluting Spain. The disease called Judaism was perceived as an innate quality that could not be cured by conversion to another religion.
Netanyahu takes advantage of the fact that he is a biographer, and hence endowed with hindsight. He brings the words of Abravanel himself to demonstrate his political blindness and apathy: "Jews dwell securely in all the countries of Spain, feasting on delicacies in peace and tranquillity." The obliviousness of the German Jews and European Jewry to the dangers of the Nazis provides Netanyahu with a concrete example of how the Jews of Spain ignored the warning signs. The alarm should have sounded with the onset of the pogroms of 1391, which was followed by waves of forced conversion and reached a peak when the Inquisition was established, 11 years before the final expulsion edict. Despite centuries of oppression, the Jews of Spain dismissed the dangers and became hooked on the illusion that the pogroms were a lightening rod that would divert the hatred toward the converts and away from the Jews.

Isn't Netanyahu's criticism a case of being smart after the fact? Well, obviously, a historian is not meant to judge his subjects. He cannot know for sure how things might have turned out if the protagonist had acted differently or refrained from certain actions. But this does not detract from the importance of asking questions. What is history if not histoire, a story with a moral? The lessons are learned not by unearthing the events of the past, but by observing how they illuminate the wounds of the present.

'Castles in the air'
"Don Isaac Abravanel" was first published in 1953, in English and Spanish. Half a century later, the gap has closed with the book's publication in Hebrew. Aharon Amir's translation, which lends a somewhat archaic feel to the narrative, along with Netanyahu's restrained writing style, fit in nicely with the mysterious atmosphere of this medieval tale. It is an intriguing tale about a man who soars high and falls low, who watches helplessly as ships laden with Jews sail off to their deaths, and who hobnobs with princes and dukes in the palaces of Naples and Venice.
The drama reaches a pinnacle in the final chapters: Abravanel, shattered and depressed by his people's fate, disgusted with the vanities and temptations of this world, consolidates a pessimistic view of the world as Sodom and Gomorrah, fated to be destroyed in an apocalyptic war. His belief in the end of history is supported by intricate eschatological calculations proving that sometime between 1501 and 1513, salvation will arrive: An end-of-days war between Christians and Muslims will destroy evil Rome; from beyond the Sambatyon River a Jewish army of the Ten Tribes will arise and take revenge on the enemies of Israel; the dead will return to life, and the Messiah, now revealed, will lead the last revolution - the revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven. These "castles in the air" built by Abravanel in his old age would be called delusions today, but to his contemporaries, this scenario sounded completely plausible. Juan II of Portugal was then competing with Ferdinand and Isabella in financing naval expeditions in which adventurous mariners set sail for India and Africa to get their hands on the mythical treasures of lost worlds. Columbus, his voyage financed by rich Crypto-Jews in Spain, went searching for Indian gold and reached America. Magellan headed for the Spice Islands and discovered new routes in the Pacific Ocean. Bartolomeu Dias was sent to explore the coasts of West Africa and his sailors returned with fabulous stories of Jewish kingdoms across the ocean. Rumor had it that a Jewish kingdom was also discovered in the East, and its armies had fought the mythical Christian king Prester John.

This era of geographical exploration and the sense of space conjured up by the New World, which contrasted starkly with the gloomy prospects of the Jews, prompted Abravanel to fantasize about a mythical solution for his persecuted people. In this Jewish theocracy that he predicted would arise at any moment, he envisioned a humane and democratic government in which everyone would have the right to vote; in which the judges would be chosen by the people rather than the king; in which officials would serve the public, not their superiors.
How did this Jewish version of Savonarola, the fundamentalist monk who prophesied the fall of corrupt Rome-Babylonia, come up with the format for a democratic, constitutional Jewish state hundreds of years before one was established? Netanyahu believes he took his cue from the Venetian republic, which had democratic components not often seen in those days. Perhaps throwing off the yoke of this world made it easier for him to offer Europe in general, and the Jews in particular, an improved model of government that would only come into being centuries later.

One way or another, the critical distance that the author has established between himself and his protagonist does not prevent him from reaching out and praising this paradoxical "man of the future," who had one foot planted in the Middle Ages and the other in the Renaissance, a man whose political thinking and messianic vision were a way of sizing up and overcoming the obstacles of his time.

The End