Reclaiming the Anusim: the Sephardic Perspective

— by Carlos Zarur

According to an article in eSefarad ,”A decision by the ultra-orthodox rabbi Nissim Karelitz recognizes that the Chuetas of Mallorca, who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and remained a distinct group within Mallorcan society until the 1970s, had the right to call themselves Jews.” How do Sephardic Jews view this?

Some in the Sephardic community ask themselves, “who is this Ashkenazi rabbi to make that decision?” They believe that the Chuetas of Mallorca never stopped being Jews.  Even if they did not practice Judaism, they preserved the Jewish identity by avoiding intermarriage at all. Mallorcan Secret Jews (Xuetas) are halachically Jewish, since they did not intermarry for centuries.

More after the jump.
Since medieval times, the Sephardic sages ruled that Ashkenazi Rabbis do not have powers of decision regarding Sephardic matters, and vice versa. Halachic Sephardic sources say it very clearly: Crypto-Jews, Anusim, or Conversos are Jews, as well as their children, if they have hazzaqqa (force of tradition of being Jews), endogamy (marrying only other anusim or other Jews), Jewish genealogy, and the proven historic practice of Jewish customs.

Sadly, there are not too many scholars, anthropologists, or rabbis qualified to determine who is who in the Crypto-Jewish world. Modern day rabbis, even those who are Sephardic, are not aware of how the Halacha sees these people. They are not trained to research the Crypto-Jewish phenomenon, since they are not anthropologists, or trained in anthropological research.

Ashkenazi and Sephardic hakhamim (learned scholars) disagree on Halachic matters on how to deal with the Crypto, or “secret” Jews. Sephardic rabbis have always helped secret Jews to return to the open Jewish practice, without any kind of conversion. Ashkenazi rabbis always asked for re-conversion, which makes sense, since Ashkenazi rabbis were not part of the Sephardic world and were not aware of the phenomena.

For a secret Jew, it is very insulting to be asked for a conversion (an approach supported by many mainstream Sephardic Jews, anthropologist, and some rabbis). These conversions are pasul (invalid) and totally non-Halachic. Of course, each case should be individually analyzed by knowledgeable people, using very strict criteria. After all, there are several cases of fake Crypto-Jews.

Carlos Zarur holds Masters’ Degrees in Jewish studies in the areas of Comparative Religious Studies, Sephardic Studies, Marranism Studies (Crypto Judaism), Peripheral Jewish Communities, Culture and Customs of Oriental (Mizrahi) Jewries, and Western and Eastern Sephardic Culture and Customs. He also has done field research in Crypto-Judaism in several countries in Europe and the American Continent, Syrian Jews, and the Jews of India. As a Professor, he has taught at the University of Colorado in the Anthropology Department and The Jewish Studies Program.

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