I have been watching the series entitled “Out of Spain, 1492,” an informal history of the Jews of Spain, narrated by Yitzhak Navon, the fifth President of Israel, while on a personal journey through Spain (scriptwriter and director Yitzhak Lossin). This was produced in 1992, so it is a bit out-of-date now that so much more has been learned about the Jews of Spain and particularly the Marranos, or Secret Jews (known in Hebrew as Anusim). I will focus only on those points that have currently taken my interest.
Navon visited the location of the famous Barcelona disputation that was held on July 20-24,1263, between Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Girondi (Nachmanides), the leader of the Barcelona Jewish congregation and the representative of the Roman Catholic Church. It was held in the Palace of King James I of Aragon at the request of his advisor. Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani who was a convert to Christianity claimed that he could prove the superiority of Christianity from Jewish sources. However, things did not go as well as the Christians expected. They apparently expected the Jews to simply agree that they were wrong, that the Messiah had already come in the person of Jesus Christ and that Christianity was victorious as evidenced by the splendor and power of Christendom and that would be that.
But, Nachmanides argued that the coming of the Messiah, as described in the “Old Testament” that Christians also consider sacred, was supposed to bring an era of total peace, “the lion would sit down with the lamb,” but as everyone knew, that was not the case, Spain was engulfed in wars and violence. Further, the coming of the Messiah was supposed to bring about the return of the Jewish people to its Holyland, and that had evidently not happened, so in that case Christianity must be wrong. To argue this in front of an audience of thousands of Christians, including the King and his court, was a very brave and foolhardy thing to do. The Jews felt that Nachmanides had won the disputation, and King James gave him a prize of 300 gold coins and afterwards visited the Synagogue of Barcelona.
But the Christians, of course, believed they had won, and for his impudence in criticizing Christianity, Nachmanides was banished for life, leaving behind all his property that was of course confiscated by the Church and the Crown. A complete record still exists of this disputation since the Church scribes took copious notes. However, noone can vouch for their veracity, and at least one Spanish film has been made about this famous disputation. Nachmanides settled in Jerusalem in 1267 where he founded a synagogue that still exists.
Another famous disputation took place in the Spanish city of Tortosa in 1413-1414, and Navon also visited this site. This took place after the terrible massacres and pogroms of 1391 and was a much larger and longer affair than that of Barcelona. While Nachmanides had obtained the prior approval of King James to be given full freedom of speech, this was not the case in Tortosa and the proceedings took the form of a virulent attack by the Christians on Judiasm, and they used the charge of heresy and intimidation of the Jewish representatives to censor their responses. After the long and difficult disputation, the Pope ordered that copies of the Talmud be censored and many Jews were converted to Christianity.
However, this was not the end of their sufferings, because the Inquisition considered all conversos, or “New Christians,” as suspect. Not only were they discriminated against in general, but the Inquisition deemed them guilty as soon as they were arrested. It was routine to take their testimony under torture. The Inquisitors perfected the tools of torture, they had a rack that not only stretched the subject, but that had sharp spikes underneath to enter the person’s body. Navon read the account of one investigation, where a poor woman, who proclaimed she was a devout Christian agreed after three turns of the wheel to tell them whatever they wanted, but that was not enough for them, she had to admit to specific Jewish practices, and when she said she had never done any, the wheel of the rack was turned again. She suffered through 19 turns of the rack and then died. The Church and the Crown shared her confiscated property. Navon points out that there is no museum of the Inquisition throughout Spain. It is estimated that they arrested 300,000 people during their 300 year history, of whom ca. 30,000 mostly Jews were burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fe (admission of faith) and there are no memorials to these victims either.