I'm going to follow lethargic_man's example and try to write it up here, because it might be interesting to some of you, and because it'll be an easier archive for me to refer to in future than paper notes, and because I'm really hoping some people will have opinions and ideas, as the weekend was over before I had a chance to explore all the cool new stuff properly through in person discussions. Unlike him I'll write biased summaries and talk about my own reactions as well as the speakers' words, rather than try to actually type up the lectures from my notes.
- David Abulafia: The first Sephardim in the Atlantic
Abulafia is an academic historian of both Jewish and more general Mediterranean cultures. His talk was partly a response to the recent minor media flap where someone or other tried to hold Jews 'responsible' for the trans-Altantic slave trade, so he had gone to look for historical evidence of Jewish involvement.
He was basically talking about what happened to Jews of Spanish origin (Sephardim, in its most literal sense) between formal expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginnings of relatively greater acceptance for Jews living openly in Christian Europe from the 17th century onwards. Not the classic Sephardi diaspora story of Jews fleeing persecution in Iberia and settling elsewhere, some of the more tolerant Italian states, the Netherlands, North Africa, the New World. But rather those who at some level accepted forced conversion to Christianity, and to a greater or lesser extent retained their Jewish heritage and identity. A lot of Abulafia's thesis was that there was considerable variation between people who either immediately or over the course of generations became sincerely Christians, though still treated with suspicion of impure theology and blood, and people who were really only ever pretending to be Christian to avoid trouble, and continued to practise Judaism or at least talk about their ancestral practice in secret. There's the story of the chief rabbi of Burgos who became the Bishop of Burgos after conversion, and was followed in office by his son, and they seem to have been sincere Christians who were also willing to defend those New Christians who were seen as suspicious because of their Jewish heritage. Collectively New Christians, or conversos (the group used to be referred to as marranos but this is based on a racist slur and isn't usually accepted language these days).
Particularly, these New Christians who ended up in small Atlantic islands as the Spanish and Portuguese empires expanded out towards the Americas. Many, though not all, of these islands, were genuinely uninhabited before being claimed for the European powers, but became strategically important as they provided ports for military or trade fleets. New Christians moved there sometimes because they had to, and sometimes because it was a way to stay within Spanish or Portuguese territories but relatively out of reach of the Inquisition. Really interesting stuff about people living with dual identities, particularly if they travelled across Europe for trade, where they might be openly Jewish in the more tolerant north such as the Netherlands, but use only Christian names and identities when they were trading in Spanish or Portuguese territories or even mainland Spain and Portugal. And a picture of 150 years where sometimes and some places the Inquisition was active and everything was underground and sometimes people got tortured and burned at the stake for (real or invented) "Judaizing", and other times and places the New Christians' Jewish background and identity was basically an open secret and they were only defined as Christians on a legal technicality. Even initiatives to positively encourage the New Christians back to Spain by the 17th century, to help the mainland to benefit from their trading connections.
There were also quite a lot of examples of the sorts of accusations of Judaizing that are recorded from different places; Abulafia believes that the Inquisition records are a reasonable source for getting some idea of how much Jewish practice continued through the 16th century even if the accounts are obviously antisemitic and exaggerated. But I found all this a bit hard to follow and didn't manage to take down all the place and personal names.
There's a kind of horrifying thing with Portugal and São Tomé; after explusion from Spain, some Jews were given temporary asylum in Portugal but only for 8 months at most. And the minor children of these people were taken from them, baptized, and sent to Sao Tome, aka Crocodile Island, in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea. Where very few of them survived the hostile conditions without any adults supporting them. And that's pretty grim, but it's also the case that the background of what was going on in São Tomé was the beginnings of the even more horrific transatlantic slave trade. Apparently Portugal was trying to break into the sugar market and compete with Madeira, only weather conditions were poor enough that only inferior quality sugar could be produced there, so Portugal could only compete in the market through use of slave labour, namely Black Africans kidnapped from the region of the modern day Congo. And in fact Sao Tome became a port for trading slaves to the Americas, as well as using them for labour on the spot.
As the slave trade developed and expanded, Cape Verde became particularly central as the slave ships put in there. There is evidence of minor Jewish / New Christian involvement in the civic life of Cape Verde, such as attempts to ban them from holding certain offices, etc. And some Jewish merchants based in Portuguse Guinea on the West African coast may also have included slaves among their cargoes. There is also evidence of New Christian intermarriage with native Africans, particularly ancestrally Jewish men marrying African women, and syncretism between Judaism, Christianity and African animisms, both in Africa itself and in island communities where African slaves were. Some of these people of mixed heritage turned up in the Netherlands in the 17th century and were mostly accepted as Jewish by the Amsterdam community at the time.
Quite clearly the historical evidence is that that slave trade was primarily started and maintained by (old) Christians. Particularly Henry the Navigator, who was extremely anti-Jewish and anti-muslim and regarded the conquest of the New World as part of his "crusade" and kept trying to ban Jews, or Christians of Jewish heritage or anyone who seemed overly sympathetic to Jews, from all the places he laid claim to. But he may also have relied on Jewish cartographers such as the Crescas family, and in general it seems like there were often pragmatic reasons for the most extremely anti-Jewish rulers to make exceptions when it came to their more remote territories. Even the notorious Ferdinand was unable to expel the Jews from Naples, where he was also the monarch in addition to Castille and Aragon, because that would have meant that trade in Naples would have collapsed as all the Jewish merchants would flee to Venice.
So it's fairly preposterous to claim that Jews were "responsible" for the slave trade, but it's also likely that at least some of the Jews / New Christians who lived in temporary relative peace and prosperity and were allowed to run trading businesses may have had some involvement. It felt to me like the whole of this seminar was coming from a pretty strange stance; detailed exploration of the consequences of the major persecutions of Jews and more or less ex Jews by the Church in the late 15th century, and the ongoing though often somewhat less intense problems in the next couple of hundred years, but only relatively tangential mention of the slaving carried out by the same Christian powers. Which is fair enough, the history of slavery is not Abulafia's field, and obviously lots of other things were going on in those regions during that period, but it just felt odd.
- Rafi Zarum: Defecation and the Divine
Rafi Zarum basically makes his living running the Limmud and Jewish outreach circuit. He's a charismatic, erudite and deservedly popular speaker, but I thought maybe I wouldn't go to his seminar as he turns up reliably at every possible study day and I've heard him lots of times. But then the topic sounded pretty cool so I thought I'd give it a go.
So basically R' Zarum was teaching the prayer recited after using the toilet, which is as he mentioned somewhat less well known in Progressive than Orthodox circles, but it's something I'm familiar with and I am not particularly disturbed by the concept of a prayer relating to bodily functions. Zarum pointed to the origin of the prayer in more or less its modern form in Berachot 60b, and noted that there was originally a prayer said before entering the toilet involving asking for protection from angels. It seems ambiguous whether the accompanying angels of Talmudic tradition actually come into the toilet or wait outside.
Zarum was arguing that using the toilet is potentially an intensely spiritual thing, it's a moment of being present in your body and connecting to God through your physical being rather than your conscious, verbal mind. He rejects the dualist idea, which he ascribes to Classical Greek thought rather than blaming Christianity as many speakers on similiar topics are wont to do, that the body is inferior and polluted and an obstacle to spiritual connection. I think he could have done more with establishing the idea that something can be both taboo or even polluting and at the same time sacred; there are plenty of examples of this in Jewish and more general anthropological thought, and without that being clear it all seemed a bit tendentious. Like, lots of people in the audience kept asking, well, if toilet matters are so elevated and spiritual, why the prohibition on praying or bringing sacred objects into the toilet? Why do we recite the prayer only after coming out and washing our hands, not directly in connection with the act of defecation?
There was a lot of discussion of the connection between the Talmudic term for a toilet or privy, the house of the seat, with phrases to do with the seat / throne of God's glory. I do accept there's a word-play going on in the toilet blessing itself (if my digestive system didn't work properly to be able to sit on the throne / I wouldn't be able to stand before the throne of glory), but I need a bit more convincing of the idea that pooing expresses some kind of unique connection with the Divine. But anyway, the main source for this, whether or not it entirely supports R' Zarum's point, is this amazing mishnah from Tamid. The tractate, which has no Gemara, is basically about the practicalities of how things worked in the Temple, and it starts with what happens if the priests need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. And there is a mention of a special Temple privy, which is called a toilet (house of the seat) of glory, which I can't deny is a really telling phrase. and the thing that makes it glorious is that it's a lockable, single-person cubicle. There does seem to be this idea that toilet privacy is something that makes Jews stand out in general Roman culture which appears to have had only shared toilets available.
Then we studied a Gemara about R' Yehudah, known as the Prince as he was so wealthy and also the editor of the Mishnah. He is said to have had such terrible pain using the toilet that his screams could be heard even by sailors out at sea, even over the sounds of animals at feeding time. R' Zarum was using this source to demonstrate that the toilet has really high status and sanctity, because of the fact that toilet stuff is mentioned in a story of one of the greatest and most respected rabbis. But to me that's pretty clearly a story not about the importance of toilets, but about bodliy agony.
According all the honour due to someone who has taught me really a lot of Torah over the years, this is not the first time I've felt that R' Zarum's teaching sorely lacks a disability perspective. He didn't deal well with audience questions around the issue of, what happens when people don't have fully working eliminatory systems, how does the famous toilet prayer fit into that situation, and he gave kind of vague or mealy-mouthed answers. I do think there's a lot to be said for teaching that bodily functions are important, and they're not just gross, and good religion needs to accept people as fully embodied. But it's too easy for that to slide into the really disturbing ableist assumptions about people who for whatever reason need personal or medical support to deal with said functions.
We didn't really have time to discuss in detail the Gemara in Berachot about Ammi and Assi (the married couple rabbis) being so virtuous that they were able to safely use toilets even in areas known to be really dangerous. The main point of that was an interesting parallel betweeen 'silence and modesty' in the toilet, and 'silence and prayer' in the face of suffering; R' Zarum was using this to bolster his argument that using the toilet can be a form of physical prayer. But there's really a lot in that Gemara, the more so since the bit that was left out of our source sheet is about Rav Kahana sneaking into his master Rav's bedroom to learn from his master the Torah-appropriate way to have sex...
And the final source we didn't have time to look at at all, which is a shame because it's one of the rare bits of Talmud where Jesus appears, and ok, Jesus happens to be talking about toilets in that text, and it probably would have taken us off topic to actually think about the evidence for rabbinic attitudes to Jesus, but wow. It's basically Avodah Zarah 17a, and it would be better if I could find a sensible English version of that, wouldn't it? OK, this is a paraphrase, but it's by Steinsaltz and gets most of the point across, section titled The dangers of learning from Yeshu ha-Notzri (that's the Talmud's name for Jesus, Notzri means either Nazarene or Christian). Anyway, I can't usefully interpret that Gemara because we didn't get that far, but apparently Jesus taught his disciple James and James taught R' Eliezer that although it's normally forbidden to offer money earned from selling sexual services to the Temple, it's acceptable to use such tainted money for building the privy.
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