The “Confession” of One of the New World’s First Rabbis

March 15, 2018 | Oren Zweiter
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Born to a converso family in Portugal, and raised as a Jew in Amsterdam, Isaac Aboab de Fonseca is best known to posterity for signing the rabbinic ban expelling Benedict Spinoza from the city’s Jewish community in 1656. But from 1642 to 1654 he served as the rabbi of the congregation in Recife, in Dutch Brazil. Most of Recife’s Jews were themselves from Portuguese converso families and had reverted to Judaism when northeastern Brazil came under Dutch rule. Oren Zweiter describes a remarkable work of Aboab’s:

[In] 1646, the Dutch colony was under siege by the Portuguese. The Jews of Recife were terrified at the prospect of Portuguese conquest, knowing that Portuguese victory would bring the Inquisition with it. To respond to the threat, Aboab composed a viduy, or confessional prayer, enumerating what he believed to be the community’s sins and beseeching God to spare them. He thereafter composed a second poem recounting the Jews’ suffering during the siege, as well as their rescue. . . .

At the very beginning of the poem, he depicted the Jewish residents of Brazil, himself included, as “dwellers in the shadows of the universe.” Brazil was on the fringes, in the shadows of the known world, far from any major center of Jewish life. Later in the poem, he makes a personal statement, claiming that, “For my sin, I have been tossed to a faraway land.”

For Aboab, the Americas were in the shadows, and the only reason that could explain his presence there was that it was a punishment of exile for sins he had committed. He was a young, rising star in the rabbinic world of Amsterdam, who was taken from the center of his community’s Jewish life and sent to the most remote place imaginable. Aboab’s sentiments reflect the feelings of later immigrant rabbis to the New World, whether from Germany, Lithuania, or Hungary. The Americas were far. The Americas were different. It was rabbinic exile.

Aside from his own personal feelings of exile, Aboab also . . . accused his community of forsaking God because of their material success: “My flesh stood up from fear of my adversaries, for from my wealth I forgot my Creator.” Aboab’s accusations of materialism, however, take on a clearer and harsher tone in the confession: “I have coveted . . . all of man’s pleasures at all times.”

Such laments, too, writes Zweiter, have been mainstay of rabbis in the Americas ever since.

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