One of Renaissance Spain’s Leading Catholic Scholars May Have Been a Secret Jew

February 9, 2021 | Ahuva Ho
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Beginning in the late 14th century, tens of thousands of Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism as persecution increased—culminating with the expulsion of the unconverted in 1492. Many of these conversos or “New Christians” rose to prominence; the rabbi of the city of Burgos, for instance, was baptized in 1391, was eventually ordained as a priest, and returned to Burgos to serve as its bishop. Others continued to practice Judaism in secret. According to the recent research of Ahuva Ho, Alfonso de Zamora (1474–1545/6) fell into both categories:

A graduate of the famous Campanton yeshiva in Zamora, [Alfonso] first escaped to Portugal in 1492, but for unknown reasons returned to Spain around 1497 as a converso. In a few years we find him in Salamanca as a teacher and a scribe until 1512. . . . His involvement in the editing of the first Polyglot Bible, his books, scribal and teaching positions raised his esteem and importance at the dawn of the Renaissance. Throughout [an] almost 40-year period, he was employed by the highest Catholic prelates, the archbishops of Spain, right under the watchful eye of the Inquisition.

[But Alfonso’s Hebrew] poems called out for God’s help to heal his emotional and physical pain, to release him from cursed Spain, to punish the greedy and immoral Spanish society from the king to the Church clerics. [In prose manuscripts in Hebrew], he attacked the popes and the judges and mocked King Carlos V and his administration, [as well as] judges who had converted to Christianity and abused their powers to discriminate against their fellow conversos.

Alfonso excused his stay in Spain by comparing himself to Joseph and Daniel, who remained in their respective lands in order to benefit the world by teaching the beauty of Jewish wisdom to the Gentile power structure.

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