Who were the Marranos? What does that term mean? Are there Marranos anywhere in the world nowadays? Are they considered to be Jewish?
The previous installment of this fascinating and unfortunate episode in Jewish History explored who the Marranos were and possible sources and meanings of the term. This installment will cover whether there are Marranos nowadays, and their status as Jews.
The vast majority of Spain’s Conversos abandoned Judaism and simply assimilated into Spain’s dominant Catholic culture. As mentioned earlier, this is borne out by the apparent high percentage of modern-day Spaniards with Jewish genetic ancestry.
However, the Conversos or New Christians were suspected of “Marranism” by the Spanish Inquisition. And although the wealthier among them tried to bypass the discriminatory Limpieza de Sangre (Clean Blood) Laws, they nevertheless constituted a significant portion of the over three thousand people executed for heresy by the Spanish Inquisition.
In this climate, many of the Jewish New Christians who continued to secretly practice their former religion felt threatened and persecuted by the Inquisition which, continued to actively persecute heresy. Some of these chose to leave Spain, in bands or as individual refugees, to three general areas: Europe, Muslim Lands, and Latin America.
New Christians began to leave Spain in the wake of the mass conversions of 1391. This tide of emigration ebbed and flowed from both Spain and Portugal throughout the centuries that followed. To slow the continuing exodus and to ensure that they would remain Christian, both countries prohibited New Christians from emigrating. These decrees were frequently evaded, however, and Marranos regularly left the Peninsula clandestinely, or secured permission to take business trips abroad from which they never returned. There were even cases of Marranos leaving for the ostensible purpose of making a pilgrimage to Rome.
In fact, Italy, despite it’s being Catholic, served as an acceptable destination for Jews and Marranos. Unlike Spain’s centralized Inquisition, Italy was divided into many small kingdoms. This lack of centralized rule enabled Jews to settle in relatively non-hostile enclaves within this Catholic realm. In addition, compared to the Church in Spain, the Church in Italy, under the popes of Medici and Borgias, was more liberal than zealous. Thus many Marranos settled in the Jewish communities of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Pisa. Other European destinations for the Marranos were the Protestant countries of Germany, England, and the Netherlands, which were natural havens for those fleeing Catholicism.
Similarly, the Muslim countries of North Africa, as well as the Ottoman Empire, were a natural refuge for Marranos seeking to live openly as Jews, since the Muslims were enemies of the Christians, particularly of Spain and Portugal. Morocco was a haven for both Jews and Conversos at the end of the 14th century. By the 15th and 16th century, many Jews and Marranos were attracted to the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Sultan derided King Ferdinand for expelling the Jews, thereby impoverishing Spain and enriching the Ottoman Empire. Jewish and Marrano communities in the Ottoman Empire were located in Constantinople, Damascus, Tzefat, Jerusalem, and Cairo. In Salonika, the number of Marranos exceeded the Jews and non-Jews as well.
Despite restrictions on the emigration of New Christians, there were exceptions in which the authorities closed their eyes, particularly regarding Latin America, where their skills and enterprise were desperately needed. And the New Christians also found Latin America to be an attractive option. For New Christians wishing to live fully as Catholics, the distance from the Peninsula and the sparseness of the population of most of the territories aided in the obliteration of the record of their Jewish origins. On the other hand, it was these very same factors which enabled the Marranos to practice Judaism while remaining in a familiar Spanish culture.
Therefore, in the case of Latin America, New Christians fleeing the Iberian Peninsula to escape persecution and to seek religious freedom during the 16th and 17th centuries ironically found refuge in Spanish and Portuguese territories where the Inquisition was active. These included Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru. Many in such communities were crypto-Jews, who had generally concealed their identity from the authorities. It is estimated that some even reached the northern areas of Colombia, which at the time was known as New Granada. While nearly all of these people assimilated into Colombian society, some continue to practice traces of Sephardic Jewish rituals as family traditions till today.
Regarding the Jewish status of the early Marranos and crypto-Jews, Rambam opined that those who continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism as much as possible after their conversion were not regarded as voluntary apostates. He wrote that although one should submit to death rather than abandon one’s faith in times of persecution, nevertheless, if he transgressed and did not choose the death of a martyr, even though he has annulled the positive precept of sanctifying G-d’s Name and transgressed the injunction not to desecrate His Name, since he transgressed under duress and could not escape, he is exempted from punishment (Yesodei HaTorah 5:6).
Consistent with this, many rabbis ruled that those New Christians who remained in their countries because they were unable to escape and flee, if they conducted themselves in accordance with the precepts of Judaism, even if only privately, were full Jews. Their shechitah could be relied upon, their testimony in Jewish law cases accepted, and their wine was considered kosher.
Some authorities ruled, however, that if some Marranos of a certain locality succeeded in fleeing to a country where they could return to Judaism, while others remained in order to retain their material possessions, the latter would no longer be regarded as kosher Jews. Other rabbis expressed more lenient views, and held that no one was to be deprived of his rights as a Jew as long as he was not seen to transgress the precepts of Judaism when there was no longer danger involved. Rabbi Moshe Isserles also seems to have ruled that even if those faced with forced conversion are able to flee but delay because of material considerations and transgress Judaism publicly out of compulsion while remaining observant privately, are still reliable Jews (Y.D. 157:1).
However, as suggested above, this historic discussion of the Jewish status of the Marranos pertained only to the early Conversos. But those Marranos or crypto-Jews who continued to live among the gentiles for centuries eventually assimilated and intermarried, with the result that their descendants are presumed to be non-Jewish unless it can be proven that their mothers are Jewish.
- Wikipedia.org, “Marrano”
- JewishVirtualLibrary.org, “Christian-Jewish Relations: Marranos, Conversos & New Christians”
- JewishHistory.org, “The Marranos”