Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Old Testament Defender Was Ostracized by Jews

Most people think Judaism is synonymous with the Old Testament. But Uriel de Costa (1585-1640) became a famous Jewish heretic because he upheld the Law of Moses. 

n 14th & 15th century Spain, over 250,000 Jews were forced to become Christians on pain of death or expulsion.  The family of Uriel de Costa was among these "conversos" or "marranos." A member of the nobility and very wealthy, Uriel studied at a Jesuit University and became a priest. However, he began to question his faith: "Reason whispered in my ear something utterly irreconcilable with faith."

He read the Old Testament and found it offered "fewer difficulties." He believed in Moses and "decided to live according to his law." So he gave up  his ecclesiastical office and beautiful home and sailed to Amsterdam, a "place where we felt the Jews could live in freedom and fulfill the commandments." On arrival he and his brothers immediately "submitted to circumcision."

De Costa had a rude awakening. Biblical Judaism no longer existed. "After the first few days, I began to understand that the customs and institutions of the Jews were not at all in accordance with what Moses had written. ..the Jews were wrong to have invented so many things which deviated...The present day sages have maintained both their customs and their evil character. They still fight stubbornly for the sect and the institutions of the evil Pharisees.."

He could not find a basis for most Jewish customs in the Bible nor does the Old Testament speak of resurrection or immortality of the soul.

Ironically for a man who left his home for religious freedom, Amsterdam Jewry would not let him deviate from their opinion "in the slightest." He was threatened with excommunication and exclusion from the community. He insisted on religious freedom and was expelled. "Even my brothers whose teacher I was, passed me by, so afraid were they of the authorities that they did not even greet me in the street."

De Costa "believed in doing something pleasing to God [by] defending freely and openly the law of Moses,"  he wrote in his autobiography, "Example of a Human Life."

But he lived in isolation from the Jewish community and in great loneliness. After seven years, he sought reconciliation. He describes the humiliation he had to endure. He was stripped to the waist, tied to a column and made to recite a psalm while being lashed 39 times. Following this, he dressed and lay down over the threshold of the synagogue while the whole congregation --men, women, children and elderly--walked over him into the street.

"No monkey could have invented a more despicable, tasteless and ridiculous action," he wrote. 

The sting of this humiliation stayed with De Costa and he could not execute the reconciliation.  He saw no way out but to shoot himself. As a suicide, he could not be buried in a marked grave in the Jewish cemetery.


Faced with Christian intolerance, De Costa discovered its Jewish counterpart. Like many Marranos, he was stranded between two worlds.

He belonged to the tradition of the Sadducees and later the Karaites who insisted on adherence to the written law. But these groups had been suppressed by the Pharisees who dominated Judaism with the oral tradition (Talmud) and the Satanic pseudo mystical Cabala. (The Cabala pretends man can be God without becoming God-like, i.e. morally perfect.) 

The Old Testament strikes me as a mixed bag. You have to scour it for inspiring parts. Certainly it contains the same kind of xenophobia as the Talmud. But the Prophets' denunciation of corruption and decadence ring true.

De Costa should probably have melded back into Christian society. Instead, he remained loyal to his God to the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment