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

March 15 2018

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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More about: Brazil, Conversos, History & Ideas, Inquisition, Latin America

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

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More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations