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From the whale’s belly into the fire

In mid-eighteenth century, a priest from Bahia wished to unite Jews and Christians.

Reproductions from the book "Bandeirantes espirituais do Brasil" – Eighteenth CenturyManuscript index of the 14th Book of the Code of Maimonides, containing the laws of the kings (Cologne, 1295)Reproductions from the book "Bandeirantes espirituais do Brasil" – Eighteenth Century

The word may be God’s seed, but the seventeenth and eighteenth century Church did not like the heads of its flock to be over plowed. The priest Antonio Vieira himself, who referred to the quote from Luke (above) in his Sermão da Sexagésima sermon (1655), soon learnt that ecclesiastical “agriculture” had very limited boundaries: arrested by the Inquisition, the Tribunal of the Holy Office, in 1667, prohibited him from voicing his thoughts, because if his millenarian ideas and his advocacy in favor of the Jews, regarded in the anti-Semitic Portugal of those days as a “perverse people”. Vieira recanted and survived. However, one of his disciples from Bahia was less fortunate: father Manoel Lopes de Carvalho, born in the city of Salvador in 1682 and burnt alive, in public penitence, in 1726, after years spent in the Inquisition’s jails.

“Having been deeply influenced by the thoughts of Vieira, who had foreseen a Third State in which Jewish ceremonies would be allowed, with the Church reversing its positions and allowing Jews converted to Roman Catholicism to use their own rites, he tried to create a theological system, the so-called Jewish Christianism, whereby Jews and Christians would become a single people with a single religion in the kingdom of Portugal and its colonies”, explains Adalberto Gonçalves Araújo Júnior, author of the doctoral thesis No ventre da baleia: o mundo de um padre judaizante no século XVIII (Within the whale’s belly: the world of a Jewifying priest in the eighteenth century), under the guidance of Anita Novinsky and recently presented to the USP History Department. “His life, underscored by a questioning attitude vis-à-vis the main institutions of his time (the State, the Church and the Inquisition), was a saga that reveals a time when freedom and conscience were the privilege of few.” The extraordinary element in Father Manoel’s process is that his case contains a systematic theological treatise, in which the defendant provides arguments for his propositions, this being dangerous material in the hands of inquisitor Thomas Feio Barbuda, for whom the priest posed great danger to the kingdom, such was his “contamination by Judaism”.

But what was the reason for such an uproar, if the priest came from an area of the colony that was so distant from the metropolis? “Bahia, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, was a pro-Jewish center with an environment in which Judaism and Jewish-Christian syncretism coexisted, as there were many New Christians and secret Jews there”, stated  Anita Novinsky in her book Cristãos-novos na Bahia (New Christians in Bahia). They were also known as marranos, a derogatory expression meaning “pigs”, attributed to them by the Church. Actually, 2007 is the 500th anniversary of the arrival of such groups in Brazil, when they were allowed to emigrate from the Portuguese metropolis. “People of the nation”, “the confessed”, “the converted”, “the Jewifiers”, “those who were baptized on their feet”: all of these were epithets that designated the Jews who had been forced to give up their faith and traditions. The secret Jews appeared after the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, by their Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Having sought refuge in Portugal, they were soon faced yet again with Hispanic anti-Semitism, in 1497. King Manuel – though an admirer of the Jews, whom he believed were essential for the progress of Portuguese science and economics -, upon his marriage to a Spanish princess, was charged by his parents-in-law to expel all Jews from his lands.

The Portuguese king, however, chose a solution with a Brazilian twist to it. Being well aware of the importance of  Jews for Portugal, he pretended to set a date, Easter, for the expulsion of all those who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism (thus becoming New Christians).

When the time came for them to board the ships, however, it was alleged that the number of vessels was insufficient, and the king ordered the mass baptism of the Jews gathered at the Lisbon port, waiting for transport to other lands, in particular to the Low Countries, which were tolerant of Jews. Hence the Portuguese expression a ver navios (“to be left looking at ships”, i.e., to be left standing). Many were dragged into baptism by their hair and beard. Thus, the king decreed that there were no more Jews in Portugal. He hoped that, once Christianized, the Jews would soon adapt and remain in Portugal. “That, however, didn’t happen easily and the concept of the secret Jews arose, of those who pretended to have accepted Christianism only to continue practicing their Judaism secretly; this was soon labeled a heresy by the Church and made punishable by death”, states Anita Novinsky in her work Inquisição, prisioneiros do Brasil. In 1531, the persecution of the Jews in Portugal began, when the country’s first Inquisitor was appointed.

The “discovery” of the new lands of Brazil gave secret Jews the opportunity to avoid certain death and to practice their beliefs with relative freedom, at least until 1591, when a visitor from the  Inquisition was sent to the new world to investigate suspected Judaism. Previously, however, the colony had been a safe haven for secret Jewish resistance, thanks to the relative harmony and complicity that governed the joint existence of New and Old Christians. This was made possible by the still incipient ecclesiastical structure of the colony, which had no Inquisition tribunal, as well as by the hard daily life that all creeds faced. There were diseases, hostile natives, and a shortage of food and water: too many problems for the colonizers to allow themselves the luxury of wasting time and energy on religious squabbles that only made sense (if they made any sense at all) in Europe, so very far away from the New World. At the same time, with the king’s authorization, the converted Jews were able to take on Christian names, such as those of the local, truly Roman Catholic population, or adopt surnames connected to where they lived, to the fauna and flora, or to their profession.

Time, however, caused many traditions to be forgotten or reinterpreted, due to necessity or the lack of rabbis and sacred books, which were crucial for an intellectualized religion such as Judaism. These immigrants knew something about the Sabbath, about the holy days, about its being forbidden to eat pork or seafood without scales, but most of the precepts were forgotten or incorrectly complied with. Nonetheless, the secret Jews maintained the habit of fazer esnoga (going to the synagogue, in archaic Portuguese), or, in other words, to gather for Jewish religious celebrations. The “temples” were generally improvised in out-of-the-way sugar mills or even at home, behind closed doors. One had to be careful not to be noticed and denounced by the neighbors. At the Camarajibe sugar mill in Pernambuco, for instance, there was the so-called campainha (or “warner”): someone would walk about the village with a piece of cloth tied to the big toe, to indicate the gathering was about to begin. At the esnogas secretas (secret synagogues) they would take turns: while some prayed, others watched the entrance and announced the arrival of strangers. There was even a Jewish wedding held at this synagogue. Keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath) was easier, and one of those who did so was the poet Bento Teixeira, who wrote Prosopopéia. Still, things were no bed of roses. A teacher, the poet was always absent from the Saturday lectures, which earned him the accusation of “Jewifying”.

As was the case among the Jewish majority, the secret Jews were informed of their origin at the age of thirteen, also being warned of the dangers of practicing their religion openly. Everything could lead to being denounced. To have one’s meals on a low table as a sign of mourning indicated a New Christian. However, in the province of Minas Gerais, it was a table with large drawers that disguised the religion of the people in the house, because it was thought that the drawers were a symbol of avariciousness, being used to hide food so as to avoid having to share it with strangers. Actually, hiding the food in drawers was a means of avoiding suspicions about a diet that followed Jewish dietary precepts. Even death had to be handled with care. The moribund individual, upon feeling the approach of the end, called the “drowner” or “stifler”, people who asphyxiated the sick so that, in their unconscious state, they might not betray their Jewish roots or reveal the names of other secret Jews. Externally, they were exemplary Christians.

In 1643, Vieira actually sent King John IV of Portugal a proposal: he advocated an alliance with the New Christian merchants and financiers as a way of getting Portugal out of the economic quagmire that it was heading toward, by allowing the Jews to return to the metropolis. However, common sense anti-Semitism was far too firmly woven into the Portuguese mentality of the time. “Hence the measure of the boldness of father Manoel, to try to go to Rome and propose to Pope Clement XI a project of Church reform in the light of Jewish-Christianism”, comments the researcher. According to him, the priest’s main arguments were: keeping Sabbath rather than the Christian Sunday; reforming the Christian liturgical calendar to increase the importance of Easter, in accordance with the Jewish calendar; to comply with the Jewish dietary laws; circumcision; and doubts about Jesus’ messianic status. “He also referred, in the treatise, to the circumstances of the Portuguese New Christians; to suffering as a divine test of the chosen; and, horror of horrors, to the responsibility of the apostle Paul regarding the deformation of Jesus’ teachings and the dissemination of the latter throughout the Gentile world.”

“The separation between Jews and Christians began shortly after 70 A.D. Paul of Tarsus, a Pharisee converted to Christianism, in one of the early Church’s  ‘self-understanding’ efforts, disregarded Judaism as a path to God. Faith in Christ was all that was required”, he explains. This Paulean preaching, continues the professor, was heresy for the Jews, because Paul insisted that Christ had abrogated Mosaic Law on behalf of all, establishing a new covenant in which only the Mosaic rules that were useful for the saving of souls should be maintained. Christ’s Judaism had to exit the scene for Christianism to thrive as a religion. Father Manoel decided to pry into this ecclesiastical hornet’s nest. “In the same way as the law is the basis of the faith of Israel, for him, it is the basis, the cornerstone of the Christian faith, its being inconceivable that Christianism should fail to observe the Jewish Torah”. Not content with getting the priest’s “heretical” ideas in writing, the inquisitors investigated the defendant’s “Jewish roots”. The Inquisition’s prisoners were classified according to the amount of Jewish blood in their veins, heresy being assumed to be proportional to this percentage”, recalls the researcher. In the future, others would rely on the same nefarious paradigm. Even Father Manoel’s grandmother was used as proof of his Jewish blood. He remained unswayed. “The priest’s great affinity with Judaism caused him to claim his Jewish status, and he even invited the inquisitor to verify that he was circumcised.”

However, the months spent in the Holy Office’s jail did away with his sharp and lucid spirit. “After six month of imprisonment, he began calling himself the Messiah. In order to support his own messianic status to the detriment  of  Jesus”, he stated that the Christian Messiah had lacked the status of real humanity, as the biblical prophecies required, and was, rather, a lesser type of man, because he had not spread Adam’s semen. “For the researcher, it is difficult to figure out whether the priest lost his reason or whether he embraced a messianic thought process, according to which cosmic harmony could only be reestablished through a terrestrial mediator. This is the ‘whale’s belly’.” Swallowed by a whale, all gave Jonah up for dead, but what did it matter that in men’s mind he was dead, if he was alive (although hidden) within the whale’s belly.” For Araújo Junior, the priest’s story represents a line of thinkers who advocated a radical transformation into a more just society. A difficult thing, even today, for most Cetaceans.