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Manual for Faculty
Unit 5: The Search for Deliverance
(1492 to 1789)
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Teaching This Unit
Exiles from Spain

Again, Abba Eban begins his narrative in the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, formerly a synagogue. But this time he talks not of hope and of glories to come but of the tragic experiences of the Spanish exiles, doomed as professing Jews to seek a place of refuge. The greatest and most prosperous of medieval Jewries no longer could call the Iberian peninsula their home.

Although the exiles were soon relocated in North Africa and across the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Ottoman Empire (see map 7 of the Study Guide), they still experienced a great loss and speculated on their tragic fate. Professor Ruderman, in the first section of the Study Guide chapter, carefully delineates some of the philosophical and theological responses to this national and personal tragedy.

Don Isaac Abravanel, the aged Jewish leader who left the peninsula with the other exiles, argued that the suffering was simply a preamble to the impending redemption. Samuel Usque, who lived some years later, emphasized this hope in order to console disheartened Jews and pointed to signs that he believed reflected an imminent change in the fortunes of his people. Strikingly, Solomon ibn Verga, an older contemporary of Usque, explained the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in a sociological vein: it was the Jews' arrogant and freewheeling life-style that had brought on their doom. Still, ibn Verga's response was couched in the traditional language of exile and redemption. Excerpts from Usque appear in Source Reader Selection 1, and excerpts from ibn Verga in Selection 2; a close reading of these items gives the student some idea of how an oppressed people attempted to explain their bewildering lives.

The Renaissance

As the video explores at length, the sixteenth century was a time of great learning and profound artistic endeavor. Note especially the paintings and sculptures of great artists like Michelangelo. This time of cultural rebirth was called the Renaissance, and its major locus was Italy. Some of the Jews who came to live in Venice, Ferrara and Florence became involved in Renaissance culture, and this interchange of Judaism and Renaissance ideas produced fascinating results. Judah Messer Leon, a learned rabbi and philosopher, authored a Hebrew work on rhetorical writing. (See Source Reader Selection 3.) Pico della Mirandola, a Christian scholar, became intrigued by the intricacies of Jewish mysticism, the kabbalah (see Selection 4), and Abraham Yagel, physician and student of the kabbalah, wrote an encyclopedia of the natural and metaphysical world in which he arrived at such startling innovations as the comparison of the Jewish God with the gods of the ancient pagans. (See Source Reader Selection 5.) All these profound new currents of thought indicate how, during the Renaissance, some Jews and Christians truly came to a meeting of minds. Ruderman's careful exposition of their ideas is an important contribution to the understanding of Renaissance culture.

This period of relative tolerance came to a quick end. Early-sixteenth-century papal policy towards the Jews grew increasingly harsh as Talmud burnings (see Selection 8), ghettoization, impoverishment and expulsion became the order of the day. In response to these attacks, the Jews in the Italian towns established their own confraternities through which they intended to meet their social and religious needs. Source Reader Selection 9, which contains excerpts from the autobiography of a Renaissance Jew, Leone Modena, describes the insecurity of seventeenth-century Italian Jewry.

Jews were not only involved in the Renaissance but were affected as well by the major schism within the Church that resulted in the Protestant Reformation. As the video explains, Martin Luther, a young German priest, launched this crusade. Luther first attempted to attract Jews to his banner, but when they rejected him, he became quite bitter and authored a fearfully strong anti-Jewish tract. Both his positive and negative attitudes towards the Jews are reflected in Source Reader Selection 10.

Although the sixteenth century seemed to be turning out badly for the Jews, they were still able to found new communities in Central Europe and at times continue their fruitful interrelationships with the culture that surrounded them. A fascinating example of this behavior in the post-Renaissance period is the Jewish historian David Gans' trip to the astronomical observatory of Tycho Brahe near Prague. (See his reverent description in Source Reader Selection 11.)

Ottoman Empire

In the period described by this unit, unlike some of the earlier eras covered in the telecast, Jews were living in many countries and under radically different conditions. One of the major loci of Jewish residence after the Iberian expulsions was the Ottoman Empire; Jews settled in Salonika, Istanbul, Izmir and other cities. Palestine was also part of the empire, and in the sixteenth century a major religious center emerged in Safed, a Galilean hilltop town and a place of relative insignificance prior to those years.

The TV show includes some wonderful footage of Safed. There, some of the greatest works of Jewish law and mysticism were written in an atmosphere of continual yearning for the messianic redemption. (See Source Reader Selection 13, which contains a poem, written by a Safed mystic, that is now an integral part of the Friday-evening liturgy, and a description of Safed society by a Moravian visitor.)

The sixteenth century also saw the emergence of a variety of messianic pretenders, among them David Reuveni and Solomon Molkho. They received support not only from Jews but from Christians too. Reuveni was even granted an audience with the pope in order to present his idea about how to recapture the Holy Land. This bizarre story is discussed by Professor Ruderman in the Study Guide. (Excerpts from Reuveni's allegedly authentic autobiography can be found in Source Reader Selection 6, and contemporary historian Joseph ha-Cohen's description of Solomon Molkho in Selection 7.)


It was in Safed, bubbling with religious ferment, that Isaac Luria arrived in 1569 as a young man. While Luria left few writings of his own, he created a mystical philosophy that was to have a profound effect on the course of Jewish intellectual history. As David Ruderman carefully details, Luria attempted to explain God's creation of the world, the problem of evil in present society and the possibilities of tikkun -- restoration of the universe to its primordial beginnings. This act of tikkun, Luria argued, could be effected by all Jews properly observing the commandments. Thus could redemption be achieved. (A description of Isaac Luria by the aforementioned Moravian traveler can be found in Source Reader Selection 14.)

Isaac Luria's belief that personal and cosmic redemption could be actively sought by the individual further fueled messianic speculation. Against this background we are able to chart the rise of one of the most enigmatic figures in Jewish history, the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zevi. While thousands of Jews believed him to be the "anointed one," Shabbetai converted to Islam under pressure from the Turkish sultan.

But even that unheard-of act by a messianic figure did not deter many of his followers. Employing ideas from Lurianic kabbalah, Shabbeteans argued that Shabbetai had converted to Islam in order to enter the evil realm and extract the trapped divine sparks. Only by this action could redemption become a reality. (For a Christian eyewitness account of Shabbetai's movement, see Source Reader Selection 15.)

The idea that good could be brought about by performing ostensible "evil acts" introduced radical antinomian ideas into Jewish patterns of thought. On a social level, two groups, the Donmeh and the Frankists, continued to practice this ideology. The latter group, led by Jacob Frank, openly converted to Christianity and violated Jewish Law. All this, they argued, was done to bring about the messianic era. (See Source Reader Selection 16, an excerpt from Frank's writings.)


In attempting to survey further this highly diverse period of Jewish history, Professor Ruderman next turns his attention to Eastern European Jewry. When Jews were expelled from Western Europe in the thirteenth century, they migrated in great numbers towards the east, where economic opportunities, especially in Poland, were abundant. They were traders, craftspeople and tax farmers, and they flourished culturally and communally. The Eastern European communities not only had communal authority over their own local co-religionists but established supra-communal organizations including the Jews of most Eastern European Jewry. Eastern European Jewry produced novel interpretations of the Bible and Talmud and created a society in which study of the Jewish classics was an integral part of daily life.

In 1648, however, when the Cossacks under Bogdan Chmelnitzki rebelled against their Polish Roman Catholic overlords, the Jews were caught in the middle and thousands were massacred. Greek Orthodox peasants of various ethnicities viewed the Jews, who collected rents and taxes for the Polish landowners and often lent money to the poor classes, as allies of the Polish crown. Polish Jewry never totally recovered from this great loss. (Nathan Hanover's report of this tragic event is in Source Reader Selection 12.) The television program dramatically recreates the event against the background of Eastern European synagogue and market scenes.


In the eighteenth century, due to tensions within the European Jewish communities themselves and the gradual impoverishment of Jewish life, a new movement called Hasidism arose. Founded by a wonder worker, Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, Hasidism captured the hearts and minds of many Eastern European Jews. He taught that prayer was more important than intellectualized study, that joy was preferred to self-denial and that all the Jews, regardless of intellectual attainments, could rise to great heights of communion with God.

As Hasidism progressed as a movement, it introduced the concept of a zaddik, a righteous individual who could lead his flock by serving as a role model for his followers and elevating the people to his high spiritual level. (The various facets of Hasidism are explored in Source Reader Selection 17; some are explained through Hasidic parables, a favored method of education.)

New Worlds

As noted above, this widely disparate period of Jewish life also included the earliest evidence of incipient modernity within the Jewish community. Modern influences were mostly seen in Western Europe and especially in Amsterdam, where many conversos who had converted to Christianity on the Iberian peninsula fled Spain and Portugal and took up residence. These conversos left the Iberian peninsula because of the continuing discrimination against them, in order to enhance their Jewish life and because of their fear that the Inquisition (see Source Reader Selection 18) would discover their secret Jewish activities.

Life was not easy for these conversos, even after they left the peninsula. After spending their adult years in a Christian environment inimical to Judaism, they often found reintegration into the Jewish community difficult and painful. (Source Reader Selection 19 provides an example of an individual converso attempting to come to grips with his newly readopted ancestral fate and defending it against detractors.) Some conversos found it impossible to submit to the authority of a Jewish community whose ideals often seemed at odds with what they had conceived Judaism to be while living in Spain and Portugal. Uriel da Costa and Barukh Spinoza were two individuals who could not accept rabbinic authority. Da Costa vacillated between apologizing to the Jewish authorities for his writings and leaving the Jewish fold. (An excerpt from his autobiography appears in Source Reader Selection 20.) Sadly, after writing this work, he committed suicide.

Spinoza, on the other hand, withdrew from the Jewish community and devoted his intellectual prowess to philosophical inquiry. He wrote a critique of Judaism, part of which appears in Source Reader Selection 21. Spinoza denied the divine authorship of the Bible and argued that the teachings of Judaism, like any other intellectual system, had to be subjected to the rule of reason. The Amsterdam Jewish authorities could not countenance such attacks on the basis of their authority and they excommunicated him.


It is not only in Amsterdam that one can observe the signs of early Enlightenment ideas encroaching on the Jewish community. Europe was in the throes of economic and cultural transformations that affected the Jews who lived on its soil. (For an interesting glimpse into the life of an early-eighteenth-century woman, Gluckel of Hameln, see Source Reader Selection 22.)

Jews returned to Central Europe and some attended to the needs of the ruling officials. The phenomenon of Hofjuden, court Jews, is explored in the video. Although these individuals were few, they were the avant-garde of the gradual movement of Jews back into Western Europe after their expulsion. Rulers slowly realized that Jews had to be judged on the basis of their contributions to state and society, not by theological proscriptions.


The ideas of tolerance which emerged in the eighteenth century can be seen in Gotthold Lessing's work The Jews. Scenes from this play are shown on the video and an excerpt from his Nathan the Wise, which concerns an enlightened Jew, appears in the last Source Reader Selection in this chapter, number 23. These ideas would soon bear fruit for a wide spectrum of European Jews, as will be seen in the next unit.

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