Solomon Molcho: Portugal’s converso messiah

  

Although they are now forgotten in the minds of most Jews, their impact on conversos in Portugal and exiles from Spain cannot be underestimated.

a view of Lisbon

By ELI KAVON MAY 9, 2020

Call it an error of omission. In my most recent essay in these pages, I told you that Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in Portugal in 1497 – and their descendants – fled the Iberian Peninsula to return to Jewish faith and identity in other lands because Christians massacred and persecuted them.

That was not a complete mistake on my part: The reality is that the 1506 Christian massacre of conversos in Lisbon, the Inquisition and the purity of blood laws indeed alienated the new converts and their progeny from embracing Catholicism.

Yet, the anti-Jewish acts of the Catholics were not the only factor in the tenacity of Jewish beliefs and identity among the conversos, even after a century of living publicly as Catholics. The messianic yearnings for redemption among these “crypto-Jews” played a key role in their life and thought and must be discussed if one wants to understand this incredible phenomenon. I will do so now.

In the best study of Jewish mysticism for the general reader, historian Neil Asher Silberman eloquently and lucidly describes a failed messianic movement that had seized the imagination of the conversos in Portugal only a generation after the initial forced conversion. In Heavenly Powers; Unraveling the Secret History of the Kabbalah (1998), the author tells the remarkable story of two men, David Reubeni and Solomon Molcho – their dramatic rise and tragic fall.

Although they are now forgotten in the minds of most Jews, their impact on conversos in Portugal and exiles from Spain cannot be underestimated. This is the story told in Heavenly Powers. I will provide a summary.

In the autumn of 1523, a mysterious figure – he emerged out of nowhere dressed in exotic Oriental costume, which highlighted his darker skin tone – arrived in Venice. He called himself “David the Reubenite” and he claimed to be the son of a King Solomon and brother of a King Joseph “who sits on the throne of his kingdom in the wilderness of Habur and rules over 30 myriads of the Tribe of Gad and of the Tribe of Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” These tribes were among those exiled by the Assyrians in 721 BCE and messianic tradition claimed that in the end time all the tribes that were lost would be reunited as they were under King David.

Although the Jews of Venice were initially suspicious of this stranger – was he from Ethiopia or Yemen – David Reubeni had a startling proposal to bring to the pope. By 1524, the Jews of Venice were convinced of the story of this charismatic figure. As Silberman describes: “In February he arrived in Rome and proceeded directly to the papal palace at Castel Sant’Angelo, mounted on a white stallion and accompanied by his faithful servant and an entourage of local Jews. Through the support of a sympathetic cardinal, a confidant of Pope Clement VII, Reubeni met with the pontiff and promised that he would raise an army
of Jews scattered in the Exile that would conquer the Holy Land, drive out the Muslim occupiers, and reclaim Jerusalem for the Jews.”

The pope was intrigued. Could this be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy? A year after this fateful meeting, the pope provided Reubeni with a letter of introduction to King John of Portugal. Benvenida Abarbanel, daughter-in-law of the celebrated court Jew and philosopher, embroidered a silk banner bearing “Hebrew inscription and messianic symbols” for the mystery man’s journey to Lisbon. The same messianic expectation would ignite the hopes of Portugal’s conversos.

Reuveni’s entrance into Lisbon in 1525 confirmed the belief among Dominican friars that the conversos were heretics. The “crypto-Jews” saw this arrival as more than the organization of a political and military campaign. The Portuguese conversos hailed Reubeni as the messiah and “threw off all their restraint about their true feelings, believing the redemption of Israel was at hand.” Portuguese authorities would not tolerate this messianic activism – they placed the Jewish stranger under house arrest and expelled him from the country “for fomenting both sedition and heresy.”

While for the next few years Reubeni would be in limbo, his mission to Portugal was so inspiring that Diogo Pires, a young converso of high rank in the royal court of Portugal, circumcised himself and fled the empire he served, a modern Moses. An elderly man appeared to Pires in a vision, “confirming the imminence of redemption and commissioning him to bring the good news to the People of Israel.”

From then on, in his prophet’s robes, Pires was known by the messianic name “Solomon Molcho” – the descendant of King David and, therefore, the messiah. Much of his motivation was a mystical war of good defeating evil. He wandered and escaped being burned at the stake and made his way to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Like Reubeni, he was a man of great charisma whose impact was dramatic and enduring on Jews exiled from Spain and those who fled Portugal. His sense of his mission as a mystical messiah inspired brotherhoods of rabbinic mystics to go to Israel and hasten the coming of the redeemer. This was long after Molcho’s tragic end.

Silberman compares Molcho to the prophets of old. “Molcho communicated his divinely inspired message with a series of shocking public performances.” In 1527, after the forces of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, Molcho traveled there and dressed himself in rags, sitting for 30 days among the lepers and beggars in the shadow of the papal palace. He was acting out a rabbinic tradition concerning the suffering of the messiah.

In the winter of 1530-1531, Molcho predicted a devastating flood of the Tiber, resulting in the destruction of churches. He predicted a severe earthquake in Lisbon – that prediction was fulfilled when the Portuguese capital was rocked to its
foundations. Molcho was arrested – to be burned at the stake – but Pope Clement VII was intrigued by his prophecies and had him released.

Molcho left Rome soon after, joining Reubeni in Venice, and going on a messianic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor. The Jews of Italy and Germany were seized with messianic expectations but Emperor Charles V quickly dashed their hopes. Reubeni was thrown into a dungeon in Spain, where he died. Molcho was burned at the stake for refusing to forfeit his Jewish faith. That would seem to be the end of this failed messianic movement and the beginning of mass demoralization. But Silberman writes: “Reported sightings of the courtier-turned-messiah sparked an underground folk movement that spread as far as Central Europe, to Jewish communities who anxiously awaited his reappearance and the battle against the forces of evil to resume.”

In the end, the endurance of converso yearnings to embrace Jewish identity and faith was not only the result of pressures from the outside. They were not simply returning to Judaism because Christians despised them as heretics. There existed an inner yearning for redemption that has been the strength of our people for thousands of years. The adventures of David Reubeni and Solomon Molcho were a journey into the heart of hope, of redemption and of ultimate triumph of good over evil.

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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