Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

We Are All Marranos Now


Miriam Shaviv has a fascinating book review in the Forward on the Spanish “Jewish Christians” or “Marranos” who, up until the expulsion from Spain in 1492, accepted baptism and outward life as Christians while maintaining a secret, internal loyalty to Judaism. They did this under the threat of intense persecution. Some practiced Jewish rituals in secret. Others mentally “nullified” their Christian observances. Some tried not to think about religion at all and instead concentrated on worldly matters like business and politics.

It’s a historical phenomenon but also a very contemporary one: spiritual and personal identities split between the demands of competing world views. Writes Shaviv about Yirmiyahu Yovel, author of The Other Within:

Yovel…sees split identities as “a basic structure of the human condition,” but one that was legitimized only in the modern era. “In earlier times,” he says, “split identities were considered illicit and illegal, a grave social and metaphysical sin punished by the Inquisition (and later, by nationalism and similar ‘integralist’ movements).” In this respect…the Marranos were harbingers — and perhaps, to some extent, catalysts — of modernity. 


You may have followed the “Craigslist killer” story in which one intriguing angle was the question of whether the accused, Phillip Markoff, is Jewish or not. It turns out he has a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, who divorced. He was raised by his mother and a step-father, “occasionally” attending their Catholic church.

The many people we all know with mixed parentage, Jewish and Gentile, are just the most obvious and outward example of the contemporary split identity. Even those without such ambiguity in their biological background are subject to competing loyalties that go deeper and are less readily resolvable.
The split identity that is the subject of much of my own writing is that between Judaism (or Christianity), on one hand, and secularism on the other. Sometimes I see Jews importing Christian criteria into their evaluation of Jewish trends and ideas. Or rejecting Jewish ideas (like intelligent design) because, from the perspective of ignorance or prejudice, they seem “Christian.” More often I see Jews (and Christians) unknowingly importing secular assumptions or premises into their religious thought.
An example would be materialism. The debate about Darwinism, which of course has profound social implications, is driven in part by a prejudice that science, rather than a search for truth, is some kind of game that can only be played according to the rules of materialism or naturalism. Only material explanations of phenomena can be entertained, even if the scientific evidence from the physical world goes against this.
More broadly, the most profound illustration of a split in identity is one that goes on in all of us, I suspect even among socially isolated groups (like the Amish or ultra-Orthodox Jews). It is between the authority of tradition and the authority of secular nihilism.
The culture around us all, the air we breath, is largely nihilistic, in the sense of granting no recognition to spiritual realities. In nihilism, moral ideals are shared illusions. We may obey them, because we feel moved to do so for whatever reason, maybe because our genes urge us on. But they possess no ultimate or transcendent authority to command or judge us. How could they?
Even those among us who identify with a faith are inevitably pulled by the force, the prestige, the lure of the secular. It’s probably only if we are really honest with ourselves, or if we are saints and consciously resist the force and win the battle (count me out), that we can admit this.
The force is insidious and it is a corrupter. It affects the way we live in the most basic practical matters of ethics, morality, and interpersonal relationships. 
But there is a flip side that’s more encouraging. It is that the influence of religious faith, another if diminished part of our split culture, fights back, fights on our behalf, even if we think we are not “religious.” It fights for our souls. Even people who are spiritually asleep, who don’t give a thought to ultimate questions, or who do give them thought but come down on the secular side of the great debate of our times — they too feel the pull, without knowing it, of the holy.
And they respond — often very impressively, in a way that should shame those of us with a religious loyalty.
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Glen Davidson

posted May 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm

An example would be materialism. The debate about Darwinism, which of course has profound social implications, is driven in part by a prejudice that science, rather than a search for truth, is some kind of game that can only be played according to the rules of materialism or naturalism. Only material explanations of phenomena can be entertained, even if the scientific evidence from the physical world goes against this.

That’s ridiculous. “Naturalism” and “materialism” have no non-arbitrary definitions, and cannot be the actual basis for anything. One can fight out battles over evolution using these terms, but one always has to understand such concepts according to more fundamental matters, namely, epistemology.
I’d like to say that the misunderstanding of terms like “naturalism” and “materialism” even from the pro-science side stems from the predominant influence of analytic philosophy in the US, but the fact is that analytic philosophers like Quine didn’t rely on such meaningless distinctions either. The fact is that the idea of “naturalism” seems to stem from metaphysics and religion, which often posited a “non-material” or “non-natural” realm, and so divided the world into natural and supernatural spheres. Most of philosophy pays no attention to such artificial distinctions, except perhaps to summarily dismiss them as rubbish.
Find evidence of “non-natural” and “non-material” causes behind any phenonemon, and science can and will look at it. The Amazing Randi has done numerous experiments to determine if something other than physics is responsible for any “supernatural phenomena,” and nothing very conclusive has ever been found. What is more, from Paley on down to the current anti-evolutionists have claimed that design is evident in life, with no visible cause being brought forth, and science has looked at the “evidence” and found it to be lacking.
Paley had it right, if the planning and design of an artificer or an architect were discovered in life, it would be evidence for intelligence, no matter if the source were “supernatural.” The only real question then would be if actual evidence for intelligence were found, could the source be “supernatural,” when the only model of intelligent planning and design is “natural,” that is to say, human? But that drives us right back to the point that “natural” and “supernatural” are essentially meaningless to the foundation of science, so that we could arbitrarily call the unknown yet in-evidence intelligence “natural” or “supernatural,” and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to science.
And the only reason ID and Paley are dismissed today is that there is massive evidence for non-telic evolution, and none for design. That’s it, there is nothing else. “Naturalism” has nothing to do with it, except insofar as it is defined by epistemology, which cannot legitimately appeal to “naturalism” for any of its bases.
And the reason science is used in the search for “truth” almost exclusively (beyond the initial sensory and cognitive extractions of data which tacitly underlie science, of course) outside of the human-made realm (if often there as well), is that it is the application of proper epistemology to “physical phenomena.” Certainly science isn’t used to determine the “truth” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has to be tackled by literary analysis and historical understandings–along with some scientific input, true. Science is all that can get to the “truth” of the age of the earth, and the causes of organic form, however, since Biblical myths are not explanatory (other than in a folk psychology sense), and science relies on the same epistemology as the courts use to determine past events.
Again, David, you use the easily-discredited nonsense put out by the Discovery Institute, and those like them, rather than demonstrating any of the requisite knowledge for understanding the issues involved in science. It is shameful that you continue to make false claims, neither understanding the other side, nor obtaining the kind of knowledge that would make you competent to judge in these matters.
Glen Davidson

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posted May 8, 2009 at 11:49 am

It is probably worth mentioning another dimension to the issue of Marrano identity, that of the Moriscos. Y chromosome data from the Iberia concludes that about ~5% of the population, most likely corresponding to the remnant Marranos/Moriscos is of Berber origin that can not be geneitcally distiguished. These people lived in modern day Morocco for about ~15k years, so in that sense, they are converts to any of the three Abrahamic religions from whatever more obscure indigenous Berber religion they would have practiced before. I suppose that drives home the idea that we are all converts, willing or not from something else.

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Jose Santiago

posted May 8, 2009 at 5:51 pm

I am a Marrano and very proud of it.

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