27 October 2018

Who would weep over
the betrayal and death of
Jewish women in Seville?

The Virgin Mary as Santa María la Blanca stands above the main altar … would she weep over the betrayal of Jewish women in 14th century Seville? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

For the past few days I have been staying in Las Casas de Judería, an hotel in the former Jewish Quarter in Seville. Next door is the church of Santa María la Blanca, which gives its name to this street. The church, on the corner of Archeros street, was once one of the main synagogues in this area, but after the Jews were expelled from Seville, the synagogue was converted into a church.

The doors that once served as the main entrance to the synagogue from Archeros street are now closed. But the church too was closed every time I tried to visit it this week … until late on Friday evening [26 October 2018] as I was leaving the hotel for dinner.

The ornate dome in Santa María la Blanca … did this once stand over the tivah in one of the principal synagogues in Seville? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As I wandered around the church late yesterday, I found I was wondering whether the ornate dome in the church had once stood over the tevah or bimah in the synagogue … whether the main altar had once been the place where the Torah scrolls were once kept … whether the gallery over the main entrance had once been the women’s gallery.

As I looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary as Santa María la Blanca above the main altar, I imagined her looking the full length of the building and up at what I saw as the former women’s gallery at the other end, weeping as one Jewish woman at the death of thousands of other Jewish women in Seville on the night of 5 and 6 June 1391.

In the Pieta-like portrayals in the church, depicting the Virgin Mary weeping over the dead Christ, I thought of her weeping at the expulsion of so many Jewish parents and their children on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century.

The gallery in the Church of Santa María la Blanca beside Las Casas de Judería in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Around the corner, at the Jewish Interpretive Centre on Ximenez de Enisco, many exhibits tell the stories of strong women who suffered in the pogrom and persecutions in Seville in the 14th and 15th centuries.

These stories include the legend of Susona ben Susón, the daughter of Diego Susón, a wealthy merchant and Jewish convert. Her intended fiancé betrayed Sosana, alleging a Jewish plot to overthrow the city and church authorities in Seville. Diego was burnt at the stake on the orders of the Inquisition, along with up to 20 of the other alleged conspirators.

They included Pedro Fernández de Benadeva, the cathedral butler, Juan Fernández de Abolafia, a lawyer known as the ‘perfumed one’ for his tendency to overdress, Adolfo de Triana, a wealthy merchant, and others who were Christians from families that had converted from Judaism in the previous century.

Needless to say, Susona was abandoned by her erstwhile lover, and she later lived a mysterious and hidden life that gave rise to many mysteries and legends.

There are parallels with story of Susanna (שׁוֹשַׁנָּה), also called Susanna and the Elders, in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 13) is the story of a woman who is accosted and falsely accused. She refuses to be blackmailed and is arrested and about to be put to death for promiscuity when the Daniel interrupts the proceedings to prevent the death of an innocent woman.

An exhibit in the centre here also presents interesting descriptions of the role of Sephardic women in the life of the Jewish community in Seville in the past. This part of the exhibition also presents a quotation about women that is said to be found in the Talmud:

The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.

However, the saying is is not in the Talmud. Instead, it is found in Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible.

But, while the English formulation is Matthew Henry’s, he seems to have borrowed his idea from ancient Jewish sources, such as Devarim Rabbah, a rabbinical commentary on the Deuteronomy in the Midrash:

Said R[abbi] Joshua of Sakinin, when God sought to create Eve, he pondered from where to create her ... He said, I will not create her from the head, so that she not erect her head [be a rebel], not from the eye, so that she not have haughty eyes, not from the ear, so that she not be overly obedient, not from the mouth, so that she not be overly loquacious, not from the hand, so that she not steal ... From where shall I create her, from the rib, the most modest of man’s limbs ...

However, it seems that the more direct source for this interpretation is a commentary by Isaac ben Abarbanel (1437-1508), a Portuguese Jewish philosopher and Biblical commentator who lived in Venice but whose family has once lived in Seville until they were expelled in 1391.

Following the Caminos de Sefarad or Sephardic trail in the former Jewish Quarter in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

According to one of his commentaries, cited by Dr Ari Zivotofsky of Bar Ilan University, Abarbanel states that Eve was not created from Adam’s foot so that he would not consider her a lowly maidservant, nor from his head so that she would lord over him. Rather, she was created from his side so that she would be equal to him.

Abarbanel’s commentaries had a lasting influence on many Christian theologians and writers. Most of his commentaries were translated into Latin, and he had many numerous Christian admirers who studied his writings diligently.

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) of Chester, who was one of Abarbanel’s avid readers, was a Calvinist, Puritan dissenter. He had virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Anglican views, but he was vigorous in compiling his Biblical commentaries.

If the quotation about Eve, placing her within the tradition of Sephardic women, truly came from the Talmud, then it would provide an interesting challenge to the sexist prejudices that continue to survive in some Jewish and Christian traditions.

The fact that it was probably the creative work of Matthew Henry makes the quotation an interesting challenge to those neo-Calvinists today who claim they are ‘complementarians’ and seek Biblical justice for their prejudicial views about the place of women in religious life.

A modern image of Susona ben Susón in the Jewish Interpretive Centre on Ximenez de Enisco street in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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