Last weekend I attended a performance in Manchester’s Reform Synagogue by Mor Karbasi as part of the “Sacred Sites” element of the Manchester International Festival. It was a dramatic and stunning performance drawing upon songs inspired by the Jewish Sephardi culture of 15th century Spain to new Ladino-influenced compositions. In the words of the programme, “Mor’s music is heavily inspired by and influenced by her deep connections with the Jewish faith, and her love for Spain and Morocco”.
The performance brought to mind a surprising theme of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490 – 1700”. He records the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula and the creation of a Sephardic diaspora. He traces the way that the “traumas, excitements and uncertainties released by the destruction of Muslim and Jewish civilisation in Spain fed into Spanish mysticism”, such as the Carmelite spirituality of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross but also to the alumbrado (“enlightened ones”) movement. The later movement, of whom many were crypto-Jews, influenced the “Spirituali” movement in Italy of evangelical humanists who were later to face their own expulsion. MacCulloch indicates that they made a “great” contribution to the anti-trinitarianism or Unitarianism which flourished in East Europe, most notably the Polish Movement which became identified with the Italian Sozzini, known as “Socinianism”.
Miquel Servetus, whose anniversary of his birth we celebrate this year, is described by MacCulloch as “the classic martyr for radical religion” and being inspired by what was happening in Spain and Portugal.
These challenges to Christian orthodoxy interacted with questions amongst the Sephardic Jews who had found refuge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which having achieved independence from Spain now valued freedom and tolerance. Amsterdam was also home to radical Christians; including the Libertines, Arminians, from the Dutch Reformed tradition, and then the Socinians fleeing the counter-reformation in Poland. Out of this mix emerged Benedict Spinoza. This is a surprising tale of how recurrent Sephardic connections flowed into liberal religion.