This Day in Jewish History |

1687: A Converso Metaphysicist Dies as a Fiercely Faithful Jew

David Green
David B. Green
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Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.
Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On November 7, 1687, Isaac Orobio de Castro, a philosopher, physician and Inquisition-era converso who returned to Judaism, died, in his adoptive home of Amsterdam.

De Castro was given the name “Balthazar” at birth, which was probably in 1617 in Braganza, Portugal, to New Christian parents (Jews who had accepted Christianity in order to remain in lands where the Inquisition operated). While he was still a child, the family moved to Seville, in Spain.

De Castro studied both philosophy and medicine at the University of Alcala de Henares, outside Madrid, following which he served as a professor of metaphysics at the University of Salamanca and a medical professor at Seville. In his writings, he presented himself as a devout Roman Catholic.

Denounced by a slave

In 1654, de Castro, who by now was married with three children, was denounced to the Inquisition as a Judaizer, that is, a New Christian who had back-slided into what was in this case his parents’ former Judaism. According to one version, the informer was a Moorish slave in his household whom he had punished. (This and other details of Orobio’s life come from the biography by Israeli historian Yosef Kaplan, published in English translation in 1989.)

Arrested and subjected to interrogation and torture, De Castroconfessed to practicing certain Jewish rites, and even to sending to Italy for a Jewish prayer book. He was released after a year, and in 1660, fled Spain for France.

His first stop in France was Bayonne, following which he became a professor at the University of Toulouse. He also claimed to have become a medical consultant to a variety of noble families as well as a councilor to King Louis XIV, but Yosef Kaplan doubts this is true. In any case, by 1662, de Castro, wanting to live openly as a Jew, moved together with his family to Amsterdam, which had a thriving Jewish community.

It was there that he changed his given name from Balthazar to Isaac, and began to study Judaism.

An Inquisition torture chamber, in etching of Louis-Ellies Dupries dating from 1716.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Then, Jewish intolerance?

In the remaining 25 years of his life, the brilliant Orobio, who could marshal his extensive knowledge of both Jewish and Catholic theology, became an outspoken apologist for rabbinic Judaism. He engaged in public debate both with critics within the Jewish community, most notably Baruch Spinoza and Juan de Prado (a Spanish converso who came to Amsterdam and, like Spinoza, found himself banned by the Jewish community for his rationalist criticism of Judaism), and with Christian theologians.

Orobio’s written criticisms of Christianity could not be published, even in the Netherlands (in one essay, he described Catholicism as “idolatry,” suggesting that “The Christians say that, unless we adore bread and many dead men, we are lost”), but they were circulated in manuscript form, and a half dozen of his works are extant today.

While Orobio condemned the Inquisition’s racial doctrine of “purity of blood,” which held that converts to Christianity could never be real Christians, he defended the Jewish doctrine of "chosenness" against such critics as Juan de Prado.

In his book “The Mirror of Spain,” (2000), historian J.N. Hillgarth described how, in his debate with Dutch Protestant minister Philip van Limborch, Orobio, and the Jewish leadership in Amsterdam in general, was guilty of creating a local, Jewish equivalent of the Inquisition, in that it saw itself entitled to excommunicate members of the community who espoused doctrines that did not accord with traditional rabbinic Judaism. The theological dialogue conducted between Limborch and Orobio was published by the former in 1687, and it is known to have been an influence on John Locke.

According to historian John Marshall, “Orobio was saved from the censure of the Ma’amad [the Amsterdam Jewish leadership] for holding a forbidden public disputation against Christianity only by the fact that he died one week after the appearance of the work.”

Orobio also wrote poetry, which was recognized and praised in his day.

He died on this day in 1687, in Amsterdam. His wife, Esther lived until 1712.