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Exile in Amsterdam

Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews"

Volume: 32
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 612
Stable URL:
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  • Book Info
    Exile in Amsterdam
    Book Description:

    Exile in Amsterdam is based on a rich, extensive, and previously untapped source for one of the most important and fascinating Jewish communities in early modern Europe: the sermons of Saul Levi Morteira (ca. 1596-1660). Morteira, the leading rabbi of Amsterdam and a master of Jewish homiletical art, was known to have published only one book of fifty sermons in 1645, until a collection of 550 manuscript sermons in his own handwriting turned up in the Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest. After years of painstaking study from microfilms and three trips to Budapest to consult the actual manuscripts, Marc Saperstein has written the first comprehensive analysis of the historical significance of these texts, some of which were heard by the young Spinoza. Saperstein reviews the broad outlines of Morteira’s biography, his treatment by scholars, and his image in literary works. He then reconstructs the process by which the preacher produced and delivered his sermons. Morteira’s sermons also provide a trove of information about individuals and institutions in Morteira’s Amsterdam, enabling Saperstein to analyze the shortcomings of behavior and the lapses in faith criticized by the preacher. The sermons also presented an ongoing program of adult education that transmitted the Jewish tradition on a high yet accessible level to a congregation of new Jews—immigrants who had lived as Christians in Portugal and were now assuming a Jewish identity with minimal prior knowledge. Here Saperstein focuses on themes Morteira considered crucial: memories of the historical past, confrontations with Christianity, ideas of exile and messianic redemption, and attitudes toward the New Christians who remained in Portugal. These historical reflections on Amsterdam’s community of new Jews are illustrated by eight of Morteira’s sermons, which Saperstein presents in English and with full annotation for the first time. Exile in Amsterdam offers those interested in European Jewish history and homiletics access to primary source documents and the scholarship of one of the premier historians of Jewish preaching.

    eISBN: 978-0-87820-125-9
    Subjects: Religion, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. iii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: A Tale of Three Sabbaticals (pp. ix-xxii)
    Marc Saperstein
  4. The Preacher
    • 1 Morteira’s Historical Image (pp. 3-35)

      Consider the following characterizations. Saul Levi Morteira was “a fanatic of the Law, a ruthless inquisitor” (Kayser); “a doughty controversialist” (Roth); “the leading opponent of Jewish tolerance of Christianity and its adherents” (Melnick); “rationalistic” (Nadler). He was “not even a distinguished preacher” (Graetz); he was “a renowned preacher” (Popkin). He was “one of the dominant personalities of Sephardic Jewry in Western Europe during the seventeenth century” {Kaplan).¹ To some extent, these statements reflect differences in perspective, like the proverbial six blind men examining different parts of the elephant. But beyond this, they indicate the changing attitudes toward Morteira as more...

    • 2 The Manuscript/s (pp. 36-66)

      Our access to the sermons delivered by Morteira—or any preacher before the age of videotapes or tape recordings—is indirect, for the preaching is oral communication, while the evidence that remains for it is written. At best, we possess a full Hebrew text of a sermon he wrote, supplemented by external sources that reveal the circumstances in which he delivered it and the issues he was addressing. Yet even with this evidence, we can only imagine the appearance of the preacher, the sound of his voice, and the reactions he evoked in his listeners. Despite these limitations, the texts...

    • 3 In the Preacher’s Workshop (pp. 67-114)

      How did these manuscripts get written? In this chapter, I will attempt to reconstruct the creative process by which they were produced—from the time the preacher first focused on the sermon to be delivered on a fixed occasion of the liturgical calendar until he completed the text we have in hand. The extant manuscript cannot definitively answer all of the questions we might want to ask: for example, how many hours did it take to write? How much additional time did Morteira devote to preparing its delivery? On what day did he began his preparation for a Shabbat sermon?...

    • 4 The Sermon as Oral Performance (pp. 115-140)

      In his inaugural sermon, delivered at the Great Synagogue of Venice on August 14, 1593, the talented prodigy Leon Modena compared the art of public speaking to two of the plastic arts so popular in contemporary Italy: painting and sculpture. The painter who makes a mistake has an opportunity to correct it and touch up his work by painting over the careless stroke, or incorporating it into a new design. Sculpture, by contrast, does not tolerate such error. One false blow with hammer and chisel changes the material permanently, in a way that cannot be undone. Writing is therefore analogous...

  5. The Community
    • 5 Reflecting Life: Individuals, Events, Institutions (pp. 143-180)

      Up to this point, we have mined Morteira’s sermons primarily for evidence about the preacher: the literary resources he had at his disposal, his style and method of composition, the rhythm of his weekly homiletical production over a period of some forty years, the drama of his delivery, especially at an occasion of special significance. But sermons are also an important historical source for reconstructing the community of listeners, the people to whom they were addressed. In the case of Morteira’s unusual congregation, the historical value of this component of his texts is especially significant.

      To be sure, using the...

    • 6 Shaping Life: The Rhetoric of Rebuke (pp. 181-226)

      Morteira’s printed and manuscript sermons contain many passages criticizing his community for behavior that he believed to be incompatible with the laws and values of Jewish life. Quantitatively, these passages represent only a small percentage of the time he spent preaching. The central purpose of his sermons was didactic: to educate, inform, mediate a tradition, expose his listeners to classical texts with the full richness of their problematics and insights, define and defend the boundaries of acceptable doctrine against the challenges raised by spokesmen for the majority religion and by skeptics within the fold. But the preacher was also expected...

  6. From Past to Future
    • 7 Homiletical Uses of Historical Memory (pp. 229-252)

      In his chapter on the Middle Ages inZakhor, Yosef Yerushalmi wrote, “Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.”¹ A separate book, at least as long asZakhor, would be needed to substantiate this statement, even limiting the purview to works of homiletics. To be sure, one does not ordinarily turn to Jewish sermons for a record of past events. The preacher’s task was understood to be the...

    • 8 Christianity and the “New Christians” (pp. 253-306)

      The readers of Morteira’sGiv‘at Sha’ulin the Warsaw 1902 or 1912 edition would not be aware that Christianity was a particularly important theme in his preaching. Only by unpacking the somewhat cryptic editorial note that states “For a reason beyond our control, sermon 41 on the lessonVa-Etḥanancould not be printed,” and a similar statement about “sermon 49 on the lessonHa’azinu,” could they surmise that material pertaining to Christianity had been suppressed by a censor.¹ And indeed, the Amsterdam 1645 edition, in which both sermons appear, reveals that they contain material of a rather forceful polemical nature....

    • 9 Exile and Its Culmination (pp. 307-374)

      As Isadore Twerskyz"lshowed from the writings of Maimonides, consciousness of the geographical and psychological dislocations of exile have had a significant impact on Jewish creativity. The RaMBaM describes R. Judah the Patriarch’s awareness that “the Roman empire was expanding and growing stronger, and Jews were wandering away to the ends of the earth” as a major impulse behind the compilation of the Mishnah. Similar upheavals in the RaMBaM’s lifetime may have impelled him to his own monumental halakhic achievements, attained despite his claim that his mind was “frequently troubled by the calamities of our times and God’s decree...

  7. The Texts
    • “The Dust of the Earth” (pp. 377-392)

      As the main content of this sermon has been discussed above in chapter nine, I will focus on its structure. Following the standard Sephardi practice dating to the late fifteenth century, Morteira begins with a verse from the weekly lesson and a rabbinic dictum. Sometimes the verse and the dictum have no apparent connection, and the relevance of the rabbinic statement will not appear until quite late in the sermon when it is introduced for the first time. Here, however, the connection is obvious: the verse (Genesis 28:14) begins by comparing Jacob’s descendants to “dust,” and the dictum—taken from...

    • “The Land Shudders” (pp. 393-407)

      For a detailed discussion of the circumstances of delivery for this sermon and its structure, see above, chapter four.

      He shall not rule over her to sell her to outsiders(Exod. 21:8).

      So the Sages said, A person who is covering his house with plaster should leave a small space uncovered. A person who is preparing what is needed for a feast should leave out some small ingredient. A woman who is putting on all her ornaments should omit one of them. For it is said,If I forget you 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand wither(Ps. 137:5)” (b....

    • “Do Not Add To His Words” (pp. 408-429)

      The construction of this sermon is fairly straightforward, though by no means devoid of subtlety. The connection between the scriptural verse and the rabbinic dictum is not at all apparent. An experienced and attentive listener might have intuited that the preacher would probably link the “foolish pietist” with someone who would add or detract from God’s commandments in violation of the theme-verse, but the other elements of the dictum have no such explanation; they would be stored away by the listener as the preacher begins to focus on the scriptural theme-verse.

      As we have seen in our discussion of Morteira’s...

    • “When They Agitated Against God” (pp. 430-446)

      Like so many of Morteira’s sermons, this is one that insists upon the organic interconnection between the biblical past and the post-biblical experience of the Jewish people. The preacher discusses the events of the Torah narrative in their own setting, but then he asserts that this narrative tells us something more than itself; it establishes a pattern from which Jews are expected to learn about the present. In this case, the challenges faced by Moses in the wilderness represent a prototype for threats to the integrity of Torah and the well-being of the Jewish people in post-biblical times.

      Morteira’s presentation...

    • [Illustrations] (pp. None)
    • “Guarded Him as the Pupil of His Eye” (pp. 447-488)

      This is the first of two sermons for the Sabbath of Repentance, a special sub-genre in Morteira’s homiletical oeuvre. The rabbinic dictum is certainly appropriate for this Sabbath that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period in which the theme of individual judgment is paramount. But the theme-verse—The Eternal did guide him alone, no alien god was with him (Deut. 32:12)—refers to the Israelites as a people at an early stage in its history. Listeners would have been aware that Morteira’s reading of the Ha’azinu poem presented it as a paradigm for all of Jewish history,...

    • “They Provoked My Jealousy With a Non-God” (pp. 489-526)

      This sermon for the Sabbath of Repentance, while not quite as long as the sermon on Deuteronomy 23:12 translated above, has one of the most complex structures of any in Morteira’s oeuvre. Unlike the previous sermon, in which the rabbinic dictum is a structuring element, with phrases appearing at a climactic moment at the end of each of the six sections, here the dictum appears only at the very end of the text, in a somewhat contrived manner. The biblical verse, the Text from the lessonHa’azinu, in its various components and shifting interpretations, shines in full glory as the...

    • Eulogy for David Masiah (pp. 527-535)

      As biographical aspects of this eulogy have already been discussed in chapter 5 (see above, pp. 157–61), I will concentrate here on the structural components. The scriptural theme-verse is the first verse of the lesson, and the rabbinic dictum is a highly influential formulation of the nature of existence after death, and therefore obviously relevant to the situation. Morteira begins in a familiar manner, raising problems with one of the two building blocks for his sermon, in this case the dictum. The first problem focuses on the relationship between the full content of the statement and the proof text...

    • Eulogy for Moses de Mercado (pp. 536-543)

      This is an unusual text, in that the Hebrew version in the manuscripts is paralleled with a Portuguese text, printed in pamphlet form. The title page reads,“הספד:Funeral Sermon Delivered in the Cemetery by Morenu ha-Rav [our Teacher the Rabbi], the Ḥ[akham] R. Saul Levi Morteira, Rosh Yeshivah and first Ḥacham of the K[ahal] K[adosh] of Amsterdam, May God make it grow, At the funeral of his worthy Talmid [student] the learned and virtuous Ḥakham Ribi [sic] Moseh de Mercado, whom God took to Himself on Shabbat 23 of the month of Tammuz, 5412 [Saturday, June 29, 1652]. May...

  8. Epilogue (pp. 544-548)

    Concluding this survey of the records of Morteira’s homiletical output, it seems appropriate to summarize its content and significance. I begin with what is missing, what I have not discovered in these texts: First of all, personal glimpses of the speaker. Some modem preachers regularly introduce themselves into their sermons, using their own experiences, spiritual struggles, intellectual perplexities and triumphs, whether recent or early in their lives, as a basis for the message directed to others. Like most pre-twentieth-century Jewish preachers, however, Morteira rarely speaks about himself. Occasionally, especially in the eulogies, he will mention his own relationship with the...

  9. Bibliography (pp. 549-566)
  10. Index of Passages Cited (pp. 567-574)
  11. General Index (pp. 575-594)
  12. Back Matter (pp. 595-596)