So, as it turns out, this internship has me busy, and I am rushing to finish a paper that I’ll be presenting on Thursday, but I think I’ve got the introduction down. This paper has been something I’ve been thinking about for several months, and I hope to turn it into a full-blown research project that will hopefully take me to the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City sometime after graduation, where I will hopefully explore specific cases more in depth through this sort of lens.
As the deadline approaches (I have to do a trial presentation on Tuesday), I’d appreciate your feedback, comments, questions, etc. I’ve provided the intro, and to anyone who is interested I will email the pdf of the full paper once I finish (just email us at email@example.com).
The Spanish Inquisition and the years following 1492 marked a time in which traditional Jewish practice was banned from the public sphere and many Jews were forced to publicly convert to Christianity under the fear of death or expulsion, becoming known as “New Christians,” or Conversos. While almost all men, who traditionally are the dominant figures in public Jewish practices, were subsequently isolated from a world of public religious life that was their domain, many women, who traditionally dominated the private sphere of the home, continued to practice Judaism through traditionally female-dominated methods (Galasso 102). Furthermore, the limitations placed by the Inquisition on public Jewish practice led to a shift in the balance of gender-based relations of ritual power, and women found themselves assuming new roles as “initiators, officiants, and spiritual guides” for their entire communities, as they led practices that fundamentally altered the ways in which Jewish women and men each related to their own religious identity, to the Christian authorities, and to mainstream Judaism (Galasso 103-104). During the transition from a focus on public male-led practice to a focus on home-based female-led practice, Converso women modified their situation within a relation of power with their religion and the outside world through methods that can be classified as points of resistance, or through Foucault’s notion of counter-conduct (Foucault 194-195). This modification was achieved primarily through the perpetuation by Converso women of a particular Jewish identity sustained on their own terms through practices that they led and carried out in their homes, which effectively brought women into positions of communal power within Crypto-Jewish communities. These practices were aimed at resistance to complete conversion to Catholicism by the Conversos, and sustained a distinct, independent form of Judaism in the absence of mainstream rabbinical institutions.
Throughout the process of return of some Converso families to mainstream Judaism, both in the centuries shortly following the Inquisition and as late as the 20th Century, male-led public practice returned to its previous position of predominance, and women’s home-based practice returned to its previous position of relatively limited access to power (Galasso 110). Although men eagerly adopted new customs and relationships to religious life that mainstream Judaism offered them, many women expressed ambivalence towards the implications that assimilating to mainstream Judaism had for their roles in religious life. In the face of these changes, many chose to continue in the religion they formed during years of persecution, with varying attitudes towards the religion that their children would adopt (The Last Marranos, Galasso 112-113). The ambivalence of Converso women to the changes in religious life they faced upon their return to mainstream Judaism suggests that they had found, through their own ways of relating to their religion in home-based female-led environments, positions of communal power and opportunities for political resistance that did not necessitate, and were perhaps preferable, to full equality or inclusion in synagogue life.
The theories of power and practices of the self developed by Foucault, which meet most significantly in his work on the concept of counter-conduct in some of his lectures at the Collège de France, provide a theoretical basis through which it is possible to understand both the changes in the relationship of Converso women to religious power, and the ambivalence of these women concerning opportunities to demand more participation in public religious ritual once they returned to mainstream Judaism. In one of his lectures in the series “Security, Territory, and Population,” Foucault describes counter-conduct as points of resistance within existing relations of power, aimed at transforming the methods, leadership structure, leadership makeup, and goals of existing relations of power, such as those found within individual religions (Foucault 194-194). During this time, many Converso women modified their relations of power in ways that reflect Foucault’s theory of counter-conduct. The eventual return of their families to mainstream, public, and male-dominated Judaism presented a tangible site of confrontation between the religious counter-conduct women had developed, and the return of male-dominated methods of conduct, predominantly male leadership, and goals determined and articulated by men.
By conducting practices within spheres in which they already held dominance, and eventually using these spaces to access power over broader communal religious life, these women engaged in forms of empowerment and resistance without direction by male-dominated institutions. Today, in a time when current debates over the empowerment of Jewish women center on greater access to male-dominated synagogue life with the goal of full “equality” and the blurring of distinctions between men’s and women’s spaces and spheres, it may be helpful to keep in mind that other avenues for effective resistance have previously existed outside the synagogue, centered on the religious practices of women conducted at home and in women’s communal circles. This is not to say that women should confine themselves to the home and abandon their struggle for dignity in Jewish public spaces, but is instead intended to recommend further possibilities for innovation and concentrated efforts in home practice, an increasingly overlooked potential space for social, religious, and political change to be enacted.