A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Awesome Jews of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel

Dear Josep,

Marrying another bookworm has had its perks. Back before Eitan’s eye issues made it impossible for him to read from print books without pain, he bought books all the time. Even though our current stock is only a small fraction of his original collection, and even though we’ve been living together for eight years, every once in a while I’ll go searching through his old books and discover something interesting.

This book was one such discovery.

Photo of book: Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman & Philospher, by B. Netanyahu

That’s not Benjamin Netanyahu, for the record; it’s Benzion, Bibi’s father, who was one of the most prominent modern scholars on late medieval Spain. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on any or all of his scholarly works on the Inquisition and the conversos (because hi, it’s me), and I was astonished to find this book on my own bookshelf a couple months ago. (Eitan says he bought it used someplace a long time ago and forgot it existed.) Don Isaac Abravanel is apparently B. Netanyahu’s first book, originally published in 1953.

In the months that followed I read the book and developed a keen interest in Abravanel. I found his character weaving itself into a short story I was writing during that time, which pushed me to read the book more deeply as well as some of Abravanel’s Biblical commentary in the original Hebrew. I knew Abravanel as “Abarbanel,” (the commonly accepted pronunciation of the name in the Jewish community)–at first as a Biblical commentator whose opinions were brought into my classes on the Torah and the Prophets, and then as a historical figure who had a pivotal role during the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. But this biography really brought everything together for me about his character and his role in history.

So allow me to introduce you to Awesome Jew of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel.

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.
A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437 to one of the wealthiest, most distinguished Jewish families in Iberia. His grandfather, Don Samuel, served three successive Castilian kings, and in the days of Enrique III, he had assumed the office of contador mayor–the highest position in Castile’s financial administration. He was outspoken in defense of Jews and Judaism in his native Seville, and the Jews of Spain considered him their leader… so you can imagine how shocked and horrified they were when he converted to Christianity, apparently voluntarily. As a result of his conversion, the older of his children cut off ties with him and moved to Portugal. Among those estranged sons was Don Judah, Don Isaac’s father.

Don Judah did well in Lisbon, apparently becoming a royal treasurer for João I, and Don Isaac was brought up with a great deal of wealth, familiarity with the nobility and royalty, and a thorough Jewish and secular education. He began writing Biblical commentary and philosophical works as a young man. And I can tell you as someone who translated bits of his writing to work into my story–the man was overflowing with the words of the Bible even when he wasn’t talking about it. The text I translated was mostly autobiographical, and yet every sentence made multiple Biblical references. If I was unsure about some phrase or other I just Googled it and immediately found it in Psalms or Jeremiah or Deuteronomy.

As an adult, he moved into a position of power under Alfonso V, who appointed him treasurer. But the problem with getting friendly with a king of Portugal (or any medieval monarch, for that matter) and establishing yourself in his royal court, is that there’s a fast turnover rate, and more often than not, the following king is going to suspect you of other loyalties. That’s what happened to Abravanel. When João II took the throne, he suspected Abravanel of treason and eventually put out a warrant for his arrest. Abravanel was certain of his innocence, but understood that he stood no chance of convincing the king, so he fled to Castile. The king seized all his assets. Thus Abravanel lost his entire fortune, and had to start over in a new kingdom.

But guys like Abravanel don’t really manage to keep a low profile. Abravanel employed his exceptional knowledge and skills, and slowly worked his way up the social ladder. His skills eventually came to the attention of one King Fernando of Aragon. Fernando and Isabel employed him as a financier, and he became second only to Abraham Senior as the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom. It’s interesting to note that despite everything, Abravanel seems to have had something resembling a good relationship with the Catholic Monarchs. Fernando was a very slippery, poker-faced kind of guy, managing to make everyone think they were getting along great while stabbing them in the back.

So, in 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs captured Granada and issued the Alhambra Decree, Abravanel was in a very unique and crucial position, having a place of power and esteem within the royal court. He and Abraham Senior worked tirelessly to cancel the decree. They had an audience with Fernando three times, appealing to his practical side, offering him an enormous bribe to be collected from the Jewish community. But Mr. Aragonese Poker-Face never committed to anything, always dismissing them with an “I’ll think about it” kind of response. Thus unsuccessful, they tried appealing to Isabel. With Isabel, Abravanel took an entirely different approach.

Writes Netanyahu: “He now spoke to the queen–the haughty, fanatic and often ferocious Isabella–not like her financial agent, not even like a cautious, diplomatic courtier. He spoke to her now like a scion of the House of David and as a representative of an unconquered–and unconquerable–people. He spoke to her, moreover, like a prophet of old, in daring, castigating and threatening language. If Isabella thought that, by measures like the expulsion, the Jews could be brought to surrender or to extinction, she was greatly mistaken. He pointed out to her the eternity of the Jewish people, that they had outlived all who had attempted to destroy them, that it was beyond human capacity to destroy the Jewish people, and that those who tried to do so only invited upon themselves divine punishment and disaster.”

Isabel’s response, too, echoes eerily prophetic through the annals of history: “Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king.”

And so, Don Isaac Abravanel failed to reverse the fate of his people. Abraham Senior converted to Christianity in order to stay in Castile, and Abravanel left with his brethren, losing his fortune and his honor for the second time.

Abravanel moved to Naples. Italy was very unstable at the time and he had to move around a lot in the coming years because of various wars. He eventually settled in Venice, and he died there in 1508.

Like all of his contemporaries, Abravanel struggled to make sense of the expulsion. As you know, it was one of the most highly traumatic crises in Jewish history, and many Jews found themselves in a place of deep discouragement and despair. Some feared that the expulsion marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish people.

Abravanel’s response to the crisis was a mystical/spiritual one. He wrote extensively about the coming of the Messianic era, and even calculated when the Messiah would come. He had some compelling arguments for the year 1503, but obviously, he turned out to be very wrong. When I read articles about Abravanel in the past and learned about this feature of his writings I found it annoying and depressing. He was so sure that the horrors of the expulsion marked the beginning of the Redemption with a capital R. And he we are, five hundred years later, still saying “Any minute now!”

But when I read Netanyahu’s take on this aspect of Abravanel’s philosophy, I saw it in a new way. One of the things I have learned about hope in the last few years is that it has intrinsic value that is completely detached from outcome. As I wrote on this article for Trish Hopkinson’s blog: “I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more… But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It’s a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.”

Abravanel gave the Jewish people hope.

He gave great detail and vivid color to a very theoretical idea of the bright future that lay somewhere ahead of all this gloom.

Our national anthem is called “The Hope” for a reason. Hope is what has carried us through and kept us moving forward even in the darkest of times.

For that, if not for the vast library of intriguing ideas and scholarship he left behind, and for his tireless efforts to make the world a better place for Jews and non-Jews alike… he deserves to be remembered as a great man, and an Awesome Jew of History.



The previous Awesome Jew of History was King David! Is there an awesome Jewish historical figure you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

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