The future of Judaism in Portugal

To speak of the future is not merely to make a prediction about what we foresee will happen.

It is to think seriously about what lies in our power to achieve, now, so that certain things can happen in the future. That inevitably makes us look at the past and see everything that happened to the Jewish people, and then to focus on a line of continuity which we consider expedient, to avoid disruptions.

We carry with us a very long tradition, filled with events, some tragic, others grandiose and heroic, of generations dedicated to building happiness and a civilisation that over time has reflected on the ideal conduct of the human being.

We Jews cannot forget that we descend from a seller of idols: Terah, father of Abraham.who had a vision of one single God ruling the Universe, which led to the establishment of the thinking about the relations of men with God and among men themselves. Over time, many concepts have evolved but some basic principles do not change, except to the extent that they are deepened or perfected and above all put into practice.

The events lived by our patriarchs, the prophets, the wise men, by each member of the Jewish people over the millennia, constitute a rich heritage that we have inherited and for which we are responsible. It is our duty to preserve and enrich it, conscious that we are the link between the past and the future of Judaism. In our hands we hold the responsibility of not breaking or weakening that sacred link.

At present, the Jews represent only 0,2% of the world population. In Portugal, they are less than 0,1% of the total population. This is important to the extent that each person’s effort must be immensely powerful.

As regards Portugal. Some Jews, deported by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, started coming to the Iberian Peninsula (Sepharad) following the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem (586 BC) under the Phoenicians. But they came in larger numbers most probably after the destruction of the Second Temple (ca. 70 AD, when Hadrian forbade the Jews from living in Jerusalem). So, more than one thousand years before the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal.

The first kings of Portugal were on the receiving end of great cooperation from the Jews. King  Afonso Henriques (1139-1185) found a number of cities inhabited by Jews, namely Santarém.  Yahia ben Yaish was Chief Rabbi of Santarém and head of the armed forces and was killed in the battle to conquer Alcácer do Sal. The Church, the clergy, the nobility and the people put pressure on the kings to discriminate the Jews. The kings withstood this pressure, for they needed the Jews who were tax collectors, economic and financial advisors, doctors (physicians), astronomers, mathematicians, etc. The latter were the pillar that enabled the Discoveries to take place, making it possible for navigation on the high seas, using the stars to define geographical positions.

In the reign of King  Afonso V (1438-81), the Jews were prosperous. The king’s principal financial advisor was  Isaac Abravanel, who was also a philosopher and a Bible commentator. When the king died, this advisor was persecuted by King João II (1481-95), who wished to kill him. He fled to Spain, Naples, Corfu and finally Venice where he became free.

Then came the Edict of King D. Manuel (1496), the 1506 massacre (2-4000 dead), the Inquisition (1536-1821) and many attacks on the Jews. The Inquisition led many Jews to seek exile in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, France (Bayonne, Bordeaux), Morocco, the Ottoman Empire (Saalonica,Istanbul, Smyrna), Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Serbia, Brazil, Dutch West Indies, the United States and Canada. Portugal lost the added value that all these Jews brought to their new host countries.

The extremely violent antisemitism suffered by the Portuguese Jews over the centuries no longer exists today in Portugal. As the communities are small, this phenomenon is less visible, but it continues to exist with the age-old allegations against the Jews.

The waves of antisemitism almost always occurred in societies where the Jews stood out because of their human and scientific capacities. We must understand that, sadly, this is and will always be a cyclical problem.

That is why, when we speak of the future of Judaism in Portugal, we see that even with the fluctuations of history, we who are alive are duty bound to convey the legacy of our ancestors to the future generations. How should this be done?

a) Prioritizing the education of children from a young age, by teaching them Bible studies and their interpretations. Resorting, as much as possible, to the writings left by our rabbis, intellectuals and wise men on the ethical principles of conduct demanded of us.
This education must take place from the tender age of five, to the adult age of 21, at the very least. Teaching must be continuous, for we know that unless we add to our knowledge we will lose what we already know.

b) In society as it is today, our conduct vis-à-vis our neighbors must be more predominant. That includes our attitude to the poor, the sick, the immigrants.

c) Justice. Conduct must be assessed to evaluate what needs to be amended. These and many other subjects on ethics must be taught and internalized.

d) The principles of the rites of the Jewish religion have provided the best support for the assimilation of moral and ethical principles. It is not a question of teaching the folklore behind the rituals, but their essence: Brit milah, knowledge of Hebrew, Bar Mitzvah, Tefilin, marriage, the family, etc.
It is not enough to talk about festivals without explaining why they exist: Passover, the Exodus, Shavuot, the Law of Moses, Sukkot, wandering the desert, Lulab and its symbolism. Participation must be encouraged.

e) The bases of our faith and a single God, creator and mentor of our Universe and of all existence. The difference between other religions, some originating from Judaism, such as Christianity and Islam.

In summary, we must follow the advice of Simeon the Righteous: "The World stands on three bases: the Study of the Divine Law, Worship and Charity". The education of new generations must be based on these three pillars.

All of this must be planned to be put into practice and give our young people a Jewish future to ensure that they live it and convey it to future generations. If this is done now, we can ensure a future for Judaism in Portugal.