Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657) is one of the heroic figures in Jewish history. After Jews were expelled from England in 1290, he was one of the leading figures in persuading the English king and government to allow Jews to return. Steven Nadler’s 2018 biography of the rabbi, published by Yale University Press is excellent. It is very informative. We learn how Crypto-Christians (Jews) were mistreated in Spain and Portugal after Jews were expelled from these countries but some remained as Crypto-Christians. Many escaped to Holland where the Jews found a relatively good environment, but the Jewish leadership feared the Christian government in Holland who insisted that Jews do nothing to degrade Christianity. Because of these fears the famed philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Menasseh ben Israel had a hard life. Professor Nadler teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Menasseh served the descendants of Portuguese and Spanish exiles, Jews like him who escaped from these lands. He made a small amount of money as a printer of books, a job he had to take because the community paid him a minimal salary as one of their rabbis. He worked hard to persuade the English king to allow Jews to live in England, but died believing he was not successful. He was only fifty-three years old when he died. He had two sons, but both predeceased him. Non-Jews respected his intelligence and ideas, but his broad intellectual engagements made him suspect among fearful fellow Jews. In the seventeenth century he was more highly regarded among European non-Jews than among his own people. His business affairs were a mess when he died. He left his wife in financial straits. He had four children and all of them predeceased him. He, in essence, lived a difficult life despite having done a heroic deed for Jews and Judaism.
Menasseh was born and baptized in 1604 in Lisbon, Portugal, when Jews were forbidden to live in Portugal, where he and his family declared they had converted to Christianity. His father was suspected of remaining Jewish and was beaten several times and his property confiscated by the Inquisition to get him to confess, harsh beatings that shortened his life. Shortly after 1604 the family fled from Portugal and reached the Netherlands in 1613 or 1614 where Jews were not persecuted and where the first Jewish synagogue was organized in 1603. Menasseh and the male members of his family were circumcised in the Netherlands; and while they had Portuguese names until that time, they assumed Jewish names. His father took the name of the biblical Joseph son of Jacob/Israel and named his two sons after Joseph’s two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim Ben Israel (son of Israel). Menasseh, then twelve-years-old and his family began to study Torah. Menasseh was extremely bright and shortly thereafter at age 18 he was functioning as one of the community’s rabbis. He became a Talmud scholar and was appointed head of a yeshiva in 1640.
Unfortunately, the community gave him a meager salary. Menasseh supplemented this salary by becoming the first printer of Hebrew books in Amsterdam in 1626. Among the books he published were several scholarly studies that he authored, including a book on the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead. In this book, he wrote that Jews and non-Jews would be resurrected. He became famous among non-Jews and at one point said that he replied to more than 150 letters from scholars asking him scholarly questions. He was open to a plurality of meanings of biblical passages including accepting the explanation that a passage was not literally true; it was metaphorical. He did not believe in original sin and predestination; people who lived a virtuous life including study of Torah will prolong their life beyond the ordinary course of nature.
Menasseh was not the first to raise the issue of allowing Jews to resettle in England. His desire to gain the resettlement was not only based on humanitarian concerns, but also economic pragmatism and messianic dreams. He understood that the messiah would not arrive until Jews were dispersed in all countries. He felt certain that Jews were in America because many of the Indians were descendants of Jews who fled Israel when the country was defeated in 722 BCE,
He made his first trip to England in 1655 although he was not yet recovered from a long illness. His son Samuel accompanied him. He published a book entitled Vindiciae in which he laid out six of the most prominent indictments against Jews and addressed each of them at length, with references to classical texts, historical evidence, and simple logic. Samuel died in England in 1657. After being in England for two years, and failing on his mission, Menasseh decided to return home, but died that year during his trip home. His wife had no money and it was only through charitable contributions that she was able to bury her husband.
Finally, in 1664, after 374 years of exclusion, after still another petition to King Charles II, the followers of Menasseh were able to acquire formal recognition allowing Jews to return to England.