Assessing an “innocent” crypto-Jewish website

From time to time I am asked to comment on websites oriented towards the “Crypto-Jewish” community. Recently I was asked about Among the issues was assessing its relationship with Judaism, with traditional Jewish and Sephardic Jewish values. Among the discussion was whether it was as “innocent” as it appeared at first glance. 

Actually, this website is an example of one that has little that is “innocent” from the perspective of what I shall call “mainstream Judaism” – although I am not sure this is exactly the right term, this is the term I shall use here.

 From a mainstream Jewish perspective, a website using some nomenclature referring to “Sephardic minyan” that did not list an actual minyan or have an interest related to the term as it is normally used would be very strange. The Jewish mainstream includes all sorts of religiosity, so while I would expect the “minyan” to refer to ten adult Jewish men, or to ten adult Jewish men and women, I’ve seen websites that might refer to “minyan” meaning virtual groups of ten or more, or in other contexts. But this website has none of this, although there is one project that might justify the website name (see below). Although the website appears to be new, so perhaps he will add more such material in time. One more point: in training students to critique websites, libraries typically point to such things as examining the ease with which one can find out information about who is behind the website, and the degree to which the website seems to be involved in fundraising or commercialism.

 The clearest indicator though is obvious: it celebrates “Mashiach” in ways that are typical of Messianic sites. These go beyond emphases of such organizations as Chabad. Many in mainstream Judaism, and many in the Crypto-Jewish community who do not identify as Messianics consider the references to be worded to mislead, to conceal their intent to refer to Jesus, and they are probably correct. IIt’s hard to imagine that anyone who reviews many such websites could possibly miss the point though.

Instead of themes of “Torah and Mitzvot,” or “God Torah and Israel,” typical divisions of Jewish themes, he claims his themes are Jewish identity (although there is not much on this yet besides Sephardic History), Aliyah (although there is not much besides biblical verses on this subject) and Mashiach—on which there is quite a lot of material, showing his orientation.

 It seems to me that the website does in fact hit many of the concerns that people in the Crypto-Jewish community have, and certainly the website author has adopted a tone of voice and discourse in keeping with his presumed “Orthodox Jewish” commitment. Leaving aside the question of his messianic beliefs, which would normally put him outside anything that most Orthodox Jews would consider Jewish identity, there is little to indicate this besides some of his discourse. For example, were he “orthodox” as this is usually understood, he would have more Torah Study. 

He has, however, announced a project that might be of some real value, a trilingual (English Spanish and Hebrew) travel size siddur. It’s hard to predict whether it will ever see the light of day, but if it does, it might be interesting to see whether it emphasizes the messianic values, or remains a traditional prayerbook. I suspect that there are people who would like to have a trilingual prayerbook! But in practical terms, there are bilingual Hebrew/Spanish and Hebrew/English, and I think that some companies that make both, have the prayerbooks with the same pagination in each. Nevertheless, it is easy to see the value of a siddur with both translations on the same page. Practically speaking, I see this more as a congregational book than as “travel-size,” which is usually for personal use—although the very concept that it should be travel-size probably reflects the web-developer’s approach, a concern with price, and the feeling that it should be BOTH English and Spanish (as well as Hebrew).

My personal opinion is that the combination of an approach that is self-described as “Orthodox” and best reflected in dress and discourse, with messianic emphases, reflects a component of the actual lived experience of many individuals who consider themselves to be Spanish heritage “crypto-Jews.” To say that it is an authentic component of the phenomenon is not to say it is authentic Judaism, just that it exists. Those involved with this community should be able to recognize it, and to understand its distinctiveness from the Mainstream Jewish community, and that the mainstream Jewish community will strongly reject the messianic approach and label it inauthentic Judaism. And that this reflects most of Jewish thought, at least since the time, sometime in the first few centuries of Christianity, that there was a total historic break between the two religious traditions. But it is a component of the lived Crypto-Jewish experience, and those inside this community and those who work with this community need to be able to give sound advice about this phenomenon. 

Seth Ward

University of Wyoming

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