Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
Cervantes, Don Quijote,
and the Hebrew Scriptures
by Kevin S. Larsen
Originally published in HaLapid, Spring, 2004
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) had led a colorful life long before he became the author of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615). He fought against the Ottoman Turks in the victorious battle of Lepanto (1571), where he lost the use of his left hand or arm (therefore he's known as "el manco de Lepanto"). While returning to Spain, he was captured in 1575, and held prisoner in Islamic Algeria. He attempted escape several times, though he was always recaptured. Finally, he was ransomed and returned home in 1580. In light of such exploits, Cervantes and his novel have become archetypes of Christianity and Catholic Spain. I intend to say nothing here to diminish his stature as a practicing, and perhaps even a believing, Christian. Nonetheless, any suggestion that his pedigree was somehow "stained" (recall that the district in New Castile that his protagonist hailed from means "the stain”) with Semitic ancestry and afición, can be construed by at least some readers as a frontal attack, not to mention an affront. In this same vein, I could mention that as I consulted my former advisor in graduate school, Professor Francisco Márquez Villanueva (recently retired from Harvard University), concerning this current project, he termed it "peligroso" (dangerous). As it would have been for Cervantes to refer extensively, albeit with discretion, to the Hebrew Scriptures, or even more so, to be found to have a New Christian pedigree. Various writers, including Américo Castro and Márquez Villanueva, and more recently Ellen Lokos and yours truly, among numerous others, have asserted that this knight errant of Iberian Catholicism was, like so many of the rest of his countrymen and counterparts, of mixed origins. Not long ago, I was at a scholarly congress in honor of Professor Márquez Villanueva, in which the multiple ethnicity of Iberian culture in the Middle Ages and early modern era was reaffirmed at every turn. I am personally convinced that what we were saying at that conference was true, that Spain, Portugal and the rest of the Iberian world have been partakers of these same blessings of mixed ancestry. This includes Cervantes and his protagonist, the initially unnamed hidalgo who would become Don Quijote. Granted, much of the "evidence" cited for Cervantes' converso background is circumstantial. Nonetheless, from the second surname, Saavedra, that he chose for himself, to the curious behavior of the female members of his immediate and more extended family, to his association with physicians (a class continually linked to Jewry), to his lack of success in the world, as a wounded war hero and returned captive, and even after petitioning the King, offers tell-tale evidence to this effect.
But it is in his magnum opus that the most indisputably disputable indications occur. Even on the first page, in the very first paragraph of the Quijote, the author gives credence to the converso hypothesis. Rather than an elaborate genealogy of the protagonist, we learn almost nothing concerning his background. The author skirts around the actual name and ancestry, omitting--obviously on purpose--mention of the exact location of his character's dwelling. The culture of the Statutes of Purity of Blood was rooted profoundly, requiring at every juncture well-documented genealogical guarantees. But Cervantes would not be cowed. Indeed, he offers an alternative: rather than allowing himself to be bound by the past, his protagonist will reinvent himself in a mode of his own choosing. Certainly, his opting in favor of liberty and against the bondage of blood and background could have cost Cervantes dearly. Such a thoroughly literate refusal to be bullied constitutes a lesson we all might consider. Each soul can be free to choose its own path through life, regardless of external constraints or social conventions. This freedom does not come without cost, but Cervantes indicates that it is worthwhile at whatever price.
Likewise, in this same first paragraph, the routine of the still anonymous hidalgo is described in detail. His is a fairly standard Catholic calendar, one that might be inconspicuously observed by a rural bachelor of relatively limited economic, if not emotional, means. Except there is his habit of "duelos y quebrantos los sábados," which J. M. Cohen, translator of the novel for the Penguin Classics (1950), has rendered as "boiled bones on Saturdays." For his part, Tom Lathrop, the editor of the student edition I use in my classes on Don Quijote at the University of Wyoming, has written more recently "No one knows what this dish of ‘grief and afflictions' was" (Juan de la Cuesta, 2001). This sort of scholarly quandary has never before prevented me from proffering my own hypotheses. Here we might recollect that "sábado" can also be read as "Sabbath," and that the lamentations explicit in this cuisine may indicate some sort of crypto-Judaic feeling, a vestigial regret, however vague, hesitant, or otherwise furtive, for the old ways now gone forever. The hidalgo class, after all, was permeated with converso blood, if not actual judaizing. Moreover, the "boiled bones" of Cohen's translation may also allude to the Inquisitorial torments awaiting those not completely circumspect--and considerably unlucky--in their dietary regimen. The Holy Office would go so far as to burn the mortal remains of those who had the temerity to die before sentence could be carried out, or even to exhume those who had passed away before falling under suspicion, burning their bones as a warning to potential heretics.
Cervantes was very clever in his composition and as far as we know never ran seriously afoul of the Holy Office. Nonetheless, throughout Don Quijote he would flaunt its conventions, frequently incorporating aspects of the Hebrew Scripture into his narrative. Such inclusiveness could be perilous, as we observe in the relatively contemporary case of Fray Luis de León (1528-1591), a converso professor of theology at Salamanca, who was imprisoned by the Inquisition for more than four years for, among other crimes, his insistent use of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible in his studies. But Fray Luis was a faithful Christian. Likewise Cervantes. I do not mean to assert here that the novelist figures as some sort of crypto-judaizer or that his novel constitutes a proof text for the subversion of doctrine or practice. The Quijote may be a “converse text,” to employ Colbert Nepaulsingh's terminology, though it is, at least to my way of thinking, so much more than just that (see Apples of Gold in Filigrees of Silver).
I propose that Cervantes' vision was simply too expansive, too inclusive, to be contained or constrained--or, for that matter, comprehended--within the confines of Inquisitorial constructs. Since his art could not be circumscribed within such artificial horizons, so he will continually, though cleverly, incorporate bits and pieces, as well as entire narratives, from the Old Testament, into his own story line. Cervantes knew full well the risks he was running. There is certainly an element of in-your-face bravado, of catch-me-if-you-can and look-how-smart-I-am, to which males of our species are sometimes prone. Testosterone, combined with talent, can drive a person to fearful lengths. Though his native expansiveness could have become terribly expensive, Cervantes insisted on doing what he wanted to do, and, wonder of wonders, he got away with it. Granted, censors and their ilk are not generally known for their brilliance of mind, but the author of Don Quijote was undeniably lucky, as well as smart.
I will now examine various cases where his incorporation of materials from Hebrew Scriptures seems to be most evident. Often, Cervantes employs what Susan Sontag has called in another context "conventions of concealment" (see her Illness as Metaphor). Though also there is ample evidence that the novelist's sources are simply hiding in plain sight, just as many converso families would do for generations. One of these incorporations, perhaps one of the most radical, occurs early on in part one of the novel. In chapters 11 through 15, Don Quijote and Sancho are involved in the funeral of one Grisóstomo, a student turned shepherd, who has died for love of Marcela. This girl, savaged by all her male admirers for her rejection of their suits, defends herself and her rejection of a Judeo-Christian mandate, stated in Genesis 3:16. Part of Eve's punishment is that her "desire shall be to [her] husband, and he shall rule over [her]". Hundreds of generations of males have taken this as a statement of their own desirability, that if they choose to "love" a particular woman, she is, by nature and by divine command, obligated to reciprocate. Marcela simply says "no," that she chooses to live life on her own terms and that men don't have much attraction for her. She offers a tightly-reasoned defense of her actions and attitude to the assembled mourners, and then leaves, still refusing domestication, while opting, like her creator, for personal liberty at all costs.
Another young woman who the knight errant and his squire encounter, Ana Félix, happens onto the scene in part two of the novel, in chapters 63-65. She acts in the mold of women warriors who prosper in a male-dominated world, though without leaving off their femininity. Captured in disguise as the captain of a pirate ship raiding off the coast of Catalunya, Ana Félix recalls such prototypes, founding mothers, if you will, as Judith, Jael, Deborah, and even mutatis mutandis Esther. This latter woman would become one of the darlings of the conversos, as they also tried to maintain whatever they could of their faith and culture in a hostile environment, of course with divine aid and plenty of chutzpah. Ana Félix is a girl of Moorish background: her father is Ricote, Sancho's friend and former neighbor until the last of the moriscos were expelled by royal decree from 1609-1614, though, in faith and practice, she turns out to be a Christian. Her multiple levels of subterfuge, as well as her genuineness of soul, would only endear her to a converso audience, as covertly credulous as she. Nepaulsingh has argued that the presence in "converso texts" of Moors such as Ana Félix would become a type, almost a trope, for crypto-Jews (see Apples of Gold).
Another young Moorish woman, one similarly divided in her doctrinal loyalties, is Zoraida, who helps the captive Captain, Ruy Pérez de Viedma, and some of his companions escape from prison in Algeria. She desires to go with them to Spain, so she can worship the Christian God, and especially so she can establish ties to the Virgin Mary, in whom she has come to believe, through the ministrations of a captive Christian nurse. This story, told in far greater detail than I can here, is intercalated into chapters 38 through 42 of the 1605 Quijote. I am convinced that it recalls, even in minute details, the stories of Jacob, from his young manhood, his flight to and from Aram, his “tricky” travails all along the way, his familial difficulties, and his final migration down into Egypt at the invitation of Joseph, the favored son that was lost and then found. Cervantes may also tap into the stories of this same Joseph, with those of his father and siblings, his captors and his servants, in Palestine, as in Egypt.
Along with the actual scriptural account, the novelist seems to avail himself of an extensive extra-Biblical tradition, from Persian literature to the midrashim, from folklore to the Pseudepigrapha, as he composes this tale within a tale. I am also convinced that he even integrates aspects of the story of Judah and Tamar, as recounted in chapter 38 of Genesis, whose inclusion within the Joseph story many commentators on the Scripture have otherwise questioned. Perhaps this constitutes Cervantes' own commentary on the relevance of such intercalation, whether within the book of Genesis or within his own book. In turn, Zoraida recalls the "foreign woman" here, constituting a counterpoint to Potiphar's wife, to Rachel, Jacob's wife and Joseph's mother, and to Asenath, Joseph's wife in Egypt. Another "foreign woman" whose story resonates with Zoraida's is Ruth, a daughter of Moab who follows her mother-in-law to Israel to adopt her ways and worship, thereby inserting herself into the lineage of King David. In this Moorish maiden, Cervantes also may offer a commentary on the sad situation of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter, who became a victim of male aggression on a variety of levels. Additionally, with respect to the dreams recounted within Cervantes' narrative, Zoraida puts this reader in mind of Joseph himself.
While on the subject of the patriarchs, it may be that various characters in Cervantes' novel, from the title character through various others of greater or lesser importance to the overall story, also are patterned after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Again, Cervantes probably draws on a variety of sources, besides just the actual Old Testament, as he would have known it as a Catholic Christian. In this vein, Don Quijote may recall the Father of the Faithful on various accounts: from his significant name change(s); to his many wanderings, at one point even astride a mule, thus depicting the "donkey migrations" of Avram from Ur to his new home and elsewhere; to his stay in the ducal court, recalling Abraham's descent into Egypt and the adventure-laden residence at Pharoah's court. In his own right, Sancho is described as riding "on his ass like a patriarch" (pt. 1, ch. 7), indicating that Cervantes was aware of such possible narrative subtexts. Along these same lines, Don Quijote's sending of Sancho as an emissary to Dulcinea (beginning in chapter 25 of part 1) may similarly suggest Abraham's delegation of his servant to Aram to find a wife for Isaac.
Likewise, the binding and transportation of Don Quijote, in an effort to return him home and, hopefully, to some semblance of sanity (commencing in chapter 46 of part 1 of the novel), calls to mind the ak'eda, the binding of Isaac, who in the midrashim is no boy, but rather is a mature man in his forties. Like Isaac, his son, Jacob, and even his grandson, Joseph, the hidalgo who would become the knight errant, was originally a man who preferred his own home and hearth. Though once he is driven mad by his chivalric readings, the man of the camp becomes, somewhat like Esau, an avid campaigner, preferring the open fields to the home fire. The theme of exile, whether internal or external, of being a stranger in a strange land, although this may be in one's home country or even one's own mind, also figures prominently in Don Quijote, as in the legends of Judaism's founding fathers. Additionally, it could be asserted that, together with such patriarchal narratives, there often run parallel matriarchal ones, that is, tales of the founding mothers.
There are also numerous elements of animal imagery of the Quijote which, in turn, call to mind aspects of the Scripture. One of these that might rear up and kick (or bite!) an otherwise inattentive reader are the ubiquitous depictions of mules, donkeys, asses, and similar beasts. Sancho goes everywhere astride his beloved donkey, although initially his knight is not certain if it's quite kosher to have a squire "mounted on ass-back" (pt. 1, ch. 7). Incidentally, the neologism in Spanish, "asnalmente," which is rendered into the rather wooden English above, still evokes laughter in readers today. In turn, the adventure(s) of the braying, occurring in chapters 25 and 27 of part 2, also underline the mulish, or otherwise asinine, nature of human beings. Such demeanor recalls the story of Balaam and his ass, recounted in Numbers 22 through 24, where the non-Israelite prophet's stubbornness, greed, and bad faith contrast unfavorably with his beast's good sense and even better behavior. The donkeys in Don Quijote do not ever actually talk, whereas Balaam's beast does, though Cervantes was certainly not unfamiliar with the motif of talking animals, which sometimes make more sense than their human counterparts. Such developments can be observed in the Colloquy of the Dogs (1613) or in the Quijote with Master Peter's divining ape, which doesn't really talk, but still “communicates” (pt. 2, ch. 25-27).
There are more parallels I could point out between facets of the Quijote and stories from the Hebrew Bible. From what we have read, however, we see how Miguel de Cervantes' apparent references to Hebrew Scripture were fraught with peril. Yet, he would not be limited in his options or restricted in his potential horizons. Nor would he be intimidated by the Holy Office, that often was little more than a gathering place for small-souled thugs, counterparts of the heavy-soled storm troopers who, across the centuries, would follow in their footsteps. But for all his Hebraic leanings, the author of Don Quijote was no less Christian. Indeed, I would maintain he was more so, given his tolerance and breadth, for such an outlook is in keeping with the true spirit of Christianity, not to mention that of Judaism.
KEVIN S. LARSEN, Professor of Spanish and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming, spoke on Cervantes at the San Antonio Conference. . His article, “Conversos,” appeared in the Encyclopedia of Judaism.