Thank you for writing to Jewish Values Online.
First, I would point out that you are not really asking my view on persons who make this assertion, but rather the Jewish view (Reform in this case) concerning such claims. In fact, I have had the pleasure of working with some people who asserted exactly this. I am proud that I was able to assist some of them, and those person are now fully Jewish and living a meaningful Jewish life.
To start, though, we had best define some terms.
A crypto-Jew is someone whose Jewish heritage and background is hidden from others.
The most widely understood and asserted reason for such a situation is that the so-identified person descends from past generations of Jews that lived in Spain, usually dating back to the late 1400’s, or even the early 1500’s.
Recall that under Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Church was heavily influential at that time in that place. To be Jewish and to remain in Spain was to risk penalties, even including death. All Jews (in theory) were expelled from Spain in 1492 by decree. Any Jew who remained was forced to convert to Catholicism or be subject to execution.
In what seems to my thinking a massively paranoid pattern, it came to be assumed within the Church that some, even many or most, of the Jews that converted and remained in Spain did so for convenience, and not out of conviction. This speculation was the spark that ignited the Inquisition, a horrible event in history which had negative effects for hundreds of years.
The purpose of the Inquisition was to ferret out and punish anyone who might have been still practicing Judaism (or any other religion) in secret, though claiming to be Catholic. Its’ methods were secret accusations, extra-judicial torture, jailing for unlimited time, and no appeals. Under such a system, with sufficient ‘examination’, everyone accused eventually broke and confessed guilt. The reward for confession was the release of death, often in terrible ways.
The Inquisition did not remain in Europe alone: it made its’ way to the New World as well. As a result, many of the new Christians who fled to the New World had to continue to live in fear of the Inquisitors. Some of them probably were secretly practicing Judaism, at least in part, but no one can say how many. It became a habit of survival to hide and be secretive, to avoid scrutiny, and to stay in the background, even if you had nothing about which you were guilty.
Numerous persons who came to settle the New World arrived in the American Southwest, under Spanish control. It is known that some number of them likely were crypto-Jews; but the actual number is not clear. These new Christians were referred to in many ways. The unpleasant slang was to call them Marranos – pigs, under the assumption that they were Jews who were not faithful to the Church. Less offensive was the term Conversos (converts).
There are many literary stories, as well as a body of literature in sociological and anthropological materials accumulated of late, describing how some families have certain customs that cannot be readily explained; the claim is that the only reason for such customs is that the family must be crypto-Jews. One example is a story telling how the grandmother would go down into the cellar each Friday night and light (ostensibly Shabbat) candles there, where no one outside the home could possibly observe them, waiting until they burned out before leaving; this custom was passed down from generation to generation, so that it continues today, but no one has any idea why. Another such example is that the family somehow never consumes any pork products, though they prepare chicken, lamb, or beef as if it were pork, so from outside of the home it appears that the family eats similarly to their neighbors. Again, this action was continued, unexplained, from generation to generation, so that the family members had no idea why, but continued it as custom.
These types of situations are what are being described as defining crypto-Jews. It is asserted that only those who were secretly Jewish would have continued such customs in stealth and secret for generations.
The problem with this explanation is that it is one possible reason, but it is not the only possible reason, so the assertion of crypto-Judaism is not the only logical conclusion. Further complicating the matter is that there are issues of social status that attach to origin; coming from Spain, rather than descending from the native American population, is considered more prestigious by some, for example, which could influence the stories handed down from one generation to the next.
To answer your question; if one can prove Jewish heritage directly, one can make a claim to be part of the Jewish people. The general claim of crypto-Judaism is most often insufficient by itself to provide proof to support such a claim; though it can be indicative, and may be helpful and supportive to a claim that has other evidence to further it. For this reason, when I have been approached by persons who wish to assert Jewish heritage and choose to make a claim to being Jewish, I have in almost every instance insisted that they eliminate any doubts and undergo a standard conversion process, as any other convert would. This closes off any questions and answers any doubts.
I hope that this is helpful.
Answered by: Rabbi Joseph Blair