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December 13: Burning the Messiah

Lawrence Bush
December 13, 2016
220px-molchoSolomon Molcho (Diogo Pires), a self-declared Jewish messiah, was burned at the stake at the age of 32 by the Inquisition on this date in 1532. Born a Christian to Portuguese converso parents, Molcho converted to Judaism and circumcised himself as a young man, then emigrated to Turkey, Syria, and Palestine, becoming an admired kabbalist who, according to Israel Zinberg, “initiated [Joseph] Karo into the mysteries of the Kabbalah. . . . Into his old age, Joseph Karo regarded the memory of his young perished friend with deepest reverence.” After supposedly predicting a flood that inundated Rome in 1530 and an earthquake that shook Portugal in 1531, Molcho managed to gain an audience with Pope Clement VII and to win his protection from the Inquisition (according to Heinrich Graetz, the Pope went so far as to burn some poor wretch at the stake as a Molcho impersonator). By then he had aroused the Jews of Europe by announcing that the messiah would reveal himself in 1540. He took himself (along with David Reubeni, a traveling mystic) to the court of Emperor Charles V, who turned them over to the Inquisition in Mantua for execution. Molcho’s signature is above, at right. To see Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz lecturing about him, look below. “When Molcho was already at the stake, he was told in the emperor’s name that if he would recant and were prepared to return to Catholicism, he would be allowed to live and set free at once, but Molcho proudly replied, “I am only sorry that I spent my youth in your faith; now do with me what you wish.” --Israel Zinberg

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.