The American Scholar: The Convert’s Zeal

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The prophet of the Andes: an unlikely journey to the promised land by Graciela Mochkofsky (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman); Knopf, 288 pages, $30

Most people think of scripture as a noun, but it’s actually a verb. In other words, Scripture is an event, a relational activity. This is what happens when people read or hear a text and they transcend themselves. Like mercury releasing gold from the ore, the scriptures release something pure from people, compelling them to change their way of life. Nothing illustrates what I mean better than the story of Segundo Villanueva, a poor Peruvian who, in 1948, when he was 21, found a copy of the Bible in a trunk inherited from his father.

Bibles were rare in Peruvian Catholic homes. You attended mass to hear the Bible; you haven’t read it. And what you heard was incomprehensible Latin. But Villanueva’s copy was in Spanish, he read it, and he was as inspired as he was perplexed. God was speaking to him directly, showing him the right way to live, but the Bible also contradicted Catholic doctrine and practice. So Villanueva embarked on a spiritual quest to live by God’s law, eventually converting to Judaism and leading a community of converted Peruvian Jews to Israel. Argentinian journalist Graciela Mochkofsky tells the singular story of Villanueva in The Prophet of the Andes.

For 15 years, Mochkofsky absorbed Villanueva’s labyrinthine journey from the Andes to the Holy Land, speaking with family, friends and associates on multiple continents. She writes with an inviting tone and easy pace that reflects Villanueva’s spirit of open curiosity and clear thinking. His work is commendable, and Villanueva deserves a biography: he is a modern mix of the biblical figures Zerubbabel, who brought the exiled Israelites back from Babylon to Jerusalem, and Ezra, who read the Torah to them so that they could once again obey the commandments of God. Yet Villanueva’s actions are so sensible that you’d think her story would be common. Any informed reader can see the same incongruities as him. For example, the God of the Bible requires us to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day, but the priests told Villanueva that “it was a mortal sin not to go to church on Sunday.” God forbids the worship of idols and graven images, but as Mochkofsky asks: “What were the images of saints, the statues of the Virgin and the Lord of Miracles used in processions, if not idols?” God forbids eating unclean animals, yet pork was a staple in the Villanueva community. Then there was circumcision, which God requires of his male followers. So why weren’t Catholics circumcised?

As Villanueva read further, moving from “the first part” of the Bible to “the second part”, he noticed that “the tone was particularly different”, that the Gospels were full of inconsistencies, contradicting and contradicting each other and “sometimes defied common sense. Paul’s epistles were particularly dubious, as Paul asserted that there was no longer any obligation to follow the law of Moses – that circumcision was of the heart, not of the foreskin. But if the law of Moses was eternal, Villanueva wondered, how could it expire? So, who should we trust: the friend of God Moses or this guy Paul?

Disillusioned with the Catholic Church, Villanueva posed his questions to various Protestant clerics. After joining the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, because its adherents observed at least the Sabbath on the proper day, he founded his own community – Israel of God – and in 1967 temporarily settled in the Amazon jungle, far hostile neighbors.

There Villanueva studied various versions of the Bible, but he became concerned that errors might have crept into the translations. He resolved to learn Hebrew, which led him to the small Jewish community in Lima. Soon Villanueva concluded that Jesus was not the Messiah because, as everyone could see, the predictions of the prophets did not come true after Jesus died – wolves, for example, did not live with the lambs. So Villanueva literally ripped “the false Christian part” out of her Bibles and concluded that her community needed to convert to Judaism.

Although the rabbi of the Lima synagogue answered Villanueva’s questions, he refused to convert Peruvians. Considered upper class by national taxonomies, the Sephardic Jews of Peru did not want to mingle with the mestizos of the provinces. Undeterred, Villanueva relied on other books: Jewish traditions and customs then the Shulchan Aruch, from which the Israel of God community learned to pray, light Shabbat candles, make challah, observe festivals, and generally live like the Jewish people. Yet, for that to really happen, Villanueva decided they had to move to the Holy Land. So he changed the group’s name to Bnei Moshe – Children of Moses – and eventually persuaded the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to officially convert them to Judaism and support their emigration to Israel. In 1990, 42 years after Villanueva discovered his Bible, the Bnei Moshes were placed in a controversial settlement in the West Bank, where they were known as Peruanim.

But like a naïve American Buddhist who discovers that most Buddhists in Asia drink alcohol, eat meat and don’t meditate, Villanueva was disappointed to learn that only about 20 percent of Israeli Jews were Orthodox. The Peruanim had to decide which Orthodox sect they would belong to. But Villanueva, who took the Hebrew name Zerubbabel Tzidkiya, rejected the Talmud and the authority of rabbis of all sects, wanting to follow only the Word of God as found in the Torah. He even discarded the rest of the Tanakh, all the books of the Prophets and the Writings that were added during the Babylonian captivity. As a result, Villanueva was shunned by Israelis as well as Peruvian converts, who were then mistakenly called “Inca Jews”.

Abandoned by all but his immediate family, Villanueva died aged 80 in 2008. His grave on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem indicates that he was a “descendant of the conversos of Portugal who returned to his origins”. Today, many Latin Americans find that they are descended from these converse, the Iberian “crypto-Jews” who converted to Catholicism to escape the persecutions of the Inquisition. My Venezuelan wife, for example, was raised Catholic but assumes she has Jewish ancestry because her grandparents spoke Ladino – a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew – and on Friday nights they lit candles and were cooking challah. Yet Segundo Villanueva never claimed his Jewish roots. He simply took the Bible seriously and acted on it. I am truly surprised that millions of other believers have not done the same.

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