For nearly eight hundred years Jew and Christian and Muslim had lived together in Sicily in a dynamic tension that had made it one of the creative centers of Europe. Sicilian Civilization had reached its peak under the Fatimids, who joined to the universal Islamic concern for justice an openness to other wisdoms. But even after the Normans, whose kings were little more than raiders and rough warlords, had taken the island for the Bishop of Rome, they relied on Muslim and Jewish scholars to run their courts. Their Angevin and Aragonese successors had done the same. 

But now this long Convivencia was coming to an end. For ten long years the armies of Fernando and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of a now united Castile and Aragon, who had inherited Sicily, had laid siege to Qarnata, the last stronghold of al-Andalus. The Emir Boadbdil, who had taken the kingdom by force from his father, had been told by his astrologers that he was destined to lose it by force as well, and now these prophecies seemed destined to be born out. Supplies were running low and winter was approaching. Rumor had it that the emir had sued for peace and that only the details of the capitulation remained to be worked out. 

Here in Palermo, in the Jewish and Muslim quarters, debate centered on what the impending fall of Qarnata would mean for Sicily. There was no doubt that as the Christians grew stronger they also grew bolder. In Spain itself discriminatory laws had been enacted which purged Jews and Muslims from service to the State. Many, like Shmuel’s father, converted to evade those laws.  Hence Shmuel’s baptism at only a month old as “Salvatore.” But still they faced harassment. The conversos had hoped that Fernando and Isabella would be strong enough to stand up to the hate-mongers, and urged their families and friends and business partners to follow their lead and to actively support the new monarchs. If only they would cooperate –with whoever was in power— they would be left alone, if not to practice their religion then at least, what seemed more important to them, to do business. Instead the new monarchs had, with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV, instituted an Inquisition to seek out reconversos, Jews and Muslims who had returned to the traditions of their people.  But still the wealthy merchants held out hope that whatever the Catholic monarchs did in Spain, they would leave Sicily in peace. 

–It is just the way things are in wartime, Shmuel’s father insisted. Once the Christians win –and the tides of history are on their side— they will stop seeing us as internal enemies and life will return to normal. 

Ruben, the leader of Palermo’s most important cabalistic circle, knew better. Christendom –or Edom as he called it– was the kingdom of the demon Samael, who gained power over the people of Israel when men like Shmuel’ s father grew too comfortable trading in woolen cloth and eating rich stews flavored with harissa and ras al hanout and forgot that it was the vocation of the people of Israel to mend the torn fabric of the universe. And it didn’t help that young men like Shmuel spent their time with the daughters of Muslim spice merchants and spilled their seed on the ground, or had evil dreams and spilled it in their beds. This gave rise to qipploth, spirits trapped in matter that further increased the strength of Samael and his minions. The Reconquista was a good thing he said. It would shake the people loose from their slumber and set Israel back on the road home: towards Jerusalem. To this end he taught his followers complex rituals intended to give them power over the demonic forces of the present, in effect attempting to harness the dark in order to serve the light. They studied the motions of the heavenly bodies and prepared alchemical medicines and made offerings of various herbs and spices and even metals in order to strengthen one or another of the sephiroth. And they spent long nights singing psalms, which Ruben taught them were the war songs of mosiach.  Above all, he prepared them for ‘aliyah, for the mass return of the people to the land of Israel, which he expected would follow closely on the fall of Qarnata.

Shmuel was undecided. He had no real interest in ‘aliyah. As far as he was concerned the Jewish people were called to serve as catalyst in the search for wisdom and the struggle for justice around the world. Would a secure homeland in which they could develop their civilization assist in that charge? Of course. But it seemed unlikely, and he could think of better things to do than to expend the limited energies of his people in what would inevitably be a losing battle to restore Zion. And yet he had heard the reports from Spain and found his father’s expectations of a quick return to normalcy naïve. Something was stirring the world. He was not sure what it was, but he wanted to be ready. 

And so he studied … 


Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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