Zeal of the Convert

A new biography charts a Peruvian seeker’s spiritual quest

Simona Cerrato/Flickr
Simona Cerrato/Flickr

The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land by Graciela Mochkofsky (trans. from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman); Knopf, 288 pp., $30

Most people think that scripture is a noun, but it’s actually a verb. That is, scripture is an event, a relational activity. It’s what happens when people read or hear a text and they transcend themselves. Like mercury releasing gold from ore, scripture releases something pure from people, compelling them to change how they live. 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 he had inherited from his father.

Bibles were rare in Catholic Peruvian households. You attended Mass to hear the Bible; you did not read it. And what you heard was incomprehensible Latin. But Villanueva’s copy was in Spanish, he did 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 practices. So Villanueva embarked on a spiritual quest to live according to God’s law, eventually converting to Judaism and leading a community of converted Peruvian Jews to Israel. Argentine journalist Graciela Mochkofsky tells Villanueva’s singular story in The Prophet of the Andes.

For 15 years, Mochkofsky absorbed Villanueva’s labyrinthine journey from the Andes to the Holy Land, speaking with his family, friends, and associates across multiple continents. She writes with an inviting tone and easy rhythm that reflect Villanueva’s spirit of open curiosity and clear thinking. Hers is a laudable work, and Villanueva deserves a biography: he’s a modern mix of the biblical figures Zerubbabel, who led the exiled Israelites from Babylon back to Jerusalem, and Ezra, who read them the Torah so that they could again obey God’s commandments. Yet Villanueva’s actions are so sensible, you’d think his story would be common. Any discerning reader can see the same incongruencies he did. For example, the God of the Bible demands that we observe the Sabbath on the seventh day, yet priests told Villanueva that “it was a mortal sin not to attend church on Sunday.” God prohibits the worship of idols and graven images, but as Mochkofsky asks, “What, if not idols, were the images of saints, the statues of the Virgin and the Lord of Miracles used in processions?” God forbids eating unclean animals, yet pork was a staple in Villanueva’s 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 “the tone was notably different,” that the Gospels were full of inconsistencies, contradicting each other and what came before, and “at times defied common sense.” The Epistles of Paul were especially dubious, as Paul claimed there was no longer an obligation to follow Moses’s law—that circumcision was of the heart, not the foreskin. But if Moses’s law was eternal, Villanueva wondered, how could it expire? So, whom should one trust: God’s friend Moses or this guy Paul?

Disillusioned with the Catholic Church, Villanueva took his questions to various Protestant clergymen. After joining the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement, because its adherents at least observed the Sabbath on the proper day, he founded his own community—Israel of God—and, in 1967, temporarily moved into the Amazonian jungle, away from hostile neighbors.

There, Villanueva studied various versions of the Bible, but he grew concerned that errors could have crept into the translations. He resolved to learn Hebrew, which led him to Lima’s small Jewish community. Soon, Villanueva concluded that Jesus was not the Messiah because, as anyone could see, the predictions of the prophets did not come to pass after Jesus’s death—wolves, for example, did not dwell with lambs. So Villanueva literally ripped “the false, Christian portion” from his Bibles and concluded that his community must convert to Judaism.

Although the rabbi of Lima’s synagogue answered Villanueva’s questions, he refused to convert the Peruvians. Considered upper class by national taxonomies, Peru’s Sephardic Jews didn’t want to mix with provincial mestizos. Undeterred, Villanueva relied on other books: Jewish Traditions and Customs and then the Shulchan Aruch, from which the Israel of God community learned how to pray, light Shabbat candles, make challah, observe holidays, and generally live like Jewish people. Yet for that to truly 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 Moshe were placed in a controversial West Bank settlement, where they were known as the 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’d join. But Villanueva, who assumed the Hebrew name Zerubbabel Tzidkiya, rejected the Talmud and the authority of the rabbis of all sects, wanting to follow the Word of God only as it was found in the Torah. He even discounted the rest of the Tanakh, all the books of the Prophets and Writings that were added during the Babylonian captivity. As a result, Villanueva was shunned by Israelis as well as Peruvian converts, who by then were misleadingly called “Inca Jews.”

Abandoned by all except his close family, Villanueva died at age 80, in 2008. His tomb on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem says he was a “descendant of the conversos of Portugal who went back to his origins.” Today, many Latin Americans are discovering that they’re descended from these conversos, the Iberian “crypto-Jews” who converted to Catholicism to escape persecution by the Inquisition. My Venezuelan wife, for example, was raised Catholic but surmises that she has Jewish ancestry because her grandparents spoke Ladino—a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew—and on Friday nights they lit candles and baked challah. Yet Segundo Villanueva never claimed Jewish roots. He simply took the Bible seriously, and acted accordingly. I’m genuinely surprised that millions of other believers haven’t done the same.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Randy Rosenthal has a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University, where he teaches writing. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.


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