How far gone is too far gone?
In the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to choose between their faith and their lives with horrifying frequency. Many chose to die as Jews. New scholarship has unearthed the dangers and difficulties faced by apostates who made the other choice. Did they pass the point of no return?
The coronation of England’s new king was held in London, at Westminster Abbey, on September 3, 1189. Although Richard the First would soon be off on the Third Crusade, fighting Saladin’s infidels in the Holy Land, it wasn’t the Muslims who felt the first violent reverberations of his reign—but the Jews of England.
In England’s Jews: Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century, published earlier this year, historian John Tolan describes the scene and its bloody aftermath: By Richard’s order, Jews were banned from attending proceedings at the Abbey. Though they were forbidden from entering the church, a delegation of Jews arrived at the after party, in the hopes of offering the freshly crowned king their loyalty, and a coronation gift. Instead, they were shoved and beaten by the king’s guards, then stripped, whipped, and driven off by the crowd gathered outside the royal banquet hall. The violence spread from there to the rest of the city—Jewish homes and synagogues were robbed, their thatched roofs set on fire. The Jewish chronicler Ephraim of Bonn estimates that thirty Jews were killed in the riots. When faced with either living as gentiles or dying as Jews—a question mark that punctuates the Middle Ages with horrifying frequency—they made their choice.
One Jew, a man by the name of Benedict of York, made the other choice. A prominent moneylender and community leader, Benedict (or, more likely: Baruch) had apparently come down from York to pay homage to the new king. After being badly injured in the London pogrom, he saved himself by agreeing to accept baptism and a new Christian name, William.
But, the very next day, when Benedict appeared before the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was clear that he had not embraced his new identity. When Richard asked for the convert’s name, he replied, with an unmistakable note of defiance: “Ego sum Benedictus Judaeus tuus de Eboraco.” I am Benedict, your Jew from York. “If he does not want to be a Christian,” spat the archbishop, “then let him be the devil’s.”
It is unclear whether Benedict actually managed to resume normal life as a Jew. Whether from his physical wounds, or a deeper spiritual torment, Benedict died shortly afterward. He probably wasn’t long for this world either way. That spring, a band of armed men broke into the moneylender’s palatial home in York, looted it, and killed his widow and children. The infamous slaughter of the town’s Jews at the Tower of York took place just a few days later.
Despite its tragic aftermath, however, and despite the somewhat ambiguous end to his story, it’s worth dwelling a little longer on Benedict’s final moments, and on the context in which they transpired.
Torah places the highest premium on maintaining the faith, even at the cost of one’s life. And yet, Jewish law is fully aware of the fact of apostasy—and the possibility of return. In the Middle Ages, Jewish communities confronted this phenomenon with increasing regularity. Their responses reflect the complexity of the apostate’s position in a society where the lines between Jew and gentile were sharply drawn. But they also reveal underlying assumptions about Jewish identity and communal responsibility, just as relevant a millennia later as they were at the time.
Brother or Traitor?
For medieval Church leaders, Jews were a threat. Though Jews and non-Jews still traded, talked, and worked together, the religious authorities often tried to limit this contact where they could. A series of synods and papal decrees, like the 1222 Council of Oxford, forbade Christians from working in Jewish houses. A few years before, in 1218, the English Crown had issued a mandate ordering Jews to affix “two emblems in the form of white tablets made of linen cloth or parchment” onto their clothes, thus beginning the dark history of the Jewish badge.
Designed to reinforce religious hierarchy, these laws also reflected a sense of insecurity: Church officials worried that Christians who fraternized with Jews might abandon Christianity. And, although this was far from commonplace (the scholar Paola Tartakfoff documents only forty or so European conversions to Judaism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), it did happen. A more common occurrence was Jews converting to Christianity—willingly or not—and then reverting. “These cases of relapse,” writes another historian, “seem to have made a profound impression in Christian circles.” For the Church, a convert who tried to revert—someone like Benedict—was something even less tolerable than a Jew: he was a heretic.
Of greater interest to us, however, is the view from our side of the fence: How did the Jewish community receive those who had converted to Christianity but later sought to return?
As in so much else, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, the indispensable biblical exegete, Talmudic commentator, legal authority, and community leader, had an influence that extended well beyond his eleventh-century France. For him, it all boiled down to a simple dictum: Af al pi she-chata Yisrael hu. “Though a Jew may sin,” declares the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin, riffing off a phrase in the Book of Joshua, “a Jew he remains.” That meant not just that the effects of baptism were reversible, but that it had no effects to begin with. It is true that a Jew, when given the ultimatum, is expected to lay down his life rather than deny his faith and convert. It is also true that a Jew who sins is liable for the consequences of that sin. But a Jew’s status as a Jew is unchanging and incontrovertible.
According to Rashi, an apostate could still inherit from Jewish kin and marry within the Jewish faith, and it was forbidden to lend to him at interest. The only prerequisite for full reacceptance by the community was teshuvah—regretting one’s actions and recommitting to the observance of Torah law—without need for any special ceremonies or procedures.
In this, Rashi was in accord with the other seminal figure of Medieval Ashkenazic Jewry. Preceding Rashi by a couple of generations, Rabbeinu Gershom had ruled that an apostate returning to Judaism had to be accepted by the Jewish community with open arms. Indeed, according to one of his famous decrees, anyone who mentioned the past of a repentant apostate would himself be liable for excommunication. For Rabbeinu Gershom, there was a personal, if tragic, aspect to his position: His own son was forcibly converted, and died before being able to return to his people.
But despite this apparent consensus, the picture is somewhat more complicated, as Ephraim Kanarfogel documents in his recent monograph, Brothers From Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe.
There were, in fact, a range of approaches to returning apostates, both in popular practice and halachic jurisprudence. Several rabbis in the generations that followed Rashi, known as the Ba’alei Tosfot, maintain that an apostate is no longer treated as a Jew, not only with respect to inheritance or ritual law, but even in the areas of family life—marriage, divorce, children—that are the proving ground for Jewish identity. For the returning apostate, they recommended immersion in a mikvah, or making a quasi-public declaration of recommitment to traditional Jewish life. Ra’avyah of Cologne explicitly compares this process to the act of conversion, albeit while maintaining a few differences.
There is no question that the Jews had good reason to be suspicious of apostates. More than mere theological treason, apostasy was often associated with a cruder, more literal kind of treachery. When twenty-four priceless cartloads of Gemaras were burned in Paris in 1242, it was a former Jew, Nicholas Donin, who played the leading role in traducing the Talmud. When the venerable sage Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was caught while fleeing Germany and then hauled off to the prison cell where he would eventually die, it was an apostate named Kneppe who had turned him in.
Of course, according to Church authorities, assisting a returning apostate, or a convert to Judaism, was a serious crime all on its own. Historian Edward Fram cites a 1267 papal decree calling “for the punishment not only of relapsed converts but of those who assisted them.” Thus, anyone who encouraged or harbored a returnee to Judaism could find themselves in danger. Some were fined for these activities, harassed by inquisitorial authorities, and worse.
Benedict may or may not have managed to make the journey all the way back, but there were many who did. Despite the anger and suspicion held out against apostates; despite the claims that powerful church authorities lay to them; despite the ambiguities of their status even under Jewish law; despite all the dangers and doubts involved in welcoming back those who strayed so far from their faith and families, there were many Jews—individuals and communities—who insisted on doing just that.
“In southwestern Europe,” Fram writes, “relapsed converts faced the specter of punishment and, in addition, endanger[ed] those who harbored them. Yet not only did apostates in the region continue to return to Judaism, they were often encouraged to do so by local Jews.”
The history of medieval apostasy and reversion to Judaism is by and large a sorry tale. However, that there were still Jews prepared to welcome back those who once left Jewish life is perhaps the least surprising part of this story. And that Jews who strayed so far from the community, whether by force or by their own volition, still sought to return and resume their original identity is entirely natural. Even though he sinned, a Jew he remains.
“An Obligation to G-d”
Compared with the recent coronation of King Charles III, the story of Benedict of York reminds us just how far we have come since those brutal and intolerant days. But more than that, the haunting image of Benedict, beaten but not bowed, still fiercely free in spirit, tells us something about the nature of Jewish identity.
Today, the prevailing halachic view is that Jewish identity is an essential property, not something that gets washed off in water. Apostates may be excluded from certain areas of Jewish practice—when they eventually perform teshuvah, they are generally required to undergo immersion and formally declare their recommitment to Jewish observance—but these are technicalities. Any community has the right to maintain its own borders. Think of it as tough love. Beneath the froth of apostasy, conversion, and return, however, the unfathomed depths of the soul lie calm and unperturbed.
There are two ways in which the immutable nature of the Jewish soul is made manifest. The first lies within the soul itself. No matter what crimes an individual may commit, we know that the connection to G-d is always there. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would write, “even while a sin is being committed, it [the Divine soul] remains faithful to Him.” No matter what mistakes one may have made in the past, the soul is always free to return. Every year, when Yom Kippur comes around, we are reminded how the gates of teshuvah always remain open.
The other way that the nature of Jewish identity is disclosed lies in the attitude of other members of the community—meaning us—towards the individual apostate. In a halachic responsum dealing with the case of a young Portuguese converso couple, the prominent Salonikan authority Rabbi Shmuel de Medina (Maharshdam) reached the striking conclusion that, before they return to Judaism, a marriage affected by two apostates is invalid, and their children would not be considered to be Jewish. This opinion is about as stringent as you can get, and in fact it is explicitly rejected by the preeminent twentieth-century authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Yet, in a separate responsum, when asked to address the case of a local youth who “switched his faith” the Maharshdam grapples with the question of communal responsibility. “If one is obligated to exert oneself, whether physically or financially, in order to save the life of a fellow Jew,” he writes, “then how much more so is he obligated to do so, in order to save his soul from destruction.” This, he goes on to say, is “an obligation to G-d” for which the “reward is exceedingly great.”
Considering the Maharashdam’s general denial of an apostate’s Jewish identity, this answer is extraordinary. After all, once he turns apostate, doesn’t that mean he isn’t a “fellow Jew” any longer? Clearly, the Maharashdam is not put off by the implied paradox. Even for him, Jewish identity, the bonds of mutual commitment, and the obligations we bear towards our brothers and sisters run deeper than the naked eye can see.
Citing the latter responsum in one of his talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke of the obligation of “each and every person to do all they can” in order to save someone from “spiritual drowning.” Of course, this obligation extends far beyond a few isolated instances of apostasy. It is a call to reach out to all Jews—wherever they might be found, however they may have gotten lost.
One Sunday morning, a certain wayward Jew found himself in line to receive a blessing and dollar from the Rebbe. Past middle age, with a full beard well on its way to gray, he had converted to Catholicism some years before. As the line eventually brought him in for a brief encounter with the Rebbe—which was caught on tape—he introduced himself as a “Christian from a Jewish family,” who still “loved his people very much.”
“But if someone was born a Jew,” the Rebbe responded to him, “he is a Jew for all his life. He cannot change, but can only make his life more complicated.” In some respects, the story of apostasy and reversion is a very complicated one; still, the underlying truth, as the Rebbe put it, is very simple indeed.