Roots of defection, routes of departure
Why do Jews turn their backs on their religious and communal heritage and, in extreme cases, convert to other religions? Professor Todd Endelman sets out to answer these questions but — as he admits — the research is hampered both by the anecdotal, frequently suspect and inherently biased nature of some of the biographical evidence and by the lack of systematic quantitative data. Nonetheless, there is a story to be told — certainly regarding Jews in Europe and the Americas — and, in telling it, Endelman demonstrates yet again why he is one the leading historians of the contemporary Jewish world.
The story falls into distinct phases. In medieval Europe, few Jews converted out of conviction. Their motives were primarily social and economic (Jewish converts were typically paid an allowance and/or given free board and lodging by local Christian benefactors) or — as in Christian Spain — the apostasy was deemed necessary for sheer, physical survival. As Endelman demonstrates, collectively these conversos — despite their baptismal protestations — “were often viewed as insincere and deceitful.”
In the early modern age, “radical assimilation,” perhaps leading to conversion, was seen as the key to economic and professional advancement. This was particularly true of Prussia, where the formal emancipation of the Jews (1812) failed to stamp out widespread anti-Jewish prejudice and was in fact followed by a tidal wave of conversions to one or other of the varieties of Christianity on offer. In Tsarist Russia, however, apostasy continued to be driven by poverty, hardshipanddespair,notablyamongwomen seeking escape from abusive marriages and children estranged from their families — such as Moshe, youngest son of the founder of Lubavitch Chasidism. In the USA, Jews who converted did so, in the main, for reasons that were primarily self-serving:theydeliberatelychosewhat Endelman characterises as “high status” denominations, such as Episcopalianism or Presbyterianism. From broadly similar motives, most Jewish converts in Britain entered the Anglican church.
Even among those Jews who apparently converted from genuine conviction there are often hints of darker and/ or more materialistic forces at work. Nor were these converts, however sincere, able to escape or satisfactorily paper over their Jewish roots. Not for nothing was Sir Moses Montefiore’s great-great nephew Hugh (Bishop of Birmingham 1977-87) referred to by the ordinands he taughtas“HughMontefiasco”.Itisworth recalling (Endelman does not) that, in his autobiography, Hugh confessed that heneverfelttrulyacceptedasaChristian: “I realised that I was not altogether likeable, otherwise my peers would talk to me more… I might appear to be brash andself-confident…butthisoftenhidan inferior feeling of unacceptedness.”
Endelman concludes that the history of conversionandradicalassimilationin modern Jewish history reveals the limits of emancipation in both liberal and illiberal societies. It is, as he rightly says, “a dispiriting tale.” But it needed to be told. Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist
Bishop Hugh Montefiore