Roots of de­fec­tion, routes of de­par­ture

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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