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Notes from Limmud 2010

Becoming Not Jewish

Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld

Is it possible to lose one's Jewish status? One's Jewish identity can, of course, go quite easily; but what about Jewish status?

Oswald Rufeisen was born in Poland before the War as a Jewish boy; he took an active part in a Zionist youth group called Akiva. It was non-socialist, but very much in favour of the kibbutz movement. He spoke German and Polish fluently.

As the Nazis were conquering Poland, he fled towards Vilna, which was still independent then. Later the Nazis conquered Vilna, and he was forced into labour cutting down trees. He was able to find a visa for his brother to Palestine. Then he managed to escape.

He got himself a position as a translator for the German police. Some Jews were still left in the Mir area after the yeshiva was evacuated. He heard talk about liquidating the Jews in that area. He managed to create a wild goose chase, and saved many Jews at that time.

He then escaped to a convent, and lived as a nun for a year. He then converted to Roman Catholicism, and continued as a Christian after the war ended. When the State of Israel was created, he wanted to go to Israel and live there as a monk—he is now Brother Daniel. [Hmm, out of date information here: he died in 1998!]

The Law of Return says that any Jew can come to Israel and get immediate citizenship. So, is Brother Daniel, as an apostate, still a Jew, that he can immigrate to the Land; or a non-Jew, that he cannot?

[Discussion, including taking on the case of Cardinal Lustiger, who never ceased to see himself as Jewish, and said kaddish for his father; but badly narked the Jews with his supersessionist attitude.]

In the traditional texts, Jewish apostates are referred to with the following terms:

  • מְשׁוּמָד meshumad, lit. destroyer/abolisher. The Church took offense to this word, and censored it, replacing it with:
  • מוּמָר mumar, lit. changer. This Talmudic term refers to someone who left Judaism.
  • תינוק שנשבה: a child born Jewish yet brought up in seclusion from the Jewish community.

The case of Brother Daniel came before משרד הפנים; they refused him as he had embraced another religion. He appealed to the Supreme Court; they were unclear. They asked the Chief Rabbi for advice. He replied once you're born a Jew, you're Jewish; you can't change it. The Supreme Court didn't like that—they weren't interested in Jewish law, but secular law.

They had the option to say anybody who converts out of Judaism is no longer Jewish—their definition of "Jewish" was "as used by common folk". They said common people wouldn't say you can be both Jewish and Christian. Hence they are no longer capable of coming to Israel under the Law of Return.

One of the justices said if we accept Brother Daniel, there will be issues of assimilation and intermarriage. Justice Silberg said:

Brother Daniel will be a lover of Israel; he has already proved that, and I have no doubt of it. But he does so from the outside. He has no part in, and will have no true feeling for, the world of Judaism. His undoubted love for, and even full association with the Jewish society in Israel are no substitute for the absent subjective self-identification.

The Supreme Court denied him the right to immigrate under the Law of Return; he lived in Israel as a foreigner and eventually gained citizenship the way a non-Jew would. (He wasn't missionising; this is illegal in Israel.) He was also very active in testifying against those who had committed atrocities in the Mir area during the war, in particular the German Chief of Police Serafimowicz, who was arrested in 1982/3; he was the only Nazi arrested in England. Brother Daniel came over to testify against him, but the court ruled him incompetent to stand trial, as he was suffering from Alzheimer's; and he died a few months later.

In Judaism, there is a difference between Jewish status and Jewish rights. With apostasy, Jewish law says they are cut out of the Jewish rights/entitlements but remain fully Jewish. There are five levels:

  1. Someone who eats treif meat out of desire. He does one mitzvah out of desire/appetite.
  2. Someone who eats treif meat to cause upset/rebellious spite.
  3. Someone who desecrates Shabbos publicly and wilfully.
  4. An idol worshiper.
  5. An apostate to the whole Torah, to quote the Rambam:
    One of those who turn to Gentile ways when they are pressed and who adheres to them and says, "What profits it me to adhere to Jews who are lowly and oppressed; it is better for me to adhere to these whose might is superior."

A מְשׁוּמָד is considered a less committed Jew and therefore is barred from certain roles: shochet, sofer, mohel, witness, etc. Inasmuch as the apostate has turned away from Judaism, the apostate cannot be an agent in fulfilling Jewish acts. By no means does this mean or imply that an apostate is defined as a gentile.

The second category, one who eats non-kosher meat to cause upset, is disqualified from writing a Torah Scroll. One who desecrates Shabbos publicly and wilfully is barred from being a shochet.

In some areas, it could be that the apostate is disqualified more than a gentile. For example, the offering of a sacrifice would be accepted by a gentile but not the apostate.

  • Yevamos 47b: If a convert to Judaism reverses in his ways and then marries a Jewess, he is considered an apostate and the marriage is valid.
  • Sanhedrin 44a: Even though the people have sinned, they are still called Israel.
  • Yevamos 17a: The Talmud entertains the opinion that if a Jewess marries a gentile, and later separates, a divorce document (get) is required in order for her to remarry, because he might have been a member of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and therefore considered a Jew. However, this is rejected entirely because the Ten Lost Tribes are considered to be "heathens.... They have betrayed G-d and had alien children." It would seem that some have lost their Jewish status completely.
  • It would seem that a distinction needs to be made between two types of apostates: One who remains a Jew, but acts in a way contrary to the mitzvah system; and one who goes further, and lacks the connection with the community and the Jewish people all together.
  • There is a story that Reb Chaim Soloveitchik refused to attend a function for an eminent apostate. Other leaders of the Russian/Polish Jewish community attended. Yet he went to great lengths to help a young Bundist who was an opponent to religion. When confronted with this inconsistency, he made a distinction that this one is a "sinner" while "that one will have children that don't even know that they are Jewish."
  • In an extreme case, who would lose their Jewish status, the parent or the child or both?
  • "If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harrassed and overcome by afflictions?' If he replies, 'I know and yet am unworthy', he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and major commandments." This shows the important connection between Jew and the collective.

Rav Aaron Lichtenstein suggests that there may be two tiers. 1) Lineage of Jewish parents. 2) Personal Judaism. Connection with G-d, the people, the Land, etc. It could be that קדושת ישראל is maintained, but the insides are lacking Jewishness. Thus, the קדושת ישראל expires. Yet is seems entirely unclear when this happens. Does it result from an uprooted social context? How one's children/grandchildren are raised? Is conversion to Christianity different to other religions?

Is there a difference between a Jew who converts to another religion to attend a school but maintains Jewish practices and beliefs? A convert in order to climb the social ladder? A monk who is fully immersed in the monastic order? What of descendants of apostates that want to be Jewish again? Do they require conversion or are they accepted as Jewish?

Rema, YD 268:12: "A Jewish apostate who does teshuva should immerse in mikveh according to rabbinic law. He should immerse in front of three [judges] and accept the yoke of the mitzvos." (We don't follow this nowadays.)

Pitchei Teshuva: YD 268:10 The descendants of a מוּמָר that want to circumcise themselves/children will state the blessings as usual.

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