Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750

Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750

by Elisheva Carlebach

This pioneering book reevaluates the place of converts from Judaism in the narrative of Jewish history. Long considered beyond the pale of Jewish historiography, converts played a central role in shaping both noxious and positive images of Jews and Judaism for Christian readers. Focusing on German Jews who converted to Christianity in the sixteenth through


This pioneering book reevaluates the place of converts from Judaism in the narrative of Jewish history. Long considered beyond the pale of Jewish historiography, converts played a central role in shaping both noxious and positive images of Jews and Judaism for Christian readers. Focusing on German Jews who converted to Christianity in the sixteenth through mid-eighteenth centuries, Elisheva Carlebach explores an extensive and previously unexamined trove of their memoirs and other writings. These fascinating original sources illuminate the Jewish communities that the converts left, the Christian society they entered, and the unabating tensions between the two worlds in early modern German history.

The book begins with the medieval images of converts from Judaism and traces the hurdles to social acceptance that they encountered in Germany through early modern times. Carlebach examines the converts’ complicated search for community, a quest that was to characterize much of Jewish modernity, and she concludes with a consideration of the converts’ painful legacies to the Jewish experience in German lands.

“Carlebach’s reading of autobiographical texts by converts from Judaism is careful, intelligent, and skeptical—a model of how to treat spiritual memoirs.”—Todd M. Endelman,
University of Michigan

“This superb book highlights the ambiguous identities of these boundary crossers and their impact on both German and Jewish self-definitions.”—Paula E. Hyman, Yale University

Elisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish History, and coeditor of Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

Editorial Reviews

Todd M. Endelman
Careful, intelligent, and skeptical—a model of how to treat spiritual memoirs.
Paula E. Hyman
This superb book highlights the ambiguous identities of these boundary crossers and their impact on both German and Jewish self-definitions.
Carlebach (history, Queens College and CUNY) writes that while usually summoned up a kind of transfiguration and rebirth into a superior religion, the meaning began eroding when speaking of 16th century German Jews. Christians increasingly saw Jewish converts as "`taufjuden,' baptized, but not truly converted," a sentiment derived from earlier centuries with the crusaders. Carlebach's close readings of writings by converts provide instruction in Christian self-definition and Jewish identity in German lands. Overwhelmingly, the Jewish side of these uneasy converts never atrophied, but instead had a positive effect on their new Christian identity. Such converts would become central in the formation of a Jewish image held by both Christians and Jews for years to come. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Yale University Press
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Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750
By Elisheva Carlebach

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08410-2

Chapter One

THE MEDIEVAL LEGACY Converts in the Culture of Ashkenaz

Although he has sinned, he remains a Jew. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin: 44a

The apostate to idolatry is like a non-Jew in all respects. Maimonides, Hilkhot Avodah Zara, 2:4

"Forced Conversion of the Local Jews, But Business as Usual"? Historian S. D. Goitein chose this caption to introduce an episode of forced conversion of a medieval Islamic Jewish community. It resembles the formulation of Maimonides in his Epistle on Martyrdom: "From the day we were exiled from our land persecution (shmad = forced conversion) has been our unending lot, 'Because from our youth it has grown along with us like a father and has directed us from our mother's womb.'" These expressions of conversion as exilic "business as usual" could never have been used to announce similar events among the Jews of medieval Christian Europe. The medieval Jews of Ashkenaz never regarded conversion by a Jew to Christianity, regardless of the circumstances, as "usual business."

If there is one issue that represents the difference between the historical experience of the Jews of Ashkenaz (whose primary cultural influence was the Christian world) and that of the Jews of Sepharad (primarily developed within the Muslim world) through the ages, it is their reaction when faced with coerced conversion. With significant exceptions on both sides, the ideal response in Ashkenaz was martyrdom, while the prototypical response in Sepharad was taqiyya, or marranism, the pretense of apostasy until the persecution passed. Since the meaning of Jewish conversions in early modern German lands, the subject of this book, can only be understood within the context of the medieval Ashkenazic legacy, it is important to know why these conversions called up such a rich fund of negative associations among Jews.

The historical and cultural forces that shaped Jewish perceptions of conversion to Christianity in the medieval world all but precluded a view of conversion as a spiritual odyssey. The repeated bitter experience of violent compulsion to baptism contributed to the absolute rejection of conversion by Jews of Ashkenaz and turned willing converts into renegade figures regarded with the greatest loathing and derision. These Jews regarded baptism as a betrayal of communal values, a rejection of Jewish destiny, a submission to the illusory verdict of history. The very terminology used to designate converts from Judaism speaks most eloquently of the posture of that community toward converts. Ashkenazic Jews most frequently used the term meshummad, from the root shmad, meaning utter destruction, and implying the absolute loss of that soul from the Jewish community. In the words of one Ashkenazic grammarian, "The root derives from 'to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate.' We call a Jew who converts 'meshummad' because the phenomenon of conversion began at a time of 'shmad' [violent coercion], and they were called meshummadim, that is to say, they converted under violent duress. Now, even when they convert willingly, the name has remained." By contrast, the terms for converts from Judaism in the world of Islam, widely used in geniza material, derives from the root pasha (sin) in Hebrew.

Neither members of the Jewish community nor fully excised from it, converts continued to play a significant role both in the imaginative life of the community as well as in its routine activities. Historian Jacob Katz included "the apostate" as one of the significant typological figures of the medieval Jewish community, albeit one who existed on the margins. A filter through which Jews and Christians mediated their images of one another, converts were the first to negotiate the increasingly rigid boundaries between these cultures and communities.

Early Literary Paradigms

The emergence of the convert to Christianity as an archetype of malevolence within medieval Ashkenazic culture can be traced to early medieval literary sources, including historical or quasi-historical narratives, chronicles, halakhic literature, and liturgical passages. Each of these records speaks in a different tone and context, each genre operating within a specific framework with different ground rules. Yet, they reflect existing attitudes and left their imprint on the historical consciousness of Ashkenazic Jews. These texts provide the historical or myth/historical grounding without which the communal, religious, and psychological dimensions remain inadequate for understanding conversion in early modern German lands.

The Chronicle of Le Mans

One of oldest European Jewish texts to transmit an image of a convert to Christianity is the late tenth-century Chronicle of Le Mans. In this narrative, an apostate from Judaism alleged that Jews, motivated by a compulsion to replay their crime against Jesus, attempted to harm their local count. The apostate then dangled the prospect before the count that once he eliminated the Jews, their property remained to be expropriated. While the author of the chronicle remains anonymous and the apostate eponymous, many of the characteristics of this apostate recurred in later depictions of converts. The text introduced the convert as an "offshoot of evil, of the root of the serpent," a reference to the notion that apostates were born with tainted souls, inherently evil, never really part of the Jewish community. Nevertheless, even after the apostate in the narrative had committed his first evil deeds, the author commented on the apostate's potential to revert to Judaism. The tension between the fixity and fluidity of their identity characterized depictions of apostates.

This chronicle depicted the apostate, like his successors, as motivated solely by opportunism and petty personal grievances, turning a personal vendetta against one Jew into implacable hatred of the entire people. The name, "Sehok ben Esther," linked this text to the Purim story in the Book of Esther. If there was any question regarding the symbolic identity of the apostate, references to him as tsar, oyev (foe, enemy), terms reserved in the Book of Esther for Haman, leave no doubt. In this narrative, the apostate played the role that had traditionally been reserved for the greatest foe of the Jews, while the count played the secondary role of King of Persia, a willing dupe in the hands of a conniving villain.

In this early characterization we can already trace the transference onto a more vulnerable figure of Jewish anger against Christian rulers who controlled the Jewish fate completely. Jews imposed severe self-censorship on direct expressions of anger and betrayal. They could not afford to provoke Christian rulers who failed to maintain their explicit or implied promises of safety and security, because any negative expression could later be used as evidence that Jews harbored ill will toward their Christian protectors. In a process that developed over centuries and culminated in Josel of Rosheim's sixteenth-century Sefer ha-miknah, converts became secondary targets of Jewish anger.

In another adumbration of the image and role of apostates, the villain in The Chronicle of Le Mans led Christians into the Jewish inner sanctum, claiming the unique role of revealing to Christians the secret Jewish spaces which he had already penetrated as a Jew. The apostate did not coufine himself to one specific and easily refutable charge (concerning an effigy); he "revealed" that the seemingly innocent Jewish daily worship service was permeated by expressions of desire to harm Christians. The apostate translated the popular Christian belief that Jews hated Jesus into Jewish hatred of all Christian authorities. This text reflected many of the topoi associated with the figure of a convert at the time it was written.

If this chronicle does in fact date back to the late tenth century, it can explain the tension concerning the status of converts that escalated in the course of the eleventh. According to historian of early Ashkenaz Avraham Grossman, "The number of Jews who converted to Christianity in that time [the eleventh century] is far greater than has generally been accepted by scholars." These include Jews who converted because they were persuaded by Christian missionary activity or because they were attracted to Christian society for the whole gamut of reasons that inspired such crossing of boundaries. Grossman argues that, far from being a peripheral problem, conversion to Christianity was one of the most significant issues to face Jewish communities in pre-Crusade Northern Europe.

In the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Jews were coerced into baptism during the course of several violent anti-Jewish attacks. Several of the most eminent families in Ashkenaz suffered such baptisms within their ranks, most notably the son of R. Gershom, "Light of the Exile" of Mainz, and possibly Elhanan, son of R. Shimon of the noted Abun family. The ambiguous status assigned to these forced converts to Christianity in early eleventh-century sources is noteworthy, and may reflect the existence of willing converts, some of whom turned into malevolent apostates.

Concerning the coerced baptism of R. Gershom's son, later sources preserve a testimony "that R. Gershom mourned for his son fourteen days [double the usual mourning period of seven days], as he had been baptized." While this source implied that the forced conversion was what prompted the double period of mourning, it was understood differently by thirteenth-century rabbinic luminary R. Meir of Rothenburg. He discussed whether Jewish law mandated mourning the death of a child who had turned apostate: "There is no obligation to mourn an apostate who dies.... Even though R. Gershom mourned his son when he died for fourteen days, the law does not follow him, as he acted out of overwhelming grief." Grossman conjectured that the son of R. Gershom apparently died or was killed shortly after the incident and did not have a chance to revert to Judaism. If this were so, the story could serve as an example of a popular perception in Ashkenaz that the taint of baptism overpowered all considerations of intention, contrary to the position of halakhic sources. It is R. Gershom to whom Rashi, towering scholar and communal leader of the late eleventh century, attributed the prohibition against reminding reverted apostates of their prior status, "for whoever shall remind a person [that he had been baptized] should be subject to perpetual excommunication." The vehemence of this prohibition implies that it was directed against contrary popular opinion in the community. The controversy over whether a kohen (man of priestly descent) who had become a Christian retained his priestly status when he reverted to Judaism similarly addressed the question of the potency of baptism, the pollution of the baptismal font, and the price of having lived as a Christian.

Concerning the child from the Abun family, according to one tradition, he was kidnapped from his parental home as a small child and baptized. He later became a priest and rose through the ranks until he became pope. Toward the end of his life, he met his Jewish father, and in a dramatic denouement, repented and died a martyr. Stories with these motifs reflect the Jewish fear of child baptisms against parental will, the conviction that baptized Jews became enemies of their own people, the fantasy that these souls might ultimately return, and the profound belief that martyrdom was the only appropriate response to coerced Christianity. These early sources laid the foundations for Jewish attitudes to both forced and willing converts in the shattering events that later engulfed the Jews of Ashkenaz.

Consolidation of a Discourse: The Crusade Chronicles

While it is difficult to determine on the basis of extant sources just how central a role the issue of conversion played for Jews of Europe during the eleventh century, the First Crusade in 1096 changed all that. During the eleventh century, one of rapid growth and change for northwestern Europe, Christian identity, piety, and consciousness intensified. The status of Jews, now the only conspicuous community of non-Christians living in medieval western Europe, changed decisively during the eleventh century. As the boundaries between the religious communities became more sharply delineated, the price of trying to negotiate them grew proportionately. Religious tensions erupted in violent attacks against Jews in some of the cities visited by Crusader bands. Confronted with the choice between baptism and death, many Jews chose death. Whether or not the Crusades can be considered a watershed in Jewish-Christian relations in Europe, they were certainly more deeply inscribed in the collective memory of medieval Ashkenazic Jewry than any other instance of persecution. Long after living memory of the events had faded, chronicles, elegies, memorial prayers, Memorbucher, and even tombstones perpetuated the memory of these events and served as a powerful internal polemic against baptism into Christianity even under extreme duress.

The Hebrew Crusade chronicles presented martyrdomas the ideal response to the threat of coerced baptism by the Crusaders. At first glance, the texts appear to convey a conflicting message concerning forced baptism. The chroniclers did not conceal the fact that Jews did not universally respond to the Crusaders with martyrdom. The longest of the chronicles, attributed to Shlomo bar Shimshon, contains several prominent references to Jews baptized by the Crusaders. For example, after recording the experience of some eight hundred martyrs in the city of Worms, the chronicler reported: "They left only a tiny remnant, whom they coerced and baptized against their will, with their putrid waters." Similarly, in a report concerning the town of Moers: "Those who survived were putrified against their will, and they had their way with them." The entire Jewish community of Regensburg was baptized, apparently at the initiative of the local burghers, who used this as a ruse to save their Jewish co-residents. After the Crusaders had passed, "they [the baptized Jews] returned immediately to the Lord ... and greatly repented. For what they had done they had done under great duress. They could not stand up against the enemy and indeed the enemy did not wish to kill them. May our Rock forgive us our shortcomings." The chronicle depicts the Jews who survived performing the greatest acts of compassion toward their martyred fellows. "The Hebrews who had been coerced came and took pity on them and wanted to bury them."


Excerpted from DIVIDED SOULS by Elisheva Carlebach Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Elisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish History, and coeditor of Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

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