One time, I went to church wearing a cross and a star of David on the same chain around my neck. A fellow parishioner – a Russian, of course – hurried over to inquire whether I had asked the priest’s permission to do such a thing, and suggest strongly that I never do it again. I didn’t go to the priest.
I wrote earlier about the sense Jewish families often have that conversion is a betrayal of the family through the adoption of a different ethnic identity. Another concern, however, may be even more poignant: the social separation of the convert from the Jewish community, however conceived.
People devoted to their religious faith gravitate toward relatively tight communities, whose ability to speak a common language and genuinely socialize with members of other faith communities or with those not attached to a faith community may gradually diminish. My mother and her relative whose daughter is baalat-teshuva seem to enjoy complaining to one another.
However, in reading the dissertation of Dr. Ellie Schainker, who studies Jewish conversions in nineteenth-century imperial Russia, I realized that another factor may make the pain of separation particularly acute for Jewish families. Dr. Schainker compares the situation of Jewish converts to Orthodoxy in the Russian empire to that of marranoes in medieval Spain. The Iberian and imperial Russian settings, she points out, shared two important similarities.
First, religion was linked to civil and social status – not only insofar as one could advance in society much more effectively as a Christian than as a Jew, but also in that governments managed their citizens as discrete populations identified by religion. In imperial Russia, a Jew was registered with the local Jewish community; his rights and responsibilities (occupations permitted, taxes levied, likelihood of military conscription, etc.) were defined accordingly, and the Jewish community was held responsible for his care in the event of indigence, illness, etc. If the Jew converted, he was registered with the local Christian community, which effected a change in rights, responsibilities, and communal relationships. Contrary to Russian Jewish lore of Jews converting for the sake of civil and economic benefits, Dr. Schainker points out that a Jew could often count on little support or business from his new coreligionists, despite the legal assumption that he would receive them. In Spain, too, laws regarding purity of blood kept converted Jews from participating fully in Christian society.
Which brings us to the second similarity between Russia and Iberia: apostasy from Christianity was a crime punishable under the law – for the marranoes, by violent death at the stake; in Russia, by hard labor. Converts could expect to find themselves under police surveillance for behaviors indicating a return to Judaism – such as socializing or conversing with the Jewish community.
The consequence of these harsh boundaries between religious communities is that converted Jews found themselves permanently exiled from the Jewish community. For the marranoes, this seems to have meant forming their own Christian-Jewish communities, with tight networks of intermarriage, rather than integrating into Spanish society. For many Russian Jewish converts, Schainker writes, it often meant living in a problematic legal and social grey zone between the Christian and Jewish communities.
Between them, Spain and the Russian Empire were at one point home to the ancestors of a majority of today’s Jews. Thus it is little wonder that popular Jewish perception of conversion, even today, is dominated by images of separation, alienation, and rejection. The convert, this reasoning goes, abandons the Jewish community and goes over to live in another – where, concerned parents will often point out, he is likely to meet with anti-Semitism and suspicion of his true motives. This thinking is the result, I believe, not primarily of the natural tendency of religious communities to live separate lives, but of church and state collusion that legislated this situation into existence in Spain and Russia.
In today’s modern societies, where by and large economic and civil rights are attached to all individuals equally rather than determined by community affiliation, it seems to me that we need to insist on a different understanding of Jewish convert life. How can Jewish converts, along with their families, reject the segregation between believing Jewish and Christian people (rather than just their religions), without succumbing to a mindless pluralism that neglects the spiritual value of identifying with one’s nation, and with the Jewish nation in particular?