From the time of the rise of Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and Islam, conversion to Judaism had become a capital crime with dire results for the
entire Jewish community if a conversion were discovered. Rabbis actively discouraged gentiles from seeking conversion for fear of reprisals by church
But beginning in the 16th century, the religious and social world of Europe changed dramatically, allowing once again for the possibility of people finding and accepting Jewishness for themselves. This change was brought about by four major events:
1. The Protestant Reformation
2. The American Revolution
3. The French Revolution
4. The rise of Napoleon
The Protestant Reformation
Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church brooked no dissent or differing opinion from the orthodox dogma. Over the course of centuries, when there was dissent or what the Church considered heresy, the Church hierarchy in concord with the states [monarchies] generally initiated an actual war or inquisitional trial to physically kill off the dissenters.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a German Catholic priest, disputed the Catholic claim that freedom from God's punishment of sin could be purchased with money. He composed what has now become known as the Ninety-Five Theses. His refusal to retract all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the emperor. Why Luther chose the Eve of Halloween to make his statement is not clear but I am sure he had his reasons.
Luther's new interpretation of Christianity found sympathy and support among the German and other Northern European masses, and the Church was not able to stop or impede the spread of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Ordinary Christians found solace in the idea that they no longer needed a clergy to find salvation; - salvation was theirs to be had by earnest belief in the savior. Luther translated the Bible into the common language, giving the masses access to its contents for the first time since the Church had forbidden the reading of scripture by the laity. European Christians were at last free to ask religious questions and seek answers on their own initiative.
The Reformation in England began under Henry VIII, beginning in 1534. By that time, England had had a long, strong strain of anti-clericalism. The English Reformation was driven initially by the political necessities of Henry VIII whose wife, Catherine of Aragon, bore him only a single female child. Henry feared for the future of his dynasty without a male heir. However, Pope Clement VII denied his request for an annulment. King Henry decided to remove the Church of England from the authority of Rome, made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, brought about the dissolution of monasteries, did away with the veneration of saints, pilgrimages, and shrines, and confiscated huge amounts of church land and property for the Crown, the nobility, and the gentry.
The idea of a free Christianity, independent of Rome, quickly spread to Scotland, France, Netherlands, Hungary, and Puritan New England. Once Europeans realized that they could protest against the prevailing faith, the Reformation led to a splintering Reformation, creating "denominations" of Christianity that is still going on in our own century.
The American Revolution
The Catholic Church had always espoused the belief that kings had a divine right to rule. This, of course, was expedient whenever Rome needed kings and princes to fight its holy wars and to put-down dissent. Protestantism denied that the king was invested by heaven to rule according to his will.
The English began to restrict the powers of their kings with the creation of a strong Parliament to whom the king had to answer for his actions.
A series of three civil wars broke out in 1642 between supporters of Charles I and Parliamentarians and Royalists. The third civil war ended on September 3, 1651. After the war, Charles I was executed by the triumphant Parliamentarians, and the monarchy abolished, and in its place an English Republic put in place under the personal rule of the military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was restored in 1660 but the wars had established the precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without Parliament's consent.
Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and their re-admission in 1656 under the Cromwellian Protectorate is interpreted by some as evidence of Cromwell´s toleration and compassion. This is open to challenge on several points. There was interest in Jewish matters in the leadership of the Commonwealth and Protectorate for two reasons, one pragmatic and the other doctrinal. The pragmatic reason was that based on the international trade and commercial connections of the Amsterdam Jewish community it was recognized that a strong Jewish presence in London would be advantageous. With flourishing links to the East and West Indies and to the New World, Jewish traders in London could make the city as commercial a centre as Amsterdam.
The doctrinal reason was the belief amongst godly Protestants, including Cromwell, that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity was essential before Christ would return to reign on earth. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel met Oliver Cromwell concerning the admission of Jews into England in 1655. Cromwell did not agree to all the rights that ben Israel requested, but the opening of Jewish synagogues and burial grounds was tolerated under Cromwell's Protectorate. The practice of the Jewish faith in England was still not done openly, since Cromwell's move had been controversial and many in England were still hostile toward the Jews. Life for the Jews in England improved in that they could no longer be prosecuted if caught worshipping, but discrimination continued. And their return to England was predicated on a promise that they would not proselytize gentiles into adopting the Jewish religion.
In the following century, the English crown acted in ways to cause animosity among the masses of the American colonies against the king. The story is familiar and does not need retelling here but the main point is that Americans, unlike their European cousins, no longer felt the need for a monarchy.
George Washington was offered the title of king but declined, preferring the office of a limited presidency. Under his administration, American Jews began to enjoy the same rights as their fellow citizens.
In 1790, as part of the celebration of the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, President Washington sent a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in which he stated:
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens ... May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
The French Revolution
The French Revolution (17891799) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in French and European history. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years. French society underwent an epic transformation as feudal, aristocratic, and religious privileges evaporated under a sustained assault from liberal political groups and the masses on the streets. Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights. The French Revolution abolished the different treatment of people according to religion or origin that existed under the monarchy; the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship, provided that it did not contradict public order. France had a population of 26 million in 1789, including thirty thousand Jews. Although Jews were allowed to practice their religion, they were not considered citizens. The National Assembly, France´s legislative body during the first two years of the revolution, debated the issue of Jewish citizenship and awarded Jews full civil rights on September 27, 1791.
Jews were now supposedly the equals of French Christians but they were still subject to UNOFFICIAL discrimination. One example. Louis Henri de la Fare, the Bishop of Nancy, argued against citizenship for French Jews. La Fare asserted that Jews should not be granted the same rights as other inhabitants of France.
The rise of Napoleon
Napoleon's personal attitude towards Jews is not always considered to be clear, as some feel that he made a number of statements both in support and opposition to the Jewish people at various times.
Nevertheless, the net effect of his policies significantly changed the position of the Jews in Europe, and he was widely admired by the Jews as a result. Starting in 1806, Napoleon passed a number of measures supporting the position of the Jews in the French Empire, including assembling a representative group elected by the Jewish community, the Sanhedrin. In conquered countries, he abolished laws restricting Jews to ghettos. In 1807, he made Judaism, along with Roman Catholicism and Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism, official religions of France. Napoleon rolled back a number of reforms in 1808 (so-called décret infâme of March 17, 1808), declaring all debts with Jews annulled, reduced or postponed, which caused the Jewish community to nearly collapse.
Though some assert that Napoleon had to be extremely careful in defending oppressed minorities such as Jews, he clearly saw political benefit to his Empire in the long term in supporting them. He hoped to use equality as a way of gaining advantage from discriminated groups, like Jews or Protestants and Catholics. Both aspects of his thinking can be seen in a response to a physician (Barry O'Meara) who asked why he pressed for the emancipation of the Jews, after his exile in 1816:
"My primary desire was to liberate the Jews and make them full citizens. I wanted to confer upon them all the legal rights of equality, liberty and fraternity as was enjoyed by the Catholics and Protestants. It is my wish that the Jews be treated like brothers as if we were all part of Judaism. As an added benefit, I thought that this would bring to France many riches because the Jews are numerous and they would come in large numbers to our country where they would enjoy more privileges than in any other nation. Without the events of 1814 [his ultimate defeat], most of the Jews of Europe would have come to France where equality, fraternity and liberty awaited them and where they can serve the country like everyone else."
Napoleon's indirect influence on the fate of the Jews was even more powerful than any of the decrees recorded in his name. By breaking up the feudal trammels of mid-Europe and introducing the equality of the French Revolution he effected more for Jewish emancipation than had been accomplished during the three preceding centuries. The consistory of Westphalia became a model for other German provinces until after the fall of Napoleon, and the condition of the Jews in the Rhine provinces was permanently improved as a consequence of their subjection to Napoleon or his representatives. Heine and Börne both record their sense of obligation to the liberality of Napoleon's principles of action, and the German Jews in particular have always regarded Napoleon as one of the chief forerunners of emancipation in Germany. When Jews were selecting surnames, some of them are said to have expressed their gratitude by taking the name of "Schöntheil," a translation of "Bonaparte," and legends grew up about Napoleon's activity in the Jewish ghettos. Primo Levi said that the Italian Jews often chose Napoleone as their given name to recognize their liberator.
All the states under French authority applied Napoleon's reforms. In Portugal, the State allowed Jews the same rights as other citizens and authorized them to open the synagogues for the first time in over 300 years. In Italy, in the Netherlands and in the German states, the Jews were able to take their place as free men for the first time in the society of their respective countries.
The Effect of Jewish Freedom and Equality in the Western World on Conversion To Judaism.
[An interesting article on this sub-topic can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_to_Judaism]
With the overthrow of Christian absolutism in Western Europe and America, the possibility of accepting converts to Judaism once again became a reality.
As citizenship in Europe replaced religious affiliation as the over-riding aspect of personal identity, assimilation, and intermarriage between Jews and Christians increased. By the early 1930s, Germany was the most intermarried country in Europe. It was also the country in which the most conversions to Judaism had taken place. Although Nazism put an end to this, many Jews were saved from death by their German Christian spouses. Before the Nazi takeover, the phenomenon of Reform Judaism had spread throughout Germany.
Reform Judaism refers to various beliefs and practices; in general, it maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernized and should be compatible with participation in the surrounding culture. Many branches of Reform Judaism hold that Jewish law should be interpreted as a set of general guidelines rather than as a list of restrictions whose literal observance is required of all Jews. Similar movements that may also be called "Reform" include the Israeli Progressive Movement and its worldwide counterpart.
My belief is that the IMPETUS for the Jewish Reformation was the Protestant Reformation. Until the rise of Napoleon, ghettoized Jews had very little
everyday contact with gentiles, and the history and religious evolutions of Christianity were of little interest to them. But with emancipation, came the opportunity to learn about these historical and religious evolutions. After two centuries, Jews finally caught up with the idea that religion could take forms other than those of strict Orthodoxy. In fact, up until the time of emancipation, neither the name nor concept of "Orthodox Judaism" had existed. There had simply been what traditional European Jews called YIDISHKAYT, that is, the commonly accepted historical way that the religion of Israel had developed since the overthrow of Jerusalem by the Romans, and the subsequent Jewish majority acceptance of rabbinic leadership. With political freedom, came the opportunity for choice. In the pre-modern, medieval world, no one thought about choice. That world existed without options. You were born into a certain situation circumscribed by your class and economic status, the profession or trade of your ancestors, your ethnicity, and
the strictly coded religious community which told you what was expected of you by God and by the community. Deviations were anathema and most people did not even realize that such a thing as "choice" was even possible. The Protestant Reformation changed all that, bringing in its wake, political and individual conscience into being.
Reform Judaism was born at the time of the French Revolution, a time when European Jews were recognized for the first time as citizens of the countries in which they lived. Ghettos were being abolished, special badges were no more, people could settle where they pleased, dress as they liked and follow the occupations that they wanted. Many Jews settled outside of Jewish districts, and began to live like their neighbors and speak the language of the land. They went to public schools and universities, began to neglect Jewish studies and to disregard the SHULCHAN ARUCH, the traditional Jewish code of religious law.
In 1815, after Napoleon's defeat, Jews lost the rights of citizenship in several countries. Many Jews became Christian to retain those rights. Thoughtful Jews were concerned about this. They realized that many of these changes took place not because of a dislike of Judaism, but to obtain better treatment. Many rabbis believed the way to address this was to force Jews to keep away from Christians and give up public schools and universities. This didn't work. Others proposed something else. They suggested that Jews study their history and learn of the great achievements of the past. While these ideas were being implemented, a movement began to make religious services better understood, by incorporating music and the local language. Local Rabbis, however, persuaded the government to close such synagogues. Shortly after the closing, Rabbi Abraham Geiger suggested that observance might also be changed to appeal to modern people. Geiger, a skilled scholar in both TANACH and German studies, investigated Jewish history. He discovered that Jewish life had continually changed. Every now and then, old practices were changed and new ones introduced, resulting in a Jewish life that was quite different from that lived 4,000 or even 2,000 years before. He noticed these changes often made it easier for Jews to live in accordance with Judaism. Geiger concluded that this process of change needed to continue to make Judaism attractive to all Jews.
Perhaps the greatest impetus for the reawakened ability of gentiles to choose to be Jewish came with the arrival of Eastern European Jewry to America.
I want to introduce this part of my essay with a retelling of what the famous comedian, Alan King, said to Queen Elizabeth II of England in his command performance. He said. "Your Majesty. There are nations that are funny and nations that are not funny. England is not a funny nation, and because America was created out of England, America was not a funny nation. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews came to America, and America became a funny nation."
Aside from the obvious meaning of this that American standup comedy was for the longest time, dominated by comics of Jewish and Irish ethnicity, there is something deeper. Didn't Alan King know that Jews were in America since the 17th century, and maybe earlier? Of course he did. Most Jews realize that Sephardic communities came to North America to escape the Inquisition, maybe as early as the 16th century. Most know that a German Jewish community has been in America since the mid-1800s. But to be blunt - as far as many of us Jews are concerned, these communities just don't "count". Why? Because they kept themselves almost invisible and had no major effect on the social and cultural life of our country. The "substantial" American Jewish community is comprised of the descendants of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewry. That is, the same folks who created the Third Commonwealth of Israel also created Jewish America. Several decades ago, I heard an aspiring actor say, without any rancor, "If you want to make it in the BIZ, you have to be a Jew or a fag, or you have to know an important Jew in the BIZ." That this is no longer true is not the point. The point is which media have influenced the American dream. When you think Hollywood, radio, television, comedy, think children of Eastern European Jews. When you think ground-breaking literature, think children of Eastern European Jews. And most important, when you think of Civil Rights and the defense of the disenfranchised, think children of Eastern European Jews.
H.L. Mencken, the famous author, once said that if Yiddish were to disappear in the United States, American English would be flooded by a multitude of Yiddish words and expressions. Jewish show business and Jewish authors have introduced America to Yiddish words too numerous to mention here. Many Americans use these words without even realizing that they are using Yiddish. Once, at a session of the Forum, when the Forum leader asked our group what amazes us, one man got up and said, "I am amazed that 80 million gentiles are familiar with the word FARKLEMPT"
(emotionally choked up) [introduced by Mike Meyers on Saturday Night Live].
First generation American-born Jews of Eastern European descent fully entered into the mainstream of American life, in law, in medicine, in the arts, in literature, and in any other endeavor where polite parlor and country club anti-Semitism did not bar them. Both at the universities and in the casting offices of New York and Los Angeles, they were thrown into close contact with American Christians. With strong, though non religious, Jewish identities, Jewish men of Eastern European descent entered intermarriages in which the female spouse chose to become Jewish. Mostly these conversions were done for the sake of family religious unity, a worthy reason. By the late 1950s, conversion of celebrities produced the following joke [heard by me in a Hollywood coffee shop]:
Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Sammy Davis Jr are standing at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, chatting. Suddenly they spot Richard Burton walking towards them. Taylor whispers to Monroe and Davis, "SHA! LOMIR REDEN YIDISH!", [Wait! Let's start speaking Yiddish!] The joke loses its humor as the last of the children of Eastern European immigrant´s ages and dies. And the joke is barely explicable. Either you get it on hearing it or you don't. What was breathtaking to a people with a 2000 year old inferiority complex is that IMPORTANT, POPULAR gentiles want to be Jews! The joke loses its humor because at the beginning of the 21st century, American Jews no longer feel the same inferiority; the 1960s and 1970s have had an equalizing effect on most decent American citizens.
The 1960s began to teach us that looking down on people because of how they were born is not cool! In fact, you can get into trouble for doing it. The 1970s taught us that in spite of the move toward humanist-secularism, America remains the most religious country in the Western World. The transition was dramatic. Young people moved from the search for love and peace, music and drugs, to the search for God and religious identity. To everyone's amazement, Orthodox Judaism in the 1970s experienced an unexpected revival, and with it, the conversion of hundreds, if not thousands, to Judaism and to Jewish Peoplehood. Today, there are no open floodgates to choice for Jewishness - but there is a steady trickle of people becoming members of the tribe. I can't even begin to address the reasons for the movement to Jewishness. I know that after centuries of subjugation, persecution, harassment, and repression by the Major Church, Jews are again free to accept new members. I know that in modern America, no one bats an eyelash when his or her neighbor becomes a Jew or a Pentecostal or a member of any other faith.
Just a few more remarks about modern converts to Judaism and this series in finished.
Heterogeneity - the face of American Jewry is changing, literally and socially. Traditionally, Jews have been considered an ethnos of the white race.
Conversions are now bringing into the tribe, a multiplicity of racial tones. It is no longer surprising [at least to me] to encounter black, brown, or yellow Jews. Personally I think that this is a good thing. It serves to counter the Pauline claim that Jews are the "physical seed of Abraham", a racist comment if ever there was one. As this series of essays has shown, when one speaks of Israel and the Nations, we can see that Israel IS the Nations, and becoming more so, both in America and MEDINAT YISRAEL, with each passing decade. In America, the number of gentiles choosing to become Jews remains at a steady 2000 or so per year. These conversions are performed under the auspices of Orthodox, Conservatism, and Reform, which brings us to the next situation to be discussed.
Denominational Problems - With the rise of the Third Commonwealth of Israel, the question of "Who is a Jew?" came into being. When I was a child in the Bronx of the 1940s, no one EVER asked, "Who is a Jew?". It was obvious! As obvious as who is an Italian or who is an Irishman. Jews were people with Jewish parents who acted Jewish. That's all. But the increase in conversions and the Israeli Law of Return created problems for Jews in the 20th and 21st centuries that had never existed before. In America, Jews fall into denominations, just like Protestants. Conversions are performed by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis. And Orthodox rabbis not only do not recognize nonOrthodox conversions, they actively fight against them, especially in Israel. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, or CHAREDI, Jews are engaged in an ongoing struggle to prevent the State from recognizing nonOrthodox conversions and to prevent these Jews from eligibility in the Law of Return, the law that allows an immigrating Jew to become an immediate citizen of the State. The outcome of this struggle will be decided based upon whether the Jewish country becomes more pluralistic or more parochial. Only God knows, but God doesn´t create Jews; He only creates people - who argue about EVERYTHING! And Jews are amazing! If you don't know, you should know what all Jews know - Two Jews- Three opinions. maybe more! LOL!
An interesting article on Who Is A Jew can be found at http://www.jewfaq.org/whoisjew.htm.
I'll end with -
Famous Jews who used to be Gentiles -
Tom Arnold, actor
Polly Bergen, an American Emmy Award-winning actress, singer, and entrepreneur
May Britt, actress
Geraldine Brooks ,a Pulitzer Prize-winner, Australian-American journalist and author
Campbell Brown, an American television news reporter
Drew Bundini Brown, assistant trainer of former heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali
Sarah Brown, actress
Kate Capshaw, actress
Nell Carter, singer and actress
Connie Chung, American journalist who has been an anchor and reporter for several U.S. television news networks
Jim Croce, singer/songwriter
Sammy Davis, Jr., entertainer
Mary Hart, American television personality, long-time host of the entertainment program Entertainment Tonight
Carolyn Jones, actress
Julius Lester, son of a Methodist minister and a children's author
Little Richard , an American singer, important in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul
Anne Meara, American comedienne and actress, wife of Jerry Stiller
Marilyn Monroe, actress
Norma Shearer, actress
Kim Stanley, actress
Elizabeth Taylor, actress
Ivanka Trump, daughter of the Donald
Ike Turner, an American musician, bandleader, talent scout, and record producer
Mare Winningham, actress-singer
Jackie Wilson, another American singer, important in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul
A list of the best articles about conversion to Judaism published from major newspapers can be found at http://www.convert.org/Conversion_Articles.html.
Famous Converts to Judaism, a YOUTUBE video, is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_hAXmGmg_U
Return To The Jews Create Jews Index Page
Return To The Literary Index Page
Return To The Site Index Page