Monday, January 18, 2010

Conversion to Judaism described in 1853.

I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from this, but there are three interesting points.

1. The author is unaware of male converts in Britain, but knows of several females.

2. Her head is shorn?

3. The reference to going to Holland for the conversion itself. I was surprised to read this in 1853. Formerly in Europe there was only one place where it was legal to convert to Judaism, or at least not particularly controversial, and that was Holland. Consequently, many gentiles wishing to convert went to Holland where they could legally convert. In addition, Jews who had converted to Christianity would go to Holland if they wanted to revert back to Judaism, Holland being the place they could do so safely. In the case of England, I don't think it was really illegal; certainly not by 1853; but traditionally the Jews in England would not convert gentiles, believing that they had agreed to this condition to Oliver Cromwell when he allowed Jews to be readmitted to England in the 17th century. As the story goes, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel had lobbied for the legal readmission of the Jews, and Cromwell was leaning toward it but raised three problems. His problems were that Jews would engage in usury, that Jews are rumored to kill Christians for their blood, and that Jews would proselytize Christians. Menasseh ben Israel was able to convince him that the blood accusation was a libel, that so long as the Jews were not forbidden from other trades they would not engage in usury and that Cromwell was simply mistaken about proselytization, which is forbidden (or at least frowned on -- me) by the religion. These arguments were accepted.


  1. Another great find. Thanks.

  2. I actually wasn't aware that young children are converted automatically, is that through my ignorance or is it inaccurate?

  3. I'm not an expert, but I believe that is accurate. The only thing is that at 12 or 13 they are supposed to be informed that they may make a decision to either continue or not to continue being Jewish, and then the conversion becomes binding or null ab initio.

  4. No it is incorrect. Only fetuses in womb of converting mother need not be converted. All existing children do need full conversion, except that if they are still minors it is 'al da'at bet din' which they therefore need to reaffirm (or can reject) when they turn adults.

  5. That's what I meant. Unless you mean to say that they need a profession of kabolas mitzvos and tevilah too? I was unaware of that; conversely, how does it work since the child is not a bar da'as? What about babies?

  6. I have been informed that it is, in fact, still technically illegal to be Jewish in Britain. But not with sources, so I don't know for sure.

  7. You mean to convert, I assume?

    I find that difficult to believe, because it doesn't seem that it ever was illegal to convert in the first place. The scenario I described is that the Jews had voluntarily committed themselves to not converting British gentiles; but even this was more in the way of legend than something actually found in 16th century documents that are extant. This came up in the 1780s when Lord George Gordon wished to convert to Judaism. He was turned down by the mainstream Jewish community led by R. David Tevele Schiff, on the grounds mentioned here, namely that they believed it was against long-standing practice and a condition of their residency in Britain. In addition, Gordon was a radical political figure, and surely they didn't want to involve themselves with him. Yet he managed to find Jews in Manchester who did convert him. Yet when he was apprehended by the authorities (he was a target on political grounds) they charged him with something exceedingly lame, with insulting Marie Antoinette, but not conversion to Judaism! Furthermore, no one ever tried to prosecute the Jews who converted him. I can only conclude that it actually wasn't illegal. In addition, I have recently seen a comment written in the mid-19th century by a man who recorded a note he found in a book, written by his grandfather, in the 1780s. The note said that it was being speculated at the time that the reason why Gordon converted was so that his property could not be siezed, which they could have done if he was an Anglican, but not if he wasn't. Not sure about that one; Gordon certainly seems to have converted out of conviction. But at least it seems to show that at the time people perceived his conversion as sufficiently binding that it would have even afforded him a certain legal protection not available to Anglicans!

    It's possible that some sort of archaic law about changing creeds still remains on the books, but I can't see how this is it.

  8. Other things I noticed:
    1. Did the author get the correct definition of 'ger'?
    2. Was toval spelled with a vav or a zayin? (Not a big deal, just curious.)
    3. Shouldn't the woman refrain from marrying after 90, not 60, days?
    -- Phil

  9. 1. Depends how you look at it. He seems to be making a distinction between ger and ger tzedek, and Jewish tradition makes a distinction between a ger toshav and ger tzedek, with ger tzedek being a convert and ger toshav being a non-Jew who abides by the Noahide law. I'm not sure this is the distinction he's making though. He's probably interpreting plain ger as a non-Jew, which certainly seems to be the pshat, but it isn't how Jewish tradition interprets it.

    2. You're right, this is a typo. It's not terribly uncommon to see these kinds of typographical errors in non-Jewish books that aren't prepared by an expert in Hebrew. Vav and zayin look so similar, it's easy to mix them up. Don't forget that back then every letter had to be set individually by hand, and the type was backward. In a large Hebrew work the type would be set by someone who really knew Hebrew (or at least Hebrew typesetting) well. In a book like this with a few stray Hebrew words, the typesetter was liable to make mistakes like this.

    3. I'm not sure. The halacha is that a previously married woman can't remarry until 90 days have lapsed from the divorce or death of her husband. I guess logically it should be 90 days for a convert to, but I'm actually not sure.

  10. Actually it's 91 days.

  11. Karaites require unmarried women to cut their hair to 3" or less and for married women to cut at least 3" off. No idea why. It's in the first linked PDF on that page.

  12. יבמות מב

    גר וגיורת צריכין
    להמתין ג׳ חדשים הכא מאי לתבתין איכא
    ה״נ איכא להבחין בין זרע שנזרע בקדושה
    לזרע שלא נזרע בקדושה



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