Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Close encounters of the Eybeschuetz kind; Christian Solomon Duitsch, an 18th century Jewish apostate recollects.

Below are some excerpts of a most interesting account by a Jewish apostate named Solomon Duitsch. Originally written by him in Dutch, excerpts are from the English translation1 published in 1771, under the title "A Short Account of the Wonderful Conversion to Christianity of Solomon Duitsch, Lately a learned Rabbin and Teacher of several Synagogues."

Born in 1734 in Timişoara (then Hungary, today Rumania) , his father died when he was four years old. After he became bar mitzvah in 1747, he was sent to the Prague yeshiva on account of his proficiency in learning. At the age of 20 he returned home and married a woman named Yentl (Jentil), who was the daughter of a wealthy man. Living with his in-laws, he enjoyed a good marriage, and studied intensely--"Being exceedingly fond of Talmud, I commonly staid in my study till after midnight." So he lived for six good years. Then suddenly his wife died, leaving him with a six-month old daughter named Esther. Three months later, at the urging of his father-in-law, he married Yentl's sister Sara. At this point he continued and excelled in his studies to the point that the Chief Rabbi of Moravia ordained him morenu in 1760 ( he doesn't name him, but it seems that this position belonged to a R. Gershon Pullitz or Pollitzer, whom I know nothing of).

Sometime in November of 1761 he read a book which warned men to "arise out of darkness" and repent. He does not say which book it was, but I have no reason to assume it was something other than some kind of mussar book. He became obsessed with it, and began to wear a hair shirt and give all his money to the poor, all the while trying to repent of his sins. Other Jews, becoming aware of his ascetic lifestyle began to regard him as a kind of tzadik. This itself greatly distressed him, and he publicly declared himself a sinner in the synagogue. At this point the translator inserts a note, because he realizes what you are thinking: "Wack-o." The translator reminds the reader that it was the Holy Ghost working through him, but his behavior was conditioned by his Jewish environment, as well as the Catholic form of Christianity in his environs.

He then describes his continued obsession with sin, and how one night he had a kind of terror and thoughts of Jesus Christ flashed through his mind. Then Satan battled with him, telling him that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah, and why should he bring shame to the learned among his people and his righteous ancestors? At this point, he was in the closet, weeping, and his wife, baby in arms, woke up and asked him what was wrong. She tried to calm him and also to ask him why he was doing the things he was doing. He should think of her and his child and wasn't he pious enough when her sister was alive? He responded that she was wrong, he was a terrible sinner, etc.

But "my wife was subtle, and cunning and serpent-like" for she said no more. Then she moved in with her parents, taking the baby with her, and he had no more contact with her. The rabbis forced him to write her a get, and placed him in cherem (the real thing in those days).

I won't spoil the rest, but it is exceedingly sad, capital-c Crazy, and interesting.

A good long time later, although he had mentally converted to Christianity long before, he had remained attached by habit and conviction to Jewish observance. Eventually he gave it up, describing the process as follows. By chance he read Ezekiel 5:1 וְאַתָּה בֶן אָדָם קַח לְךָ חֶרֶב חַדָּה תַּעַר הַגַּלָּבִים תִּקָּחֶנָּה לָּךְ וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ עַל רֹאשְׁךָ, וְעַל זְקָנֶךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ מֹאזְנֵי מִשְׁקָל וְחִלַּקְתָּם ; And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp sword, as a barber's razor shalt thou take it unto thee, and cause it to pass upon thy head and upon thy beard; then take thee balances to weigh, and divide the hair, and thought to himself that this seems to expressly contradict Leviticus 19:27 לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ; Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. Not understanding how God could command the prophet to expressly violate the law, and Ezekiel lodged no objection even while he objected to another command to violate the law in 4:14, he began to feel very emotionally that the words here were addressed to himself, and he began to think "How long wilt thou remain in bondage to the law? How long wilt thou oppose the word of God?" He writes that he fell on his knees, sighed, prayed and grabbed scissors and a mirror and and cut off his beard. "It is inexpressible," he writes, "what emotions I felt in my heart, during this transaction, which lasted nearly two hours." He then fell asleep and woke up feeling wonderful and comforted. The next Sunday he went to a church for the first time. He didn't care for the sermon, but was greatly impressed by the worship service.

I will say, by the way, that when it comes to these kinds of accounts I do not necessarily take anyone at their word regarding just how much of a תלמיד חכם they were. Basically all of the Jewish converts who wrote about themselves claimed to have been scholars. Some of these accounts clearly show that they were not exaggerating, but I have seen no evidence from the content of Solomon Duitsch's of his rabbinic learning. This is not to say that it wasn't there, or that he lied about receiving his ordination, or staying up often past midnight learning Talmud, only that I was unable to detect it in his account. However, the English version is an abridgment, and moreover, the translator may have been unable to make heads of tails out of the kind of material I am talking about, and left it out. Indeed, in the introduction he writes as much, that the original (and the German translation) "is extended to a great length, particularly by the interspersed accounts of the doctrine of the present Judaism." So I am not skeptical of what he claims about himself, I only note that I've seen no evidence of it in this account.

Below are some interesting excerpts. First, of his meeting with R. Yonasan Eybeschuetz (after his wanderings begun, before the scene described just above).

Next is an interesting note by the translator. In the 18th century, the only place in Europe where it was legal for a Christian to convert to Judaism was Amsterdam (it being a sever crime to convert to Judaism, or for Jews to convert a Christian). Consequently, those Christians who did convert tended to do so in Amsterdam, and there were always a number of them. The translator has this to say about it:

Finally, Duitsch recollects an interesting encounter with a rabbi about studying Tanakh:

No, this story has no happy ending.


Here is Christiaan Salomon Duitsch himself:

1 The translator's name is Gustavus Burgmann, a Lutheran minister in the Savoy Church in London. He remarks in a note that he made the acquintance of Duitsch, having been a character in his narrative (basically, the claim is that two missionaries addressed Jews in a synagogue in Wesel. Their mastery of Hebrew impressed Duitsch, who writes that he assumed they were Jewish converts. For his part, Burgmann acknowledges that he was one of the missionaries, and in fact Duitsch knew the New Testament so well, that he could not believe that he had not already converted.)

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