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JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL

EUROPE BOUNDARIES REAL


AND IMAGINED
The chief trauma in the historical memory of the Jews of FrancoGermany (Ashkenaz) in the Middle Ages was the persecution of
1096, when thousands of crusaders slaughtered the Jews in towns
along the Rhine. The particulars of this grim episode are detailed
in three twelfth-century Hebrew texts, which emphasize the
experience of the Jewish martyrs, allegedly about two thousand
in Worms and Mainz alone. The main event in these tales of
carnage is the slaughter of Jews by Jews: parents killed their children, each other and themselves when the enemy was at the door,
and there was no escape. The narratives do make fleeting mention
of those Jews who survived by accepting baptism, but that is not
primarily what these Hebrew accounts are about.
The historical record of the First Crusade persecutions, and
the mass martyrdom in particular, became the hallmark of
Ashkenazic Jewry in modern historiography. Yitzhak Baer, one
of the most influential scholars of Jewish history, called the
Franco-German diaspora the purest embodiment of the people
of God, and added that the rule of the Torah, in theory and
practice, was manifested there to the utmost degree.1 For Baer,
the voluntary martyrdom of Ashkenazic Jewry in 1096 testified to
the purity of their faith, and this mindset held sway for most of the
twentieth century. The memory of the First Crusade has resonated so powerfully in modern Jewish historiography, in large
measure because it contrasts starkly with the historical memory
of the other great diaspora, Iberian Jewry (Sepharad). Here
the salient image is the conversion of thousands of Jews in the
fifteenth century, especially in the wake of the Tortosa Disputation of 141214. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry have thus
been placed in opposition, with the former marked as faithful
owing to their heroic self-sacrifice in 1096, and the latter as
weak-kneed because of their large-scale apostasy.
1
Yitzhak Baer, Galut, trans. Robert Warshow (New York, 1947), 489. I have
deviated a little from the published English translation. Cf. the Hebrew edition
(Jerusalem, 1980), 44.

Past and Present, no. 194 (Feb. 2007)


doi:10.1093/pastj/gtl024

The Past and Present Society, Oxford, 2007

PAST AND PRESENT

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To understand the different responses to religious confrontation in the two realms, modern scholars have focused on the
intensity of the cultural interaction with the Christian environment. The Jews of Spain are known to have been deeply integrated into the overall political, economic and social structure.
They were also highly acculturated, with the relatively affluent
acquiring a broad general education in addition to the traditional
Jewish curriculum, and exhibiting cultural tastes similar to those
of their Gentile neighbours. In contrast, the Jews of medieval
Ashkenaz are usually depicted as having shared neither of these
characteristics, and for many historians their social and cultural
insularity was the key to their steadfastness in 1096.
Historians have recently begun to question the reliability of the
Hebrew First Crusade narratives, and to suggest that the apostates were more numerous and apostasy less atypical of the 1096
experience than was once thought.2 If true, this new perspective is
of singular importance, because it undermines the Ashkenaz
Sepharad dichotomy: one can no longer reduce the medieval
experience to a binary structure of cultural engagement versus
insularity. Deliberation between these two options has characterized the internal debate over Jewish identity throughout Jewish
history. The Old Testament is replete with warnings about the
dangers of fraternizing with idolatrous neighbours, while in Late
Antiquity the following talmudic dictum succinctly expresses
a positive attitude towards cultural engagement: He found a
pomegranate, ate its contents and disposed of its peel.3 The
Maimonidean Controversy, which erupted in Maimonides lifetime and repeatedly thereafter through the ages, surrounded this
same dilemma.
For modern historians, beginning with the nineteenth-century
devotees of the Science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums),
2
See Kenneth Stow, Conversion, Apostasy, and Apprehensiveness: Emicho of
Flonheim and the Fear of Jews in the Twelfth Century, Speculum, lxxvi (2001),
933. Yet Stow goes too far when he writes: All of the chronicles . . . stress the frequency
of conversion, and the Hebrew chronicles are concerned as much with conversion to
Christianity and return to Judaism as they are with Kiddush HaShem (ibid., 923,
925). See also Jeremy Cohen, Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish Martyrs and Jewish
Memories of the First Crusade (Philadelphia, 2004), 58; Simon Schwarzfuchs, The
Place of the Crusades in Jewish History [in Hebrew], in Menahem Ben-Sasson,
Robert Bonfil and Joseph R. Hacker (eds.), Culture and Society in Medieval Jewry
[in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1989), 25167.
3
Hagigah, 15b. This issue is at the heart of the most recent survey of Jewish history:
David Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York, 2002).

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

Sephardic acculturation embodied the strategy they hoped would


grant Jews an entree into European society; whereas Ashkenazic
Jewry appeared benighted and isolated, and thus presented a
counter-model. A shift began in the 1920s and 1930s, with leading historians such as Baer taking a dim view of Sephardic worldliness and apostasy, and hailing Ashkenazic insularity and
fortitude. The shift probably represents the decline, following
the First World War, in the European belief in rationalism and
progress, and the greater appreciation of religious spirituality and
mysticism. Subsequently, the destruction of European Jewry
during the Second World War and the ongoing struggle of the
Zionist enterprise reinforced the image of JewGentile relations
as competitive and tense, and buttressed the heroic image of the
Jews of medieval Ashkenaz. But, a generation after the great crises
of the mid twentieth century, Baer and his contemporaries having
departed the scene, scholars have now begun to investigate the
sensitive issue of medieval acculturation and insularity, with their
corresponding Ashkenazic and Sephardic paradigms.
What, specifically, was the image of apostates and apostasy in
medieval Ashkenaz? Here, the standard account would have us
believe, Jews rarely apostatized, and then only under extreme
duress; and they reverted at the earliest opportunity. Portrayals
of the medieval Jewish community play down the presence of
renegades, who drop out of the annals of Jewish history as
though they ceased to exist. The aetiology of apostasy, too, has
supported the heroic image of this collective. Apostasy allegedly
represents the failure of medieval Jews to stand up to the conversionary pressures of their environment, be they economic, social
or psychological. From this perspective, such forces surrounded
and bombarded the Jews every day, and they stood in perpetual
need of effective means with which to fend off the cultural aggression of their predatory neighbours. The interaction between Jew
and Christian in medieval Ashkenaz was an eternal Kulturkampf,
in which apostates represent instances of the Jews defeat in religious warfare.
The present study proposes a less idealized image. It is still
unclear how numerous apostates were during the first quarter
of the second millennium, but coerced apostates did not necessarily outnumber voluntary ones, and the distinction was generally unimportant to medieval rabbis. Even coerced apostates did
not always revert, or did not necessarily do so promptly, and there

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were also those who converted, reverted and converted again,


sometimes going through the cycle more than once. Apostates
did not vanish, but were, rather, a fixture of medieval Jewish society with whom members of the Jewish community interacted
freely and often without ill will. Finally, while there were those
who apostatized because they became convinced of the truth of
Christianity, there were also those whose apostasy was venal.
These apostates hurdled the JewishChristian divide with ease,
as if they did not consider it terribly significant.
Taken together, these elements present an alternative image of
apostasy, and by extension of the character of the Jewish community and the nature of JewishChristian relations in medieval
Europe. For the image of Jews and Christians separated by an
enormous spiritual and cultural gulf and locked into a state of
unremitting confrontation and hostility, we substitute one of
unrestricted social and cultural intercourse, with the two communities separated by a low barrier of beliefs and taboos. Of course,
both these pictures of JewishChristian relations are caricatures,
with the truth at any given juncture lying somewhere between the
two poles.
The time frame of the following inquiry is limited to the first
quarter of the second millennium CE. The early portion of this
period was the formative one for Ashkenazic Jewry. I am less
confident with regard to the later portion, but there does seem
to be a shift in the middle of the thirteenth century towards an
atmosphere of greater tension between the two faiths. The thirteenth century witnessed a number of new, distressing developments, including the discriminatory measures of the Fourth
Lateran Council, the burning of the Talmud, and the Host desecration libel. For German Jewry, the Rindfleisch massacres ended
the thirteenth century on a particularly grim note, and the French
expulsion of 1306 (following the English expulsion of 1290) signalled the end of a long period of prosperity and cultural achievement. Various explanations for such a shift can be and have been
adduced, but our concern is with the reputed heroism of
Ashkenazic Jewry, which relates primarily to the period in
question.
Rabbinic literature is the primary corpus of source materials for
the study of Ashkenazic Jewry in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. This literature consists mainly of commentaries on biblical
and talmudic literature, liturgical poetry, legal manuals and

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

responsa. As historical sources, these genres are problematic, for


they deal mostly with timeless concerns, rather than with problems of the moment. Yet the distinction between timeless and
time-bound issues is not absolute. For instance, although responsa
are responses to queries on matters of Jewish law, this type of
document is largely an elucidation of the relevant legal considerations, as aired in talmudic literature, with meagre references to
current norms of thought and practice. On the other hand, the
Tosafot, an extensive corpus of glosses on the Babylonian Talmud
composed in precisely the time and place of interest here, refer
fairly frequently to contemporary conditions.
These works were authored by the leading rabbis of the day, the
three most prominent of whom are Gershom ben Judah of Mainz,
known as Rabbenu (Our Rabbi) Gershom (d. 1028), Solomon
ben Isaac of Troyes, usually called Rashi (d. 1105), and Jacob ben
Meir of Ramerupt, commonly referred to as Rabbenu Tam
(d. 1171). These scholars, their colleagues and disciples taught
in academies, which were located in the Rhineland in the eleventh
century, primarily in Mainz and Worms, and thereafter in and
around Paris. Unlike the schoolmen of the universities, the rabbis
engaged in the same economic pursuits as other Jews, and their
authority depended on their reputation for erudition and acuity,
rather than on any socio-economic distinctions between themselves and their brethren.

I
NUMBERS

The heroic image of Ashkenazic Jewry has numerous elements,


including the assumption that apostates were few. This notion,
like the other components, rests on medieval sources. Agobard of
Lyon, the nemesis of Narbonese Jewry in the early ninth century,
complains that in spite of all the humanity and kindness we display towards them, we do not succeed in bringing over one of
them to our faith.4 In the twelfth century, Guibert of Nogent

4
Bernhard Blumenkranz, Juifs et chretiens dans le monde occidental, 4301096 (Paris,
1960), 138.

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NUMBER 194

admits that the sincere, ideological conversion of a Jew in our


days is unusual.5
How common was apostasy in Franco-Germany during the
high Middle Ages? Historians usually concede that it is difficult
to tell,6 but they often convey the assumption that the incidence in
northern Europe was lower than elsewhere. To illustrate this, Salo
Baron writes: Even among steadfast German Jewry, apostates
are mentioned from time to time,7 implicitly underscoring the
supreme devotion and fidelity of Ashkenazic Jewry. Elsewhere,
too, Baron states that such conversions [i.e. ideological] must
often have taken place even in the more staunchly orthodox communities of northern France and Germany, and many more in the
Mediterranean countries.8 Here again, Baron concedes that
apostasy was not a totally negligible social phenomenon in
Ashkenaz, but he still views the Jews of northern Europe as
more steadfast than those of other regions.
A barometer of the numbers issue is the following remark,
attributed to Rabbenu Tam: More than twenty bills of divorce
involving apostates were executed in Paris and [Ile-de-] France.9
Jacob Katz interprets this text to refer to isolated instances of
apostasy, rather than to a single large group, but draws no conclusions about the overall scale of the problem.10 The difficulty is
that Rabbenu Tams statement does not present a time frame, and
it is therefore impossible to know whether the incident he relates
was common, rare or possibly unique. Avraham Grossman, on
the other hand, maintains that apostasy was a big problem in the
twelfth century. Twenty, he explains, reflects a widespread phenomenon, when we take into consideration the minuscule size of
European Jewry in the twelfth century, which generally numbered a few dozen families. He also observes that there were
undoubtedly some apostates who did not write bills of divorce,
5
Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (1064?
c.1125), trans. C. C. Swinton Bland, ed. John F. Benton (New York, 1970), 137. For a
similar observation by Bishop Stephen of Tournai, see Salo W. Baron, A Social and
Religious History of the Jews, 2nd edn, 18 vols. (New York, 195283), ix, 223.
6
Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in JewishGentile Relations in
Medieval and Modern Times (Oxford, 1961), 678.
7
Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, ix, 223.
8
Ibid., v, 113.
9
Jacob ben Meir Tam, Sefer ha-Yashar [Book of the Upright], ed. Sheraga Faish
Rozenthal (Berlin, 1898), 45, x25.
10
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 67.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

whether because they were unmarried, because their wives


converted with them, or because they simply chose not to
co-operate.11
Rabbenu Tam goes on to relate that it happens every day that
apostates divorce their Jewish wives. This phrase, even if it is an
exaggeration, appears to settle the matter in favour of frequent
crossover between the Jewish and Christian communities.
Curiously, however, the remark has gone unnoticed in scholarly
discussions, which seems to reflect prior assumptions about the
extremely modest scope of apostasy in medieval Ashkenazic society. And even if apostasy was not something that happens every
day, the volume of legal sources on the apostates power to inherit
seems to indicate that it was an important problem, and one
which could not have been altogether uncommon. Both the
1084 charter of Speyer and that issued by Henry IV in 1090 prohibit apostates from inheriting their parents estate.12 Clearly this
clause was drawn up at the behest of the Jewish constituency,
which might have insisted upon it even if apostates were few.
However, the issue was also of concern to the Church, as is evidenced by the inclusion among the decrees of the Third Lateran
Council of one that allows Jewish converts to inherit.13
The view that apostasy was rare has given way in the past generation to greater recognition of its presence in, and significance
11

Avraham Grossman, The Roots of Kiddush Hashem in Early Ashkenaz [in


Hebrew], in Isaiah M. Gafni and Aviezer Ravitzky (eds.), Sanctity of Life and
Martyrdom [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1992), 125; Avraham Grossman, The Early
Sages of France: Their Lives, Leadership and Works [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1995), 503.
12
Julius Aronius, Regesten zur Geschichte der Juden im frankischen und deutschen
Reiche bis zum Jahre 1273 (Berlin, 1902), 73, x170; Baron, Social and Religious
History of the Jews, ix, 20. The rule regarding inheritance was retained in subsequent
imperial legislation, though it continued to provoke ecclesiastical condemnation: see
Friedrich Lotter, Imperial versus Ecclesiastical Jewry Law in the High Middle Ages:
Contradictions and Controversies Concerning the Conversion of Jews and their
Serfs, in David Assaf (ed.), Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies,
Jerusalem, August 1624, 1989, vol. B/2 (Jerusalem, 1990), 5960; Friedrich Lotter,
The Scope and Effectiveness of Imperial Jewry Law in the High Middle Ages, Jewish
Hist., iv (1989), 401.
13
Solomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century, 2nd edn
(New York, 1966), 296; Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, ix, 19; Salo
W. Baron, The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution, 3
vols. (Philadelphia, 1942), i, 2478. It has been suggested that this development
regarding inheritance led rabbinic decisors to permit apostates to inherit their parents
estate, contrary to the traditional view: see Simhah Goldin, Uniqueness and
Togetherness: The Enigma of the Survival of the Jews in the Middle Ages [in Hebrew]
(Tel Aviv, 1997), 93.

10

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for, medieval Jewish life. However, the impact of this shift for the
heroic image of Ashkenazic Jewry has been blunted in two ways:
by maintaining that it compared favourably with that of Spain;
and by classifying the Franco-German apostates as predominantly the victims of coerced baptism.
II
COERCION

A second component in the mythical depiction of Ashkenazic


Jewry is that its (few) apostates were almost all forcibly baptized,
rather than being true converts to Christianity. Once again, Salo
Baron illustrates this mode of discourse: Whatever the cumulative effects of voluntary baptisms may have been, they were
indubitably far surpassed numerically by those of mass
Catholicization under duress, especially during massacres and
expulsions.14 This generalization makes room for apostasy without compromising the image of Ashkenazic fidelity.
The distinction between voluntary and forced conversion
seems important, and yet, remarkably, medieval sources tend to
soft-pedal this issue.15 For example, medieval Hebrew has two
terms for apostate, mumar and meshumad, and some historians
have suggested that the former was used to refer to voluntary
apostates, the latter to those who were coerced.16 Yet the two
terms appear interchangeably in the writing of the rabbinic leadership of Franco-German Jewry in the tenth to twelfth centuries,
and are not used to distinguish between the two types of apostasy.17 The rarity with which medieval European rabbis address
14

Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, ix, 23.


Cf. Ephraim Kanarfogels contention that halakhists had to consider the intention . . . of the apostate, in his Rabbinic Attitudes toward Nonobservance in the
Medieval Period, in Jacob J. Schacter (ed.), Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional
Jew (Northvale, NJ, 1992), 3.
16
Solomon Zeitlin, Mummar and Meshumad, Jewish Quart. Rev., liv (1963),
846; Saul Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshutah: A Comprehensive Commentary on the
Tosefta, pt 3, 2nd edn (Jerusalem, 1992), 402 n. 45. Cf. John M. G. Barclay, Who
Was Considered an Apostate in the Jewish Diaspora?, in Graham N. Stanton and Guy
G. Stroumsa (eds.), Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity
(Cambridge, 1998). On the origins of the term meshumad, see also Moshe ben
Ya6akov ibn Ezra, Kitab al-Muhadara wal-Mudhakara [Judaeo-Arabic], ed. and
Hebrew trans. A. S. Halkin (Jerusalem, 1975), 489. My thanks to Daniel Frank of
the Ohio State University for this reference.
17
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 68 n. 6; and cf. the view of Simhah Goldin in his
Uniqueness and Togetherness, 8990.
15

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

11

this distinction catches the modern reader by surprise and highlights its anachronistic and tendentious nature.
The classic example of the conflation of coerced and voluntary
apostasy is the case of the son of Gershom of Mainz, the spiritual
and communal leader of German Jewry in the tenth century.
Modern scholars could not imagine that the apostasy of this
mans son could have been anything but coerced, and so, beginning with Heinrich Graetz, they attached the story of Gershoms
son to the persecution of Mainz Jewry in 1012. Most narratives of
this episode report the quick reversion of the forced apostates of
Mainz and note that Gershoms son died before he was able to
revert. This circumstance, they posit, explains the tradition that
Rabbenu Gershom observed a fourteen-day period of mourning
for his son, rather than the seven days mandated by Jewish
tradition.18
A closer look at the sources concerning the mourning observed
by Gershom illustrates the manipulation of this story by medieval
rabbis and thus also later by modern historians. Isaac ben Moses
of Vienna (d. c.1250), the earliest source, states the rule that one
should not mourn villains who died unrepentant, but then adds
the following caveat: However, in times of destruction,19 I heard
from my teacher, Rabbi Samson [of Coucy], that Gershom
mourned for fourteen days for his son that apostatized.20 Isaac
does not impute to his teacher the assumption that Gershoms
child was forcibly converted; Samson merely reports the apostasy
18
Heinrich Graetz, Geschichte der Juden von den altesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart,
4th edn, 11 vols. (Leipzig, 187097), v, 3379, 4724 (n. 22). Shlomo Eidelberg
rejects the possibility that Gershoms son apostatized during the 1012 persecution
on the grounds that he could not possibly have preferred apostasy to banishment,
which was the available alternative. See Gershom ben Judah, Responsa, ed. Shlomo
Eidelberg (New York, 1956), 11. For another critique of Graetzs reconstruction, see
H. Tykocinski, Die Verfolgung der Juden in Mainz im Jahre 1012, in Beitrage zur
Geschichte der deutschen Juden: Festschrift zum siebzigsten Geburtstage Martin Philippsons
(Leipzig, 1916), 23. On the Mainz persecution, see also Avigdor Aptowitzer,
Introduction to Sefer Rabiah [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1938), 331; James Parkes, The
Jew in the Medieval Community: A Study of his Political and Economic Situation (London,
1938), 38; Avraham Grossman, The Early Sages of Ashkenaz: Their Lives, Leadership
and Works (9001096) [in Hebrew], 3rd edn (Jerusalem, 2001), 90, 112; Grossman,
Roots of Kiddush Hashem, 125; Grossman, Early Sages of France, 502; David Malkiel,
JewishChristian Relations in Europe, 8401096: A Historiographical Review,
Jl Medieval Hist., xxix (2003), 7980.
19
i.e. shemad, which can refer to physical or spiritual destruction, namely apostasy.
20
Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, Or Zaru 6a [Sown Light] (Zhitomir, 1862), pt 2, 88c,
x428.

12

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NUMBER 194

and Gershoms extended period of mourning. It is Isaac who fills


in the blanks with the phrase in times of destruction, and presents the apostasy as involuntary.
Later authorities are more cautious. Meir ben Barukh of
Rothenburg (d. 1293) writes: I heard from Isaac of Vienna that
Gershom mourned for his son that apostatized, but he told me
that one ought not to learn from this, for he [Gershom] did so
out of an excess of sorrow, since he [the son] did not merit [the
opportunity] to repent.21 Here Isaac reports the fact of the apostasy without stating whether it was coerced or voluntary. The
final clause contains the germ of the notion that Gershoms son
would have reverted if he had lived. Yet this interpretation is unwarranted, for saying that an apostate did not merit [the opportunity] to repent does not relate to a particular individual, or to
the circumstances of his apostasy, but merely assumes that given
the opportunity, anyone in his right mind would revert.22
The absence of a distinction in medieval texts between coerced
and voluntary apostasy also emerges from a ban attributed to
Gershom, which threatens with excommunication anyone
reminding a reverted apostate of his sin. The ban reads: Not to
shame the penitent ones [by] mentioning their sin, with no qualifying phrase to apply this rule exclusively to victims of forced
baptism.23 A variant reads: Not to shame a coerced person and
a penitent one by mentioning his sin to him in any way.24 Here
coercion is mentioned, although it is unclear whether the decree
refers exclusively to reverted victims of forcible baptism or
perhaps also to penitent voluntary apostates.25
21
Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg, The Complete Laws of Mourning [in Hebrew], ed.
Akiva Dov Landau and Jacob Aaron Landau (Jerusalem, 1976), 58, x37. See also Meir
ben Barukh of Rothenburg, Responsa (Prague, 1608), no. 544; Mordecai ben Hillel (d.
1298) on Mo 6ed Qattan, x937.
22
Meir ben Barukhs signature does not appear at the conclusion of this text, and
thus its attribution to him is uncertain.
23
Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages, 2nd edn (New York,
1964), 301. Finkelstein notes the absence of a distinction between voluntary and
coerced apostates.
24
Ibid., 126. Finkelstein infers from the existence of such a rabbinical decree that
apostasy was rampant in the early eleventh century. Grossman concludes, more conservatively, that reminding penitent apostates of their mistake was a common practice,
which created severe tensions within the Jewish community: Grossman, Early Sages of
France, 152. Neither of these claims can be accepted without reservation.
25
See Shmuel Shepkaru, Death Twice Over: Dualism of Metaphor and Realia in
12th-Century Hebrew Crusading Accounts, Jewish Quart. Rev., xciii (2002), 253.
Cf. Jeremy Cohen, Between Martyrdom and Apostasy: Doubt and Self-Definition in

(cont. on p. 13)

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

13

This ambiguity also appears in a responsum by Rashi, concerning two families who bait each other incessantly. The community
orders them to desist, and one family refuses to comply. A
member of the other family promptly reminds his adversary
that he had been polluted during the period of destruction. Then one of
them stood and told him: Do not mention [it], for this has been the
subject of a decree, and he did not state who had issued the relevant
decree. And now it has been learned that Rabbenu Gershom decreed
that anyone who mentions this shall be excommunicated.26

The protagonist that mentions Gershoms ban uses the expression during the period of destruction, which suggests that he
thought, or at least contended, that Gershoms ban applied
only to coerced apostates. This, however, is open to question,
because if a copyist erroneously had added just one letter to this
phrase, he would have transformed its meaning: bmy hShmd
means in the waters of destruction, a common epithet for baptism, free of any element of coercion, but bymy hShmd refers to a
period of persecution and thus to coerced apostasy. Medieval
Hebrew manuscripts are rife with scribal errors of this kind,
and hence whether Gershoms edict covered voluntary as well
as coerced apostasy cannot be determined. The confusion in
this case is, I think, typical of the absence of unequivocal distinctions in the high Middle Ages between coerced and voluntary
baptism, which suggests that to eleventh-century Jews such a
distinction was unclear, unimportant or both.
A pair of contradictory rulings by Gershom of Mainz further
illustrates this point. In one text Gershom allows a penitent apostate of priestly descent to perform the priestly blessing in the
synagogue, trumpeting the importance of allowing such a
person to return to his original status;27 but in another
responsum on the same case Gershom issues the opposite decision.28 It has been suggested that the two responsa actually deal
(n. 25 cont.)

Twelfth-Century Ashkenaz, Jl Medieval and Early Modern Studies, xxix (1999), 436
41.
26
Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (hereafter Rashi), Responsa, ed. Israel Elfenbein
(New York, 1943), 82, no. 70.
27
Gershom ben Judah, Responsa, ed. Eidelberg, 5760, no. 4; Simhah ben Samuel
of Vitry, Mahzor Vitry, ed. Simon Hurwitz (Nuremberg, 1923), 97, x125 and later
sources.
28
Gershom ben Judah, Responsa, ed. Eidelberg, 601, no. 5; Responsa and Rulings by
French and German Rabbis [in Hebrew], ed. Ephraim Kupfer (Jerusalem, 1973), 292.

14

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NUMBER 194

with different cases: the former with a coerced apostate and the
latter with a voluntary one, towards whose predicament Gershom
might have been less sympathetic.29 This, however, is a dubious
distinction, for we are told that the apostate under discussion had
become a clergyman, and it is therefore unlikely that his apostasy
was coerced.30 Moreover, Rashi allows a penitent priest-apostate
to resume his priestly status and functions whether or not his
apostasy was coerced.31 Only much later, in sixteenth-century
Safed, does Joseph Karo introduce the distinction between voluntary or involuntary apostasy into the legal literature once and
for all.32
The absence of a clear distinction between coerced and voluntary apostasy also emerges from Sefer Hasidim (Book of the
Pious), an ethical work of thirteenth-century Germany, consist29
Grossman, Early Sages of Ashkenaz, 1256. Shlomo Eidelberg suggests that
Gershom only ruled stringently when the apostate had become a leader or officiant
in the service of idolatry, but, ironically, Grossman rejects this solution because
Gershoms two decisions present an identical set of circumstances. Incidentally,
Grossmans interpretation suggests that he subscribes to the view that Gershoms
son was the victim of forced baptism, rather than voluntary apostasy, although he
makes no explicit statement to this effect.
30
Eliezer the Great, a student of Gershom, did distinguish clearly between voluntary and coerced apostates, allowing only the latter to perform the priestly blessing,
but his responsum was unknown in the Middle Ages: see Responsa of the Tosafists [in
Hebrew], ed. Irving A. Agus (New York, 1954), 456; Grossman, Early Sages of
Ashkenaz, 2245. The ruling of Joseph Bonfils resembles that of Maimonides, in
the tradition of the Babylonian Gaonim: see Zedekiah ben Abraham, Shibolei
ha-Leqet ha-Shalem [Complete Sheaves of Gleanings], ed. Samuel K. Mirsky
(New York, 1966), 231, x33. Grossman also cites Judah ha-Kohen, a student of
Gershom, but does not provide a specific primary source.
31
The Tosafists cite Rashis stance on the priest-apostate (which was also
Gershoms lenient position), but only after they offer the traditional, more stringent
view, signifying that their stance on this issue was anything but slavish: see Tosafot on
Menahot, 109r, s.v. lo yeshamshu; Tosafot on Sotah, 39r, s.v. ve-khi mehader. But cf.
Tosafot on Ta 6anit, 27r, s.v. iy mah, which only offers the lenient ruling. Note that Meir
ben Barukh of Rothenburg refuses to follow Rashi: he rules that one does not instruct
the penitent priest to perform the priestly blessing, but that if he does so of his own
accord, he may be allowed to proceed. See Jacob ben Asher, Arba 6ah Turim [Four
Rows], pt 1, x128.
32
Joseph Karo, Bet Yosef [House of Joseph] on Arba 6ah Turim, pt 1, x128; Shulhan
Arukh [Set Table], n. 37. Karos innovation can be attributed, at least partly, to the loss
of tens of thousands of souls to Catholicism in Spain between 1391 and 1492, a
catastrophe which generated a wealth of rabbinic discourse on the subject of apostasy,
with an abundance of new insights. See Simhah Assaf, The Conversos of Spain and
Portugal in the Responsa Literature [in Hebrew], in his In the Tent of Jacob [in
Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1943), 14580; B. Netanyahu, The Marranos of Spain: From
the Late 14th to the Early 16th Century, According to Contemporary Hebrew Sources,
3rd edn (Ithaca, 1999).

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

15

ing mainly of exempla, including one about two brothers who


apostatized. In this tale, a scholar wonders why such a tragedy
should befall a particular family, and determines that it was
the result of the sin of their ancestor, who, as rabbi of a certain
community, led his entire congregation to the baptismal font
during a time of persecution.33 As Alfred Haverkamp notes,
what matters here is the linkage of voluntary and coerced apostasy: succumbing to coercion is seen as a sin, for which one pays
with the voluntary apostasy of ones children, particularly if one
also causes others to sin.34 This text suggests that there is a certain
line of continuity between those who apostatize voluntarily and
those who do so under coercion. The author seems to feel that
although the latter acted against their will, their decision to live
was an act of weakness. In other words, capitulation under duress
was the result of a predisposition to apostatize, stemming from a
less than robust religious commitment. The distinction between
the two categories is muddied and barely perceptible.
That the forced apostates of the First Crusade were not viewed
by their memorializers as blameless emerges from an account of
the mass apostasy of Regensburg, which concludes with the
prayer: And may our Rock grant us atonement for our sins.35
Similarly, this narrative states that the apostasies of Metz were the
consequence of the multitude of iniquity and culpability,36 and
concludes with the prayer that God absolve His peoples iniquities. These statements articulate the belief that even forced apostates were sinners, because only the shortcomings of ones past
religious faith and conduct could explain the occurrence of something so awful. The line separating the coerced from the voluntary
apostate is similarly blurred in papal legislation. Jews baptized by
33

Sefer Hasidim [Book of the Pious], ed. Jehuda Wistinetzki and Jakob Freimann
(Frankfurt am Main, 1924), 465, x1922. These dicta do not support Haym
Soloveitchiks claim that the Jews of Ashkenaz never wondered to what extent the
individual was simply a victim of circumstances and to what extent his conduct was a
consequence of his inner ambiguities: see Haym Soloveitchik, Religious Law and
Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example, Assoc. for Jewish Studies Rev., xii (1987),
215.
34
Alfred Haverkamp, Baptised Jews in German Lands during the Twelfth
Century, in Michael A. Signer and John Van Engen (eds.), Jews and Christians in
Twelfth-Century Europe (Notre Dame, Ind., 2001), 262. See also Baron, Social and
Religious History of the Jews, iv, 146.
35
Abraham Meir Habermann, The Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France
[in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1945), 56.
36
Ibid.

16

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

force were particularly likely to revert, and thus it was common


sense for Innocent III to declare, in 1201, that those who never
consented, but wholly objected, and accepted neither the reality
nor the symbol of the sacrament, were not to be considered
Christians.37 But this dispensation does not cover those who
accepted baptism to avoid slaughter, for they so the Church
determined acted voluntarily, by preferring life to fidelity.
It may be, therefore, that the absence of a clear distinction
between the forced and willing apostate in the rabbinic literature
of medieval Ashkenaz reflects an ambivalence on the part of these
scholars towards the coerced. Given the universal belief in divine
Providence, the Ashkenazic authorities may have interpreted
capitulation to forced baptism as the result of a serious character
flaw in the victim, and thus effaced the distinction between voluntary and involuntary apostasy. This distinction became
important for modern historians, who stressed coerced apostasy
in order to present the Jews of Ashkenaz in a heroic light, but it
was of little consequence to the subjects of their investigations.
III
REVERSION

Ecclesiastical legislation on baptized Jews gives voice to the suspicion that their conversion was either insincere or incomplete.
Burchard of Wormss Decretum, dated 1012, deals extensively
with this problem: converts may be forcibly prevented from
reverting to Judaism; they must not consort with Jews, for fear
that they might revert; lapsed converts are to be treated harshly.38
And this concern was perennial. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran
Council declared: Some . . . who have come to the baptismal
font voluntarily have not departed completely the old self so as
to put on a more perfect one. Since they retain remnants of their
37
Numquam consentit sed penitus contradicit nec rem nec characterem suscipit
sacramenti. See Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, vii, History
(Toronto, 1991), 2434; Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, 1013; Baron, Social and
Religious History of the Jews, ix, 13; Walter Pakter, Medieval Canon Law and the Jews
(Ebelsbach, 1988), 82.
38
John Gilchrist, The Perception of Jews in the Canon Law in the Period of the
First Two Crusades, Jewish Hist., iii (1988), 13. See also Blumenkranz, Juifs et
chretiens dans le monde occidental, 10434.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

17

former rite, they confound by such a mixture the decorum of


Christian religion.39
An analogous concern is found on the Jewish side, namely that
reverting apostates might retain traces of Christian impurity, even
if their apostasy was coerced. About Benedict of York, who was
forcibly baptized in 1189 but later reverted, the chronicle of
Roger of Howden reports that he was a stranger to the
common burial-ground of the Jews, even as of the Christians;
both because he had been made a Christian, and because, like a
dog to his vomit, he had returned to his Jewish depravity.40 If this
tale is to be believed, reversion did not necessarily lead to reintegration into the Jewish community, at least in this case. Suspicion
of reverting apostates was aroused particularly if they remained
among the Gentiles for many days.41 This is the crucial element
in the legend of Elhanan, the son of Rabbi Simon the Great of
Mainz, who is baptized as a child and rises through ecclesiastical
ranks to become pope. Eventually he orchestrates a reunion with
his father and confesses his desire to revert, but asks him whether
repentance is still possible, given the length of time he has spent
among the Gentiles.42 Predictably, then, another component in
39

Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, 310; Baron, Social and Religious History of the
Jews, ix, 14. Haverkamp explains that Christians suspected Jewish converts of preserving traces of their Jewish origins even after generations: see his Baptised Jews in
German Lands, 2657.
40
. . . et factus est alienus a communi sepultura Judaeorum, similiter et
Christianorum, tum quia factus fuerat Christianus, tum quia ipse, sicut canis reversus
ad vomitum, rediit ad Judaicam pravitatem: see Chronica magistri Rogeri de Houedene,
ed. William Stubbs, 4 vols. (Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores, Rolls ser., li,
London, 186871), iii, 13. The translation is from G. G. Coulton, Life in the Middle
Ages, 2nd edn, 4 vols. in 1 (Cambridge, 1954), ii, 34. See also Cecil Roth, A History of
the Jews in England (Oxford, 1941), 1920, 22; Baron, Social and Religious History of the
Jews, iv, 125, 146. The dog-vomit image is based on Prov. 26:11; it had already been
used, in the same context, by Gregory the Great: see Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic
See and the Jews, i, Documents, 4921404 (Toronto, 1988), 5, doc. 5.
41
Cf. the similar issue of the speed with which a woman taken captive by Gentiles
returns to her community. Talmudic law assumes that such a woman has sexual relations with one or more of her captors, but she may return to her husband if she rejoined
her community and family at the earliest possible opportunity, since one could then
assume that her sexual act had not been consensual. For the earliest discussion of this
issue, from late twelfth-century France, see Mordecai ben Hillel on Kiddushin, x568;
Ephraim E. Urbach, The Tosaphists: Their History, Writings and Methods [in Hebrew],
4th edn, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1980), i, 133. See also Gerald I. Blidstein, The Personal
Status of Apostate and Ransomed Women in Medieval Jewish Law [in Hebrew],
Shenaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri, iiiiv (19767), 53.
42
See Adolf Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch [House of Study], 6 vols. (Jerusalem, 1938), v,
14852; Abraham David, Inquiries Concerning the Legend of the Jewish Pope
(cont. on p. 18)

18

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

the Ashkenazic image is that all the apostates (who were few and
coerced) revert to Judaism at the earliest opportunity.43 Reversion is the key to the issue of coerced versus voluntary baptism,
for non-reversion or delayed reversion undermines the edifice
of coercion which underpins the heroic reputation of medieval
Ashkenaz.
The issue of immediate or delayed reversion is not the brainchild of modern historians, but is found in medieval sources. In an
effort to excuse the apostates, one of the Hebrew accounts maintains that in 1096 the community of Regensburg reverted immediately following the departure of the enemies of God, and
performed great acts of penitence, for they did what they did
under great duress.44 In Metz, too, we read that the conversion
lasted only until the days of wrath had passed, after which the
apostates reverted to Judaism with all their heart.45 The pathos
with which the narrator emphasizes that reversion was immediate
and unalloyed betrays the anxiety felt by many contemporaries
concerning the loyalty of these (or any) apostates.
The same chronicler introduces another apologetical element
when he insists that the forced apostates did not deviate from the
dietary laws, and only rarely went to their [Christian] place of
worship. Moreover, we read that the converts Christian neighbours knew of the insincerity of their conversion, and that these
apostates observed the Sabbath laws in full view of the Christian
populace.46 Clearly they thought that, although they could not
yet revert, it was important to exhibit continued fidelity to
Judaism, both actively, by continuing to observe the commandments, and passively, by neglecting Christian rituals.47

(n. 42 cont.)

[in Hebrew], in Zvi Malachi (ed.), The A. M. Habermann Memorial Volume


[in Hebrew] (Lod, 1983), 1725; Abraham David, Bemerkungen zur Legende vom
judischen Papst, Freiburger Rundbrief: Beitrage zur christlich-judischen Begegnung,
xxxviixxxviii (19856), 1503; David Levine Lerner, The Enduring Legend of the
Jewish Pope, Judaism, xl (1991).
43
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 68, citing Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, vi, 923.
44
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 56.
45
Ibid.
46
Ibid., 57.
47
See Kanarfogel, Rabbinic Attitudes toward Nonobservance, 3; Netanyahu,
Marranos of Spain, 813. Cf. Soloveitchiks claim that the fidelity of the converts
was unquestioned: see his Religious Law and Change, 215.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

19

Pre-reversion behaviour is a crucial issue in one of Rashis


responsa.48 Asked whether the testimony of a reverted anuss, or
forced convert, is admissible in a proceeding of Jewish law, Rashi
replies that it would be, if it were known that the witness, prior to
his reversion, only violated Jewish law under compulsion; otherwise, he could not testify about what he had witnessed while an
apostate, even though he ultimately reverted properly. Put more
starkly, Rashi could well imagine that a coerced apostate might
willingly transgress the commandments, even the Sabbath, prior
to his reversion.49
Obviously, any delay in reversion would probably be interpreted as a sign that the act of apostasy had not been truly involuntary, even when, as in 1096, the apostates accepted baptism at
the point of a sword. This suspicion seems reasonable when we
bear in mind that those who apostatized during the First Crusade
took up to a year to revert.50 In this light, the Hebrew chroniclers
fervent assurance that the First Crusade apostates rarely attended
Catholic services and continued to observe the commandments
makes sense, and one can also understand why some Jews might
have been sceptical about the fidelity of those who reverted. The
narrator indirectly acknowledges the existence of bad feeling in
his concluding admonishment: Whoever speaks ill of them [the
apostates], it is as if he spoke ill of the Divine Presence.51 Another
Hebrew report of the First Crusade persecution puts this suspicion in the mouths of those Jews of Worms who escaped the crusader onslaught. The survivors express solidarity with the forced
converts, but conclude with the warning: Do not turn away from
the Lord.52
The issue of immediate or delayed reversion crops up again in a
responsum in which Rashi is asked whether one ought to abstain
from wine handled by forced converts until these return to
Judaism and remain Jewish for many days, and their repentance
(that is, reversion) is public and well known. Speaking of these
penitent apostates, Rashis interlocutor notes that we do not
know them well and have not seen [evidence of] their repentance.
48

Responsa of the Tosafists, ed. Agus, 512, no. 9.


See, similarly, ibid., 238, no. 128, from a later period.
50
Only in 1097 did Henry IV issue an edict permitting their reversion: Simonsohn,
Apostolic See and the Jews, i, 42, doc. 42.
51
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 57.
52
Ibid., 96.
49

20

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

All the same, Rashi replies vehemently that to abstain from their
wine would shame them, and that coerced apostates could never
bring themselves to offer idolatrous libations (that is, to participate in Christian worship). This formulation links reversion and
coercion. The penitent apostates in question are blameless, writes
Rashi, for everything they did, they did on account of [fear of] the
sword,53 and they turned away [from Christianity] as soon as they
could.54 The question testifies to the prevalent confusion about
the significance of the distinction between forced and voluntary
apostasy. Rashi emphasizes the element of coercion, and, indeed,
this is an exception to the indifference generally exhibited by
medieval authorities. However, by affirming that these apostates
were quick to revert, he grants the premise that the allegiance of a
forced apostate remains suspect until he or she returns to the
fold.55
Elsewhere Rashi writes, of all the forced converts, that their
heart inclines heavenward, for their end testifies to their beginning, that they left and returned when they found salvation.56
This looks like a ringing endorsement of the eternal loyalty of the
forcibly baptized, but, upon closer inspection, the opposite is
clearly the case. Rashi shares the conviction that one can only
be sure that a forced converts heart inclined towards heaven
after his or her return to the fold, when their end testifies to
their beginning; until such time, an apostate is an apostate,
whether baptism was voluntary or coerced.57 That Rashi did
not take reversion for granted is also apparent from his
53

evhat herev, as in Ezek. 21:20. The same phrase appears in the Sefer Hasidim
passage (ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 85, x262) about a community in which
during a time of persecution some were killed and some apostatized with the intention
of returning to Judaism when they could, but they apostatized on account of fear of
the sword .
54
Rashi, Responsa, ed. Elfenbein, 1889, no. 168. The identity of these apostates
and the circumstances of their apostasy are unclear. Ben-Zion Dinur assumes that this
text refers to those Jews who apostatized under threat of death at the hands of the First
Crusaders: Ben-Zion Dinur, Israel and the Diaspora [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, 1961), pt
2a, p. 43. Ephraim E. Urbach attributes the responsum to Isaac Dampierre (d. 1185?),
but offers no proof for this attribution: Urbach, Tosaphists, i, 2445.
55
Cf., from a later period, Responsa of the Tosafists, ed. Agus, 2312, no. 125.
56
See Judah ben Asher, Zikhron Yehudah [Memory of Judah], ed. Judah Rosenberg
(Berlin, 1846), 52b. For the phrase their end testifies to their beginning, see also
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 26.
57
Cf. Grossmans view that Rashis statement that the heart of the coerced apostates
is directed heavenward is to be taken at face value: Grossman, Early Sages of France,
154.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

21

interpretation of the passage in Proverbs about the strange


woman, from whom one needs to be saved (Prov. 2:1619).
Rashi equates this enigmatic figure with the Church, and on the
phrase All who go to her cannot return (Prov. 2:19) he makes the
following pessimistic observation: All who apostatize, after they
are tainted with heresy, do not return.58 The absence of any
distinction between coerced and voluntary apostasy resounds
loudly in this categorically dismissive remark.
Vacillation regarding the appropriate posture vis-a`-vis reverting
apostates, even those whose conversion was forced, is powerfully
expressed in the following responsum, attributed to Rashi.59 The
issue is whether one may drink with a reverted apostate. Grounds
are brought for a lenient ruling regarding apostates who, as
Christians, did not violate the Sabbath laws; but what about
forced converts who publicly transgressed these regulations and
whose reversion is as yet uncertain? Rashi rejects the view that
equates transgression of the Sabbath with idolatry, and insists
that when they undertook to publicly return to the awe of our
Rock [i.e. to Judaism], they are [again] permitted. The most
striking feature of this text is the questions conflation of voluntary
and coerced apostates.
In the responsum cited earlier about the wine of penitent apostates, however, Rashi uses the phrase these forced apostates that
have just arrived. In rabbinic parlance, the expression that have
just arrived sometimes refers to a recent occurrence (based on
Deut. 32:17), and hence it could mean that these apostates
reverted recently. But Rashi could have meant the phrase literally,
thereby testifying to the migration that seems to have frequently
accompanied reversion. Fear of prosecution for heresy was a good
reason for lapsed converts to leave their city and settle elsewhere.
In a letter dated 1286, Pope Honorius IV complains that among
those converts who reverted, some moved to another town, but
many others did not, and lived openly with Jews and at one with
them.60 The practice of relocation also finds expression in
58
Rashi on Avodah zarah, 17r. The continuation reads: and if they do return, they
quickly die, because of sorrow and the compulsion of the [Evil] Inclination, and this is
the decree of the King [i.e. God], that they die. Cf. Rashi on Prov. 2:19.
59
Zedekiah ben Abraham Anau, Shibolei ha-Leqet Part 2 [in Hebrew], ed. Simhah
Hassida (Jerusalem, 1988), 212, x5. The text was also published in Rashis Responsa,
ed. Elfenbein, 18990, no. 169.
60
Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, ix, 247 n. 13; Simonsohn, Apostolic
See and the Jews, i, 2623, doc. 255. Edward Fram attributes the practice of moving

(cont. on p. 22)

22

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

Hebrew sources, such as the responsum by Rashi (alluded to


above) concerning an apostate who is baptized in one place and
later reverts elsewhere.61 We also read, in the Hebrew narrative of
Ephraim of Bonn, about a French priest who led forced converts
from Germany to France during the Second Crusade so that they
could revert to Judaism; obviously reversion in their home communities was an impossibility.62 This last anecdote contains a
telling ambiguity. Ephraim writes that the reverting apostates
were to remain in France until their baptism would be forgotten.
Obviously one concern would be that the ecclesiastical authorities might persecute them as heretics. But an apostate might also
migrate in order to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow Jews.
Relocation granted reverting apostates a new start, for ones
former confre`res were not always quick to forgive the sin of apostasy, even when committed under duress.63
The sources cited illustrate plainly that Ashkenazic scholars of
the high Middle Ages shared modern historians interest in the
speed with which forced converts reverted, but with a significant
difference. Whereas modern historians emphasize that reversion
was virtually immediate, medieval scholars (in their halachic
texts) do not voice this assumption, nor do they take it as a
given that anussim, that is forced ones, make every effort to
observe the dos and donts of Jewish law prior to their reversion.
To a surprising extent, and in contrast to many modern historical

(n. 60 cont.)

after reversion to the fact that political power in medieval Germany was decentralized:
see his Perception and Reception of Repentant Apostates in Medieval Ashkenaz and
Pre-Modern Poland, Assoc. for Jewish Studies Rev., xxi (1996), 313.
61
Rashi, Responsa, ed. Elfenbein, 18990, no. 169. In the late thirteenth century, an
apostate named Andreas from the south of Italy writes that it is well known that poor
apostates escape to places where they are not known and revert to their origin: see
Joseph Shatzmiller, Jewish Converts to Christianity in Medieval Europe, 1200
1500, in Michael Goodich, Sophia Menache and Sylvia Schein (eds.), CrossCultural Convergences in the Crusader Period: Essays Presented to Aryeh Grabois on his
Sixty-Fifth Birthday (New York, 1995), 315.
62
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 122. This tale is told
by Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn (b. 1132), who stresses that the reversion occurred in
that same year, namely 1147, and he rather triumphantly contrasts the fate of these
apostates with that of the crusaders, who left their homes never to be seen again.
Oddly, however, Ephraims account does not include any large-scale incidents of
forced baptism that correspond to the story of mass reversion.
63
It is also possible that relocation was a form of exile, a penance for the act of
apostasy: see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, H. Teshuvah, ch. 2, law 4.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

23

presentations, medieval rabbis portrayed their constituents warts


and all.
IV
DISAPPEARANCE

Many Jews, writes Solomon Zeitlin, mourned for seven days if


one of their kin adopted another religion as they would if a
member of their family had died.64 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
does not discuss mourning rites, but he paints the same picture
of the apostates disappearance:
The apostate in the Middle Ages left not only the Jewish faith, but the
Jewish quarter, his family, his friends. Whatever the theoretical attitude
that might be taken toward him in theology and jurisprudence, considered
from a sociological point of view his rupture with the Jewish community was
generally complete.65

Gerald Blidstein, too, writes that the apostate had burned all
bridges.66 These scholars reflect the widely held conviction
that in the eyes of his family and community, an apostate ceases
to exist. This idea portrays the medieval Jewish community as
pure, if scarred; there may have been a few apostates, but they
departed the scene. The resultant image is of a homogeneous
community of devoted believers.
The idea that apostates cease to exist, and hence that one must
mourn for them at the time of their apostasy as if they had died,
has no obvious source. Some have inferred this from the case of
Rabbenu Gershoms son, interpreting the rabbis additional week
of mourning as an expression of mourning for the act of apostasy
per se.67 Yet the texts are quite clear that Gershom went
into mourning following his sons death, not his apostasy.68
64

Zeitlin, Mummar and Meshumad, 86.


Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, The Inquisition and the Jews of France in the Time of
Bernard Gui, Harvard Theological Rev., lxiii (1970), 365. See also p. 366: Great
hostility toward the apostate, and the sober realization that in most cases his conversion to Christianity was final, combined to make the masses regard him as really no
longer a Jew.
66
Gerald Blidstein, Who Is Not a Jew? The Medieval Discussion, Israel Law
Rev., xi (1976), 376.
67
Louis Rabinowitz, The Social Life of the Jews of Northern France in the XIIXIV
Centuries, as Reflected in the Rabbinical Literature of the Period, 2nd edn (New York,
1972), 104.
68
Another source, also erroneous, is the remark by Rabbenu Tam that it is customary not to mourn the death of an apostate; but, again, this remark says nothing about
65

(cont. on p. 24)

24

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

One possible source, however, could be the statement in Sefer


Hasidim, that: When he [a person] apostatizes, it is appropriate
to weep: when the body is lost one [generally] cries, a fortiori
when the soul is lost . . ..69 Weeping is a classic expression of
mourning, and thus this passage might be construed as a source
for the custom of mourning the act of apostasy. On the other
hand, Sefer Hasidim does not refer explicitly to the laws of mourning, and, furthermore, statements such as these should probably
be read as hortatory, rather than prescriptive, since Sefer Hasidim
is an ethical work, rather than a legal compendium.70 Another
source might be the talmudic law that anyone who hears a fellow
Jew curse God must rend his garment. Apostasy might be considered tantamount to cursing God, and in Jewish law the tearing
of the clothes is a central component of the rites of mourning. One
could therefore deduce from this rule that mourning is the appropriate religious response to the act of apostasy.71
It is no accident, I think, that the medieval sources fail to document the practice of mourning apostates at the time of their
apostasy or to provide a clear rationale for doing so; the reason,
I suggest, is that apostates did not disappear. Whether we situate
them on the Jewish end of the Christian social spectrum or on the
Christian end of the Jewish social spectrum is semantic quibbling.
Apostates were part of the panorama of Jewish society, and they
interacted with their former coreligionists on a daily basis,
whether for economic or social reasons.
The serial apostates, Jews who apostatize and then move back
and forth between their old and new religious identities, offer
(n. 68 cont.)

mourning at the time of the apostasy and on its account: see Isaac ben Moses of
Vienna, Or Zaru 6a, pt 2, x428.
69
Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 734, x192, cited by Katz, in his
Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 74.
70
Another Sefer Hasidim passage (ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 385, x1572) states
that one whose father apostatizes is called to read from the Torah not as the son of his
father, but rather as the son of his paternal grandfather, by which name he must also
sign contracts. Furthermore, if both his father and his fathers father are apostates, he
should use the name of his paternal great-grandfather. The elimination of any reference to the apostate father intimates that in a certain sense he ceases to exist. See also
Israel Isserlein, Terumat ha-Deshen [Offering of Ashes], pt 1, no. 21.
71
For the suggestion that apostasy is tantamount to death, see Sanhedrin, 60r (on
cursing God); N. Z. Y. Berlin on She8iltot, no. 110. The link was noted by Reuven
Margaliyot, in his commentary to his own edition of Sefer Hasidim (Jerusalem, 1957),
187, x190.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

25

a special model of Jewishapostate interaction, though we know


nothing about how common a phenomenon this was. A famous
case, told in a thirteenth-century text about an incident that
purportedly occurred in 992, is that of Sehok ben Esther, an
apostate who wanders from town to town in northern France,
poses as an indigent Jew and receives alms from the local Jewish
communities. Ultimately he takes up residence in Le Mans, in the
home of his sisters, who surely knew of his apostasy.72 True or not,
the tale was meant to be believed, and hence is evidence of social
norms.
We also read of an apostate who allegedly repented [i.e.
reverted], not with a complete heart but with a deceitful repentance, like that of those empty ones, who roam the towns, sometimes appearing as Jews and sometimes strengthening themselves
by means of the laws of the Gentiles.73 Similarly, an early
thirteenth-century source reports of an apostate who went
from place to place, and in one city he publicly avows his belief
in idolatry, and in another city he enters the House of Israel and
says that he is a Jew, and we do not know whether he is a Jew or
not.74 From Eudes Rigaud, the archbishop of Rouen, we learn of
a serial apostate whose repeated changes of heart appear to have
been sincere. He was burned in 1266, having converted from
Judaism to Catholicism, reverted from the Catholic faith to
Judaic depravity, and once again baptized, had once more
reverted to Judaism, being unwilling afterwards to be restored

72
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 1115; see also
Malkiel, JewishChristian Relations, 6771.
73
Mordecai ben Hillel on Ketubot, x306; Maimonidean Responsa [in Hebrew],
Nashim, no. 10. Likewise, Ephraim of Bonn tells the tale of the encounter, in 1146,
just outside the city of Cologne, between empty people who had been baptized (i.e.
voluntary apostates) and Rabbi Simon the Pious of Trier, and of their efforts to entice
him to apostatize: Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 116.
74
Solomon Ibn Adret, Responsa, pt 7, no. 179. On this source and the previous one
(Mordecai ben Hillel on Ketubot, x306), see Urbach, Tosaphists, i, 245; Soloveitchik,
Religious Law and Change, 214 n. 15. There is some evidence, including the
Mordecai ben Hillel text, that apostates wishing to revert were forced to undergo
ritual immersion before their reintegration into the Jewish community: see
Yerushalmi, Inquisition and the Jews of France, 372; Joseph Shatzmiller,
Converts and Judaizers in the Early Fourteenth Century, Harvard Theological Rev.,
lxxiv (1981), 6377; Blidstein, Who Is Not a Jew?, 376 n. 23. Placing obstacles in the
path of reversion seems to be a phenomenon of the later Middle Ages, rather than the
tenth to thirteenth centuries.

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PAST AND PRESENT

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to the Catholic faith, although several times admonished to


do so.75
There are, moreover, apostates who do not revert, but nonetheless maintain close ties with their Jewish friends, relatives and
community, and this is even more important for the issue of the
apostates presence in medieval Jewish society.76 Apostates might
choose to preserve their relationships with their former coreligionists out of economic expedience: as Christians, they were now at
liberty to borrow money from Jews, although Jewish law had previously prevented them from doing so.77 And the normalcy of frequent social interaction between Jews and apostates is evident in
the famous responsum of Rabbenu Tam (discussed earlier) about
the twenty bills of divorce issued in Paris.78 This scholar states
that Jews routinely referred to apostates by their Jewish names,
even if they knew their Christian ones, demonstrating that in
twelfth-century France Jews and apostates interacted freely,
and that the latter cannot be said to have disappeared. This text
also addresses the apostates mindset, or at least the authors perception thereof. Regarding the rule that if a person had two
names, both were to appear in his bill of divorce, Rabbenu Tam
writes that this was true only when the husband habitually used
both names: Here, however, he does not normally use his nonJewish name, but rather the Jewish name with which he grew up
all his life, up to the present time.79 Rabbenu Tam is convinced
that, regardless of his religious convictions, an apostate could
never rid himself of his Jewish cultural baggage.
Sefer Hasidim refers to apostates who give charity to the Jewish
poor80 or to the local rabbi.81 We read that one may pray for the
75
Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in Northern France: A Political and Social History
(Baltimore, 1973), 147.
76
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 75.
77
Ibid., 71; Jacob Katz, Although He Has Sinned, He Is Still Israel [in Hebrew],
Tarbiz, xxvii (1958). See also Yitzhak Baer, Rashi and the Historical Reality of his
Time [in Hebrew], Tarbiz, xx (1950), 32432. For pre-Rashi scholars, see Eliezer of
Metz, Sefer Yere8im ha-Shalem [Complete Book of the Awed Ones] (Vilna, 1902), 74r,
x156; Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg, Responsa, Prague edn, no. 799.
78
Sefer ha-Yashar, ed. Rozenthal, 435, x25.
79
Ibid., 46, no. 26; Sefer ha-Yashar: Novellae, ed. Simon Shlesinger (Jerusalem,
1959), 448, no. 766. See also Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry, Mahzor Vitry, ed.
Hurwitz, 77980, x134. Cf. Sefer Hasidim, ed. Margaliyot, 187, x191, which states
that one attaches a new name of opprobrium to an apostate. For the talmudic basis of
this rule, see Avodah zarah, 46r.
80
Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 408, x1701.
81
Ibid., x1702.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

27

soul of an apostate who performs deeds favourable to the Jews.82


The story is also told of an apostate who offers to contribute
money towards the acquisition of a Torah scroll.83 These passages
present impressive evidence of the continued involvement of the
apostate in Jewish social and religious life. Another Sefer Hasidim
passage contemplates the issue of apostates who attempt to help
the Jewish community, either by offering to save Jewish books
from a fire on the Sabbath or by burying an unknown deceased
person. Cognizant of the ambivalence a Jew might feel in such a
situation, the text nonetheless declares that the assistance should
be accepted, unless the apostates behaviour had been so deplorable as to result in a communal decision not to bury him as a Jew
following his death.84 The end of this passage is its most striking
feature, for this legal decision implies that in less extreme cases
apostates were buried as Jews, which would obscure the social
boundary between them and the Jewish community.85 Sefer
Hasidim also testifies to intellectual exchange between Jews and
apostates: If one hears a good explanation or a good question or
answer from a Christian or from an apostate or from someone
who causes others to sin, he should not tell others anything in his
name.86
Needless to say, interaction was not always friendly. Following
the Blois killings of 1171, the Jewish community of Troyes
adopted austerities in memory of the martyrs, and one of the
letters about the incident concludes with a warning to erase the
passage about these austerity measures, lest it be seen by apostates and delators, who presumably read Hebrew.87 The crucial
point here is the assumption that apostates might gain access to
the text in question, which implies a high degree of involvement in
Jewish life. Suspicion of apostates also surfaces in the story told in
Sefer Hasidim about an apostate who asks three scholars their
opinion concerning his dilemma: he intends to return to
Judaism, but has little money. The Gentiles trust him, meaning
that they are unaware of his lack of true religious devotion, and he
82

Ibid., 385, x1571.


Ibid., 73, x190; 178, x679. See also ibid., 357, x1476.
84
Ibid., 164, x604.
85
Obviously this contradicts the testimony about Benedict of York, cited above,
who allegedly was not buried among the Jews despite his reversion.
86
Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 198, x790; 357, x1476.
87
Habermann, Book of the Persecutions of Ashkenaz and France, 146.
83

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PAST AND PRESENT

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would like permission to take a substantial sum of money from


them before his reversion.88 One scholar grants permission, a
second refuses it, each for his own reasons. A third wise man
recommends that no one answer the question, lest the apostate
report to the authorities that the rabbis were responsible for the
reversion. In the end, we are told, the apostate did, indeed, make
this accusation.89 This text and the previous one testify that,
friendly or not, apostates were thought to be abreast of the communitys affairs.90
Apostates, then, did not disappear from Jewish society, but
were, rather, a ubiquitous and perennial constituency. This has
an important implication for the visionary policy of Rashi, who
ruled consistently that an apostate remains a Jew although he
has sinned, he is still Israel.91 We now understand that this strategic decision reflects not an ideal, but a reality. In medieval
Ashkenaz the apostate really was still Israel. Rashi, it seems,
was right.

V
AETIOLOGY

The Jews of twelfth-century Germany are alleged by historians to


have been beset by varying sorts and degrees of doubt concerning
the worth, viability, and future of their faith.92 Avraham Grossman avers that the Hebrew First Crusade narratives, with their
martyrological bias, were written to encourage the weak and
strengthen weak knees.93 He views European Jewry as demor88
An analogous story exists from the Christian side, of a certain Jacob ben Isaac of
Regensburg, who hoards his fathers money prior to his own conversion to
Christianity: see Aronius, Regesten zur Geschichte der Juden, 105, x226. The source is
Annales Egmundenses: Fontes Egmundenses, ed. Otto Oppermann (Utrecht, 1933),
14950, cited by Haverkamp, Baptised Jews in German Lands, 27981.
89
Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 75, x200. See also ibid., x201; Fram,
Perception and Reception of Repentant Apostates in Medieval Ashkenaz and PreModern Poland, 306.
90
Isaac ben Moses of Vienna tells of an apostate who touched wine, which would
render it non-kosher, but later claimed to have reverted: see his Or Zaru 6a, pt 1, 64d,
x448.
91
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 71; Katz, Although He Has Sinned, He Is Still
Israel. See also Baer, Rashi and the Historical Reality of his Time.
92
Cohen, Between Martyrdom and Apostasy, 463.
93
Grossman, Roots of Kiddush Hashem, 119.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

29

alized by the carnage of the Rhineland massacres and worn down


by the pressure of Christian propaganda.94
Whether or not apostasy among Ashkenazic Jewry truly had
risen to alarming proportions, it is clear that some apostates
were not driven to baptism by a crisis of faith. Basically, there
were ideological apostates, whose conversion was as sincere as
Pauls or Augustines, and there were also venal apostates, who
opted for baptism for social, economic, psychological or other
reasons. Which category predominated? The heroic image of
Ashkenazic Jewry would seem to require that in FrancoGermany apostasy was overwhelmingly venal, and this is indeed
the consensus. In Haym Soloveitchiks formulation, some converted from conviction, some from desire for advancement, and
some, probably most, from sheer weariness (whatever that
means).95 Admittedly, venal apostasy, too, challenges the image
of Ashkenazic perfection, but to a lesser degree.
Medieval Hebrew sources give the distinct impression that
apostates were mostly venal, rather than ideological. Examples
are legion. The Sefer Nizzahon Yashan (Old Book of Disputation),
an anti-Christian polemic of thirteenth-century Germany, states
that a Jew becomes an apostate (nishtamed) to enable himself to
eat all that his heart desires, to give pleasure to his flesh with wine
and fornication, to remove from himself the yoke of the kingdom
of heaven . . . cleave to sin and concern himself with worldly
pleasures.96 This is a classic description of the venal apostate,
albeit grotesquely exaggerated; but, more importantly, it refuses
to acknowledge ideological apostasy.
Venal apostasy receives a great deal of attention in Sefer
Hasidim. We read of a villain who threatens to apostatize if his
94

Grossman, Early Sages of France, 267.


Soloveitchik, Religious Law and Change, 214. Cf. the typology presented, for
the later Middle Ages, by Joseph Shatzmiller in his Jewish Converts to Christianity in
Medieval Europe. Jacob Katz seems to be swimming upstream when he observes,
with a vaguely belligerent air: Christian sources tell us of many Jews who accepted
Christianity through conviction, and we have no reason to doubt this. Katz also writes
that some genuine conversions must have occurred at a time when the whole of society
lived in a state of religious tension, a minimalistic formulation designed, it seems, to
overturn a contrary consensus or predisposition. See Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance,
756.
96
The JewishChristian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A Critical Edition of the
Nizzahon Vetus, ed. and trans. David Berger (Philadelphia, 1979), 206, x211, cited
in Cohen, Between Martyrdom and Apostasy, 4623. See also JewishChristian
Debate, ed. Berger, 228, x242.
95

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PAST AND PRESENT

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request for charity is not granted;97 of a young man who threatens


to apostatize unless he is allowed to marry the girl who has won his
heart;98 of a father and son who sit in judgement, and the son
urges his father to bend the law, lest the (undeserving) litigant
apostatize;99 of a son who threatens apostasy after his father
upbraids him for having committed adultery.100 Exasperated
fathers are warned that ill-behaved children will apostatize if
one lashes out at them: Go apostatize!101 Jacob Katz labels the
apostates in these scenarios iniquitous sons.102
A large group of venal apostates are those who sought economic
and social advancement. These were sometimes susceptible
to financial inducements to revert to Judaism, but the reversion
of this type of apostate was particularly suspect. The Church,
too, felt the sting of venal apostasy. In 1169 Pope Alexander III
wrote that converts despaired easily and might be compelled
to forsake the Christian faith on account of indigence and the
lack of assistance, thus returning to their former religion like
the dog to his vomit.103 Borrowing the idiom, the Council at
Tours (1233) warned that unless Christians gave generously,
poverty should compel converted Jews to return to their
vomit.104 More significant than the choice of idiom, however,
is the formulation that converts despair easily ( facile desperant),
which reflects the fluidity of traffic particularly of venal apostates across the JewishChristian frontier. Pope Innocent III
voiced similar concerns. In 1199 he wrote to the bishop of
Autun about the importance of supporting converts, lest the
shame of poverty, which they are not accustomed to bear easily,
force them to look back (retro aspicere) to the abandoned Jewish

97

Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki and Freimann, 215, x857.


Ibid., 455, x1876.
Ibid., 336, x1376.
100
Ibid., 459, x1897.
101
Sefer Hasidim, ed. Margaliyot, 326, x479. See also ibid., 416, x637: A person
ought not to say to a Jew: If I do such and such a thing, I am not a Jew, for were he to
do it, he would be making himself a Gentile or an apostate, for one ought not to say an
evil thing, even conditionally.
102
Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, 74. See also William Chester Jordan,
Adolescence and Conversion in the Middle Ages: A Research Agenda, in Signer
and Van Engen (eds.), Jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century Europe.
103
Simonsohn, Apostolic See and the Jews, vii, 2445; i, 52, doc. 50.
104
Parkes, Jew in the Medieval Community, 144.
98
99

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

31

perfidy.105 That very year a papal letter to the abbot of a convent


in Leicester states:
Care must be taken that they [converts] should be solicitously provided
for, lest, in the midst of other faithful Christians, they become oppressed
by lack of food. For lacking the necessities of life, many of them, after their
baptism, are led into great distress, with the result that they are often
forced to go backward because of the avarice of such as are possessed of
plenty yet scorn to look at the Christian poor.106

Not only do medieval sources present more evidence of venal


than ideological apostasy, they expressly posit that apostasy is
predominantly venal. Rashi and other European authorities
accept the traditional Jewish assumption that women who
choose to apostatize do so for romantic or erotic reasons.107
However, they seem confident that men, too, are rarely convinced
of the truth of Christianity. In a case cited earlier about a serial
apostate seeking recognition of his Jewish identity, the rabbis of
northern France decide to accept his claim, because they assume
that his earlier protestations of faith in Christianity were insincere, while his current declaration of faith in Judaism is believable,
since our faith is an honest, good, correct and true one.108
Because the idea that one could choose Christianity in good
faith strikes these luminaries as patently absurd, their working
assumption is that any apostate must be a venal apostate.
Modern historiography, on the other hand, tends to downplay
venal apostasy and to spotlight the implosion of the ideological
apostates religious identity. Apostasy is thus portrayed in sombre
tones, as an act of immeasurable pathos. This meshes with the
general tenor of descriptions of JewishChristian relations in
medieval Europe, particularly after the First Crusade. The

105

Grayzel, The Church and the Jews, 946, doc. 6. Similarly, see ibid., 1389, doc.

29.
106

Ibid., 969, doc. 8. See also Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, ix, 21.
Rashi discusses such a case and admits that some (scholars) make noise i.e.
express doubt about this rule, but he dismisses their reservations: Mordecai ben
Hillel on Ketubot, x286. See Blidstein, Personal Status of Apostate and Ransomed
Women in Medieval Jewish Law, 569. Blidstein infers from this noise-making that
popular practice did not always require reverting apostates to separate from their
spouses. He also deduces that reversion was common, but this conclusion, while it
may be true, is not warranted by the case at hand. For a similar case from a later period,
see Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg, Responsa, Prague edn, no. 1020.
108
Solomon Ibn Adret, Responsa, pt 7, no. 179, cited in Soloveitchik, Religious Law
and Change, 214 n. 15.
107

32

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 194

prevailing tendency has been to highlight religious tension and to


present a picture of polarized relations and segregation.109 This
image cannot be reconciled with the casual nature of apostasy
reflected in the model of the iniquitous sons or in the phenomenon of serial reversion.
Gloom-and-doom portrayals of JewishChristian interaction
in medieval Ashkenaz tend to highlight regulations enacted
by communal leaders in order to restrict socialization with
Christians, including a severe taboo against wine handled by
Christians.110 But these regulations actually reveal that most
Jews saw no need to protect themselves from Gentile society by
means of a self-imposed legislative wall of isolation. Thus, also,
the regulations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council regarding
the difficulty in distinguishing Jew from Christian, and the need
to do so, show the ease with which Jews and Christians interacted
and the extent of Jewish acculturation in European society.111
Indeed the evidence of civil and even amiable relations is abundant.112 A Christian neighbour of Rashis sends him cakes and
eggs on the eighth day of Passover.113 Similarly, Jews give presents
to their Christian servants on Purim.114 Christian women solicit
donations from Jews during Lent.115 Given these sorts of practices, how polarized could the relations between Jews and
Christians have been?
What requires re-examination, then, is not only the nature of
apostasy but the climate in which it took place. The present study
109
See, for example, Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews, ii, From the Roman Empire
to the Early Medieval Period, trans. Moshe Spiegel (New York, 1968), 705. See also
Grossman, Early Sages of France, 245.
110
Jeremy Cohen, The Mentality of the Medieval Jewish Apostate: Peter Alfonsi,
Hermann of Cologne, and Pablo Christiani, in Todd M. Endelman (ed.), Jewish
Apostasy in the Modern World (New York, 1987), 212; Haym Soloveitchik, Can
Halakhic Texts Talk History?, Assoc. for Jewish Studies Rev., iii (1978);
Haym Soloveitchik, Principles and Pressures: Jewish Trade in Gentile Wine in the
Middle Ages [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, 2003).
111
Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, revised edn, ed. Cecil Roth
(London, 1932), 423.
112
Irving A. Agus, The Heroic Age of Franco-German Jewry: The Jews of Germany and
France of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, the Pioneers and Builders of Town-Life, TownGovernment, and Institutions (New York, 1969), 34158.
113
Rashi, Responsa, ed. Elfenbein, 142, no. 114.
114
Ma 6aseh ha-Ge8onim [Acts of the Giants], ed. Abraham Epstein and Jacob
Freimann (Berlin, 1909), 467. See also Grossman, Early Sages of France, 143 n. 81.
115
Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg, Responsa, Rulings and Customs [in Hebrew], ed.
Isaac Ze8ev Kahana (Jerusalem, 1960), ii, 230, no. 130.

JEWS AND APOSTATES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

33

offers an alternative to the image of Jews and Christians in perpetual conflict, of spiritual warfare between the two religious
communities. For the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz apostasy and
apostates were part of everyday life. Jews traversed the religious
boundary with a nonchalance that bespeaks a high degree of
social and cultural intimacy with their Christian neighbours.
This sort of profile has typically been associated with the Jews of
medieval Spain, and thus our findings cast doubt upon the
AshkenazSepharad dichotomy, mentioned at the outset. This
has also been the direction of some recent studies of Spanish
Jewry, particularly with regard to the riots of 1391. Rather than
depict apostasy as the overwhelming Jewish response to the widespread violence, scholars have begun to attribute greater significance to martyrdom.116 From both perspectives, then, Ashkenaz
no longer looks quite so different from Sepharad, despite the very
real differences between the cultural horizons and social status of
the Jews in these two centres.
The AshkenazSepharad dichotomy carried implications for
historians of the modern era, who identified the modern Jew
with his Sephardic ancestor, because the more affluent and
powerful Spanish Jews mingled freely with Christians and were
highly acculturated.117 One may still maintain that intimacy
breeds apostasy, but this premise can no longer be restricted to
Spain, any more than Ashkenaz provides a model of unremitting
hostility on the one hand, and Jewish introversion and fidelity on
the other. Careful examination of the interplay of these characteristics in other historical contexts, such as first-century Alexandria
or seventeenth-century Amsterdam, may lead to the further
refinement of working assumptions in this area of concern.
These findings are also of some moment for those engaged in
neighbouring disciplines, particularly for sociologists concerned
with contemporary Jewry, who confront the problem of sustaining and deepening Jewish identity in the open society of the
116
Marc Saperstein, A Sermon on the Akedah from the Generation of the
Expulsion and its Implications for 1391, in Aharon Mirsky, Avraham Grossman
and Yosef Kaplan (eds.), Exile and Diaspora: Studies in the History of the Jewish People
(Jerusalem, 1991); Ram Ben-Shalom, Martyrdom and Jewish Martyrology in Aragon
and Castile in 1391: Between Sepharad and Ashkenaz [in Hebrew], Tarbiz, lxx
(2001).
117
Jacob Katz, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation,
17701870 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973), 10423; Jay R. Berkovitz, The Shaping of
Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century France (Detroit, 1989), 117.

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PAST AND PRESENT

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western world. Yet the dilemma is of course not strictly a Jewish


one, but rather a fundamental concern of minorities of any era
and locale. Be it in Reformation Europe or in many of todays
multicultural societies, ethnic, national, racial or religious minorities must always negotiate the social and cultural frontier with the
larger population group so as to achieve political and economic
survival without having to relinquish their heritage and forfeit
their identity.
Bar-Ilan University

David Malkiel