by Thandazani Mhlanga | 5 January 2023 |
Towards the end of 2021, a fascinating religious drama played out on the internet and social media. Dr. Yitzhak Y. Melamed, a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, posted to Facebook a letter he received from the Portuguese synagogue (the Esnoga) in Amsterdam. Dr. Melamed had written to the synagogue requesting permission to access the synagogue’s research facilities to research and film a documentary on Baruch Spinoza. In the letter Rabbi Serfaty declared Dr. Yitzhak “persona non grata.”
Why? Because of a 400-year-old controversy. Dr. Melamed was studying Baruch Spinoza, who in 1656 had been excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam for holding what they deemed to be heretical ideas.
Spinoza’s ban was, and arguably still is, the severest ban ever issued by the Jewish community in Amsterdam. The ban cannot be rescinded: it remains in force for all time.
I don’t know where you stand on Spinoza’s philosophical ideas; I, for one, think Adventism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity could use some Spinoza. But that’s conversation for another time.
Right now, though, I am curious as to what you think about reaccepting people back into the community of faith if they’ve left and converted to another religion. Should there be a process for accepting returning believers? Do religious institutions fully understand why people leave their faith communities? Should fallible religious systems—and all of them are fallible—issue bans on returning rebelievers?
Spinoza’s ban tracked with the way many religious institutions dealt with heretics and apostates during the Middle Ages. Let’s consider how the Ashkenazi (Northern Europe) Jews and the Christians in the Middle Ages reacted to apostates to each other’s religions. (Similar practices also occurred within Islamic communities, but space doesn’t allow me to delve into the Islamic experience in detail.)
Much has been written by Christians concerning their dicey relationship with the Jews in the Middle Ages. More often than not, the story from the Christian point of view paints the Jews as the murderers of Jesus the Messiah. Christians back then, and unfortunately even today, were convinced that for Christianity to be true, Judaism had to be heretical.
And if candidates for Christian proselytization couldn’t be made through The Word, they were sometimes made at the point of a sword.
Christians, therefore, considered Jewish converts to Christianity as souls coming out of darkness and into the light—and vice versa for the Christians aligning themselves with Judaism. Apostates returning from Judaism were often met with questionable obstacles: rebaptism was often required, and some insisted on a public confession—or both.
Submitting to public shaming was proof of repentance. At the same time, these returning apostates were exhibited as evidence of the power of Christianity. The shame of the once-apostate was never meaningfully lifted, however; instead, the professional religious practitioners made sure the returning apostate’s past wasn’t forgotten. This attitude, unfortunately, still is the modus operandi for some Christian denominations.
Is it really a testimony of God’s power when the church values the reconvert’s public embrace of shame? If the repentant returnee’s shame must be remembered, then full forgiveness and full acceptance are denied to the returning reconvert.
Jewish religious leaders in Northern Europe largely felt that Christianity was an existential threat to Judaism. Some Jews held the notion that death was a better and preferable option to apostasy: sources from Northern Europe tell of Jewish fathers killing their children who displayed an attraction towards Christianity. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg tells of one Jewish father who requested permission to drown his daughter lest she apostatize.
But this didn’t stop individual Jews from becoming Christians. Threats of losing dowry, inheritances, and birthright privileges sometimes had the opposite effect, of pushing individuals towards Christianity (or Islam, in the case of Spain.)
For Jews who desired to leave Christianity and return to Judaism, how and if you were reaccepted depended on your location.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (1040–1105), also known as Rashi, was a French Talmudic scholar who set the tone for Rabbinic discourse on this issue during the Middle Ages. Rashi lived through the horrors and devastation of the first crusade. And yet his views on returning apostate Jews displayed much grace and patience. Rashi’s Talmudic argument was that one could not stop or abandon their Jewishness. Therefore, returning apostates should be accepted back into the community as if they had never left.
Rabbinic scholars who came after Rashi, especially those in Germany and Northern France, took a different approach to this issue. Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel ha-Levi of Cologne, in response to Rashi, argued that an apostate who wishes to return must shave his head, reaccept Judaism before a tribunal of three, and immerse himself (ritual bath) just as any convert to Judaism would.
Twelfth-century Ashkenaz rabbi Elazar ben Yehudah of Worms recommended that repentant apostles wear hair shirts, engage in mourning and suffering, wash only minimally, refrain from meat and wine, avoid celebrations, and accept insults. Once more, religiously disguised shame was the name of the game.
Why people apostatized
Religious rules made by Jewish and Christian leaders with regard to people returning to the fold seemed mostly to focus on protecting the boundaries of the institution. But often, it wasn’t accepting doctrines and ideas alone that led people to cross the borders from one religion to another, but their lived experiences.
Joseph Shatzmiller details the account of a Jewish woman, Marionetta, whose husband was in the habit of hitting her so hard that the whole neighborhood would gather in horror. Marionetta threatened to go and live with the gentiles (Christians) if her husband would not grant her a divorce. The threat of apostasy was surprisingly effective on several occasions, and people often used it to get what we consider basic human rights.
Not all repentant apostates sought to return to Judaism or Christianity through official channels. Some tried to return incognito, by relocating to distant places where neither Christians nor Jews would likely recognize them. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Adret (known as Rashba) tells of a married Jewish woman who converted to Christianity along with her Jewish lover. The woman was granted a divorce by her Jewish husband; she then moved with her lover to Toledo, where the couple was known to “go out in public as if they were Jews, and husband and wife.”
Historians have continuously pointed out that most conversions or apostasies (depending on your point of view) were the result neither of cultural intermingling nor missionary work. Instead, they were undertaken by marginalized people who sought relief from personal predicaments.
Baptism, in the case of the Jews converting to Christianity, was easy because Christians were more interested in boasting about the ideological triumphs of Christianity than dealing with the inhuman conditions imposed on Jews by society at the time. Depending on one’s location, converting to Christianity, Islam, or Judaism provided the legal/social status, economic support, and political leverage that might enable converts to extricate themselves from difficult life circumstances.
Why this matters
Christian, Islamic, and Jewish leaders’ laws were especially devastating to the poor and the religiously marginalized. The religious rigidity that characterized the Middle Ages shaped the fates of those who lived under those political and religious institutions. When the aims of the church and the state become inseparable, as recently articulated in an article by Carl McRoy & Christopher C. Thompson, “virtually nobody is converted, but almost everyone is corrupted.”
Winston Churchill once said that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is true in religious faiths, too, including among Seventh-day Adventists. When we insist on a bureaucratic to-do list before accepting returning believers, we risk repeating the harms that occurred in the past. If we deem it necessary for returning believers to prove their devotion to us by failing to let them be fully integrated into the community, either from suspicion of their conversion or insistence on their demonstrating shame, we risk placing a greater value on a sort of de facto social punishment than on forgiveness.
Like the prodigal son, how often do we walk away from God and yet He, like the loving father, is ever willing to unconditionally take us back? Since we do not fully know the life’s circumstances that cause our fellow believers to leave, the least we can do as ambassadors of God’s kingdom could be to welcome them back without imposing religious obstacles.
- Response of R. Meir of Rothenburg (Lemberg, 1860), 310. Translation in Irving Agus, ed., Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg: His Life and His Works as Sources for the Religious, legal, and social history of the Jews of Germany in the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1947), 1:283-285.
- Rashba, Sheelot u-teshuvot, sec. 5, no. 240. On this case, see Decker, “Conversion, Marriage, and Creative Manipulation of Law.”
- Golinkin, David. “How Can Apostates Such as the Falash Mura Return to Judaism?” The Schechter Institutes, February 3, 2022.
- Tartakoff, Paola. “Testing Boundaries: Jewish Conversion and Cultural Fluidity in Medieval Europe, c. 1200–1391.” Speculum 90, no. 3 (2015): 728–62.
- “Returning Apostates and Their Marital Partners in Medieval Ashkenaz EPHRAIM KANARFOGEL.” In Contesting Inter-Religious Conversion in the Medieval World, 168–84. Routledge, 2016.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.