May 30, 2024
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Reviewing: ‘Brothers From Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe’ by Ephraim Kanarfogel. Wayne State University Press. 2020. Paperback. 260 pages. ISBN-13:
978-0814348246.

The late, great Rabbi Noach Weinberg was a founder of the kiruv movement. More specifically, the kiruv movement of the second half of the 20th century. But Jewish history has had numerous kiruv movements. Today, returnees, both those who were never religious and those returning from a religious lapse, are welcomed with open arms, kugel and cholent—no questions asked. However, as Rabbi Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel (professor of Jewish history, literature and law at Yeshiva University) brilliantly writes in “Brothers From Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe,” that loving approach to returnees was not always the case.

In this fascinating work, Kanarfogel details the approach the Tosafists (12th-15th century rabbis of France and Germany) utilized to deal with Jews who apostatized to Christianity and wanted to return to the Jewish community. He shows that many Tosafists held that these returnees first had to immerse in a mikvah, in addition to performing other acts of penitence, from lashes, shaving one’s head and more.

The approach of Rashi was akin to that of today’s rabbi, to welcome returnees without questions or hassles. The book quotes Dr. Jacob Katz, who felt that Rashi’s approach and underlying intent was to delineate that the conversion to Christianity via the baptismal font did not diminish in any way the apostate’s ability to return, swiftly and completely, to full participation in Jewish life.

Rashi wanted to dispel the notion that apostasy to Christianity constituted an irrevocable dislocation of the individual from Judaism and the Jewish community. Rashi, in short, wanted to encourage and ease the way for the apostate’s return. Like Rashi, Rashba did not require returnees to first immerse in a mikvah since it implies recognizing the efficacy of the Christian sacrament of baptism.

In these topics, Rashi’s mantra was based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin 44a that “af al pi she’chata, Yisrael hu.” This means that even if a Jew has sinned, they remain a Jew, to the degree that no amount of sin removes a Jew from the Jewish nation.

In opposition to Rashi, many German Tosafists mandated mikvah for returning apostates, similar to a convert’s requirement. Not just that, many Tosafists felt that these returning apostates should have a reduced stature in the Jewish community and had to be monitored until their commitment to Judaism could be affirmed. This is partly due to the fact that some apostates moved back and forth between the Jewish and Christian communities with relative ease.

Those that disagreed with Rashi, in part, based their approach on the underlying severity of apostasy. They opined that one could not simply abandon Judaism like a traitor and expect the community to welcome them back with open arms as if nothing had happened. Of course, the reasons people left were multifaceted, and the book details those complexities and challenges. Medieval Europe was not exactly welcoming nor kind to Jews, and life for them during those times was far from dreamy.

Determining the status of these returnees had significance in many other areas, including marriage and divorce (and yibum and halitza), monetary matters, charging of interest and more. According to Rashi, the apostate must perform halitza in all circumstances, and his brother’s wife could not remarry until he did so. Or Zarua opposed that view and held that an apostate is excluded from performing halitza as if he were a non-Jew (figuratively, not literally) since the widow cannot live with him under any condition.

Inheritance was one of the areas where Rashi’s open-arms approach also led to potential issues. Rashi wanted to protect the Jewish status of the apostate at nearly all costs, and he was prepared to allow the apostate to inherit on the level of the Torah, even though this could well mean that other, more distant family members lost out.

Even when a community would want to welcome a Jew back, Kanarfogel writes that some communities have to consider whether Jews who sought to return might unduly endanger themselves or the community as a whole, as the church did not take kindly to those who left Christianity.

In a bit of humor, as black as it may be, Kanarfogel writes that it was not unusual during this period for a husband to exclaim out of personal frustration that he would apostatize if his mother-in-law entered his house. Such a declaration would have halachic ramifications, and the author notes that the Terumat HaDeshen, for one, had to deal with the halachic fallout from such a declaration.

This is a remarkable and fascinating read. Living in medieval Europe was not easy for a Jew, and Kanarfogel writes of the complexities manifest in Jewish life then. While our approach to returnees today is that of Rashi, the underlying question of dealing with returnees is not a simple one, to which the author brilliantly explains those complexities and challenges and myriad struggles of life in medieval Europe.


Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke.

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