Divided Souls

Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750

Elisheva Carlebach
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Divided Souls
    Book Description:

    This pioneering book reevaluates the place of converts from Judaism in the narrative of Jewish history. Long considered beyond the pale of Jewish historiography, converts played a central role in shaping both noxious and positive images of Jews and Judaism for Christian readers. Focusing on German Jews who converted to Christianity in the sixteenth through mid-eighteenth centuries, Elisheva Carlebach explores an extensive and previously unexamined trove of their memoirs and other writings. These fascinating original sources illuminate the Jewish communities that the converts left, the Christian society they entered, and the unabating tensions between the two worlds in early modern German history.The book begins with the medieval images of converts from Judaism and traces the hurdles to social acceptance that they encountered in Germany through early modern times. Carlebach examines the converts' complicated search for community, a quest that was to characterize much of Jewish modernity, and she concludes with a consideration of the converts' painful legacies to the Jewish experience in German lands."Carlebach's reading of autobiographical texts by converts from Judaism is careful, intelligent, and skeptical--a model of how to treat spiritual memoirs."--Todd M. Endelman,University of Michigan"This superb book highlights the ambiguous identities of these boundary crossers and their impact on both German and Jewish self-definitions."--Paula E. Hyman, Yale UniversityElisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author ofThe Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winnerof the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish History, and coeditor ofJewish History and Jewish Memory.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13306-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    What did it mean to be a Jew turned Christian in medieval and early modern Europe? Medieval religious usage borrowed the termconversionfrom the al/chemical sciences as a metaphor, in which one substance was changed into something utterly different by a mysterious process. Conceptions of transformation or rebirth had always informed the imagery of Christian conversion. In conversion to Christianity, divine grace transfigured the soul, created it anew, so that no residue of the earlier self remained. In German lands, from the sixteenth century, this belief in the indelible power of baptism began to erode in the case of...

  6. Chapter 1 THE MEDIEVAL LEGACY: Converts in the Culture of Ashkenaz
    (pp. 11-32)

    “Forced Conversion of the Local Jews, But Business as Usual”?¹ Historian S. D. Goitein chose this caption to introduce an episode of forced conversion of a medieval Islamic Jewish community. It resembles the formulation of Maimonides in his Epistle on Martyrdom: “From the day we were exiled from our land persecution (shmad= forced conversion) has been our unending lot, ‘Because from our youth it has grown along with us like a father and has directed us from our mother’s womb.’”² These expressions of conversion as exilic “business as usual” could never have been used to announce similar events among...

  7. Chapter 2 THE LOST CROWN OF SYNAGOGA: Converts from Judaism in Medieval Christendom
    (pp. 33-46)

    The tension in medieval Christendom between the rejection of Jews and Judaism and the ever growing desire to embrace Jews through conversion contributed to the predicament of the converts themselves. It rendered their identity as ambiguous among Christians as it was among Jews. The simultaneous forces of attraction and repulsion, the medieval Christian imperative to humiliate Jews as well as to attract them, to segregate them yet to reach out to them, affected both Jews and converts. In fact, the theological justification for the continued presence of Jews in some parts of western Europe was their ultimate conversion which would...

  8. Chapter 3 THE TURNING POINT: The Sixteenth Century
    (pp. 47-66)

    The dramatic emergence of converts from Judaism into the public sphere in the early sixteenth century had no precedent in medieval German culture. Unlike the Iberian and Italian proselytizing campaigns of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was no centralized drive to convert Jews in German lands throughout the medieval period. For all its violence, most medieval missionary encounters between Jews and Christians in Germany remained sporadic and disorganized. The actual number of converts from Judaism to Christianity in German lands remained extremely small through the late eighteenth century.¹ Nevertheless, despite their insignificant numbers, converts from Judaism dominated Jewish–Christian...

  9. Chapter 4 THE LAST DECEPTION: Conversion and the Endtime
    (pp. 67-87)

    In the Christian drama of the endtime, conversion of the Jews played a central role.¹ As Andrew Gow has observed, “Much of medieval Christian apocalyptic ignored the topic of the Jews except insofar as they—or some of them—were to convert before the Last Judgment.”² Medieval art and drama had always depicted the eschaton in vivid detail, and in the early modern period, expectation of the endtime intensified. The conventions of this motif werewell known even to those who could not read. For every Last Judgment depicted by Hieronymus Bosch, Lucas Cranach, or Albrecht Dürer, countless others by lesser...

  10. Chapter 5 WRITING THE DIVIDED SELF: Convert Autobiography
    (pp. 88-123)

    Conversion narratives figured prominently among the elements of successful conversions in many traditions.¹ They served to consolidate the convert’s inner transformation by adopting the language and metaphors of the new and previously forbidden religious tradition. They enabled converts to give concrete testimony to the momentous changes they had experienced, to reconfigure their past, and to reorient their future lives along new lines.² In the case of converts from Judaism to Christianity this biographical reconstruction often entailed a profound rejection not only of their personal Jewish pasts, but of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people who remained a living testimony...

    (pp. 124-137)

    The conventional view that converts originated from the most destitute and desperate margins of Jewish society, a notion fostered by the Jewish community, conveys a distorted image. Equally mistaken is the notion that conversion automatically propelled the convert up the socioeconomic ladder. Both these assumptions rest on an interpretation of conversion as an opportunistic means of advancement into a previously unattainable place in society. While this picture may have been valid for some times and places, converts in early modern German lands often followed the opposite trajectory. They tended to come from respectable, although not the highest, positions in the...

    (pp. 138-156)

    The conversion of a Jew invariably resulted in profound upheaval and disruption in the immediate family. If one spouse chose to convert from Judaism, the other faced an agonizing decision. A choice against conversion would attract the sympathy of the Jewish community and close kin but would result in severing the marital bond. If the spouse were also to choose conversion, the ties to community and birth family would be permanently ruptured. In the most frequent pattern found in both Jewish and Christian literary sources, the husband initiated conversion, while the wife resisted. In Jewish legal sources, only this configuration...

    (pp. 157-169)

    The requirement that Jews who turned Christian shed not only their old religion but also their Jewish language and speech patterns betrays the extra-spiritual dimensions of Jewish conversion in German lands. Language, speech, sound, and even intonation had acquired singular status in early modern thought concerning collective cultural character. Long before the aesthetics of “looking Jewish” became a marker for identifying Jewishness, those of “sounding Jewish” became the most significant sign of Jewish birth.

    As ideas of collective character began to coalesce, sound and language came to be considered one of the most important markers of identity.¹ In the sixteenth...

  14. Chapter 9 REVEALING THE SECRETS OF JUDAISM: The Literature of Jewish Ceremonial
    (pp. 170-199)

    Converts from Judaism contributed a distinctive chapter to the Jewish–Christian polemic. In early modern German lands, they introduced “Jewish ceremonial life, as it was currently practiced,” a new subject, into the oldest religious argument.¹ Into this rubric they fitted multiple aspects of Jewish ritual law, custom, and popular local practice. On the basis of formal texts such as the Talmud and Jewish legal codes, polemics such asToledot YeshuandNizzahon,handbooks for ritual practitioners, and oral traditions of varying reliability, they forged a monumental and original corpus of literature on Jewish ceremonial life. This immense endeavor compels us...

  15. Chapter 10 REPRESENTATION AND RIVALRY: Jewish Converts and Christian Hebraists
    (pp. 200-221)

    At the same time that converts from Judaism created a literature of Jewish ceremonial, Christian Hebraists in German lands, spurred on by the accomplishments of their Italian competitors, turned to the study of Hebrewand the Jewish religion.¹ German humanist Johannes Reuchlin’s role in the disputation regarding convert Johannes Pfefferkorn’s assessment of Jewish books and religious practices constituted, in retrospect, a first battle to demarcate the lines of hegemony over knowledge of Jews and Judaism between a converted Jew and a Christian Hebraist scholar. Converted Jews claimed knowledge of Judaism and its texts as a birthright. Compelled to traduce that very...

  16. Chapter 11 CONCLUSION: Converts in the Age of Enlightenment
    (pp. 222-234)

    The sense that they were living on the threshold of a new age in which the relationship between Jews, Christians, and converts was undergoing profound change pervaded the writings of converts in the later eighteenth century. Both Carl Anton and Gottfried Selig attempted to lay to rest the false charges and hateful myths that had haunted Jews in Christian lands for centuries. Anton, for example, became embroiled in an intramural faculty dispute at Helmstedt University over the existence of the legendaryWandering Jew. In 1755, he published a treatise in which he vigorously disputed the entire idea as contrary to reason.¹...

    (pp. 235-242)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 243-288)
    (pp. 289-318)
  20. Index
    (pp. 319-324)