Sunday, January 11, 2009

AJS Conference Day Three Session Two (Conversion, Anxiety, and the Rhetoric of Marginality Between Medieval Religious Communities)

Ephraim Shoham (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)
“Gedaliyah of Oxford and Yom-Tov of London: Conversion, Madness, and Adolescent Suicide in the Late Twelfth Century”

As William Chester Jordan has noted, adolescents are prime candidates for conversion. At the very least these years are likely to create the crisis that later leads to conversion. Adolescents are going through a stage that involves a growing awareness of self and often creates an identity crisis. This identity crisis can easily lead to an open rebellion against the established adult authority structure. Adolescents commit suicide for much the same reason. In looking at medieval Jewry we see some interesting parallels between adolescent conversion and adolescent suicide. Both, it should be said, are harshly condemned and seen as a form of madness.

We have the case of the suicide of Yom Tov of London. His father did not mourn him. Later he appears in a dream and explains that a demon tormented him with a crucifix, urging him to worship idols. (i.e. he was tempted to convert) This serves as a means to rehabilitate Yom Tov. Yom Tov is seen as following in the footsteps of the martyrs of 1096. The text, though, goes on to state that such actions should not be imitated.

Another example is Gedaliyah of Oxford. Here we have a Christian source, which brings the case down within the context of discussing the miracles of St. Frideswide. There was a procession in honor of St. Frideswide, carrying her relics. Gedaliyah was standing in the crowd and he mocked the saint’s power. Interestingly enough Gedaliyah is not harmed by the Christians present. When he gets home his father yells at him for what he had done. Gedaliyah later kills himself. The author portrays this as a potential conversion gone sour. The author assumes that Gedaliyah was interested in converting, but could not bring himself to go through with it since he was under the control of demons. Driven by doubt and despairing of forgiveness, he followed in the path of Judas Iscariot and killed himself. It seems fairly reasonable to assume that there was something to this desire to convert; why else would Gedaliyah have been standing by this procession. (I have made a similar argument in my own work. Isaac Arama, in the introduction to his biblical commentary Akedat Yitzchak, talks about Jews willingly going to hear Christian sermons. I assume that such Jews are not just doing it for the fun of it, though sermons were forms of popular entertainment, but where either conversos are people considering conversion.)

All of this should serve to counter the traditional picture of Ashkenazic Jewry as being steadfast in their faith. Clearly there are cracks and signs of doubt behind this facade of absolute faith.

Chaviva Levin (Yeshiva College)
“Apostasy Imagined: The Rhetoric and Realities of Conversion in Medieval Ashkenaz”

As Peter Berger argues, the existence of converts challenges the plausibility of the community authority structure. Therefore it is necessary for the community to have some means to come to terms with converts. With Ashkenazic Jews we see a theme that Jews who convert lack self control and are only doing so in order to pursue their own lusts. Jewish converts do not accept Christianity in their heart. On the contrary they remain believing Jews. (The medieval version of Jewish Philosopher.) We have the example of the Nitzachon Yashon which says that Jews only convert for the physical benefits as opposed to Christians who could only be converting to Judaism out of their utter conviction. David Malkiel has pointed to conversion as a sign of low cultural boundaries. Jews were in contact with the Christian environment around them and were part of that culture. It is only reasonable that they would consider converting. Sefer Hasidim talks about Jews threatening to convert as a means of blackmail. It also talks about cases of scholars who convert and of students whose teacher converts; they are still allowed to quote their master anonymously. The sins of parents can cause a spiritual blemish on their children and cause them to convert. Conversion can also come about because the apostate had a Christian soul. Conversely Christians who convert had Jewish souls to begin with.

Alexandra Cuffel (Macalester College)
“Ambiguous Belonging, Shared Sanctity, and Imagined Conversion in Late Antique and Medieval Jewish Relations with Non-Jews”

John Chrysostom talks about not wanting Christians to attend Jewish festivals. We see this in other Christian sources as well. On the flip side the Talmud talks about Jews using Christian healing. Daniel Boyarin sees this as an example of hybridity, a desire to engage in both religions. In the Islamic context we know of Jews interacting with Sufism and honoring Sufi saints. We also see Muslims honoring Jewish saints. Meshullum of Volterra talks about Jews and Muslims at Rachel’s tomb. Muslims honoring Jewish saints is seen as an honor for the saint. There is no discussion of conversion. A number of Maimonides’ descendents were involved with Sufism including one who apparently attended a Sufi academy. Abraham Maimonides was attacked for using Sufi practices. He defended himself by noting that he never tried to force his practices on other people. Ironically enough this itself is a Sufi argument. Abraham Maimonides saw Sufi practices as coming from the prophets. (This is similar to what Maimonides did to Greek philosophy to justify its use.) Abraham Maimonides’ actions are similar to that of Jews who used Muslim practices. In a sense it is even more extreme because he placed Muslims over some Jews.

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

Conversion can also come about because the apostate had a Christian soul. Conversely Christians who convert had Jewish souls to begin with.

This seems to be more of a belief perpetuated by Chassidishe thought; at least nowadays.